In his book The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard claimed we live in a strange time when trite slogans fill our lives. We live in a world where one of the best-known jingles of the last quarter-century was “Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener. That is what I really want to be. For if I were an Oscar Meyer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.” But, Dallas Willard asks, just think of what it means to want to be a weenie. Think of what it means that we all regard this as cute. Reflect on the fact that years ago, throngs of parents lined up to let their children audition to sing just this song in TV commercials and that furthermore, most of those same parents went home deeply disappointed that their son or daughter would not get to croon this weenie wish in front of millions of people.
But in our trite society of shrunken horizons, we scarcely bat an eye at such a slogan. Similarly, we don’t pay much mind to other phrases. “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten.” “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Even slogans that try to do something noble are sometimes as hollow as wishing you were a weenie. It’s all pretty much the same drivel. In such a time as this, can we even conceive of what ought to be the real slogan of our lives: “Set your minds on things above where Christ is, not on earthly things.”
Is that the goal of our lives? And how do we know? After all in Colossians 3 Paul draws a contrast for his readers between how they used to live without Jesus and how they now live in Christ. It’s your typical “before and after” portrait–the kind of testimonies heard at AA meetings: “Once I started out every morning with a tumbler of scotch and ended the day with a fifth of Wild Turkey, but now I’m happy with coffee and Diet 7-Up.”
And so also Paul says, “My friends at Colosse, once you talked dirty, went to sexual orgies, drank yourself into stupors, and shook your fists in fury at people in the marketplace. But now you know Jesus and so you don’t do any of that anymore.” Before and after. It obviously applied vividly to the Colossians in that pagan Greco-Roman environment.
But it doesn’t always apply so neatly to some of the people to whom many of us preach each week. If we asked the people in the average church to form a line behind a microphone to share their stories, it would not take long before most would start to sound like echoes of each other. And very few would have particularly dramatic before-and-after testimonies. Many, in fact, might say “I can’t remember ever not being a Christian. I was baptized as an infant, raised in a Christian home, went to Christian schools . . .”
Or, imagine someone’s asking the average weekly church attender, “How does being a Christian affect your life on the average day or week?” What might people say? “Well, I go to church every Sunday. I was a deacon a couple of years ago and now I’m on the building committee. I contribute to the general fund and make sure my kids go to Sunday school and youth group.” But suppose this other person said, “No, no, no: I don’t mean church stuff. What does being a Christian mean the rest of the week? What do you do that makes you different from some of our other neighbors who don’t claim to be Christians?”
What might folks say? Do we have a firm sense of how radical Christ is to influence our lives, our perspectives, our . . . everything? What does it mean to live out our lives on this earth and yet have our minds “set above” where Christ is? Does this make us too other-worldly minded to be of any earthly good? Or is this in fact eminently practical on this earth if we let our Christ-focus influence us correctly? And, in fact, such practical payoff for this heavenly focus is exactly Paul’s point. The Lectionary stops this reading at verse 11 but you really need verses 12-17 to make sense of this passage, and especially you need that last verse where Paul invokes what may well be the single most explosive word in the New Testament: Whatever.
Of course, these days that word sounds rather different in our ears. Today this is a key word in a morally sloppy vocabulary. Someone delivers a stern lecture on the need for sexual sanity, and some people just roll their eyes and sneer, “Whatever.” A couple walks past in a public park, groping and fondling one another’s backsides, and people shrug it off with, “Whatever.” In contemporary discourse “Whatever” has come to mean the same thing as “to each his own” or “who cares” or “live and let live.”
But in the mouth of Paul as we find this word in Colossians 3:17, “whatever” takes on a devastatingly powerful force. “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.” That phrase is breathtaking in its sweep. Because what that means is that the horizons of Jesus’ Lordship are limitless.
But it also means we cannot overstate what parts of life need to be Christian. They all do. For instance, the Christian life is a never-ending exercise in gratitude. And so when the bagger at the A&P carries our groceries out for us, we say thank you. The same goes for the kid who refills the water glass at a restaurant: we need to get in the habit of saying “Thank you” every time he fills it up. This may seem like a minor suggestion to make in a sermon on Colossians 3 but really . . . in an increasingly slovenly, ungrateful society of entitlement it also may make a difference. Remember: whatever.
Or, how about something else Paul talks about in Colossians 3: the nurturing of patience, which leads also to our ability to be kind and gentle with other people. Our society, of course, has a conspiracy against patience, and we buy right into it mostly without even realizing it. We’re a people on the move and we’ve more or less come to expect that we deserve to press on without delays of any kind. We’ve got microwaves to heat up our coffee in a flash, but even still we pace in front of the microwave, checking the digital display repeatedly during that interminable 45 seconds. For the last few years we’ve sped up our gas station stops by being able to swipe our own credit cards at the pump. But that’s not fast enough anymore and so now Mobil will give you a little wand to attach to your key chain: wave it in front of a little sensor on the pump and in less than a second you’re all set. It has gotten so we want a “Speed Pass” to get us through all of life and not just life’s toll booths.
On the highways road rage boils for even the slightest of slowdowns. Observe most any intersection and you will see one, two, three, sometimes four cars and trucks speeding through the first part of the red light, greatly endangering lives (and you can be well-assured that very few of those vehicles sneaking under the red light are on their way to the hospital with a woman in active labor. Mostly they’re just on their way to Home Depot for more duct tape or Benny’s Bagel & Latté Emporium for a mid-morning repast).
Can the ascended Lord Jesus be the goal of our lives on the highway, at the gas pump or in the express lane at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket? Can we slow down long enough to be considerate and loving, gentle and kind to those around us? Do we even realize those things have something to do with Jesus? Remember: whatever.
Or suppose you determine to let the reality of Jesus as Lord shape the way you think about even ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the like. Suppose you try to pray for these people despite the fact that they have declared themselves our enemies (and act accordingly). Suppose your mind’s resting place in heaven where Christ is seated causes you to resist the rhetoric of revenge and hatred and blind bigotry that has become the staple of conversation at who knows how many restaurants, truck stops, bars, and cable talk shows. That doesn’t mean you give up on the pursuit of justice or that you don’t also pray that we can stop future acts of terror. But it means that you’re going to let your Lord in heaven shape your thinking in also this area. Remember: whatever.
Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, whether in making selections on Netflix or deciding whether or not to have another martini, whether interacting with a bag boy or dealing with a slowpoke driver, whether mapping out your weekend or calculating your taxes–whatever you do, find a way to do it in the name of the ascended Lord.
The little choices of life matter, because in the long run they’re not so little. It is in the mundane that people sense the eternal, in the quiet acts of life that the holy shines through. The irony and tension of the Christian life, as also Paul recognized, is that although our focus is to be on the ascended Lord Jesus and not on “earthly things,” whether or not we have that proper focus will show precisely in how we make use of earthly things. Few challenges could be greater.
But then few applications of what Christianity is all about are as practical as all this. Is there anything particularly holy about trudging off to work or school, about driving to the store or playing with your child, about greeting your co-workers or smiling at strangers? Well, those are holy things if God’s Spirit is in all of it. And if the Spirit of the Lord of the cosmos really is there, then everything you do has a shot at being at least a little different, a little better, and maybe sometimes a lot better. That’s true of everything. Everything. Remember: whatever.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks has written engaging accounts of a good many malfunctions of the human brain. One such vignette was about a hapless man who had a kind of visual agnosia. Jerry’s eyes worked perfectly well–he had 20/20 vision. But an accident once damaged the small section of Jerry’s brain that sorts out and makes sense of visual data. So Jerry could look you full in the face but he couldn’t really see your face. He could never recognize anyone because his mind could not assemble the raw visual data. So what Jerry saw when looking at you was like one of those crazy Picasso paintings in which the nose is where the ear is supposed to be and the ear is stuck on a chin and the eyes are floating who knows where! Jerry’s eyes saw all the pieces but his mind could not assemble them.
In this world, most everyone sees the same things, reads the same papers, watches the same events unfold live on CNN. Without the framework of heaven to help make some kind of sense of it all, most folks see a booming, buzzing confusion. There is no way to assemble all this data into a meaningful picture (much less one that suggests a better way to live in the face of it all). But if our minds are set in heaven where Christ is seated, then although we hardly have all the answers (and surely still feel mighty confused ourselves at times), we do have a major advantage in tracing out a better, more meaningful way to live, to minister, and to witness than would be true if we could not see Jesus as Lord in the first place.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2016
Colossians 3:1-11 Commentary