When the people in Colosse originally heard Paul’s letter to them, they knew about the kinds of dominions about which he talks in verse 13. After all, when things went wrong in their day, their contemporaries didn’t generally blame each other. They, instead, blamed powers that their culture understood to be “in charge.” They pointed fingers at culprits and struggles in heaven. Artemis hated Pan, Earth hated Apollo and virgin Athena hated loving Aphrodite. Those dominions’ tensions and wars spilled over onto earthly battlegrounds.
Because Paul’s contemporaries believed those gods were also in charge of the earth, they assumed they had to ask them about the wisdom of doing things that mattered to them. Warriors needed Mars on their side. Lovers needed Aphrodite’s help. As a result, its citizens thought of 1st century AD life as complicated and dangerous. After all, they believed that forces beyond their control manipulated them.
Few North American citizens of the 21st century talk much about such mythological control anymore – although their ongoing interest in horoscopes at least suggests we haven’t entirely forgotten about them. However, we still sometimes wonder who’s in charge.
Our politicians? In a democracy we elect them to give them power to do good. However, do politicians really run the world? Will Willimon (“Fight the Powers,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 35, No. 4), to whom I owe much for this commentary, quotes a former governor of the state of North Carolina as once saying, “The first and most difficult thing I had to learn is that I wasn’t in control of anybody or anything. I was essentially powerless, a victim of many forces beyond my control.”
Preachers might invite our hearers to also consider something like the economy as a kind of “dominion” about which Paul talks in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. While I assume no one has actually seen an economy, it remains real and concrete. Though Americans may think that Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve, for example, control it, the economy at least arguably remains beyond anyone’s control.
Our economy also has enormous influence. It can throw millions of people out of work and help shove thousands of businesses into bankruptcy. Some politicians claim that the economy, a powerful but invisible force beyond anyone’s control, throws homeless people onto the streets.
Watch any part of our 24-hour news cycle and you’ll see people killing each other not only on our own roads and streets, but also in places like Ukraine, Syria and Ethiopia. North Korea and China are among the nations that are threatening their neighbors. What can anyone really do about that horror? Forces are at work in our world that seem to be among the dominions about which Paul writes to Colosse’s Christians.
Powers like the media in many ways shape our lives, name us and hold our imaginations in their grip. They claim the power to tell us what’s going on in the world. Powers like the media that are beyond our control assume that they can tell us who’s in charge and where everything is heading.
When Paul talks about the “dominion of darkness” in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, he’s actually talking about similar kinds of forces that are beyond our control. Those dark dominions still push and pull people in ways that we don’t even always understand.
Of course, Paul’s letter to the Colossians in which he talks about such forces, notes N.T. Wright (The Prison Letters, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), is essentially a “thank you” letter. He begins it by thanking God for putting a church in Colosse. The central section of this letter also begins with thanksgiving in chapter 2:7. When in Colossians 3:17 Paul sums up his whole long Colossian argument, he talks about thanks.
So why does Paul call these Colossians to thank God? Because, among other reasons, God has rescued them from the dominion of darkness. God has saved the Colossians from “forces beyond their control,” and transferred them, according to verse 14, “into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”
These words, says Willimon, echo accounts of the Exodus. God, after all, transferred the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh to freedom in the Promised Land. God rescued them from control by the Egyptians and put them, at least in theory, under God’s control. God brought God’s Israelite people out of the Egyptians’ dominion and into God’s kingdom.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul says that in Christ God has done something like that to and for God’s dearly beloved people. God made our world. God is also determined to rule that world, even if God must sacrifice his only Son to wrest it from the grip of these “forces beyond our control.”
Wright suggests that Colossians 1 says three things about the dominion of darkness. First, everything in our world was made by Christ, through Christ and for Christ (16). So God in one sense at least put into place conditions that were ripe for the creation of those forces beyond our control like the economy, the media and consumer confidence.
Why, then, do people have problems with those dominions? Because people surrendered our responsibility for God’s world and handed it over to the powers. Wright notes that “When humans refuse to use God’s gift of sexuality responsibly, then we are handing over their power to Aphrodite, and she will take control. When humans refuse to use God’s gift of money responsibly, they are handing over their powers to Mammon, and he will take control.”
Wright goes on to note that Paul insists, secondly, that Christ came into the world he made to deal with those powers. He came to live where people live, and to confront those dominions. Throughout his life, but especially at the cross, Christ not only faced, but also defeated those powers. After all, he wanted to have back his creation so that he might return it to his adopted brothers and sisters as it was meant to be.
So the effects of Christ’s death on Calvary are cosmic. At the cross, he defeated the “powers” and stripped them of their ultimate power. Christ now desires to create a new world that is free from the control of the dominions. Colossians 1’s Paul is thrilled because Christ has put the powers in their place.
That’s why Wright notes that Paul can also, in the third place, call all of God’s adopted children to a new life. He can call us to live like citizens of a new kingdom. Christians can live freely and joyfully because Christ broke the powers’ stranglehold on us.
Christ is the beginning point of a new creation that is already renewing but will also someday completely renew the old creation. In him, verse 17 insists, “all things hold together.” Christ is the glue that keeps things in our universe rather than falling apart, instead, properly relating to each other.
Now God has transferred, “brought us into” the kingdom of Jesus Christ. God has reassigned and relocated Jesus’ friends to a new home and a new calling. God rescued God’s dearly beloved children from the arena of death and chaos and brought us into a new life in his kingdom.
Of course, God still needs to do some “mopping up” to do. Christians still struggle with evil. The dominions of darkness still wreak great havoc. We know, however, who has won the war. Jesus’ friends know whose hands hold the final victory. So we can live leaning forward toward that complete victory by Christ over everything in his world that would scar his creation.
This victory echoes throughout the city, countryside and world. It resonates in our homes, relationships and bank accounts with the message that Christ is King. In him God has beaten the powers of evil that still enslave and brutalize people.
Of course, as Willimon notes, people are always telling us to be realistic, to “face facts.” Who, however, he asks, defines reality and names the facts? Talk about realism and facing facts is often a call to be content with the world as it is rather than to lean forward into the world as it can and will someday be.
People sometimes ask what anyone can really do about violence, poverty, climate change, political divisions, sickness and death. As answers to those questions, Jesus’ friends live in such a way that our actions show people that we believe that our adopted Big Brother Jesus rules. He created the world and is determined to have it for his own. So Christians work, not just for a better world, but also for a world that’s more and more obviously God’s world.
The story is told of a man who emerged from a bomb shelter after a night of terrible bombing. A newspaper vendor was standing in the rubble, trying to hawk that morning’s newspaper. He asked the elderly man, “Don’t you want to buy a newspaper? Don’t you want to know who won last night’s battle?” “I don’t need to read the paper,” the old man replied. “I don’t need to find out who won the battle because I already know who has won the war.”
In that way he acted at least a bit like God’s dearly beloved children. Even as we daily battle evil, we can still live with hope and confidence. We can be obedient, loving, faithful and courageous. We hardly need the newspaper or any other media to tell us that the battles with forces beyond our control are very tough. Christians already know, however, who has won the war. We know that we’ve been rescued and transferred from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The powers of death and evil no longer hold us in their grip.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2022
Colossians 1:11-20 Commentary