Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Colossians 1: The Kingdom of the Son He Loves

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/10/2011

Invitation to turn to Colossians 1v13-14

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

For He has rescued us from the (dominion: exousias, authority or free reign of darkness) and brought us into the (kingdom: basileian, dominion, rule or royal power) of the Son he loves (suggesting Jesus after his baptism), in whom (which) we have (redemption: apolytrosin, a release effected by the payment of a ransom), the (forgiveness: aphesin, sending away from the bondage) of (sin: harmartion, missing the mark).

A fundamental human woe is the free reign of darkness in our world, our lives. For the Colossians, at the socio-political level, it was experienced in the oppressive rule of Rome. In the same way the Libyans or Egyptians or Sudanese or North Koreans or Cubans or on and on might experience it today. There seems no force capable of keeping the will of darkness in check; darkness does what it pleases, and those under its exousias or dominion are powerless against it.

Depending on our race or gender or socio-economic status or other factors that influence our basic experience of life, we may identify with this expression of the dominion of darkness as well. A young person bullied and teased and ostracized in his or her peer group knows the dominion of darkness. A young girl abducted and enslaved in the sex trade knows the dominion of darkness. A black person who grew up under Jim Crowe laws knows the dominion of darkness. A woman in an abusive relationship, suffering domestic violence, knows the dominion of darkness. A child whose parents are fighting constantly while they hide in their room knows the dominion of darkness.

Sometimes the dominion of darkness is experienced at the level of ongoing misfortune. A devastating tsunami. Chronic illness. Disabilities. Repeated betrayals. One bad break after another. Failure after failure. Hope after hope, dashed. The short end of the stick always pointed in your direction. It’s as if no matter how much we sing “The Sun’ll come out tomorrow…”, the darkness of night just keeps having its way, and it’s so dark we can’t even find our bottom dollar to bet it.

And as we all know all too well, the dominion of darkness isn’t only external. The person with an addiction to alcohol, or prescription drugs, or pornography, or overeating, or gambling, or the approval of others, or power, or the accumulation of wealth, knows the dominion of darkness. The person in whom anger or bitterness or depression or jealousy or fear and anxiety has gotten a foothold knows the dominion of darkness. Dare I say none of us are unscathed by the dominion of darkness.

When Paul writes about the exousias, or dominion, of darkness, he understands darkness not as an impersonal reality, like the darkness of night, but a malevolent, personal reality, more like the smoke monster on “Lost,” except that it can’t be controlled. Evil with intention and will to destroy everything under its dominion. Evil whom it pleases to enslave and exploit God’s good, free creation. Paul understands the darkness to be a something that is more like a someone than not a someone. Someone who relishes his dominion and does not let it go easily, like a slave-owner who has built an empire on the back of slaves, and is loath to let them go free.

It’s not as if someone who is living in the dominion of darkness can just say, “Oh, you know what, this isn’t a very good life. I think I’ll move over there to the kingdom of the Son God loves. I hear they have very good schools, low taxes, lots of bike paths and 2% unemployment.” No. When you’re living under the dominion of darkness, it is pitch black dark. You will wander in circles trying to get out.

Escape is insufficient on its own, as darkness still has an ownership claim over us. We will get captured and thrown into solitary. And the bondage or imprisonment that comes from missing the mark remains, as well. We won’t know any other way to live, and it will terrify us to even think of leaving, as much as we long for it at the same time.

Yes, living in the dominion of darkness is the woeful condition of humanity. Our only hope is rescue.

And what Paul is telling the church in Colossae, what he’s telling us, is that God has rescued us. That he has reached into the darkness and rescued us from its dominion over us and brought us into a new reality, where someone else, someone as different from darkness as day is different from night, is in charge of what happens. And in this new reality, we have been set completely, totally free. [101 Dalmations…from Cruella De Vil to Roger & Anita Radcliffe]

When Paul uses this language of rescue from enslavement and being brought into a new place ruled by the Son he loves, he’s calling two important stories to our minds. One story is the story of the Exodus, and the other is a related event in the life of Jesus, his baptism in the Jordan River.

The Exodus story is the great story of rescue in the Hebrew Scriptures (Passover on April 19th). Israel had been enslaved for generations, 400 years, in Egypt. Enslaved to the Pharaoh, who was truly a prince of darkness to the Hebrew people. But God intervened, and through a deadly struggle, brought Pharaoh and the Egyptian people to a place where they let the Hebrews go, sent them away. Pharaoh had a change of heart as the slaves approached the banks of the Red Sea, and began to chase them with his army. But God parted the Red Sea, the people walked across, and then the waters of the sea closed on the pursuing Egyptian soldiers and the Pharaoh, ensuring Israel’s rescue. And then God was present with them in powerful ways as they made their way in fits and starts to the promised land, learning how to be free people and no longer slaves. So when Paul wrote about rescue from dominion to another, people couldn’t help but think about the Exodus.

And the story of Jesus’ baptism is similar. People in Israel were under oppression from Rome, and longing for God to rescue them as he had rescued them from Egypt. And so they were going into the Jordan river to be baptized, signifying their repentance, their turning back to God, so that he might hear them and respond. In a sense, re-enacting the Red Sea drama as a way of inviting God to bring rescue. And along comes Jesus to be baptized with them.

Only, when Jesus is baptized, the Jordan river doesn’t part; the heavens do. And the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus like a dove, and a voice thunders, “This is my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.” It was Jesus being anointed as the true King. It was God’s answer that rescue was here, coming, on its way. So when Paul wrote about the royal rule of the Son he loves, people couldn’t help but think about Jesus’ baptism, which also made them think about the Exodus from Egypt, and what kind of new Exodus God might be up to through Jesus.

Now how does any of that matter to us? Well, it matters because of what it tells us about what God has done for us through Jesus.

Paul writes that in Jesus, or in Jesus’ kingdom, under his royal rule, we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Remember, when God rescued Israel from Egypt, Pharaoh pursued them as if they still belonged to him. And even when they were wandering around in the desert on the way to the promised land, they still sometimes complained and longed to go back to Egypt, where they at least had food to eat.

The payment of a ransom releases us slaves to darkness from the ownership claim. The Darkness cannot pursue us and enslave us again. This is what God has done for us in this new Exodus, where he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us to the kingdom of the Son he loves. He has redeemed us, ransomed us, given us a release effected by a payment that purchases us and makes us His, so that we do not belong to the darkness any longer.

How did God do that? Powerfully, and mysteriously, through Jesus’ death on the Roman cross. The first Christians saw Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as a sort of ransom payment to the darkness, a payment that purchased all of our freedom.

You can think of it this way, perhaps. God made us as his children, and has a first claim on us because he created us. But we made a deal with the devil, as it were, when in our free will we chose to turn away from God and do as we pleased, which was really as the darkness pleased. We willingly sold ourselves into slavery, with the darkness as our master. We thought we were buying life for ourselves, but all we bought was death.

God’s heart was broken by our enslavement, and out of his love for us sent Jesus. Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Jesus, like us in every way, except one. He never participates in the deal with the devil as all the rest of us have. He never eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; he eats only from the tree of life. He lives freely, pleased only to do God’s good pleasure. His every loving word and action a light shining in the darkness’ squinty eyes.

And this enrages the darkness. The darkness has the 99, but all it can fix its beady eyes on is the one it doesn’t have, the one who exhibits no fear in its presence. So the darkness conspires to take Jesus’ life from him. The darkness is used to getting what it wants.

But in its bloodlust, the darkness is blind to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the one human being on the face of the earth who does not belong to him. And if the darkness takes Jesus’ life, that life will become a ransom for all of the lives on which the darkness does have a legal claim, effectively rendering those claims null and void, forever illegitimate.

And although it gives Jesus no pleasure to incite the darkness, Jesus is willing to give the darkness what the darkness clamors for, if it means that the Father will get what he wants. Because what the Father wants is what Jesus wants as well: all of God’s beloved but enslaved children rescued. This is the joy set before him even as the darkness rushes in.

And so Jesus stands before the darkness’ unwitting representatives, and presents no defense to their accusations. And the darkness does what the darkness pleases, which is to take Jesus’ life; and Jesus does what both pleases the Father and breaks the Father’s heart, which is to lovingly give his life for the sake of his enslaved and estranged brothers and sisters. And as Jesus hangs on the cross, darkness comes over the whole land, enjoying what it believes is its finest hour. Only it is not the darkness’ finest hour; it is its final hour.

The darkness claims Jesus’ blood as it soaks into the earth, but Jesus gives his spirit to his Father in the heavens. And that moment marks the moment the ransom is paid in full. The darkness has what it has wanted, only to discover that the currency of the old creation has been devalued and is now, officially, worth nothing. Because the Father begins a new creation in the resurrected Jesus on the first day of the next week. A new creation that he begins as the resurrected Jesus breathes his Holy Spirit God’s newly redeemed children. And the darkness can rage all it wants now, but the ultimate cheater has been cheated, and has lost everything it had deceptively stolen from the Creator.

So what Paul is saying is that even though darkness has had its way in our lives, now we are under the authority of the Son God loves, and the darkness cannot make a claim on us again. Every intrusion the darkness makes on our lives is illegitimate and destined to be repelled. Does the darkness of Rome look to be having its way? We have been rescued and brought into Jesus’ kingdom; Rome has no claim on us. Oh sure, Rome may take our lives as the darkness took Jesus’ life, but that will only be turned into new creation as Jesus’ death was turned into new creation. Do any of these external circumstances or forces seem to be having their way? We have been rescued from them and brought into Jesus’ kingdom; none of that darkness has any claim on us. Oh it may take our lives, but that will only be turned into new creation.

But what about the darkness inside us? What about that bondage we experience from our sins?

Paul says that in the kingdom of the Son God loves, we have been released from that bondage as well. It no longer imprisons us. Forgiveness has come to us in the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit within us leads us into freedom, just as the cloud by day and the fire by night led the people of Israel into the promised land, in spite of all their wandering and complaining.

Healing, driving out demons, hope and freedom that come with the announcement of good news are signs of the royal power of God’s beloved son. They are part of rescue. An indication of the release from the dominion of darkness that has come, is coming, will come in fullness one day. They are signs that say the authority of darkness is at an end. They say the bondage of missing the mark is in jeopardy because God is coming near.

This is what it means for us to be followers of Jesus, to be people who have placed our faith in his good news. It means that we can live in confidence that the 2nd Exodus has begun, ignoring the fearful threats of the darkness and trusting the strong voice of the true King. It means that we can live as people who are bearing witness to the 2nd Exodus with expectation that Jesus’ Royal Rule will be breaking into the here and now, with authority and the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit.

And if you are not yet a follower of Jesus, this is what you are invited to participate in by placing your trust in the rescue God has initiated through Jesus. You are invited to take his hand outstretched in rescue, to turn your back on the darkness that has had its way in the past in your life, and to recognize the Royal rule of the Son God loves, in whom there is redemption, the forgiveness of sins…

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