Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter 2011: Life After Life After Death

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/24/2011

[new things that change what comes after, vs. a new kind of new thing…]

Paul’s letter to the Colossians describes Jesus this way: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead.”


The phrase, the firstborn from among the dead, is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection, the turning point in history that we celebrate on Easter. The resurrection story is a story that still speaks to us today. Words we are longing to hear. Words that we need to hear. Words that we’ve never heard before we heard of the resurrection, except perhaps in dreams and whispers and hints and suggestions. Words that resurrection speaks loudly and clearly, for the whole earth to hear, past, present, and future.

This morning, I believe Jesus wants his resurrection to shape our imaginations beyond the popular imagination.

The popular imagination says one of two things.

One version of the popular imagination says there is no more to life than this life.


[Bon Jovi: “It’s My Life”

This ain't a song for the broken-hearted 
No silent prayer for the faith-departed 
I ain't gonna be just a face in the crowd 
You're gonna hear my voice 
When I shout it out loud 
It's my life 
It's now or never 
I ain't gonna live forever 
I just want to live while I'm alive 
(It's my life) 
My heart is like an open highway 
Like Frankie said 
I did it my way 
I just wanna live while I'm alive 
It's my life

This perspective says that the joys and goodness you experience are joys and goodness that only go as far as they go. Which for some of us is pretty far, and for others not so far at all. And that the struggle and pain you experience, in the end, one way or the other have their final say, and then there is nothing to be said after that. Except, of course, for what those who go on after you say about you.

If this version of the popular imagination is what shapes your life, then the best you can hope for beyond death is that those who go on after you discover that the way you lived adds more to the joys and goodness they experience than it does to the struggle and pain. Which is certainly not the worst thing to hope for. But is it really the best?


The other version of the popular imagination says that there is life after death. Life that may take all sorts of forms: perhaps reincarnation, paradise in the company of virgins, some kind of disembodied ethereal existence of the kind enjoyed by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and Yoda at the end of Return of the Jedi, or in the case of the most popular Christian imagination, blissful existence with God and angels and redeemed loved ones in some kind of heavenly other dimension. Sometimes this is a deeply comforting hope; other times it is a bit, well, less than exciting:

[Talking Heads, “Heaven”

Everyone is trying to get to the bar.
The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven.
The band in Heaven plays my favorite song.
They play it once again, they play it all night long.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
There is a party, everyone is there.
Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
could be so exciting, and so much fun.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
When this kiss is over it will start again.
It will not be any different; it will be exactly
the same.
It's hard to imagine that nothing at all
could be so exciting, could be so much fun.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens

Resurrection wants to shake our imaginations out of both of these daydreams, and inhabit our vision of the future with a concrete reality upon which whole new kinds of lives can be built.

Resurrection says there is more to life than this life. That the joys and goodness we know, sweet as they are, are just the beginning. That the pain and suffering we know, horrible as they can be, will eventually give way to joys and goodness previously unknown.

Resurrection says there is more to life than life after death. That life after death is a stop along the way to a substantially better destination. That life after death, colorful as it may be in our imaginations - especially when our world is overcast and grey - pales in comparison to the vibrant, saturated life that succeeds it.

Because Life after death isn’t enough for God’s good creation.

Life after death doesn’t take away death’s power.

Life after death alone

Says death still has all kinds of power

Says death has power to end life as we know it.

Power to fundamentally separate.

Us from one another.

Us from our God-given bodies.

Us from our God-given purpose.

Us from our God-given dreams.

Says death has power to keep the future at a distance.

Says death has power to turn our labors of love into labors in vain.

Resurrection speaks the words all of creation has been dying to hear.

Resurrection says No! to the terror of death.

Resurrection says Yes! to the laughter of Love.

Resurrection says there is Life-After-Life-After-Death.


And that that life – Life-After-Life-After-Death - is the life of the ages, life incorruptible, imperishable, glorious, powerful, undying.

Life-After-Life-After-Death? Yes, indeed.

[timeline: life / death / life after death / life-after-life-after-death…]


Easter morning brings concrete, startling evidence that there is more to life than what we’ve experienced so far, and more to life than even our best hopes of life after death. The resurrection is the world’s first evidence of life-after-life-after-death. And it’s the promise that the life-after-life-after-death has come to life in our present reality now, bringing a hope that can absolutely transform the lives we live before death as well.


Read John 20v1-20…

The gospels are very clear that the resurrected Jesus wasn’t a ghost, an apparition. He had a real deal physical body, one that could eat and be touched and seen and heard. And it was still recognizably his body – it had the marks of the crucifixion on it still, for example, and when people did recognize it, they recognized it as Jesus. But it was also more, different, transformed, new. Transformed enough that some didn’t recognize him at first, perhaps in the way a bride will have such a radiance that even those who know her well may take another glance to be sure it’s actually her. It was a body that death, illness, pain, suffering could no longer touch. A body that was equally at home on earth and in the heavens, and mysteriously capable of slipping back and forth at will, until doing so one final time at the ascension, to remain in God’s dimension until the final joining of the heavens and the earth, God’s dimension fused with our earthly dimension, at his second coming. Jesus’ resurrection body, in other words, is a body that belongs to the life after life after death part of the time line.

Life-after-life-after-death is life that takes all that is holy and good and God-breathed about our present mixed up lives, and present mixed up world, and remakes us, and this world, as fully holy and fully good and fully God-breathed, fully reflecting the glorious image of our creator. The resurrected Jesus is our first glimpse of this kind of life, the source of our hope for something more than life after death.

Don’t get me wrong, life after death is part of the picture for those of us who die before Jesus returns to set everything right, to complete God’s new creation that began with his resurrection (like the rebel crucified next to Jesus, to whom Jesus said, “surely today you’ll be with me in paradise”). Jesus himself must have experienced some kind of life after death during the time his body rested in the tomb. It’s just that the Bible doesn’t say a whole lot to us about life after death; probably because life after death doesn’t say much to us either.

But life-after-life-after death? Well, you might say you just can’t shut it up.


Says that death isn’t the end of life as we know it.


Says that there is so much to know of life as we know it that the knowing has only just begun.

Every good thing I’ve ever experienced, I’ve experienced with my body: through my senses, interpreted by my brain. [examples…]

Sure, it’d be nice to free from pain, to have some rest. But I can only get excited about that as much as I can get excited about sleeping. Which is exactly how the Bible describes life after death – “those who have fallen asleep in Christ.”

No, what gets me excited, what gives me hope, is the idea that the good parts of my life today, the waking, wakeful parts – the elements of who I am, the things I do, that are lined up with the love and goodness of God – might actually still matter tomorrow, that they might actually be around tomorrow, they might turn into what they’re really meant to be tomorrow. [training for sports, music, reading…]


Says Love has robbed death of all its power.

Says Love now has power to undo every barrier death can throw at life.

Says Love now calls all the shots.

Because our lives are shaped now by our anticipation of life-after-life-after death. That’s what it means for us to love. And our world is shaped by life-after-life-after death blowing over it like a rainstorm over the desert. That’s Love’s prerogative, now that Love himself has come to life (life-after-life-after death life!) in the midst of our broken world.

Death, in other words, isn’t shaping anything anymore. Not anything that will last, anyway.

Because Life-After-Life-After-Death

Says that hope beyond hope has surprised us, and keeps on surprising us.

Says that since it’s already happened once with Jesus, now every mundane moment is pregnant with the possibility of encountering something new, something that comes forward from God’s good future and changes everything about the present.

We can be out one morning, going through the motions, doing our loving duty (like Mary going to finish the burial process) and the Gardener of a New Creation can show up and send us on a new mission. We can be in a locked room without hope (like the gathered disciples), and Peace that passes understanding (and apparently, passes through walls, too) can show up and breathe new life into us. We can be filled with doubts (like Thomas), hanging onto our own low expectations, and our hidden Hope can materialize and present Himself for inspection.


Says that we can practice resurrection, practice living tomorrow’s life today, practice living Life-After-Life-After-Death while we yet await the life to come.

Just as soon as we die to this life.

Just as soon as we die to lives that have been shaped by a deference to death’s power.

Just as soon as we defer to Love’s invitation.

Because resurrection life is only found on the other side of death.


21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

This is where the resurrection rubber meets the resurrection road. Forgiveness in all its forms involve a death. The forgiveness Jesus won for us involved his physical death on the cross. We too, must die, in order to forgive. Not the death he died, no – he did that once and for all. In order to forgive, though, we must die to our pride. We must die to our desire for revenge, for repayment. We must die to our habit of looking out for our interests over the interests of others. We be willing to lose our lives as we know them in order to find the life that we know in the resurrected Jesus. The Life-After-Life-After-Death.


Says our labors of love are not in vain.

Says that everything surrendered to Love’s purposes and animated by God’s Spirit finds incorruptible completion in God’s new creation.

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you, Jesus says as he breathes new creation life onto us, into us – Receive my Holy Spirit!

Every single thing we do in response to that sending, everything we do empowered by that breath – everything we do in Christ, by his Spirit, in other words – every single thing will find its completion in the life-after-life-after-death new creation. Just as everything Jesus did found its completion in his resurrection. Every act of love, every act of justice, every effort towards peace, towards forgiveness, towards reconciliation, towards healing, towards freedom, towards holiness. All of it part of the new reality that will come in fullness when Jesus appears again, when God’s perfect future fully encompasses the present, when the Father’s will is done on earth just as it is in heaven. Not a single thing done will be a waste. It will all have full and vibrant expression in the fullness of the kingdom of God.

God’s new world has arrived in Jesus, and now his students are laying the groundwork –with him, by the Spirit – for it to arrive fully everywhere else.


Practical Tips:

1. Change your tune. Get in the habit of talking with your kids about Life-After-Life-After-Death as much or more than Life-After-Death.

2. Sentence something to death. Identify one thing about your current life-before-life-after-life-after death that you need to die to in order to make way for resurrection life in your life.

3. Play Make Believe. Imagine what Life-After-Life-After-Death might look like in a difficult relationship or situation. Ask yourself if there was one way you would act differently today if you knew that Life-After-Life-After-Death was on its way for that relationship or situation, and your job was to be ready to live in that new reality by the time it came.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Palm Sunday 2011 – Love vs. Evil

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/17/2011

Palm Sunday is the day we remember how Jesus entered Jerusalem to great acclaim. A triumphal entry, it’s sometimes called, because people were excited, thinking that in Jesus they had found a king who would deliver them from the evil that afflicted them. They were right about one thing, but wrong about the more important things. They were right that Jesus was a king who was going to deliver them from the evil that afflicted them. But they were wrong that he was going to head up a military revolution against their oppressors. And because they were wrong about what Jesus was doing about the evil that afflicted them, they abandoned him as soon as they saw that his approach wasn’t their approach. In fact, when they saw his approach to evil, it was so different than what they expected, that they came to the conclusion he was doing nothing at all about the evil that afflicted them.

Have you ever felt that way? Ever gotten your hopes up that God was going to do something about the mess you were in, and then been devastated by the feeling that maybe he wasn’t doing anything at all?

King David expressed that feeling when he wrote psalm 22, 600 years before Palm Sunday.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, but I find no rest.

It’s a question we ask when we’re under assault from evil. It’s also the words of Jesus, uttered as a prayer while he hangs dying. It’s an intimate, gut wrenching question that’s in the orbit of one of the Big Questions lacing its way through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. A question on which everything rides. When it comes to evil, the question of what God is doing about it matters immediately and practically to us. The question is this: What, if anything, is God doing about evil?

We may have other questions about evil, like “Why does evil exist?”, “Where does evil come from?”, “How could evil exist in a universe ruled by a good God?”, and so on. Great questions. Perhaps even important questions. But asking those questions first is a bit like waking up and finding yourself in a freefall from an airplane and asking, “Why does gravity exist?” “Where does gravity come from?” “What does the existence of gravity say about the physical and moral makeup of the universe?” What you really need to know is, “Umm, can anybody hear me? Is anybody going to do something about this?”

Because if God’s not listening, if he’s not doing anything about it – if he has in fact forsaken us - then humanity is just a footnote in cosmic history. Evil will most certainly destroy us. Making the rest of our questions about it irrelevant. (We might as well enjoy the fall until impact…)

On the other hand,  if God is doing something about it – if he is, in fact, not so far from saving us, not so far from the words of our groaning; if he does, in fact, answer; if we will, in fact, find rest – then we have good reason to hope. And hope gives us reason to act in cooperation with God. (Taking our free fall analogy further, if it turns out he’s falling right next to us, but has a way to land safely, that might inspire us to reach out and grab hold of him, and do whatever he instructs us to do…)

This week is Holy Week. The week we consider Jesus’ crucifixion and death, culminating in a day we call “Good” Friday. And we call it good because Jesus on the cross is the ultimate revelation of what God is doing about evil – Jesus on the cross is God’s answer to the words of our groaning. And it’s a good answer, the best answer. Jesus on the cross is God saying, “No, I haven’t forsaken you.”

Jesus on the cross is also God showing us how he’s defeating evil. If we want to know what God is doing about evil, so that we can have hope, and so that we can cooperate with him in our world, we’ve got to look intently at Jesus on the cross. If we look closely enough, and we have eyes to see, what we will see is that Jesus on the cross is God embracing the worst evil has to offer as he offers himself to love’s purposes, and exhausting evil’s power.

Which, like so many things about Jesus, is not at all what we might expect, is it?

Let’s back up a little and set the stage, so we can see the cross a little more clearly than the original Palm Sunday crowd did.

At the heart of the stories about Jesus is a knockdown, drag out fight with evil. When Jesus hits the scene, light is going toe to toe with darkness. Jesus regularly announced that the kingdom of God was at hand. And the kingdom of God is a meaningless phrase if it doesn’t include the defeat of evil.

Now, what evil hates most is love. And evil thinks by threatening our lives, or offering us an alternative source of life, it will cause us to abandon love. And usually evil is proven right. For a long stretch, in fact, evil had rarely been proven wrong.

Until evil meets love personified. Love that loves Love more than he loves his own life.

Take one of the first great symbols of evil, the wilderness. A stark reminder that a creation that started as a lush, richly inhabited garden has become a wilderness. What does Jesus do? Shazaam, turn it back into a garden? Nope. Goes out into it. For 40 days. Without eating. Alone. Totally exposed. Enduring the full hardships of life on this broken earth with all the rest of hungry, thirsty, and isolated humanity. And there, at his weakest point, encountering the Satan, the tempter, evil personified. And who comes away exhausted? Not Jesus. He comes away recharged and energized, ready to kick off his kingdom agenda. Jesus’ life is threatened in the wilderness, but he embraces the worst evil has to offer as he offers himself to Love’s purposes, and in the process, evil is exhausted, and Love’s purposes are accomplished.

How about the evil symbolized by sickness and injury and death? Jesus goes to the leper colonies and touches them, making himself vulnerable on the way to serving Love’s purposes, and in the process the lepers are healed. He lets himself be touched by the bleeding woman. He gets his hands dirty, spits on them, touches the blind man’s eyes. His good friend dies, and he opens his heart to the grief, weeping, and out of that grief Jesus raises Lazarus to life. Some aspect of Jesus’ well-being, his life, is threatened in all of these cases, but he embraces the worst evil has to offer as he offers himself to Love’s purposes, and in the process, evil is exhausted, and Love’s purposes are accomplished.

How about the evil symbolized by sinners and outcasts? He goes to eat with them, have dinner in their homes, tell stories, laugh with them, and in the end they are repenting and joining his kingdom mission. All at great cost to his own reputation and ritual righteousness. Jesus embraces the worst evil has to offer as he offers himself to Love’s purposes, and in the process, evil is exhausted, and Love’s purposes are accomplished.

Throughout Jesus’ life, evil threatens, sneers, makes horrible noises – storms, demons, opposition from powerful movers and shakers - but evil always runs out of steam in the face of Jesus’ love, unable to shake him loose from it.

Until finally, on Good Friday, evil makes good on its threats. Going to the cross, Jesus embraces fully and completely the full force of all the world’s evil as he supremely offers himself to Love’s ultimate purposes. And in the process, evil’s power is supremely exhausted, once and for all. And Love’s supreme purposes are supremely accomplished.

Introduce Mark 15:1-38…note major players: Pilate, Jewish leaders, crowd there for Passover, murdering revolutionaries, Roman soldiers. Encourage listeners to see all the different forms of evil colliding together at the cross (arrogance of Rome, corruption of Israel, ugliness of crowd, absence of disciples, shadowy, looming presence of demonic).

Play Mark 15:1-38 slides

Let’s spend the rest of our time today with Jesus in these last hours of his life, when Jesus is completely exposed, and all the evil in the universe has swept over the face of the earth, rushing together to gleefully destroy the very goodness of God.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

This is something different from an eclipse [Passover takes place during a full moon – no solar eclipse possible during full moon]. This darkness is full of mystery and meaning. One of the towering stories in the Bible is the story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Often called the “Exodus” story. Prince of Egypt, 10 plagues, Moses, Pharaoh, parting of the Red Sea, etc. The 9th plague is 3 days of pitch darkness covering the land. Mark’s readers are meant to think of that story when they hear of these three hours of darkness. The 9th plague is terrifying enough in its own right, because it is the plague after which the Pharaoh puts all his cards on the table to Moses. “On the day you see my face,” Pharaoh said to Moses, “you will die.” The battle has escalated to the point of ultimatum.

But the real terror, the real horror of the 9th plague is that it immediately precedes the 10th plague. The killing of all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Including the Pharaoh’s firstborn. It is the 10th plague that makes the way for Israel’s exodus from slavery to Egypt. Israel was protected from the plague by the blood of sacrificial lambs on their doorposts – the angel of death passed over them, thus the name of the feast.

Jesus knows that he now is the firstborn who is to die to make the way for humanity’s exodus from slavery to evil. Not the son of the pharaoh, but the son of Man and the Son of God. Humanity has been crushed by the weight of sin and death and evil, and God sends his Son in to take their place, to feel its weight upon his own shoulders and to be crushed by it. To embrace the worst evil has to offer in all its fullness, and to exhaust evil’s power upon him at the cost of his very life. The blood on the doorpost to God’s kingdom is God’s own blood, the true lamb.

And so we hear him say those agonized words, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If there is an answer, we do not hear it on that Good Friday.

When evil is raging, questions abound and answers can be hard to come by. And on that Friday, evil is raging and good. It’s an ugly kind of rage: a drunken rage. Drunk with power, drunk with lust, drunk with arrogant pride, drunk with the certainty of victory, drunk with the blood of the innocent one. No, there might not be nearly as many answers as there are questions on that Friday, but there is one answer.

This is what God is doing about evil. He is coming into its playground. Getting his hands dirty. Getting his knees bloody. He is drawing all of evil’s attention upon himself. He is exposing himself to the fullness of evil’s power, and he is allowing it to exhaust itself upon him.

If we have eyes to see, let us see. The cross is what God is doing about evil. Let us look with holy awe at Jesus upon it. We know the weight of the evil we face in our lives today. On the cross, out of his love for us, he has embraced the full force of that same evil. Evil may huff and puff, and threaten to blow our houses down, but with Jesus’ last breath, he exhausted evil of its power over us. The shadow of darkness in our lives is overshadowed by the shadow of the cross.

Let us put our trust in Jesus as he put his trust in the Father even when it looked as if he was left alone. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a prayer with seeds of hope at its heart, isn’t it? It’s my God. My God. Why have you… Even in the darkness, in the silence, He is ours and we are His. Not even the full force of evil can change that. Even in our confusion, in our frustration, in our blindness, our cry goes to God, because we know that he hears.

And we know that he will act on our behalf. Because there, as Jesus cried out with those words, the answer becomes clear. There on the cross, our words coming from his lips, our words in the face of evil, asked by Jesus on our behalf. And in that moment, the one asking the question for us becomes God’s answer to us. I am your God and you are my people as surely as this beaten and bloodied servant is my Son. I have not forsaken you as surely as my Son has not run from evil. I am near to saving you as surely as my Son is near to death. I am near to the words of your groaning as surely as my Son’s groaning is nearly at an end. [the question answered by the answerer asking it with us…]

Let us look to Jesus, yes, and trust in Jesus, yes, and learn from Jesus, too. Learn what he would teach us as we seek to implement his victory over evil in our lives and in our world. This is the way God’s kingdom is established, and this is how it takes new ground. We offer ourselves to Love’s purposes, embracing whatever Evil might throw at us along the way, in the confident expectation that Evil’s power has already been exhausted. This is why we call it faith, is it not…? A life that requires us to follow Jesus by learning to love Love more than we love our lives.

Practical Tips:

1. Memorize this refrain from Psalm 22, and pray it every day this week as a lament:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, but I find no rest.

2. For the sake of Love, enter someone’s mess with them, knowing that it will probably be messy for you as well. Not randomly, but because the Spirit is leading you. And stay there until Love’s purposes are accomplished. [personal and/or ministry application]

3. Repent of attachments to your life instead of Love. Have they prevented you – out of fear of Evil’s power to take life from you - from forgiving? From loving your enemies? From showing mercy? From blessing the poor? From praying for the sick? From casting out demons? From announcing good news?

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…

Colossians 1: I’ll Have What She’s Having

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/03/2011

Invitation to turn to Colossians 1:9-14


Everything that has life has at least 2 properties in common. Living things grow – which requires a continual stream of life-giving sustenance – and living things leak – which also requires a continual stream of life-giving sustenance.

Seeds get planted in the ground, and a shoot springs up. A miracle of life. Thank God. Now, though, it needs food, sunlight, water to grow and develop into the fruit bearing tree it is meant to be. The miracle merges into the slow dance of maturation.

A baby being born is a miraculous thing, inspiring, holy, incredible. And then begins the work of feeding it, caring for it, helping it grow and become who it is meant to be, doing what it is meant to do, and that, by the grace of God, joyfully and thankfully.

A friendship begins with a set of serendipitous connections and chemistry. A joyful miracle that has its own momentum for a time. Yet, like every other miracle of life, a friendship needs nourishment if its capacity for multiplying life is to enlarge and not diminish.

A church is a miracle of life. The zoe, the life-giving energy at the heart of the universe, carried on the seeds of Jesus’ good news, lands in human hearts and explodes with the life of the ages, the life of heaven here and now, bringing salvation to those who receive it. The first evidence of its existence, the tulips poking through the thawing ground of the old creation, according to Paul’s letter to Colossians, is love in the spirit.

What will nourish this love in the spirit so that it grows into maturity? What will nourish us, this ecclesia, this church into the fullness of God’s great purposes for us? What will nourish you, you who have recently trusted the good news, and turned from your old way of living to follow the way of Jesus? What will bring you back to health, you who began to run hard after Jesus when you first heard the good news of God’s grace, but somehow began to eat a fast food diet in your hurry and now cholesterol is clogging your veins and you find yourself short of breath?

[I’ll have what she’s having… from “When Harry Met Sally.”]

In the scriptures, it’s as if humanity is at a diner, and we’ve all been ordering the same-old same-old. And somebody comes along, and eats something that no one knew was on the menu, and whoa! That Jesus has a whole different .,/kind of life than anyone we’ve ever seen. I’ll have what he’s having. Colossians 1 is describing Paul’s prayer that the Colossians would hunger after and feast on the food that Jesus feasts on.

9For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. 13For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

We’ve been rescued from the dominion of darkness; we can abandon the food we used to eat there. And we’ve been brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins; and we are invited to dine at the King’s table.

So which entree will we choose?

Let’s hold that thought for a minute, back up, and try to peer into this text to figure out what Paul is saying here, at a fundamental, foundational level.

There is something more than meets the untrained eye going on here.


Setting the stage for these verses, there is discussion of God’s grace, his favor, which leads to peace. The good news of God’s kingdom, the good news of Jesus the king, landing, taking root, bearing fruit. Love itself being worked into flesh and blood relationships of human beings, terraforming the earth. Once dead lives, now freshly God-breathed like Jesus’ resurrection body, forming together in love-factory churches loyal to the true king.

There is something more than meets the eye going on here.


Here, in these verses there is the Father, and there is the Son, and there is the Holy Spirit, and there are these people in whom new creation is taking place, among whom the life of the ever-creative, ever-self-giving, ever-loving triune God is being breathed. And they – the trinity and these image-bearers – are increasingly tangled up, woven together. These people filled with the knowledge of his will through wisdom and understanding given by the Spirit. Living lives that live up to the one whose name they bear, pleasing him. The explosive, glorious power present in the trinity setting off controlled nuclear reactions in their lives, enough power to withstand the most devastating of tsunamis.

There is something going on here, something more than meets the eye.


There is garden language: growth, fruit, work. There is the language of knowledge, the knowledge of God’s will, and the knowledge of God. And there is more, words about God’s will, about pleasing him, about light, and kingdoms, redemption, forgiveness.

Yes, there is something going on here.




is going on here?

What’s going on in Colossae is what’s going on all over the world now that Jesus is risen from the dead and his Holy Spirit is blowing across the face of the earth, carried on his followers announcement of the good news. What’s going on is new creation. And Paul wants to draw our attention to it.

Are you familiar with the biblical story of the first creation? Do you recall how it began with God’s true word: “Let there be light?” Do you remember how God’s will was expressed over and over, let there be, let there be, let there be? And how there was. And there was. And there was. And do you remember how God was pleased? How his creation enjoyed his grace, and peace. How he called it “good.” And do you remember how the scene shifted to a garden? A garden to be tended by people. People in whom he breathed his breath of life. Who were animated by his Spirit. Who didn’t have yet any knowledge of Good and Evil, per say, but only knowledge of Him. Who were charged with bearing fruit in every good work that they did with him in the Garden. (Go forth and multiply! And what is fruit but the multiplication mechanism of the tree?)

Of course, we know what happened to the first creation. Against God’s loving will, but allowed by God’s risk-taking will, we ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And – like a sugar rush from too much cotton candy - that heady knowledge quickly displaced our knowledge of God as we became, effectively, our own gods, sitting in the seat of judgment over ourselves, and one another. We became drunk on the fermented fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We have, all of us, been inebriated ever since, fumbling in darkness, enslaved to the wine of judgment, and to the master vintner, the Accuser himself.


Yet here, in this prison in Rome, and in this small town under Roman rule, the great undoing of the first creation is itself being undone. A new creation is underway. It begins, as the first creation did, with Jesus – the logos, the word made flesh, dwelling among us. The true word of his good news, the news that mercy has triumphed over judgment in his death and resurrection, the news that a sacrifice has satisfied every last accusation, the news that the Forgiver of Sinners, not the Accuser, has had the last word, the news that the Vineyard’s true master has come home, and his drink brings freedom, not slavery, the news that the Father’s grace is present in Jesus, the good news of great joy for all the people, that good news is taking root and love in the spirit is growing up to displace a garden choked out by the weeds of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


So now that love is growing, now that new creation has begun, what is it that Paul is praying for? He’s praying that this church be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives. The knowledge of God’s will, God’s heart, God’s desires is what the new creation that we are in Christ needs. It’s what it needs to grow, and to thrive, and to be about the mission Jesus has for us.

We don’t need a new or better perspective on what is good and what is evil. That horse has been beaten to death. That’s like a drug addict thinking all they need is a better drug, and everything will get better. That won’t get us where we need to go. That causes decay, not growth. It creates more puncture holes; it doesn’t re-fill leaky vessels.

What we need is what Adam and Eve needed. We need the fruit of the tree of life. Which is, after all, the knowledge of God’s will, isn’t it? Isn’t life what God wills for us? Didn’t Jesus say, I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full? Isn’t his will that our wills and his will would be joined together as one? Isn’t that what it means for his kingdom to come? His will being done on earth as it is in heaven? Isn’t that what truly gives life?

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

John 4


Here’s the thing: If you have the knowledge of good and evil, you don’t need relationship to take the next step, do you? You just make a judgment, and you act on it. Which means your next step doesn’t have to be in love. Which means, sooner or later, it won’t be. Which means even if your judgment was “correct” in some abstract sense, your steps are without love. Because although we may like to be our own gods, the god that is me is not love. And soon enough, all of those steps take me to a place where I am eating with pigs, having blown my whole inheritance.

Lives animated by God’s love must be nourished and directed by a new creation knowledge of God’s will, not by our decaying creation knowledge of good and evil.

At the center of the decaying old creation is the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. At the center of the new creation is the fruit of the knowledge of God’s will.

Consider how acting out of the knowledge of good and evil can get in the way of love in the spirit when it first springs up in our lives, and how being filled with the knowledge of God’s will prevents that…


[3 stories: Judy & Mike (“Seek first the kingdom…”), Wedding dream, Parable of Prodigal Son]

The only way to have a knowledge of God’s will is in the context of relationship. What do you want of me here, God? Of us, here, now, in this situation? And if we take a trusting step in that direction, it will be a step in love, won’t it? Because God is love, and we are walking in his love. And if we get it wrong, it’s not the end of the story. It’s part of the story. Because we are in relationship, so his Spirit can convict us, and we can repent, and take the next step with a deeper understanding of his will.


And those steps will lead to a life worthy of the Lord (after all, that is how all of the Lord’s steps were ordered, was it not?

19 So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. 20For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing.

John 5:19-20


These are the steps that please God in every way (Remember what the Father said of Jesus, who only did what he saw him doing? “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased…”).

And those steps will bear fruit in every good work, because love multiplies where judgment formerly divided.


And every step we take from our knowledge of God’s will helps us know God better.

And every step becomes food for us – empowering us with power according to his glorious power.

Which gives us what we need to follow Jesus on the path to the cross, patiently, giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light (what is the kingdom of light, but the place of God’s rule and reign where his will is done like it was first done by light? – let there be light, and there was light!)


Practical Tips:

1. Keep a diet record. Maybe for a day. Maybe for a week. Write down every time you eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Every time you think to yourself about someone else, or even yourself, “That was/is wrong. That bothers me.” At the end of the fast, see if there is any correlation between your diet and how animated you are by love vs. how animated you are by other motivations. When you’re done, show it to somebody who you think is animated by love. See if they respond to you with judgment, or by joining you in asking for you to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will for you with regard to your spiritual nutritional habits.

2. Try a judgment fast. Maybe for a day. Maybe for a week. Every time you think to yourself about someone else, or even yourself, “That was/is wrong. That bothers me,” follow it up with the prayer: “I’m sorry, Lord, the only forbidden thing that matters to me is that I’m not allowed to eat that fruit.

3. Ask for some of what he’s having. Start your day for a week with this prayer: Jesus, fill me with the knowledge of your will for me towards every person and decision and situation, because I want all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, and nothing else. Use that prayer again whenever you’re tempted to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil throughout the day. And then, in faith, love, decide, act out of the knowledge that comes after that prayer.