Colossians 1:15-23

Fixing the Broken Pieces of the Universe

July 13, 2008

That question the teenager in Elizabethtown asked, “What I don’t understand is, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why couldn’t God have saved us in another way?”, that question has an answer. The answer in brief is, because the problem is so serious, so all pervading, there is no other way to solve it than to have God’s Son die and thus defeat the self-centered power of sin. Something completely self-centered is solved by One completely God’s will-centered.

It is so hard to accept such an answer because we do not want to admit that our life styles, the things we desire, the things we allow to come into our minds, things that mark the kind of people we are, are dead wrong. When Paul writes in Colossians 1, vs. 20 about all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe, he is describing the effects of sin on what had been good and beautiful. Paul is describing the consequences of sin in people like us.

When Paul asks the Colossians in vs. 21 to consider what they used to be, here is what he says:
You all had your backs turned to God.
He says, You all were thinking rebellious thoughts of God.
He says, You all were giving God trouble every chance you got.

In these clauses Paul was describing the pre-Christian Colossians, but the same words describe Israel, fleeing Egypt after the mighty miracle acts of God on their behalf. It’s hard to understand how people ignored what happened to them, but they did, partly because they were self-centered and they kept saying things like, “Man, we were better off in Egypt. We worked hard, but we had things and we were safe and we had a house.” Those same words of Paul describe the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jews, in Jesus’ day. These Pharisees knew the Scriptures and what they said about God and his redemption, but they had built a fort around themselves. They worked on relations with the Romans and the tax collectors, not with God. Unfortunately, those words of Paul also describe us and people we know and mingle with almost every day of our lives.

That conflict isn’t easily seen in our society. We don’t notice it, and partly because for a long time we’ve lived in a society that we have called Christian. Well, it’s no longer Christian. One reason I like the old hymns is that these old hymn writers understood this conflict the Colossians had. Do you remember WT Sleeper’s hymn? Sleeper was from New England and pastored a church in Worcester, Mass for more than 30 years, dying in 1905:
Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come….
Into They freedom, goodness and light, Jesus I come…
Out of my sin and into Thyself, Jesus I come to Thee.
Out of my shameful failure and loss
Into the glorious gain of Thy cross.

Out of unrest and arrogant pride,
Into Thy blessed will

Where does one hear that sort of cry in the songs and lives today? Our problem is exactly the same one the old Colossians had. We live in a world we have gotten used to. After all, most of our sense data comes from the world, and much of our interpretation of the world comes from the secular society around us, just as it did for the Colossians! So there needs to be something disruptive happen to get our attention to new ways. What is it? Different for different people, of course. God uses all sorts of unexpected doors into out lives: a child’s question, the bedraggled fox racing across a field, a sudden pain in us the sets us worrying, a sermon, a new metaphor you’ve never heard before, a painting where the artist’s vision forces you to consider a scene in a new way.

Through such things we come awake. We ask, “Wait, why this?” Dorothy L. Sayers stuck into her notes on the translation of Dante’s Paradiso, “The desire of the mind for knowledge and understanding is in itself a natural image of the desire of the soul to see God… the mind can be satisfied only by the ultimate truth which is God.” That’s right. Have you felt that?

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer, born in 1930, wrote a book that nobody wanted to publish. It’s the story of a Yam farmer named Okonkwo and it explores the conflict between the tribal traditions of the Igbo, a Nigerian group and Christian ideas. Finally, at Heinemann, the British book publisher, one of their staff had recently been in Africa and he said, “This is a book you should publish.” And they did and it’s sold millions of copies. It’s called Things Fall Apart. That book has wakened in lots of people an awareness of something they had not thought about before. It’s about Christianity, but not from a Western point of view. It opened a door to questions no one had thought much about.

You know, when you have some sort of physical problem, you go to a doctor for help. When you have some emotional problem, you go to a psychiatrist. But we go because we notice those symptoms. They interfere with our lives. But when we become disoriented spiritually, where do we go? Do we even notice something is wrong? So, what do we do? We can’t solve it. A doctor can’t solve it. A South Beach Diet can’t solve it. So the first part of interpreting what Paul is saying here is recognizing the meaning of the problem.

Now you might think that the next part is, how does this apply to us? But that’s not where Paul goes in this part of chapter 1. The next thing Paul does is he describes Jesus. Well, how does a description of Jesus mean anything about application to us and our lives? The answer lies in the question, who was Jesus? In Jesus’ day people were drawn to him for help in their lives because of who he was. Why shouldn’t that be true today?

There is a long trail of comments in the Scriptures that say, we can’t see God. To Moses God once said, “No one can see me and live.” Jesus says, in John 14, “To see me is to see the Father…. Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” John 12:45, “Whoever looks at me is looking, in fact, at the One who sent me.” This is what Paul is saying in Col. 1:15, “We look at the Son and see the Father who cannot be seen.” When people looked at Jesus they saw someone compassionate for the poor and suffering, for the hungry and lonely. That’s what God looks like! This isn’t ontological, what sort of a being God is, it’s something else.

How do we look at Jesus? He lived 2,000 years ago and today are we any closer to seeing God? What we need to do is look at the Scriptures where Jesus pours out over the pages like the waters over Niagara Falls. He just keeps coming! We also see Jesus in the history and the lives of believing people. We need those people. The first time I heard the Gospel – heard it!, for I had gone to church all my life – was when a Mennonite classmate at Chester High School when I was in tenth grade invited me and a couple of others to come to the old Convention Center in Philly to a Christian meeting. A man named Merv Rosell spoke. His son is the academic dean at Gordon Conwell seminary today. I remember still some of the passages from the Bible he cited. I had never thought about them before. Not long after going forward in that meeting, I went in to Philly with my mother, to the old Leary’s bookstore with its Spitzweg painting of this guy on a ladder with books between his knees and holding a book in his hand, reading. There, in June, 1952, I bought a used, leather bound King James Bible. But those next years were like having your cell phone in Canada where even with roaming attempts, the signal always breaks up. I’d heard the Gospel. The prow of my boat changed direction, but I didn’t become a Christian for four more years. It was only then that I made breaks with the thought patterns I had always lived with and I started to live in Jesus’ way.

And that’s when Paul’s words strike us, “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe… get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.” That shows God couldn’t solve the problem of our sin and rebellion in any other way. In the Roman church people seem to believe that Jesus can’t do it all, so they pray to the Saints, and they believe that you come to Jesus through Mary. There is not a hint of that in the Scriptures. Nothing Jesus said suggests that. Those sorts of acts cannot fix the broken pieces of the Universe.

One of the poets I admire is a professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, Scott Cairns. He spoke at Messiah College about four years ago. At the end of the session where he spoke and read some of his poems a student asked him a question: “What difference has it made in your life since you became a Christian?” There was a slight pause and then Cairns said, “I’m not as much of a jerk now as I used to be.”

Last year, after he had visited Mt. Athos, the ancient Orthodox monastery in northern Greece, Cairns published a book of poems titled, Love’s Immensity. Here are a couple of lines from that book,
Just now, I puzzle through a range
Of incoherencies; but on that day,
The scattered fragments will cohere.

That’s what Paul is saying, “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe get properly fixed and fit together in him…,” but it begins now.

There have been in history numbers of attempts to describe our world as God’s world and to see beauty in it. In the medieval world there was what was known as the music of the spheres. It seems unscientific to the objectivity of scientific knowledge we are accustomed to; but the problem for science is that science can’t be reduced to a mechanism. There are scientists like Michael Polanyi who would say, discovery is prompted as much by personal insight as by objective procedures.

The wonderful thing about the idea of the music of the spheres is that view contains the hint that God, who loves music, this God set music into the very framework of the universe we live in, so that the effect is kind of like in the film, “August Rush,” where a youngster uses music to find his parents.

Paul has some other, wonderful phrases here. Vs. 17, “Jesus holds it all together, right up to this moment.” Vs. 18, “The church Jesus organizes and holds together… like a head does a body.” And vs. 18, “Jesus is there, from beginning to end.” Then notice how Peterson summarizes this, Jesus is “spacious, roomy… everything of God finds its proper place in him.”

When Pythagoras and his followers in ancient Greece described the universe, they took numbers to be the ultimate substance and they could hear the harmonious chiming of the sounds from two wires whose lengths were in the ratio of 1:2. And when they turned their eyes to the heavens they saw the perfect circle of the sun and moon, saw them governed by a complex system of steady circular motions and they saw these celestial perfections the way one listens to music, but they were not able to make any connection between those observations and Jesus.

Now Paul is making his case here. It is the case on the basis of which a change for people is possible. Though music is grand, and the harmony of the universe of the ancient Greeks and medieval church is magnificent, that is not how Paul makes his case. For Paul it is who Jesus is that is crucial. The web we are caught in as humans holds us so that neither science nor music can free us, in spite of what Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins say. Only Jesus is big enough to free us. That is what Paul is saying in Colossians 1.

Then comes Paul’s conclusion from the data in vs. 21, “You yourselves are a case study of what Jesus does.” He adds in vs. 22, “Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together.” Now you can know about that, as I saw in 10th grade; but the next step is how you will apply that to yourselves!