September 3, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Picking the right hymn for the right occasion is an art. Thankfully we have Dr. Randy Sheets to guide us here at Spring Hill Pres in selecting hymns that fit both musically and theologically with our worship services. The words that we sing can shape our worship in profound ways. Think of the power of singing “Amazing Grace” at a memorial service, or “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, or “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” on Easter Morning.
There’s an old story about a Baptist preacher who was not a good fit with the congregation that he served. He butted heads with all the church leaders. His sermons were long and boring. He fostered conflict but was too pompous to see his own faults. Over the years his ministry was wearing the church out. Then finally, one Sunday, at the end of the worship service he announced to the church, “Jesus has called me away from here to serve another congregation. I must listen to Jesus’ call and so because of him, I will be leaving.” Then the music director stood up and said, “Friends let us stand and sing our closing hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’”
Picking the right hymn for the right occasion is an art. That’s precisely what the Apostle Paul does here in the letter to the Colossians. He is writing to a church in a time of serious conflict, but at this point in the letter he takes a break from his own words and he quotes a hymn to them. We don’t know if this was the entire hymn or just a portion of it, but presumably it was something that the Colossians were familiar with singing. Now remember, at this point, Christianity was only a few decades old, so this hymn that is all about Jesus is obviously a new song—a new hymn of worship to the risen Lord. The song may only be a few years old, but it harkens back to a deep deep well of memory, holy memory, taking the listeners/singers all the way back to the beginning of creation. Paul reminds them of the past so that these memories can help them make sense of their present.
And in those first generations of the Christian faith, there was so much new that they were trying to understand and explain. So much had changed in just a few years. Everything in their world felt different because of this one man, Jesus Christ. He had lived like no one else ever had. He had shown God’s love in ways that were so crystal clear and yet challenging to our core. He had suffered immense and unthinkable pain in his death. But then…then…something happened that was not supposed to happen. Something occurred that had never occurred in the whole history of the world. Something too wonderful to believe, too powerful to explain with mere words. Jesus, the teacher and miracle worker, the servant leader, who suffered rejection and death was RAISED BACK TO LIFE from the dead.
His followers, the first disciples, understood immediately that as incredible and miraculous as this was, it wasn’t just about Jesus. It wasn’t just that he was alive again, but that in his resurrection, the whole cosmic order of creation was changed. Death had been defeated. Sin had been conquered. And it meant that our imperfect lives, our broken world, our fractured past, present, and future, was all changed. All redeemed, and given new meaning and purpose. This wasn’t just another date in the course of history. This event, Christ’s resurrection from the dead was the moment that all of history had been moving toward. This was the point of it all. The meaning of life, the true purpose of the entire universe. It was mind-blowing, paradigm-shattering, life-changing, world-transforming. God-revealing. It was hard to explain, not because it was confusing but because it was so true and so powerful that words couldn’t do justice.
Do you remember the powerful event that captured our attention a couple of weeks ago? The solar eclipse. It took over everything: our news, our Facebook pages, our work productivity. When the eclipse was about to start I walked through the halls of the church shouting to the staff, “Eclipse break everybody! Eclipse break.” We all went outside to see it get dark…which it really didn’t here. I’ve seen it get darker from afternoon thunderstorms. But was it was truly marvelous for those further north in the “path of totality.” Here, where we were the most interesting thing to me was being able to see the shape that the sun and moon were making in their delicate dance together. But of course, we all know, you couldn’t just look directly at the eclipsing sun, could you? No you needed…eclipse glasses! The event was too powerful to behold with the naked eye, so we needed lenses through which to filter the sight in order to see and understand what was really going on.
So, to make sense of this world-changing revelation of God’s love in the experience of Jesus, the early Christians had to put on their own eclipse glasses. Their own lenses through which to filter, to examine, to glimpse and understand what was really happening. And for them, those glasses were the stories of the Old Testament, in particular, the stories that we studied from the book of Genesis. They looked back through their memories of faith, remembering in order to make sense of this new things that God was doing in the person of Christ. They borrowed from their old language to speak new truths into their present time.
They remembered the olf, old stories of God creating the physical universe, all that exists, and how it was God’s Word, in particular, that spoke creation into being. Now, they said, that’s who Jesus was, God’s Word incarnate, living and breathing, dying and rising, within the very world that he created.
They remembered the story of God molding humanity, male and female, in God’s own image. And how through our sin and disobedience we stain and scar that image in our lives. Now, they said, Jesus was not only a human created in God’s image, but he was also God’s very self, the fullness of God dwelling with us, showing us who we were created to be in the first place. The “New Adam” they called him, the one who was without sin.
They remembered the story of Cain and Abel, how death first came into the human experience and the story of Noah and the Flood when tragedy and death spread to a global scale. Now, they said, in Christ’s resurrection death does not have the final word. Death’s sting has been broken. Now, they said, death did not have victory over Christ, and through is resurrection, death will not have the final word on us, nothing in life or in death can separate us from God’s love.
They remembered the story of Abraham and Sarah, of God’s covenant made to them and the promise that through them, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Now, they said, the fruit of that covenant had fully grown. The blessing of the whole earth for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, all made one in Christ. One blessed family together.
They remembered the broken family stories of Abraham’s descendants. How Hagar and Ishmael were cast aside and unwelcomed. How Isaac was going to be put to death as a child sacrificed, how Jacob cheated his family, how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Now, they said, through sacrifice of God’s own son for us, God was reconciling all the brokenness of the world, God was fixing and forgiving, welcoming and mending all things in Christ.
These stories of Genesis, the old old stories of Creation and Covenant gave the church the language to express the new truth that they were experiencing as a whole New Creation. That’s what they called it: New Creation. Think about how powerful those words are. New Creation. Everything that exists, our lives, our world, the vastness of whole cosmos and every single atom all of life as we know it is the old creation, and in Christ all of it, every single thing is now new. The power of his death and resurrection changes everything. Literally everything.
And we, we who are in Christ, we who are baptized into his body the church, we who have felt his love and seen his light,, we are all now part of his New Creation. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
And amidst all this grand and cosmic language, the truth of this new is really shown in our lives through acts of reconciliation. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ God was reconciling all things to him, and so, Paul says loud and clear, we have been charged with “the ministry of reconciliation.” We are called and commissioned, instructed and expected, to live lives that show forgiveness and peace, unity and love, truth and grace to all those in our midst.
This means that anything in our lives that is not reconciled, any one that we have not forgiven, any conflict where we are not working for peace, any group that we refuse to love and welcome, any practice we engage in that is harmful to those who are suffering, any half truth we cling to despite the pain it causes someone else, any fear that we foster which justifies division in our community…all of those places in our lives are stuck in the old creation. Trapped in the ways of death. Enslaved to the empires of greed and power. But, Paul reminds us, but you are not. You are a new creation in Jesus Christ, so let that old creation go. Let it die, so that it might be raised again in Easter light. Reconciled and redeemed.
At the close of our worship service today we will sing one of those new hymns that has made its way into our hymnal. A recent hymn written to an old old tune which wonderfully sets to music the truth of this good news:
“There is now a new creation through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Peace and reconciliation with the God of endless life.
Call the lost and found together, tell the news to everyone.
Now the past is gone forever, and a new life has begun!”[i]
[i] “There is Now a New Creation” by David Gambrell. Published in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, Hymn No. 774.