Christ Before Bethlehem
Is faith for you an escape from something bad or an entrance into something good? Is religion just a way of avoiding life’s unpleasant moments, a sanctuary, a brief respite from the problems of this world, or does it empower and enable you to cope with those problems and even overcome the temptations and challenges that can bring you down? Do you turn to God because he is up there somewhere or because you believe he is right here right now? Your answers to these questions are important because they will shape and define the way you live your life and the way you express and practice your religion.
Our passage today is Paul’s response to those who would use faith only as an escape, as a way out of the muck. For him it is not “pie in the sky by and by”. It is flesh and blood and spirit engaging what he calls “the principalities and powers” that would separate us from Christ. He believes the way we think about God matters because he has seen what happens when good theology goes bad. Before we listen to his words, let us pray:
Lord, all of us look longingly at travel brochures with pictures of white sandy beaches and crystal blue water. Our lives are so filled we just want to get away and escape. Sometimes we look at you in the same way – as an escape, if only for a moment, from our worries and concerns. Though there are times when it is important to get away, there are times when we need to get involved. Help us, Lord, to see the difference. Amen.
There are very few of us for whom life unfolds as planned. We may start out with hopes and dreams, with goals and objectives; but somewhere along the way we hit a fork in the road or we may hit a roadblock that stops us altogether and then we have to make a decision. We call that plan “B” or “C”. Some of us are all the way up to plan “W or X or Y or Z.”
In our passage today we see clearly that Jesus was not Plan B. God did not send his son as some kind of back-up plan when people did not act as he hoped. Before Jesus was born in Bethlehem – Christ was. From this we learn that God is sovereign, that God is in control even when everything around us seems to be spinning out of control and in that we can find comfort and confidence to face a future that is held in the hands of God.
That’s what one Pastor was thinking when a woman greeted him following the worship service by saying, “I enjoyed your sermon.” The Pastor modestly replied, “Don’t thank me; thank the Lord.” To which she said, “Well, it wasn’t that good!”
Paul began his letter to the believers in Colossae, “we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints.” This was more than a polite introduction. He really believed that their faith was bearing fruit. They had a strong Pastor in Epaphras and a caring congregation. People volunteered to teach Sunday School and prepare the coffee. They showed up at the Lord’s Table. They gave to their mission program and maybe even their building fund. It was, like another congregation I can think of, a good church.
But, no church can afford to rest on its laurels. Tour any of the great cathedrals in Europe and you will see the testimony of great congregations in the past that created something grand and beautiful for God. Show up today for worship and row after row empty pews will tell you that something happened between then and now. Faith somehow faded. Many a cathedral congregation is weak and dying.
That was Paul’s concern for Colossae. Although they were a great church when he was writing, he could see dangers that if not challenged would lead to decay and weakness.
The danger he saw is described in the second chapter, the eighth verse. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
This phrase, “elemental spirits” tells us that he was talking about those who held what church historians call a Gnostic view of faith. This was their slogan. Now, Gnosticism was a hodgepodge religion that stitched together ideas and thoughts from almost everywhere. It had lots of variations, but one assumption prevailed throughout: spirit is good – flesh is bad. What you can’t see is holy. What you can is corrupt. Material and spiritual are different as day and night, light and dark. These are the “elemental spirits”.
From this some concluded that Jesus, if he was a man, could not be God, or if he was God, could not be a man. Since flesh and spirit are like water and oil, they can’t mix. Jesus could not be both human and divine. So, the Gnostics broke into two teams. One team said Jesus was just a man, a very good man, to be sure, a great teacher and a nice guy and all that, but because he was only human after all so he could no one but himself. That, they believed, is how it works for all of us. You have to work out your own salvation any way you can.
The other team said, “No, Jesus was God.” What Peter and Andrew and the rest saw was an apparition, not flesh and blood. He was a spirit that you could see but could not possibly have been tempted or suffer and surely he could not die.” Christ might be able to save you then, but he could never understand you, never know what it is like to be a human being.
These two teams argued with each other almost every Sunday morning over coffee and the bystanders in the congregation listened in so that they could make up their own minds.
That’s when Paul stepped in. He asked them, “Do you really want to know who Jesus was and is? If you do you have to look way beyond Bethlehem. In fact, you have to consider Christ before Christmas.” Jesus was not Plan B. Jesus was not cobbled together by God at the last minute because the world wasn’t turning out the way he thought it would. Christ was in the very nature and character and being of God from the beginning.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible – all things have been created through him, so in him all things hold together.”
Christ is the image of God. Image is translated from the Greek word “icon”. We use the same word today to speak of someone who is at the top of his or her field. In other words, Jesus is God you can see. If you want to see the face of God, Paul said, “look to Jesus”; if you want to understand the nature and character of God, look to Jesus; if you want to see the God up there down here, look to Jesus. He is how we know what God is like because he came to us up close and personal.
As most of you know, I lived for almost fifteen years in the Washington D.C. area and so drove by the Capitol Building many times, but it was only a few years ago I learned about the statue on top. I knew someone was up there but I didn’t know who and it is too high to really make out. But, my Director of Music at the time told me she saw it up close and the statue is that of a Native American woman called “Freedom”. I asked if she had seen a picture. She said, “No, they took it off the rotunda in 1993 by helicopter and set it down in the mall to clean it.” She went down to have a look.” She said, “I walked right up to it – it’s huge, over twenty feet tall. When you stand next to it, it is pretty impressive.”
That, Paul, believed is what happened in Bethlehem. God came down to earth so that we could see him. But, there is more to it than that. Remember, Christ goes way back before Bethlehem, “In him all things were created, so in him all things hold together.”
The Apostle John said as much on the first page of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made.”
From this, the Dutch Theologian Abraham Kyper concluded, “There is not one inch of the world that Christ does not claim.” That does not mean that the world follows Christ, because clearly it doesn’t. But, it does mean that the presence of the Savior can be found in all things and not just in the beautiful and kind, not just in the eyes of a newborn or in a crimson sunset. Christ permeates the whole of creation, and can be found among the poor and downtrodden, the weak and weary, the homely and helpless.
Mother Theresa spent much of her life ministering to dying paupers in Calcutta said, “Christ is hidden under the suffering appearance of anyone who is hungry, naked, homeless, or dying.”
So, if you believe God can be found in places you’d rather not go, the poor neighborhood, the hospice, or prison cell, chances are better you will try to minister in and to places like that because you believe that you may find God there as well.
A few days ago we all sat down at a table bearing a huge bird and more food than we should eat in a week. We may have visited relatives and friends and maybe watched football game or two and we call that Thanksgiving.
Those who began this custom had a more profound view of what should happen when we offer our thanks to God. These Pilgrims were good Calvinists, the same stock that gave birth to the Presbyterian Church and that means they believed no moment of our existence escapes the reach of God’s providential care. They believed in Christ the image of the invisible God, in whom and through whom all things were created and all things hold together.
So, their gratitude went well beyond our fleeting celebration of this historical feast. The Puritans believed true gratitude requires that we do more than say we’re thankful or stutter through an unaccustomed prayer before the meal. They believed gratitude obliges us to live thankful lives.
One amongst them, a deacon in their congregation named Robert Cushman wrote, “If God then had delighted through Christ in doing good and relieving frail and miserable man, so far inferior to himself, what delight ought man to have to relieve and comfort man, which is equal to himself?” It ought to make us happy to give for in that way we more reflect Christ who lives in us.
That is the practical implication of this theology. Another Pilgrim preacher of the day, John Winthrop said in a famous sermon, “City on the Hill”, which his hope for America said,
“For this end we must be knit together. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to give up our surpluses to supply others’ necessities…We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together… So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.“
In that way Christ holds all things together, so those who follow Christ should not be looking for a way to escape from the problems of this world, but instead we should be looking for ways to encounter the challenges and by the Holy Spirit overcome them. Those who follow Jesus should not sow seeds of division but work toward reconciliation. As someone once said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
The solution God gives is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
It always comes back to the cross because reconciliation is not easy and forgiveness is not cheap. There is a cost. Grace requires sacrifice because it must give up any notion of payback or revenge. It releases the grievances and grudges of the past. It means you forgo any snide comments about the twenty bucks Uncle Bob still owes you when the family gathers this Thursday. That’s hard to do because he does owe you twenty bucks and it’s not right that he get away with that.
The cross reminds us that we owe God much more than others might owe us. Our very lives come by his creative power. Each breath we take and each blessing we enjoy come from the Lord, yet we see so often see them as routine and take them for granted. So, we use, abuse, and misuse God’s creation and that cuts us off from God who made it all.
The Bible says, “Now God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation, if you continue in your faith and not move from the hope held out in the Gospel.” 
The hope held out in the Gospel is not about escape. It is an entrance into a life that fulfills God’s plan and purpose and so it fulfills ours. That’s why you’ll get a warm feeling when you give to those in need and live to God’s glory. You were created by Christ for that reason. Continue in your faith and lift high the cross.
Let us pray:
Lord, we have gathered in this place we call sanctuary because we needed an hour to catch our breath and get away from cell phones and pages, from worries and concerns. You’ve set apart this Sabbath time for that purpose, but we cannot forever remain here. You call us into our world as well to make a difference. Help us to “bear fruit in every good work, growing in your knowledge, being strengthened with all power according to your glorious might so that we may have endurance and patience, and joyfully give thanks.” May we always lift high the cross. Amen
 Romans 8:38
 Colossians 1:3
 Colossians 1:15-17
 John 1:1-3
 Cushman, Robert, “The Sin and Dangers of Self-Love” American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther Kings, Library of America, 1999, 1-27.
 Winthrop, John: “City on the Hill”
 Colossians 1:19-20
 Colossians 1:22-23
 Colossians 1:10-11