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Sermon: From Darkness to Light

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, From Darkness to Light, based on Colossians 1:11-20.

From Darkness Into Light

Colossians 1:(9-10), 11-20 NIV

(9 For 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, 10 so 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,)

11 …being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy 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, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 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.

Christ The King Sunday

We have come to the end of the lectionary cycle on this Sunday.  And, appropriately, this Sunday is called Christ the King Sunday; or, more recently it is referred to as The Reign of Christ Sunday.  Personally, I like “Christ the King” because it not only encompasses the reign of Christ, but leaves little doubt about the fact that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, so the cycle of readings all centered around the great themes in the life of Christ begins all over again.

But for us here in America, this is also Thanksgiving week, and so this is our last Sunday together before Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day celebration, complete with turkey and football, or whatever it is you do to mark that day.  There are times that the lectionary reading and our civil holidays, which Thanksgiving is, do not coincide.  But in this passage, we find a convergence of both things to be thankful for, and irrefutable evidence that Christ is indeed King.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the revised common lectionary is that it sometimes picks up in the middle of a thought, and this is one of those occasions.

I included verses 9-10 in my reading today, because it gives us a more complete understanding of what Paul is actually saying. But to get the entire idea, you have to back up and read verses 3-10.  Let me summarize for you:

Paul tells the Colossian church that he always prays for them since he heard of their faith and of the advancement of the gospel in their community.  That’s what Paul means when he says “for this reason” he hasn’t stopped praying for them.  And this passage tells us what and why he prays for them.

Paul Asks God for Four Gifts for the Colossians

Paul asks God for four things for his friends in Colossi:

1.  That they may  know God’s will.

2.  That they may live a life worthy of the Lord, bearing fruit and growing in knowledge.

3. That they would be strengthened with all God’s power so they can endure.

4. That either he or they (or both) would give joyful thanks to God for what God has done for them.

This is a good list, and when you pray for me, I would be very happy if you would pray that I would know God’s will, live a life worthy of Christ, be strong in God’s power, and give thanks for what God has done.

For the follower of Christ, as Paul and the Colossians were, that is a pretty complete list.  If we know God’s will, the presumption is we will do it.  That will lead then to a life worthy of Christ, a life of obedience and service to God and our fellow human beings.  In order to live that type of life, we need God’s strength, we can’t do this alone.  And particularly do we need God’s strength in the presence of persecution and opposition, which the Colossians were experiencing.  And, when we reflect on what God has done for us, we cannot avoid being thankful.  And, Paul is about to tell us why.

From the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light

Here’s why Paul says they can give thanks –

…giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy 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,

God has qualified them, made them capable, of sharing in the inheritance of God’s people in the kingdom of light.  And, if there is any question about what that kingdom of light is, Paul reiterates by saying, “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…”

Now even today, 2,000 years or so after Paul wrote these words, we understand very well the difference between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light.  Even our culture gets it.  The whole Star Wars epic was basically a story about the conflict between “the Darkside” and “the Force.”  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was based upon the same conflict — the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron and the hobbits, elves, and wizards who represented good.

And, of course, there’s Harry Potter, and the last installment of that series based on the 7 best-selling books by J. K. Rowling.  The last movie is actually two movies, part 1 and part 2, titled, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  With a title like that, you know this is not going to be a comedy.

Of course, the problem with the pop culture take on good versus evil, is that they are seen as equals struggling with one another for supremacy.  As followers of Christ, we know that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Light, is God’s intention from creation.  Ours is not a struggle of equal kingdoms, but a progressive expression of God’s great love for God’s creation, despite humankinds continued and continuing rebellions.

But, Paul says to the Colossians, God has delivered you from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light!  And, here’s where we want to spend most of our time today, Paul tells us what the differences in the two kingdoms are.  And, if you think it only has to do with going to heaven when you die, stay tuned.

The First Characteristic of Light:  Forgiveness

In order for us to know what the Kingdom of Light is like, and to be assured that we are indeed in it, versus the Kingdom of Darkness, Paul describes what has happened to the Colossians, and us, by describing three things that have already occurred. The first is forgiveness.

Paul says, that we have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” because of Christ.  Redemption means that our sins have been forgiven.  Now, in our southern evangelical heritage, we usually think of sins as things we shouldn’t do like lying, stealing, and all those other things that break the Ten Commandments.  But in Paul’s day, in the first century, the sins for which people needed forgiveness included those things, but all of those were gathered up under a bigger umbrella of unfaithfulness to God.  So, their sins, like ours, were not only sins of commission, but were sins that were part of the system by which they lived.

Let me give you an example:  The first century Jews, despite their heritage of resistance to foreign governments and invaders, had made an uneasy accommodation to the Roman empire.  The chief priests, and the leading religious groups — the Pharisees and the Sadducees — were nothing more than traitors to their own people.  The kings who ruled were puppets of Rome, and did Rome’s bidding as much as their own.  Even Temple practices had become corrupt and served the interests of the rich, the powerful, and the privileged.  The entire system by which they lived their lives was corrupt.

Paul says to the Colossians, God has delivered you from the Kingdom of Darkness.  This is God’s work, and as demonstration, God has plucked the Colossians out of systemic darkness and transferred them — this is a political statement equating to a change of allegiance and citizenship — transferred them to another kingdom, the kingdom that belongs to the Son whom he loves, the Kingdom of Light.  All because God forgave the sins of those who recognized, admitted, and confessed their sin.

They no longer wanted to live that way.  They no longer wanted to serve a corrupt system, a system that by now demanded emperor worship.  They no longer wanted to be part of a kingdom that rather than turning the other cheek, executed revenge on those who offended them.  They no longer wanted to be part of a kingdom that rather than care for the poor, ridiculed those who were at the margins of society.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes the process in South Africa at the end of apartheid in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness. Some in South Africa were calling for members of the white ruling party to be brought to justice.  Others were calling for African National Congress leaders like Nelson Mandela to be tried as terrorists.  But Desmond Tutu and others knew that if the country did not come to grips with its past in a constructive way, it could not move on to the future.

And so the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established.  The purpose of the commission was not to arrest and try.  Rather the purpose of the TRC was to make sure the stories of both victims and perpetrators were told.  People on both sides, whites and blacks, took their turns telling about either the crimes they had committed or the violence they had endured.  The stories are to horrific for me to tell this morning.  Stories of torture, of deceit, of terror sponsored by the state and inflicted by the ANC resistance.

Forgiveness was not the goal of the TRC, truth was.  But as victims and perpetrators told their stories, amazing things happened.  Hardened South African security forces would break down and cry as they testified, describing the inhuman treatment they accorded others.  Their victims would weep also, and on more than one occasion, victim and perpetrator would shake hands, hugs, embrace and weep together.  Forgiveness saved that nation from plunging into civil war.

The purpose of forgiveness in God’s economy is to restore relationships.  First, relationships between God and humankind, and then relationships among God’s creation.  Of course, that does not always happen, because God’s kingdom is not fully come, and all do not live and walk in the light.  But that is the first characteristic of the kingdom.

The Second Characteristic of Light:  Reconciliation

The second characteristic of the kingdom is the result of forgiveness — reconciliation.  Paul says, “19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven,…”

“God was pleased” — don’t you like that description of God’s work.  It sounds like creation when God saw that what he had made was good.  “God was pleased” to fill his Son with his own fullness, which we do not understand, but which we describe as Trinity.  But our point this morning is that Jesus, filled with all of God, was used by God to reconcile all things to himself in earth and heaven.  “All things” — not just some things, or most things, or a lot of things, but all things.

Now what does that mean?  Well, we don’t completely know, but whatever it means it’s big, it’s good, and it’s done.  The reconciliation — the restoration of right relationships — is an accomplished act of the Kingdom of Light.  Of course, lots of folks still don’t know it or act like it, but the course of history is set.  Christ has reset, rearranged, reorganized, and redefined the relationship of all things to God.

For those of us who follow Christ, we can see some of it.  We can see that our relationship to God is different.  We can see that we can help transform relationships between others to reflect what God is doing in his world.  Reconciliation is a characteristic of the kingdom of light.

The Third Characteristic of Light:  Peace

Finally, Paul concludes that Christ has made peace.  That peace was made through his blood on the cross Paul says, which sounds like a contradiction.  How could the violent, gruesome death of Jesus at the hands of his Roman executioners bring peace?  How could his death by the capital punishment method of the first century bring peace?  Isn’t the whole revolting idea of the cross and crucifixion to show us the violence and horror of the price of sin?

If we think of peace as the absence of conflict, or the absence of war or violence, then making peace through the cross doesn’t make any sense.

But, if we think of peace — the shalom of God that we have discussed before — as the primary characteristic of God’s reign over his creation, then Paul’s statement makes sense.  Here’s why:

First, the undeserved death of Jesus exposes the bankruptcy of hate and violence.  Jesus was not guilty, as the governor of Rome, Pontius Pilate, admitted.  The charges were trumped up, the crowd whipped into a frenzy, the fear of the mob played to, and all to get rid of one man whose message was the message of love.

Like the evil of hatred in the South was exposed when Alabama state troopers beat and savaged marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, like the evil of British colonial rule was exposed by Gandhi in India’s struggle for freedom, so the evil of Rome and her collaborators was exposed in the death of Jesus.

Evil threw everything at Jesus that day, demanding the ultimate price of Jesus’ humiliating death.  And, that evil was exposed as only having the power to take life, but not having the power over life.  And in the resurrection, the One who gave his life a ransom for many was vindicated by God the Father and raised from the sealed tomb.  Hatred and evil could only destroy, they could not give life, or stand in the face of love.

Secondly, the peace that Jesus brought by his death on the cross was not an absence of violence.  But rather the peace that Jesus brought was a permanent shift, a change in possibility.  For if death was defeated, if sin was laid low, if evil could not triumph, then everything had changed.

From the beginning of time almost, violence had prevailed.  Relationships were always out of kilter.  The weak were always victims of the strong.  But peace is the putting right of all things, peace — God’s shalom — means that things are as they should be.  Relationships are restored, the poor and marginalized are no longer victimized, the meek inherit the earth, the hungry are filled, the mourners are comforted, the peacemakers are called the children of God.

That is the kingdom to which the Colossians, and we, have been transferred.  We were once under the rule of darkness.  Now we live in the kingdom of light.  That kingdom belongs to a king named Jesus.  Christ the King! No wonder Paul gave thanks everytime he thought about the Colossians.  They lived in the same kingdom, served the same king, had been delivered from the same darkness, and now lived in the same light.

But we do not live in this kingdom of light in a kind of triumphalist arrogance.  While we know that the curve of history is in God’s favor, there is much work to be done.  The work of transference, of delivering people, from one kingdom to another is God’s work.  But we are the ones charged with telling others that there is not just one kingdom — darkness — but that there is another kingdom, with a different way to live, a different ethic, a resurrected hope, and a promise for the future.  That’s our job.  To live it, to tell it, to demonstrate it, to invite others to join us.  And to give thanks joyfully for what God has done.