The Last Sermon of the Year (11/21/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The title of today’s sermon may have taken you by surprise. It’s called The Last Sermon of the Year. And you’re thinking, “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet!” But this is the final Sunday of the church year. Now, we Congregationalists are not very liturgical. With the exception of Christmas and Easter, we don’t follow the church year very closely. But most denominations recommend the text we heard read from the lectern this morning as the scripture to be studied on this day—on the last day of the church year. So even though we are relatively non-liturgical Congregationalists, I want to lay the groundwork for our examination of that text by taking a quick look at the church year.
The church year is divided into six seasons. The first season, which begins next Sunday, is called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation—a time to prepare our hearts for Christmas. Advent always occurs over the four Sundays before Christmas. The second season is Christmas—the shortest season, which goes from Christmas Day until January 6th.
On January 6th the third season begins, which is called Epiphany. The word “epiphany” has come to mean an experience of God—a sudden and unexpected intrusion of God into our lives. You’ll remember the Apostle Paul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus where he planned to round up some Christians for persecution. He gets knocked to the ground, and Jesus—who had been crucified several years earlier—appears and asks Paul why he is doing this. Paul gets the message. That was sort of the grand-daddy of all epiphanies, and even today powerful experiences of God are sometimes called “Damascus Road” experiences.
Today, beyond the world of religion, we also use the word “epiphany” to mean a sudden eye-opening experience. For example, somebody might say, “I knew my girlfriend was acting a little cold toward me lately, but I had a real epiphany when I saw my photo pinned to her dartboard.” The Bible texts associated with the season of Epiphany include the visit of the wise men to see the newly born Jesus, and the baptism of Jesus—moments in scripture when people had eye-opening experiences regarding Jesus.
After the season of Epiphany comes Lent. Lent is the most serious time of the Christian year. It begins on Ash Wednesday, and covers the six Sundays leading up to Easter. Some of the most beautiful music ever written was composed for the season of Lent. It has a dark feel to it, with lots of minor keys and complex harmonies. This is the time Christians remember the final weeks of Jesus’ life. Lent culminates with Holy Week, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
Then comes the Season of Easter, in which God’s victory over death is celebrated in the church. The Easter season begins on Easter Sunday and runs through the following seven Sundays. And then the final church season arrives, and it is by far the longest season, covering a full six months. This season is called Pentecost, and begins on Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples after the death of Jesus. And the whole point is that we live our lives—our normal, everyday lives—in the presence of God. The Holy Spirit of God guides our everyday lives. Interestingly, the other name for the six-month season of Pentecost is “Ordinary Time.”
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So those are the six church seasons of the church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. So next Sunday a new church year begins as we anticipate the arrival of Jesus into the world. We start looking forward to the baby in the manger.
The church year begins with great humility, anticipating that helpless infant, born in the most humble of circumstances, to a teenage girl living in poverty. And it makes sense to start the church year that way. It makes sense to begin the church year by looking forward to the birth of Jesus. But let’s consider today—the Sunday that marks the end of the church year. That is pretty important too. In fact, what could be more important?
Endings matter at least as much as beginnings. I remember reading a book when I was a teenager—it was a horror story by H. P. Lovecraft. I had stayed up half the night reading it, and I hurried off to school in the morning, leaving only the final chapter unread. When I got home from school, my dog—a normally innocent little dachshund—had chewed up the book and rendered the final pages unreadable. I never had a dog eat my homework, but in this case I really did have a dog eat part of my book. And this was an old, out of print paperback. I never did find out how the story ended, and it made me realize that endings are important. Movies, plays, books, sporting events, you name it. If you don’t have the ending, you’ve got nothing at all.
So according to the church year, how does our story end? What scripture has our historic church placed as the culmination of the story, the big bang ending, the grand finale? Well, the church year may begin with great humility, but it ends with great triumph. Listen again, as I expand on the passage from Colossians you heard read from the lectern:
Christ 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, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
This passage deals with the resurrected Christ in his full glory and power. That’s why this text is used on the final Sunday of the church year. Whatever you think happened regarding the body of Jesus after his death on the cross, one thing is certain. He was resurrected.
I personally do not envision the physical body of that first century man now sitting at the right hand of an embodied God. But the resurrection is a reality. It’s not something we can prove, but consider this: Jesus of Nazareth was born in a tiny backwater nation, in the poorest part of the world, to a poverty-ridden family, and he died the death of the lowliest criminal. Two-thousand years later, on the opposite side of the globe, in the richest country in the world, there is church which bears the name of the religion founded in his honor on practically every corner. That doesn’t prove a thing, but it does indicate that he lived on past the days of his earthly existence in some way, even if one denies any sort of spirituality to that existence.
Today’s passage from Colossians elevates the spiritual reality of the Risen Christ to its highest biblical heights. We are dealing with what theologians call the Cosmic Christ. I think you’ll agree this figure far transcends the earthly body of Jesus of Nazareth that so many insist must at this moment be physically sitting somewhere in the universe.
As we reflect on this passage, it is good to remember that many modern Bible scholars and theologians say we should draw some sort of distinction between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ. My favorite New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, calls this the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. Theologian Sallie McFague says we should always pause and draw a breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ.” These people aren’t lowering the status of Jesus. They are simply reminding us that the reality Jesus embodied—the Christ—must be thought of in terms that are not bound by the physical world the way Jesus’ body was bound by the physical world.
That passage from Colossians has what theologians call a “high Christology.” Christology is the way we think about Jesus. I’m aware that the theology of the members of this church is all over the board, and I like it that way. It helps keep all of our minds open. From those who think that Jesus was the perfect embodiment of the eternal Christ—high Christology—to those who think Jesus was the most normal of human beings and the very greatest of teachers—low Christology—nobody in this place, myself included, inflicts his or her theology on others.
But since this passage has the highest Christology you’ll find in the entire Bible, we must draw in that deep breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ” when we search this passage for meaning. Believe what you will about the relationship between God and the historical human being named Jesus of Nazareth: this passage is talking about something much bigger and much more profound than the physical body that carried Jesus through life. The Christ that this passage is talking about is not a resuscitated Jesus. The author of Colossians is not talking about, whatever it was—the 5’-8” 150 pound body of Jesus of Nazareth.
Listen! Christ is the image of the invisible God… in him all things in heaven and on earth were created… in him all things hold together.
Getting our minds around this little passage can be of great assistance in building a mature and honest theology. We need to draw that breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ.” Colossians says that Jesus was a human being who embodied something much bigger than himself. He embodied God. But even for those with a high Christology, that doesn’t mean he was the exact same thing as God. It is not good theology to think the heavens were empty of God when Jesus walked the earth.
In John’s gospel Jesus tells the Samaritan women by the well that “God is spirit.” According to the powerful spiritual statement in today’s passage from Colossians, Jesus became a sort of reflection of that spirit, or as the passage says, “the image of the invisible God.”
This is an appropriate passage for the final Sunday of the church year. Next week, as Advent begins, we’ll start thinking about the coming of the baby Jesus into the world. And through Christmas, our thoughts will be on a very human Jesus, born to a very human Mary, in the most humble of circumstances. But today, we are asked to remember that the little baby who would be born in Bethlehem, who would grow into a man who presented a moral vision unparalleled in human history, and who would suffer the most horrible of deaths, is in some mysterious way one with the very power that calls us into being, uniquely revealing of the very spiritual reality in whom, according to Paul’s words, we live, and move, and have our being.
For some it is important to distinguish between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was a man, and Christ is the Eternal Spirit of God. Some insist on drawing no such distinction, and that is fine. What is most important to me, in my personal faith, is to recognize that Jesus of Nazareth embodied the Eternal Spirit of God. Jesus is a name; Christ is a title.
But what does that title represent? What does it mean to say Jesus is the Christ? Again, I will reveal my personal theology regarding this matter, acknowledging that the countless books written on this subject reveal almost endless views on the subject, and I would never say my personal theology should become normative for any of you.
My belief is that before God called creation into being; before a single creature of any sort was created with the ability to move away from the perfection of God; God’s redemptive, healing love was already there. As the power of God caused the universe of matter and time and spirit and life to explode across the void of nothingness, everything that happened; everything that existed or ever would exist; every atom, every creature, every spirit; all of it was created through and forever surrounded by God’s love. No thing, no person, nothing that would ever exist could stray beyond the reach of God’s power, of God’s forgiveness, of God’s redemptive, healing love.
And I have a name for that love. The Christ. And I’m not making this up just because I like the way it sounds. The Gospel of John calls Christ the word—the logos—and says the word is one with God, and all things are created through the word. And hear again the words from Colossians: Christ is the image of the invisible God… in him all things in heaven and on earth were created… in him all things hold together.
For those with a mystical bent, we love reading about, and praying in the presence of, the Cosmic Christ. But none of us can really get our minds around that idea. It is a truth we can feel in our hearts, but it is not an idea we can reach through a reasoned argument. If only we had some way to make this Cosmic Christ more concrete. If only we could ask it questions, and learn from it, and be guided by its wisdom.
And that is why we turn to Jesus. Jesus Christ—the embodiment of that redemptive and healing love that holds the universe together. I don’t think we are meant to take the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ and hammer it into complicated doctrines to which we must fanatically adhere. But I do think we can get a glimpse of God when we look at the cross. And I think we can be extremely thankful for the words that come from that cross, words that are as relevant for us as they were for the people to whom they were directed two thousand years ago.
To those who hammered the nails into his hands, we hear the words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And to the thief who, like ourselves, looks to Jesus with a repentant heart and asks only to be remembered, we hear the words, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
For many of us, those final words from the cross are the words that ultimately help us understand who that was on the cross. That was more than a great teacher of wisdom. That was the Christ. And those words, those words… once we realize who it was that spoke those words, they define not only who he was… they define the very nature of all creation—a universe of love and healing and forgiveness—and the church year ends with the circle complete, echoing the first words the Bible attributes to God as the process of creation unfolds through God’s love:
It is good. It is good.