Monday, August 13, 2007

Lift Up Your Heads

Lift Up Your Heads
Colossians 3:1-11
August 12, 2007
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Paul exhorts his listeners to lift up their heads and keep their eyes on Christ, and to completely reject the ways of the world along with its idolatrous and destructive distractions.

Sermon Function: To exhort listeners to put their own earthy distractions to death, and to keep their eyes on the prize – shared glory with Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

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It is good to be back here with you in Portland! Sara and I missed you very much.

I’m happy to tell you that my 20-year high school reunion was tremendously entertaining and fulfilling. Sara and I were fortune to be able to visit with some friends I had not seen for quite some time back in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. I can report to you that many of my former classmates looked the same, some people looked substantially different. Some had suffered extreme physical, emotional, or financial hardships. Others had experienced tremendous worldly success. What struck me most about the visit was how absolutely nice everyone was. There were moments when I deliberately decided to walk through the crowds to see what might happen. What I found out was this: People who I had not considered to be close friends or even casual acquaintances would stop me to see how I had been all these years later. It was a gratifying and happy time for all.

You will also be interested to know that I won an award during the reunion entertainment program. I won the award for the “most radical change in vocation.” Imagine that!

The only regret I experienced as a result of attending the reunion was this – that I wasn’t able to speak with the many classmates who were unable to attend. I also regretted not seeing many friends who decided that they would not attend.

One good high school friend who decided not to attend lives in Colorado but was, in fact, in Salt Lake City at the time of the reunion. I will call him George. George was a good friend, very funny and very intelligent, but not a particularly good student. I found out, only last weekend, that he did not actually graduate with us. He later earned a graduate equivalency degree, or GED.

I do not know exactly why he decided to stay away, but I can speculate about the reasons, because I knew George very well, and know of some of the circumstances of his life that likely kept him away. The basic reason he didn’t attend was this: He is preoccupied with some heavy things in the past that have scarred him. This isn’t an uncommon thing, is it? In fact, I continue to be amazed at the degree to which the deeds of our pasts adversely impact our ability to mature in our faith lives and in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Holy Scripture is amazing. The Word of God speaks to us each day and the word is fresh. Today’s Word deals directly with some of the issues I’ve just mentioned. Paul’s words today speak about leaving the old life behind and clinging to Christ.

Let’s listen to God’s Word as it comes to us today.

[Read Scripture - Colossians 3:1-11]

Opening Discussion – Paul’s Exhortations

Friends, it is in this part of Paul’s letter that we get a bunch of Greek verbs in the imperative case. Imperatives mark verbs that implore or exhort the listener to do something. In our text today, almost every paragraph has one or more imperative forms of verbs, verbs like: “Seek,” “set your minds” or “think;” “put to death;” “get rid of;” and “do not lie.” Paul is here exhorting his readers to exemplify a certain kind of moral behavior and character befitting new life in Christ. This is a fairly standard method for Paul to communicate the gospel message. He begins his letters with terrific expositions on faith and grace before moving to his exhortations to live exemplary lives in the faith. Paul believes, as many of us believe, that living resurrection lives means that nothing from the old life remains.

Illustration – George, The Associate Principle, and the Reunion

But for many of us, leaving the old life behind is very difficult. I mentioned to you my friend, George, who didn’t make the class reunion. One of the reasons people don’t make their reunions is they are, frankly, embarrassed or angry about something that happened high school, or upset by misfortune in life, or are dissatisfied with their lot in life and unwilling to be seen in comparison with that other classmate who made it big.

George is a smart guy, and very talented.1 An adopted child, George was raised in a happy middle-class home. His parents were successful and loving. In high school, however, George was happier with hanging out and playing the saxophone than with studying for the next math exam. He was happier entertaining students by playing the piano at assemblies rather than applying himself to a tricky chemistry equation.

As graduation day approached, George realized that he actually wanted to graduate! He wanted to make things right. He made an appointment to speak with one of the associate principles at our high school. During the meeting, George told the associate principle that he wanted to graduate, and that he wanted some help figuring out how he could make this happen. The administrator looked at George. Here’s what he said:

“George, I think you’re a loser, and that you’re always going to be a loser. Maybe you should just drop out.”

That was the end of the discussion. George went home and told his father about the exchange. His father, understandably upset, made his own appointment with the associate principle. The two met, and the father told the associate principal that he felt his words had crossed the line. In response, the associate principle told the father this:

“I still think your son is a loser. Not only that, but I think you’re a loser too.”

George didn’t graduate with the class, but to his credit he secured a GED not to long thereafter.

I think you might agree that the associate principle’s approach was unproductive. He took what little hope my friend had and dashed it on the rocks of academic malarkey. What’s worse is that this “loser” thinking can plague even the most stalwart person. Words like these, coming from figures of authority, can completely waylay the young person who is struggling with their own identity. For the persons without faith in Jesus Christ, words like these can become a sort of pre-death, leaving someone rudderless and without passion for life. Words have meaning, and words can hurt. We should never forget that. The words of the principle tell us something about his character.

We Are a Hidden Treasure

Our actions and words also have implications because they tell others about what we really genuinely believe. In fact, they reveal much about our theology, what we believe about God.

Paul understands this keenly. And it is because of situations like the one George experienced that we should pay particular attention to these words. The stakes are big for Paul, and they ought to be for us.

Paul writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4 NRSV).

If we genuinely believe that we have been raised with Christ, and are earnest about our desire to follow him, then our lives will be hidden with Christ in God. We will do what we do, remaining hidden away [in obscurity from the world, and we will be content with this state]. The word translated here as “hidden” carries several other meanings as well, including being hidden like a treasure, something very valuable to the one doing the hiding. You have things of value, too, things like wedding rings, important legal papers, and the like. They are treated with particular concern, and are covered over and protected. We have been given an inestimable gift in Christ, and if we live in him and allow him to live in us, we will remain in his guardianship, protected until we share in Christ’s glory when he is fully revealed.

If We Are Like a Treasure, Remain Uncorrupted

If we have been transformed in Christ, and remain hidden with him like a treasure, then should we not take care that this treasure, this gift from God, to be cared for and maintained?

Paul writes that we should “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Col 3:5 NRSV). The Greek word for “put to death” is Νεκρώσατε (nekro-sate) is one of those imperative verbs I talked about a bit earlier. It is a heavily stylized word that really means what our translators have in the text. Paul isn’t saying “please refrain from these things, thank you.” No. He says “put them to death.”

I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this same passage:

“[This] means killing off everything connected with that way of death: sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. That's a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God” (Col 3:5-8 MSG). Doing these things subjects us to judgment. “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient” (Col 3:6 NRSV). We should take Paul’s warning seriously, and reflect how we turn against God with our ill informed, frequently selfish desires. These are marks of living the old life, before acknowledging the death, resurrection, and eternal lordship of Jesus Christ. For some, this list might looks different. Maybe someone’s way of death is marked by alcoholism or some other kind of addiction. Perhaps some other form of social violence continues to pull at you, drawing you away from God and into the bowels of the earth. Perhaps it is one of the other things Paul mentions: Uncontrollable anger, or wrath, or malice, slander, or abusive language. Maybe it’s a mixture of all of these things together, mixed together into a morose cocktail of deceit that tells the rebellious teenager, for example, that they are a loser, and always will be a loser.

This text says to us today that if we truly are disciples of Christ, then our lives had better reflect that reality. If we are truly filled with Christ, and if we truly live in him, then there really should be any space in the room left over for the things of the world. This is not easy, which is why we have the gift of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit. This narrow road of discipleship might mean that we have to physically detach ourselves from unhealthy things. Jesus himself uses very specific language about detaching ourselves from the things that separate us from God. Jesus said, according to Matthew 5:29-30, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt 5:29-30 NRSV).

Lift Up Your Heads

But how? How do we do this? For many, it seems the road is awfully hard, difficult, filled with pothole of disease and illness and death. The way ahead can be confusing and discouraging. Many, like my friend George, suffer for years, even decades, having been harmed by circumstances of life which have made it all the more difficult to detach ourselves from the sinful ways that, for all that they do to separate us from God, nonetheless maintain their attractiveness because they are at least familiar to us.

Well, the first thing we ought to do is pray. And we should pray whenever and wherever we can, that we might be delivered from the earthy, deathly way that separate us from Jesus Christ. And we should pray whenever and wherever we can, that others – friends, loved ones, AND enemies – might be delivered from the earthly, deathly things that keep them from knowing Christ.

Next, acknowledging that we’re frail and prone to sin, we need to seek out others to help us along the journey. If addiction is the problem, acknowledge the problem, understand that you can’t fix the problem by yourself, and get help. If anger is the problem, acknowledge the problem, and put it to death by making amends with whatever or whomever you are angry.

If depression and loneliness are problems, don’t keep it bottled up, but share this with a trusted friend, so that you might know that you are not alone, and that you have advocates motivated by the love of the Holy Spirit to help you.

The church, at its best, should be the vehicle that can provide the help. And friends, I view it as one of the key, essential ingredients of proper church living to live into that vision that enables us to be the vehicle of action for others. If people need help overcoming sin and death, then we should do whatever we can to help those people, regardless of their personal circumstances. Paul concludes this section of the letter in very similar fashion to what were heard when we talked about his letter to the Galatians -- “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col 3:11 NRSV). That means that we must learn how we be a body of forgiveness and healing, so that we can be beacons of the light of Christ in a world filled with darkness.


It is the usual practice among many of us, including myself, to bow our heads during prayer. But if we are earnestly seeking Christ, it is beneficial to look where we are going. Friends, I exhort you, lift up your heads! Look to the one who died and who rose for your sake. And when you pray, ask to get to know Him better. And ask that your neighbor might be healed. And while you’re at it, I ask you a special favor. Pray for that assistant principle in our story, the one who hurt George so badly. And pray for George, that he, too, might lift up his head and live fully into the resurrection life given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1The circumstances recounted here are from a story I heard at my 20-year high school reunion.