Focusing on the Transcendent

[nextpage title=”Enslaved to the Immediate”]

Colossians 1:15-20

(15) He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, (16) because in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or lordships or powers or authorities. All things were created through him and for him. (17) And he is before all things, and all things cohere in him. (18) And he is the head of the body, the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he might be the first. (19) For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, (20) and through him to reconcile all things to himself, making peace through the blood of his cross – through him – whether things on earth or in the heavens.

Introduction

Two weeks ago we looked at the first twelve verses of Colossians with this question in mind: what does it look like for a good church to become a great church? The Colossians are praised by Paul for their love and faith and for bearing fruit. In other words, they were doing well. In view of this, Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is that they would be full with the knowledge of the will of God, and this fullness would lead them to walk worthily of the Lord and with every effort to please God. In short, Paul says that his prayer for a good church is that they would be so single-mindedly obsessed with knowing and pleasing God that there would be room for nothing else. How healthy a church is is directly connected to how focused they are on knowing and pleasing God. Richard Foster, a well known Christian author from the Quaker tradition, says it like this: “The more clearly we understand the nature of God, the more clearly we understand how we are to live” (Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), p. 17.).

If a church is to take this step into becoming full with the knowledge of God’s will, they will need to know what it means to be obsessed with knowing God’s will, or as Foster puts it, understanding the nature of God. Fortunately, Paul tells us what it means in the following verses in Colossians: to know God and his will is to know Jesus, and vice-versa. We have access to the knowledge of the nature of God in Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:9, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me […]? The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” So today, we are looking at the next several verses of Colossians with this follow-up question in mind: what does it mean to be full of the knowledge of Jesus? Secondly, what happens to us when we turn our eyes upon Jesus and determine to know only him and his Kingdom?

Enslaved to the Immediate

We are dealing with questions of priority, today. What is worth your attention? What do you need to spend your time and energy on? It would be really easy today to talk about current events, about this being the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, or perhaps more obviously, about the upcoming Presidential election. But I think that God thinks that we’ve already spent enough energy on the election. I feel that what God wants from us today is for us to lift our eyes above current events, above that which is immediate, to that which is transcendent and eternal, to set our eyes squarely on the Lord Jesus.

Make no mistake, the enemy would like to keep us enslaved to the immediate, to keep our attention on things that pass away. The spirit of this world is wrapped up in itself, telling everyone as loudly as it can that it is what really matters. Once the vital things of the world are dealt with, the spirit of this age tells us, then we can have the luxury of thinking about that which is less immediate and so less relevant, like God and the Church. We need to ally ourselves with unsavory elements to get things done in the short term so that we can have the luxury of our principles in the long term, because those principles are all well and good, but they aren’t of much practical use. This is the lie the spirit of this world tells us on a daily basis, to take our attention off of Jesus and to upset our priorities.

The spirit of the world is screaming, demanding our attention in all sorts of different ways. Most obviously, perhaps, it uses mass media. Newspapers, talk radio, twenty-four hour television news channels, news websites, Twitter, Facebook – all of it screams at us every day demanding our attention, our time, our emotional energy, and ultimately our devotion. When we let mass media have its way, we cannot possibly be full with the comprehension of the will of God, because we are too full with the burden of the spirit of the world.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”Mass media” ]

Mass media is not the only way the spirit of the world demands our attention and tries to keep us enslaved to the immediate. It also uses our own human creaturely nature, our appetites, to keep us focused on the mundane. C. S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters, which pretends to be a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, and the purpose of the book is, in a light-hearted manner, to talk about our enemy’s strategy. Early on in the book, Screwtape writes to Wormwood about how he kept one of his “patients”, which would be you and me, from “the enemy”, which would be God, using the immediate, including his patient’s physical appetite.

I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.

The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle it the end of a morning”, the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind”, he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic”. He is now safe in Our Father’s house.

You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Collins, 2012), 2-4)

Lewis has here given us profound and very biblical insight into the strategy of our enemy. Keep us distracted with the “immediate”, including our hunger, under the pretense that that is what is really “real” and therefore important.

Most insidiously, the world uses culture and so-called common sense wisdom to keep our eyes focused on the world and not on Jesus. I hope it is no surprise to anyone reading this that the saying “God helps those who help themselves” is found nowhere in the Bible. Not only that, but it actually runs counter to real biblical teaching. The Bible says, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). God didn’t wait for us to help ourselves. In Exodus, he didn’t wait until the Israelites were starting an armed revolution in Egypt to bring them out. He came to their aid when they were at their lowest point, completely powerless and in the power of one of the mightiest nations on the earth at that point. Sayings like “God helps those who help themselves” have a kind of ring of truth because of a basic aesthetic balance or symmetry – the saying is well crafted as a proverb. But that doesn’t make it true. And the effect of this popular saying when we accept it uncritically is to keep our eyes pointed downward, to tell us that we need to focus on getting things done and not expect help from God until we do.

Another popular saying that people often accept as true because of its aesthetic symmetry is “He is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.” But I have yet to find an instance where someone is so focused on Jesus that they actually become less useful. Single-minded devotion to Jesus is not spaciness. On the contrary, it instills energy and direction, intentionality. It isn’t selfishness. Devotion to Jesus produces a heightened awareness of others, because our number one command from Jesus is to love one another. Nor will single-minded devotion to Jesus produce laziness. The Spirit of Christ that fills and energizes Jesus’ followers also produces diligence and honesty, two characteristics that work directly against laziness. As we learn in the book of Proverbs, laziness is connected to wickedness, not righteousness or heavenly-mindedness. The saying, “He is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good” is actually another lie of the enemy that he uses to instill in us the potential for shame at the idea of being too enthusiastic for Jesus. It is better, the enemy tells us, to be grounded in real life and to realize that the Bible is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to take care of business or use common sense, in other words, sometimes the Bible doesn’t apply. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t apply. Too much focus on Jesus, the enemy tells us, takes us away from “reality”.

But here’s the real reality: when we lift our eyes, we gain perspective. We don’t lose perspective. We don’t lose sight of the immediate, but the immediate is set against a much larger backdrop. More often than not, what we see is that the perceived urgency of the immediate that keeps us so focused on it really isn’t all that urgent. On the contrary, it is when we keep our eyes down and focused on the immediate that we lose the perspective of eternity. When are eyes are down and not on Jesus, we are more likely to make self-centered decisions or unwise decisions, and we are more likely to waste time on things that are ultimately of no lasting important. It is when we keep our eyes down that we find ourselves getting upset and panicking, thinking that we must do something quickly or everything is going to fall apart. The world wants you to be anxious and fearful with thoughts such as “we are in an time of unprecedented trouble, and we must act quickly and correctly if we are to avoid disaster.” I would be willing to bet that every generation in human history has thought the same thing, but it’s a lie. King Jesus is in control. If you believe that you’ll keep your eyes on him, but keeping your eyes directed downward to the immediate is a sign that you don’t actually believe that Jesus is in control.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”The Transcendent Jesus” ]

Focusing on the Transcendent: The Lord Jesus

If we really want to be the kind of Church that God can use to reach the lost and hurting in our community, we must be single-mindedly focused on knowing and pleasing God through Jesus. We must be aware that the enemy is doing everything he can to keep our eyes off of Jesus and on what he wants us to think of as “the important things.”

Why is this such an important battleground? Why is it that focusing our attention on Jesus, which seems terribly impractical and ethereal, is actually the way we come to see reality for what it really is, whereas focusing on the immediate functionally puts blinders on us and reduces our perspective? The answer is tied up in who Jesus is, which is why Paul continues Colossians the way that he does.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all of creation, because in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or lordships or powers or authorities. All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and all things cohere in him.

Jesus, Paul says, is the whole foundation for all existence. It is in him, through him, and for him that all things were made, visible and invisible.

Paul makes a point explicitly to mention governments and authority structures, because they are some of the worst enemies to our staying focused on Jesus. Governments and authority structures claim to have power and promise power to those who play by their rules. But Jesus didn’t play by those rules. In John 19:10-11, Pilate says, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you know I have the authority to release you, and to crucify you?” What was Jesus’ reply? He said, “You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above.” Jesus knew where all power and authority ultimately came from – his Father in heaven. And because of this, he knew that nothing could happen to him that was outside of his Father’s will. It is interesting in the exchanges between Pilate and Jesus in John, it is Pilate, the representative of worldly power, who sounds panicked and angry and confused. He is encountering one who truly stands outside of his considerable worldly authority, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

So don’t believe those people who tell you that it is only if you do this or that, if you vote this or that way, that you can make your own personal security certain. What they are saying to you is essentially what Pilate said to Jesus, “Don’t you know that I have the power either to release you or crucify you?” It is only manipulators, bullies, and tyrants who use fear to motivate people, and their goal in using fear is to keep you easily manipulated. Fear, in other words, puts blinders on you, it keeps your eyes pointed down at the immediate rather than up at the transcendent Jesus. But don’t believe all the hot air. The U.S. government has no authority unless it is given to the U.S. government by God. Or as Paul says in Colossians, that government, just like everything else, was created in or by Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus. It exists only so long as it pleases the Lord Jesus and only so long as it has a function in his larger plan. Your security doesn’t depend on the U.S. government or on any particular candidate. It depends on Jesus, who is eternal and the whole underlying logic for all existence.

Paul’s description of Jesus in Colossians finds its closest corollary not in other Pauline writings but in the Gospel of John. How does John begin?

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. This one was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The logos of the Gospel of John is his appropriation of an old Greek philosophical term describing the fundamental logic of the universe. The logos was the object of the philosopher’s search for wisdom. In Colossians and in the Gospel of John, Jesus is said to be that fundamental logic, the reason for existence, the concept around which all existence was designed. Jesus was not plan B. He is no accident. Nor is he just another important figure in human history. He is utterly unique, the center of all human history, the center of cosmic history. All things point to him, and all things cohere, stand together, or make sense in him. Jesus is built into the very fabric of reality. When God created the world, he did it with Jesus in mind. This is why Revelation 13:8 calls him “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Forgiveness of sins was never found in anything other than Jesus’ blood, because the cultus of the Mosaic system was merely an echo back through time of Jesus’ death at Calvary. What does all this mean? Simply this: that to lift our eyes and to look upon Jesus is to gain perspective on reality, because in Jesus we see the truest reality behind the mundane.

For us to focus our attention so willfully on Jesus isn’t unnatural. On the contrary, it is built into our very DNA as the Church, because if he is the center of the entire universe, how much more should he be the center of the existence for those of us who claim him as Savior and Lord?

And he is the head of the body, the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he might the first.

Again, the world wants you to be ashamed of being too devoted to Jesus. It’s okay for you to believe this stuff in private, but try to keep it down in public. You don’t want to be one of those Bible-thumpers. You don’t want to be an extremist. Being an extremist is hateful. Extremists blow things up. Keep your devotion to Jesus in moderation, because you really need to be paying attention to more important things, like elections and like our human efforts to bring peace to the world. That’s what the world wants you to feel. And in most things I am, actually for moderation. But there is one thing for which moderation is completely inappropriate, and that is in the fervency of my devotion to Jesus and my determination to keep my eyes fixed on him, to be full with the knowledge of the will of God.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”Not wasting our time” ]

When we focus our attention on the transcendent Jesus and thereby gain the perspective of eternity, we can be certain that we aren’t wasting our time or energy on something that won’t pay off. You spend your time and energy lobbying for one presidential candidate or another, you’ve got at best a 50-50 chance of being disappointed, worse if you’re an idealist who supports a third party candidate (go third parties, by the way). But with Jesus, there’s no chance of being disappointed, because victory is certain. How do we know this? Paul says in verse 19:

In him all the fullness was pleased to dwell.

Rather than focusing on more metaphysical questions about the nature of the relationship between God and Jesus, I want to draw your attention to what this verse says about the centrality of Jesus. For God, Jesus and the Church are not side projects, one among many things that he is doing and is concerned with. It’s not as if we could ever get to a point where God just writes the Church off and says, “Oh well. That didn’t work out. You can’t win ‘em all. Let’s move on to another project.” God has poured everything into us. He is completely, 100% invested in us, because he was completely, 100% invested in Jesus.

What does this mean for us? It means that God, who is also omnipotent or all-powerful, is going to make sure that he wins and that we, his heirs in Christ, will win, as well. I say “is going to make sure”, but the fact is that he has already made sure. Victory is inevitable because victory isn’t in the future. It’s in the past, present, and the future. As we saw in verse 16, it’s built into the very fabric of reality. If all of creation was made in him, through him, and for him, there is nothing that can challenge his centrality in the universe or his victory over any who struggle against him.

Finally, when we focus our eyes on Jesus, far from becoming less valuable to the world, we actually become far more valuable to the world. How so? In the final verse of today’s reading, Paul tells us the point of the fullness dwelling in Jesus: “and through him to reconcile all things to himself, making peace through the blood of his cross – through him – whether things on earth or in the heavens.” Last week I talked about the mysterious unity of identity between the Messiah Jesus and us, the Messianic community. We are in Christ, we are his body, we are, functionally, the Messiah to the world. And because of this, God’s purpose for the world in Christ, which was to reconcile the world to himself and make peace, is also God’s purpose for the world in us. But we cannot accomplish this purpose on our own or in our own power. We can only accomplish this work inasmuch as our eyes are lifted up and focused on Jesus.

And this brings us back to our question from two weeks ago. What does it look like when a good church becomes a great church? And what is the point of being a great church? It is to be used by God to bring healing to lost and hurting of our world, to bring forgiveness of sins and freedom from them, to continue fulfilling Jesus’ Messianic mission in the world of reconciling all things and all people back to God. Is that your heart? Is that the desire that is consuming us? If it is, then let us lift our eyes and set them determinedly on Jesus. To do so is to resist the influence of the world, because every effort of the spirit of the world is to resist the Messiah, to rebel against his rule and to throw off the shackles of righteousness. And the world knows that if it were possible to accomplish this, it would have to get you, the body of Christ, to take your eyes off the head, Jesus himself. But I am committed to regarding only one thing as needful – Christ and his Kingdom – and I urge you, if we want to be used by God to bring healing to the lost and hurting, I urge you to be the same way. Keep your eyes lifted up from off of the immediate and focused on the transcendent Jesus.[/nextpage]

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