Don't Settle for More

Do you like rules? I didn't think so. Most of us have mixed feelings about rules. We like them only part of the time. Douglas Bader said, "Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." Douglas MacArthur said, ""Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind." I don't know about that, but I know that I have a love-hate relationship with rules. I can't stand them but then I sometimes seem to crave them.

Sometimes rules get out of control. Here are some rules posted in a drive-in restaurant:

Do not back in
Restrooms are for customer use only
(on trash can) Not for diaper disposal or auto trash
Local checks for amount of purchase only
Vanilla frosties dipped one size only
Please order by number
Observe all signs

That's a little out of control.

It seems that the worst offenders with rules aren't restaurants, though. The worst offenders are churches. Here's a list of laws that are still on the books that relate to churches:

Young girls are never allowed to walk a tightrope in Wheeler, Mississippi, unless it's in a church.

In Blackwater, Kentucky, tickling a woman under her chin with a feather duster while she's in church service carries a penalty of $10.00 and one day in jail.

No one can eat unshelled, roasted peanuts while attending church in Idanha, Oregon.

In Honey Creek, Iowa, no one is permitted to carry a slingshot to church except a policeman.

No citizen in Leecreek, Arkansas, is allowed to attend church in any red-colored garment.

Swinging a yo-yo in church or anywhere in public on the Sabbath is prohibited in Studley, Virginia.

Turtle races are not permitted within 100 yards of a local church at any time in Slaughter, Louisiana.

There's got to be a story behind some of those rules.

The whole thing about rules is that some of them sound pretty good. You can see how you might get to thinking that somebody should make a rule about this or that. Pretty soon those around you agree, and presto! You've got a rule that made sense at the time. It's only later that another group of people come along, and the rule doesn't make any sense to them. They weren't there to understand the thinking behind the rule, and conditions might have changed. Rules that were once good might not be good in a different time or circumstance.

Rules are good at behavior, but they don't really change the heart. I've met lots of rules, and some of those rules have even succeeded in changing my behavior. I've never yet met a rule that's changed my heart.

The thing with rules is that they look pretty impressive. Not all of them, of course, but some of them. I've met a lot of religious people who follow a lot of rules, and it looks pretty good. They seem a lot stricter and more disciplined than I do. It's easy to think that the more rules you follow, the more spiritual you are.

Actually, that is dead wrong. It's not true that more rules equals more spiritual. We've been looking at Paul's letter to the church in Colosse, and he deals with the subject of rules in today's passage. Paul's been talking about how we have everything that we need in Jesus Christ, and we shouldn't think we need to take extra steps or something else to complete us. We already have everything that we need.

Today, Paul tackles the teaching of a group that was trying to influence the Colossians to follow more rules. Paul says, "Don't!" One of the greatest dangers you will ever face in your spiritual life is the danger of adding to what you already have in Jesus.

This is counter-intuitive to the way some of us think, so I want to look at some of the warning signs that Paul lists. This is important, because you need to guard your freedom. Don't ever let anyone take away the freedom that Christ has given you. Don't let it happen, no matter who's doing it.

Paul lists three warning signs that somebody is trying to add to what you already have in Jesus:

1. If they require more than Jesus requires

The first warning sign is if somebody requires more than Jesus requires. This is an important point. Jesus does require certain things from us. You can go too far and think that anything goes if you follow Christ. I've met people like that. They thought that grace and forgiveness meant that you could do anything. Jesus does require obedience, but some people go further and ask for things that Jesus never asks. This is a warning that someone is trying to take away your freedom. If this happens, don't let them do it.

You may have heard the word legalism. The word legalism never appears in the Bible. A lot of people talk about legalism, but it's not always clear what it means. There are two ways that you can be legalistic. One way is to add requirements of conduct beyond Scripture and make them essential. It's making rules that the Bible doesn't give and insisting that you follow them. The other way you can be legalistic is to take the standards of conduct taught in the Bible and make them regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God's favor. Both are wrong.

Paul says in this passage, "So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths" (Colossians 2:16). There were people who insisted that everyone followed Sabbath and other rules to follow Christ. They were making judgments about how holy others were based on these standards. Paul says, "Don't let anyone condemn you." Never let anyone condemn you for something that God has not asked you.

Verses 20-22 say:

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world. So why do you keep on following rules of the world, such as, "Don't handle, don't eat, don't touch." Such rules are mere human teaching about things that are gone as soon as we use them.

This group was trying to insist on rules about what believers handle, eat, and touch. They were ascetics. They believed that if you were strict and didn't do certain things, then it would be better for you spiritually. Paul warns them not to follow these human rules. Don't let anyone lay down the law for you when Christ has set you free from the law. Don't let anyone steal your freedom.

I can't tell you how much this takes place all the time. As I mentioned earlier, there is something in us that loves making up rules. It starts with the best of intentions. There are often good reasons for the rules, and some of them make a little bit of sense. But if we buy into them, we compromise our freedom. We give up the very thing that Jesus died to give to us.

In the film, The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Hatlen was released after 40 years of incarceration. He finally has the chance to enjoy the freedom he hasn't experienced since he was a teenager.

However, he didn't adjust well to life on the outside. He found himself asking for permission to use the men's room. He lived in constant fear. In prison, he didn't have to make his own decisions. Brooks confesses that he contemplates ways to break his parole and return to the security of the prison cell. He sums up his dilemma in one line: "It is a terrible thing to live in fear."

Someone talked about Brooks this way: "You believe whatever you want…but I'm telling you, these walls are funny. First, you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes…you get so you depend on them."

There are some of us who are so unfamiliar with freedom that it makes us nervous. We almost prefer to go back to the rules, even though living under rules imprisons us. Paul says that we should be on our guard against anyone who requires more of us than Jesus requires.

John Piper said, "Whenever authentic, joyful confidence in Christ diminishes, regulations are brought in to preserve what the power of Christ once created." Oswald Chambers wrote, "God who made the birds never made birdcages; it is mean who make the birdcages."

Does freedom mean that we can live as we please? When we experience freedom, we don't want to live in a way that displeases Christ. Abraham Lincoln supposedly went down to the slave block and freed a girl. She saw the white man buying her, and figured it was going to be one more man buying her to abuse her. He won the bid, and as he left with her, he said, "Young lady, you are free." She said, "What does that mean?" "It means that you are free?" "I can say whatever I want to say? I can be whatever I want to be? I can go wherever I want to go?" With tears streaming down her face, she said "Then I will go with you."

When you experience freedom, you don't need rules to make you want to go with Christ.

Paul gives a second warning sign that someone is trying to add to what you already have:

2. If they suggest more than Jesus suggests

Verse 18 says, "Don't let anyone condemn you by insisting on self-denial. And don't let anyone say you must worship angels, even though they say they have had visions about this. These people claim to be so humble, but their sinful minds have made them proud."

We've already talked about the danger of following rules that aren't given by Jesus. It wasn't just rules that were the problem. There was also the danger of added teachings. Some people suggest that you need to follow additional teachings if you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In this case, it was teachings about angels. I don't think these people worshipped angels; probably not, anyway. It's just that they had a bit of fixation on angels that bordered on worship. Paul warns us against adding additional teaching to what we already have received about Jesus.

There is a huge market out there for additional spiritual teaching. Take a book like The Da Vinci Code. It's topped the New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller lists for more than a year. It's soon coming to a theatre near you, with Tom Hanks in the lead role. It imagines that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had kids, whose descendants live in France. It's a work of fiction, but a lot of people are taking it pretty seriously.

There are a lot of teachings out there. Some of them, like The Da Vinci Code, make huge changes to what the Bible teaches us. Others are not so bad, but they still can lead us into trouble if we think they are essential. There are about 4,930 books about angels on Amazon.com. Granted, some of them are books on Charlie's Angels and Hell's Angels. Still, a lot of them are about angels. We run into a lot of trouble if we get sidetracked with secondary teachings rather than focusing on what God has already given us. Don't add to the teachings God has already given us about Jesus.

One more warning sign:

3. If they receive the glory instead of Jesus

Verse 23 says, "These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, humility, and severe bodily discipline. But they have no effect when it comes to conquering a person's evil thoughts and desires."

Paul acknowledges that some of these rules look pretty good. They look wise. They require good qualities like devotion, humility, and discipline. Who can argue with those? But these rules end up making us look good rather than Jesus. Verse 18 says, "These people claim to be so humble, but their sinful minds have made them proud." Self-mortification becomes a twisted form of self-exaltation. It becomes about us instead of Jesus.

Ashleigh Brilliant, that odd vestige of the seventies who scribbled his offbeat humor on hippie postcards, once penned: "All I ask of life is a constant and exaggerated sense of my own importance." There's a little of that in all of us. The problem with rules is they feed into this. We look good because we keep all these rules. It just makes us proud, which is exactly counter-productive.

Paul gives the biggest reason why we need to guard against adding rules and teachings to what we have in Jesus. In verse 19 he says, "But they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For we are joined together in his body by his strong sinews, and we grow only as we get our nourishment and strength from God." These people, who add rules and teachings, aren't just adding to Jesus. They are becoming completely disconnected from him. Additions are dangerous because they aren't additions. They become the means by which we are disconnected from Jesus. They take away our freedom. They make us proud. They take our focus off Jesus. In the end, they completely remove us from Jesus.

You hear commercials saying, "Don't settle for anything less." You could say that about Jesus. Don't settle for anything less than Jesus. There is, however, an equal danger to accepting less than Jesus. It's the danger of settling for more than Jesus. Paul says, in essence, that more than Jesus is less than Jesus. Whenever we add to what Jesus has given us, we are subtracting from Jesus. Don't settle for anything more or less than what you already have in Jesus.

You are free. Knowing that you are free changes everything. It changes the way you see even stupid little rules. In World War II, American and British prisoners built a homemade radio. One day, they heard the news that the German High Command had surrendered and the war was over. They roared in celebration; men walked around signing and shouting, waving at the guards, even laughing at the dogs. They knew something the Germans didn't.

Three nights later, the Germans finally heard the news. They fled into the dark, leaving the gates unlocked. The next morning, the Brits and the Americans walked out free. Yet they had truly been set free three days earlier by the news that the war was over.

You've received the news that you are free in Christ. You don't need to follow any more rules or look for any more knowledge. Don't ever settle for anything more than what you already have.

All That We Need (Colossians 2:6-15)

All That We Need (Colossians 2:6-15)

Police in Houston are looking for a couple in their seventies who have been shopping for diamonds. After the couple came in three times to look at diamond earrings, one clerk became suspicious. She examined the diamonds and discovered that this couple had switched to cubic zirconias. The couple took diamonds worth $11,000 and left the zirconias behind, worth about $10.

Hemal Pathare is with Plaza Jewelry in Sharpstown. He says unless you're an expert telling the difference is not always easy. "Especially when you're in the middle of a good sale and you're excited about making that sale and all of a sudden," says Pathare. "And sometimes it's your best customers that might do that to you and you just have to watch yourself and be careful."

The moral of the story is that you should watch out for suspicious-looking elderly couples. Or maybe the moral is that that if you've just bought expensive jewelry, you could have saved yourself a lot of money and got something that looks just as nice for about ten dollars. Think of the money you could have saved.

Or maybe the real moral of the story is about substitutes. It is hard for even a trained jeweler to tell a real diamond from a good fake.

The same is perhaps true about our lives in general. It is very difficult for even the smartest person to know when we're encountering a cheap substitute for the real thing, in relationships, spirituality, philosophy, and in almost every area of life. It's a sad thing to realize that we thought we had the real thing, when all along we had a $10 substitute that's not even close in value.

The problem with us is not that we like nice things. The problem with us is that we are too quick to settle for substitutes for the real thing. Whoever said that good is the enemy of best was right. We settle for good and the good ends up being nothing like what we should have enjoyed. C.S. Lewis said this:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C.S. Lewis)

Let me float a theory. My theory is that one of our greatest spiritual temptations is that we tend to mistake counterfeit spirituality for the real thing. It could be argued that one of our greatest spiritual problems is that we often accept the counterfeit instead of pursuing the real thing.

Obviously it's important to be able to identify the real thing then. I want to spend some time today looking at what the real thing is, spiritually speaking. The thing is, once you've experienced the real things, the fake things look pretty…well, fake. Christian spirituality is all about experiencing the genuine so that we won't need or even be interested in anything less than the real thing.

I don't want to spend a lot of time discussing the substitutes for the real thing, except to say they're out there. There is a huge market for spirituality these days. It's tempting to take it all in because we are so spiritually hungry. We live in a situation that is very similar to the one that the people of Colosse faced a couple of thousand years ago. There are so many options for spirituality out there that the problem isn't finding one that looks good. The problem is that there are too many options, and so many of them look good.

I heard of a woman who went up to her pastor and said, "According to my horoscope, this would be a good week to preach on false teaching." This lady was mixing and matching from different spiritual options out there.

I find that I'm often tempted to look for substitutes for the real thing, not so much in other belief systems. I don't mix and match. I'm more tempted to think that there is some hidden piece of knowledge that I am missing. I think that if I just read one more book or master some important fact that I'll be there.

This was the same situation in Colosse. Paul says in Colossians 2:8, "Don't let anyone lead you astray with empty philosophy and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the evil powers of this world, and not from Christ."

We don't know the details, but somehow the church back then was tempted to accept some teaching as a substitute from Christ. Chances are that they weren't even aware they were doing this. It's usually subtle. We don't set out to accept cheap substitutes. It just happens. Paul writes this letter to them and says, "Don't settle for anything but the real thing. Don't settle for anyone other than Jesus."

This is important, because I don't want to risk my spiritual life on something that ends up being a $10 substitute for the real thing. Why should I settle for substitutes? Paul gives us two reasons in this passage:

1. Jesus is everything you need

That's the first reason. Don't accept any substitutes for Jesus, because you have everything that you need in Jesus. When you have Jesus, you don't need anything else. He is everything that you need.

It's all who you know. In April 2001, in the midst of Israeli/Arab conflict, a motorcade carrying the Security Service Chief of Gaza came under bullet fire from Israeli troops. The frightened security official called Yasser Arafat from his car for help. Arafat, in turn called the U.S. Ambassador, who then called the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Colin Powell then phoned Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, who ordered the shooting to stop immediately. And it did. The Security Chief's connections eventually saved his life.

It's all who you know. Paul says, "You know Jesus, and that is all that you need. You don't need to know anyone else." You are connected to Jesus, and when you understand that connection, you don't need anyone else. Substitutes are out of the question because there is no substitute for who Jesus is.

Paul says in verses 9 and 10: "For in Christ the fullness of God lives in a human body, and you are complete through your union with Christ. He is the Lord over every ruler and authority in the universe."

Paul says that Jesus possesses two qualities that make him all that you need. First is that God's fullness dwells in him. "In Christ the fullness of God lives in a human body." When you follow Jesus, you are connected to Jesus. "You are complete through your union with Christ." You are connected to the one who is God himself. He has a human body, yet he is God. Everything that it means to be God, Jesus has. We are not looking about someone who is like God. We are talking about someone who is God, and you are connected to him.

Here's how it works: You are connected to Jesus. You are in him. The fullness of God is in Jesus. Get this? The fullness of God is in Jesus, and you are in Jesus. You are connected to God himself. In Jesus, you have everything that you need. "You are complete."

God's fullness is in Jesus, and his fullness is in you. You don't need anything or anyone else, because you are connected to the one who is above everything. "He is Lord over every ruler and authority in the universe."

The funny thing about this is that it is far from obvious. When Jesus walked around, nobody looked at him and said, "There goes all the fullness of God in a human body." He looked like everyone else. He spoke with an accent and did everything a normal person does. Yet he was different; he was and is God.

It didn't look like the Colossian Christians were any different than anyone else. Well, maybe they were a little different in their religious beliefs. They met together with other believers and people weren't quite sure what to make of them. But nobody looked at them and said, "Look, they are connected to the one who has the fullness of God in his body. They are connected to the one who is above all things." Yet they were. Nobody could tell the difference, but it was true.

Today, you and I don't particularly look any different. People look at us and see that we have mortgages and jobs and kids and issues like everyone else. But we are different. We are in so close a relationship with Jesus that we get what he has. We find our completeness not in what we have, but what he gives to us. That completeness is more than enough because, well, he is God. There is nobody above him. Nobody pulls rank. He doesn't need anyone to give him anything. Everything that we need, we have, because we are connected to the one who is above all things. He is everything that we need.

2. Jesus has done everything that you need

There are nights that there is nothing on TV. I hate to admit it, but on those nights I have sometimes stopped a little too long at the worst channel on the dial – the shopping channel. It is so bad that it is good. I can relate to the people who go to see the really bad movies because they are so entertaining. The shopping channel is like that. They act so surprised by what the products can do. They deserve Oscars for how they react with excitement to junk sometimes. It's designed to make you think, "I have to have that!"

There is a huge market out there for pushing stuff. It's no different spiritually. It's tempting to buy books and attend conferences and go looking for products that are going to help us spiritually. We think we need to add something more, do something more.

Paul has already said that Jesus is all that we need. In this section, he goes further and explains that Jesus has also done everything that we need. Back then, the missing step that was being sold was circumcision. That's a pretty tough sell. The Gentiles back then were being told that they needed to take the extra step of getting circumcised if they wanted to be Christians. "Jesus might be all that you need, but you still need to get circumcised," they said. It's the same as today, when you're told you have to have Jesus plus read this book or follow these three steps or attend this seminar or whatever. Paul says no. Not only is Jesus all that you need, he has also done everything that you need.

According to Paul, you don't need any extra steps, because it's all been done for you already: "When you came to Christ, you were ‘circumcised,' but not by a physical procedure. It was a spiritual procedure - the cutting away of your sinful nature" (Colossians 2:11). Paul told them that they didn't need to be circumcised, because Jesus had already circumcised them – not physically, but spiritually. To which all the men said, "Whew!" They didn't need to take any additional steps. They didn't need Jesus plus something else. He is everything that they needed, and he had done everything that they needed done.

We don't need to be circumcised or to do anything extra, because Jesus has already done everything necessary. It's interesting where Paul goes with this thought. He says that God has given us a sign that we already have everything we need in Christ. That sign, according to Paul, is baptism: "For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to a new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead" (Colossians 2:12).

There are probably quite a few here who haven't been baptized yet. This wasn't the case for the Colossian followers of Christ. Baptism marked the beginning of someone's journey as a follower of Christ. Coincidentally, this should probably be the case for us as well. If you haven't yet been baptized, we'd love to baptize you. Paul says, once you take the first step as a follower of Jesus Christ, everything that you need has been given to you. You are a full participant in everything that Jesus has done for you. Extra books or steps might be nice, but you don't need them. You already have everything that you need.

Paul mentions two actions that Jesus has taken that give us everything that we need.

First, he has forgiven sins. Verses 13 and 14 say:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins. He canceled the record that contained the charges against us. He took it and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ's cross.

I just finished a project for my school. I sent it off by courier and felt great about it. A couple days later, another student asked, "Did you get this part done?" I said, "What part?" I went to the assignment and realized that I had forgotten to do something!

Paul talks about the list that contains what we were supposed to do, that makes it clear that we have not met all the requirements. Jesus has taken that list of our sins and shortcomings and nailed it to the cross. He has dealt with it permanently. We have been completely forgiven because of what Jesus has done for us.

Then, he's also defeated evil: "In this way, God disarmed the evil rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross of Christ" (Colossians 2:15). Paul's already talked about the powers of evil in this universe. There is evil in this world. Jesus has dealt with them all, though. The Message puts it this way: "He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets."

You don't need anything more than what you've been given. If you are in relationship with Christ, you have already been given everything that you need. Don't ever settle for substitutes, because in Jesus, you have everything that you need.

The Message provides a fitting conclusion in its paraphrase of verses 6 and 7:

My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you've been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You're deeply rooted in him. You're well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you've been taught. School's out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.

School's out. You don't need anything more. Jesus is and has done everything that you need. Just go and live like you have everything that you need in Jesus.

All about Jesus

Are you interested in being a vegetarian, but concerned that you might not be able to adjust? Not to worry...you can become a flexitarian.

As vegetarianism gains in popularity and increases its market niche, a variation has developed. The flexitarian is a person who eats primarily vegetables, but also indulges occasionally with meat.

The designation fits people like 28-year-old Christy Pugh, who says, "I usually eat vegetarian. But I really like sausage."

Christy says, "Sometimes I feel like I'm a bad vegetarian, that I'm not strict enough or good enough. I really like vegetarian food, but I'm just not 100 percent committed."

A flexitarian - someone who loves, but isn't 100 percent committed. I don't want to sound negative, but I can relate to that description. That's true of diets and resolutions. It's true of even the things that mean the most to us - even in our commitment to Jesus.

It's really not that we don't love Jesus. The people I know are sincere in their desire to follow Jesus. The problem is that it's not easy to live in a way that is completely committed. Somebody once wrote a song that said, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love." These words were prophetic. Later in his life, he supposedly heard someone humming this song, and said, "I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."

A man named Ron Sider has just written a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. He's documented on a macro level what we experience on a personal level, and the results aren't pretty. He quotes one theologian, "evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Divorce is now more common among "born-again" Christians; only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. There are all kinds of statistics that show that our love for Christ doesn't always translate well into reality.

Sider writes, "By their daily activity, most "Christians" regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment."

That isn't easy to read. I don't mean to be negative. But I think we need to be honest that things aren't going as well as we might think. What we believe and who we trust isn't always making the difference we would think in how we live. On a personal level, and on a macro level, we love Jesus, but we're not always one hundred percent committed.

Treasonous Letter

That's one of the reasons why I want to look at an ancient letter from almost two thousand years ago. At first glance, you may ask what a two-thousand year letter has to say to us today. Good question. The recipients of this letter lived at a completely different time and place. When we read this letter, it's not easy to see how their world relates to ours.

Reading the letter doesn't help right away either. It's like hearing one side of a telephone conversation. In this case, it's even trickier, because the end we hear is set in a completely different culture. So what does this letter have to do with us?

The short answer is this: like us, the Colossians loved Christ, but weren't one hundred percent committed. They lived in a small city and followed an obscure religion. They were facing lots of the same pressures that we face today. Paul writes a letter to set some things straight. In doing so, he pens a letter that was treasonous in his day - and equally treasonous in today's context.

It wasn't easy to follow Christ in Colosse. It was okay to worship a god, and it was okay to worship Jesus. People worshiped many deities. Then, like now, it was considered wrong to insist that your god was better than others. They faced the same pressure that we do. It's not at all wrong to worship Jesus. It's okay as long as you don't claim that Jesus is better than any other religion. Their world was a lot like ours - a pluralistic world in which Christians were considered narrow and intolerant.

I don't mean to say that Christians aren't guilty of intolerance. Sometimes we are. But believing that Jesus is the Son of the one true God is a Biblical notion - and one that doesn't play well in today's world. We face pressure to soften this belief, and so did the Colossians.

Every week, we face incredible pressure to conform to the world system. The average North American is confronted with between five to twelve thousand corporate images every day. It's not that all of these images are bad - they aren't. It's just that they're absorbed into our way of thinking. We're bombarded with them so much that we don't even notice them after a while. We soon begin to think the way that every one else things.

When we read the Bible, it begins to look a little out of step with our world. It makes claims that seem a little bold. I think that's one of the reasons why we face the struggle I mentioned a minute ago: it's not that we don't love Jesus; it's just that it's hard to be a hundred percent committed in today's world. There are too many pressures.

That's where the book of Colossians comes in. This is exactly the same situation the Colossians were facing. They were exposed to al kinds of other gods. They felt the same pressures to accept other belief systems as equally valid. They didn't face corporate images, but everywhere they turned they faced images of Caesar - in the gym, at festivals, and all of their institutions. Caesar was taken to be the son of God, the savior and lord, who brought peace and prosperity to the world.

Paul writes a letter and names names. He essentially commits an act of treason against the empire of the day. He takes on the world system of that day. He takes every claim of the empire and turns it on his head. This is radical stuff.

If Paul was writing to us, he wouldn't be taking on Caesar. He would identify those things in our lives that call for our allegiance and attention. He wouldn't be committing an act of treason against Caesar. He might name other names. He would insist that Microsoft and Wal-Mart and the President of the United States aren't the ones in charge. He would challenge the values that we've accepted that are just part of our culture. He would challenge the values and the lifestyles that we embrace. What would he take on? Maybe our perpetual shopping, our consumption, the way that we imagine and think. He may challenge the way that we see faith and life as separate; the way we divide "faith from life, church from culture, theology from economics, prayer from politics and worship from everyday work" (Walsh and Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed).

Some think that we are "more enculturated, more taken captive by culture, more comfortable in the empire, than that radical group of young converts in that first century" (Walsh and Keesmaat).

Listen to how two authors express Paul's words today in the book Colossians Remixed:

In an image-saturated world,
A world of ubiquitous corporate logos
Permeating your consciousness
a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted
to be able to dream of life otherwise
a world in which the empire of global economic affluence
has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations
in this world
Christ is the image of the invisible God
In this world
driven by images with a vengeance
Christ is the image par excellence
The image above all other images
The image that is not a fa‡ade
The image that is not trying to sell you anything
The image the refused to co-opt you
Christ is the image of the invisible God...

Paul would say that it's time to end our cultural captivity, and our willingness to separate Christ from the way we live. So he pens a poem that takes on the empire - not just Caesar's empire, but the empire of the world in which we live today.

A Portrait of Christ

So Paul takes on the empire, but he does it in a different way that you would think. He does it by establishing exactly who Jesus is. He paints a portrait of Jesus Christ, the man who walked the earth just thirty years before these words were written. This is one of the richest descriptions of Christ in all of the Bible. Someone has called it a full-length portrait of Christ. He proclaims Jesus to be Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of all creation, including the empire. It's all about Jesus. He is the one who holds everything together, who answers life's ultimate questions. He says that Christ is not one of many gods; he is the one through whom the whole universe was made. All of God's purposes for this world are fulfilled in Christ.

This is important for us. We might not think that the way to fight our cultural captivity would be to focus on Christ. According to Paul, this is the way. When we truly understand who Jesus is, it really does make a difference in how we see the world, and how we live.

Paul paints a portrait of Christ from three perspectives:

Christ in Creation - We tend to see the universe from a scientific perspective. I love seeing images beamed back from space of the planets. Scientists are finding stuff out about this universe that boggle the mind. I was sent pictures of some marine life that was washed onto shore after the tsunami in South Asia - absolutely amazing. It's easy to be put in awe by the universe and all that we're learning. It's much harder to remember, as Paul says, that Jesus is the originator of this world, and the one who holds it all together.

Paul writes:

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before God made anything at all and is supreme over all creation. Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can't see--kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him. He existed before everything else began, and he holds all creation together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Back then, they saw all kinds of deities behind creation. Today, we're more prone to see no God behind creation. We may see God as Creator, but think that he keeps an arms-length away from the laws that govern this universe. Paul corrects all these views by stating that Jesus is the one who created everything, is supreme over everything, and who not only got everything started, but holds it all together. The only reason there is such a thing as the law of gravity is because Jesus is the one who makes gravity happen at every minute. If he took a break, everything would fall apart and cease to exist. He keeps the cosmos from becoming a chaos. He is the creator and sustainer of this world and everything in it.

This really does influence how we see everything. Jesus is not some impersonal force removed from everyday life. He is not at the mercy of the laws of nature. He is intimately involved with every atom of this universe. There is nothing outside of his purview or control. He is behind and above everything.

Christ as New Creator - It's not hard to see that all is not well in this universe. As much as we are put in awe of creation, we also see tsunamis and mudslides and tornadoes. Our bodies suffer from diseases. We live in a broken world.

On a personal level, we see that all is not well. We live in a world with wars and conflicts. We are often victims of decisions we make, and yet we find it hard to break out of old and destructive patterns. Sure, Christ is creator, but what is he doing about the condition of the world we live in?

Paul writes:

Christ is the head of the church, which is his body. He is the first of all who will rise from the dead, so he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and by him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of his blood on the cross. (Colossians 1:18-20)

Theologians talk about four stages of this world: Creation - Fall - Redemption - Restoration. We see Creation, although we see it broken by the Fall. We see pretty clearly what the Fall has done to this world. We see evidences of the Fall all around us. Paul goes on to describe what Christ is doing know. He's redeemed us - Paul says as much earlier in the chapter, in verses 13 and 14. Redemption doesn't mean much to us now, but they would have understood it as the language of slavery. A slave would be redeemed by a payment that would allow freedom. The nation of Israel was set free from slavery in Egypt in the exodus. Paul says that this is what Jesus is doing: giving freedom to his people. He's redeeming, and he's also going to restore everything to its right condition.

We see evidence of Creation and Fall all around us. Paul points us past these, to see Redemption and Restoration. Jesus is making all things new. He will one day make this world a tsunami-free zone. He is making peace with everything in creation. He is making all things new.

Christ as involved with us - This is all lofty language. Paul brings it home by saying that not only is the Christ of this universe, the Creator of all things and the head of the church, not only is he exalted in all things, he is also active right among you. You are case studies of what Jesus is doing around the world. Paul writes:

This includes you who were once so far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions, yet now he has brought you back as his friends. He has done this through his death on the cross in his own human body. As a result, he has brought you into the very presence of God, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. (Colossians 1:21-22)

You are an example of what Christ is doing. He has personally intervened in your life and made peace between you and God. He has made imperfect people into holy and blameless people. You may not feel holy and blameless, without a single fault. I could ask your closest friends and family members and they would be able to point out a fault here and there. Before God, because of what Jesus has done, you are in fact holy and blameless. You have been given all of Christ's righteousness in exchange for all of your sin.

When we begin to see Christ like this - as creator, new creator, as involved with our very lives - it will change the way we live. It will make us his subjects. We will see the empire for what it is - hollow and empty and under Christ. Like the story, The Emperor's New Clothes, we'll see that things aren't what they appear. Christ is in charge. He is above and behind everything. It's all about him.

Paul finishes this section by challenging the Colossians to live differently as a result of this portrait of Christ:

But you must continue to believe this truth and stand in it firmly. Don't drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. The Good News has been preached all over the world, and I, Paul, have been appointed by God to proclaim it. (Colossians 1:23)

I love this. Don't see this portrait of Christ and walk away unchanged. Let this portrait change everything about you from the inside out. Refuse to be co-opted by this world. Let your life be about Christ. Recognize him in all his glory. Be all about him.

Paul is going to unpack what this means for us in the rest of the letter. My challenge to us is the same as Paul's challenge to the Colossians: let this knowledge change you. Let the church live up to this knowledge of Christ. Let's make sure that our worldview is shaped by who Christ is so that we really are not just in love with Jesus, but also committed.

When apartheid was still official government policy in South Africa, a young evangelical was smuggled into an underground communist cell. All they had in common is that they were all opposed to apartheid. The communists asked the evangelical, "Tell us about the Gospel of Jesus Christ." The young evangelical gave a clear presentation, as best he could, of who Jesus is and what it means for us. He talked about the personal transformation that takes place. He talked about the how Christ creates new bodies of believers, in which people from all races and backgrounds become one. One of the members of the communist group said, "That's wonderful! Show me where this is happening." The evangelical paused; he couldn't think of one place in South Africa. "Then the whole thing is s***," said the communist.

"Show me one place where this is happening." My prayer is that we will see Christ so clearly that we will stop being flexitarians, and that we will actually live as if we believe Christ is behind and above everything. I pray that we'll be different because we see who Jesus really is.

Prayer

Let us see Jesus. Let us be all about him. Help us to see him more clearly than we do the powers of this world.

Help us to draw out the implications of who Jesus is in every area of our lives. Amen.

How to Pray for Others

It's that time of year again. If you didn't have a calendar, you could tell that it's the start of January by the flyers in the mail. Lose weight, organize your space, get in shape - it's that time where a lot of us focus on improving ourselves.

Some of us have moved beyond New Year's resolutions, because they so seldom work. Most of us start out pretty well, but a month or two into the New Year we've forgotten what we resolved at the beginning of the year.

What if the answer wasn't resolving to do better, as much as to take advantage of what you already have? What of, instead of praying for more, we shifted our focus to seeing and using what we already have?

The reason I ask this question is because of a letter that was written by a man to a small church a long time ago. The letter is the book of Colossians, found in the Bible. It was written by the apostle Paul. I'm drawn to this book because it's so relevant to our situation today. Although we're separated by geography and time, our world is similar in many ways to the world of the Colossians. We are asking similar questions to what they might have been asking. Paul tells them that what they really need in their lives is not anything more. What they need in their lives is to recognize what has already been given to them.

Let me tell you a bit about Colosse. I mentioned that their world was a lot like ours. The people of Colosse were people who were absorbed in everyday life, just like we are. They didn't have a lot of time to sit around thinking deep thoughts all the time. Colosse was out of the way. It wasn't a major town. There weren't any important people living there. Read the letter of Colossians, and you encounter everyday people trying their best to live. There were husbands and wives and kids and employees. When they met as a church, they didn't even get the day off - Sundays back then were working days. These were very real people with very normal problems, just like us.

They also lived in a religious climate much like ours. People back then believed in tolerance and pluralism. It was considered bad form to insist that your god was right and every other god was wrong. That was intolerant. People back then said, as they do now, that you should be able to decide for yourself what god to worship. In fact, the more the better. Christians back then were not appreciated because it was considered intolerant to worship only one God. The other gods might get ticked off and punish the entire city as a result.

The other thing about the Colossians is that, like many of us, they were committed to Jesus Christ, but they seemed to have a hard time always translating that into daily life. Sound familiar? George Barna has done some research and found that there really isn't that great a difference in the way that Christians live their lives compared to those who don't claim to be Christians. Barna says, "People need more help in determining how their faith speaks to life issues beyond the obvious connections." They, like us, were committed to Christ, but this did not always make as much of a difference in their everyday lives as it should have.

Paul wrote to them from prison. A lot of what he talks about in this letter is just as relevant to us as it was to them. He wanted them to realize that although they looked outnumbered and their faith wasn't very popular, even though their lives were full of the everyday and they didn't always live the way they should, that they already had everything that they needed. They didn't need anything more. They did, however, need to realize what they had been given, and to let that knowledge change them from the inside out.

It was customary in that day to begin a letter with the name of the sender, then to bring greetings, and then to offer a prayer to the gods on behalf of the recipients. Paul does this here. Instead of praying to the gods, he prays to God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. His prayer isn't perfunctory. As I read over the prayer this week, I was struck by its focus. It isn't concerned with the practical, although the people he's praying for live ordinary lives. The prayer will have practical results, but it's set much higher than normal. I was struck with how little I pray this way and maybe that we're missing a lot because we don't pray this way.

Ultimately, this is a prayer for a church. It is a prayer for a group of other believers. As we begin 2005 and begin to walk through this letter, I'd like to challenge us to follow Paul's lead as he prays in two areas.

1. Thank God for what he is doing in their lives

You've probably seen those pictures. Look at them one way, and they look like one thing. Somebody sees the same picture and notices something completely different. Paul looks at this group of people and sees what most of us could easily miss. He sees God at work. Most of us would see ordinary people who were living the best they could, but just ordinary people. Paul sees people who are evidence of the power of the Gospel transforming lives all over the world.

Paul prays in verses 3 to 6:

We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard that you trust in Christ Jesus and that you love all of God's people. You do this because you are looking forward to the joys of heaven-as you have been ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News. This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is changing lives everywhere, just as it changed yours that very first day you heard and understood the truth about God's great kindness to sinners.

Remember that these people were under a lot of pressure not to believe in Christ. They were seen as intolerant bigots who refused to worship other gods. It was easy to doubt the Gospel. For them, it was new and strange. They were in the same situation as we are. For us, the Gospel isn't new and strange. It's old and familiar. It's easy to underestimate its power.

Look around you today. You see a lot of ordinary people. You see people with amazing abilities. You see people with mortgages, kids, work pressures. Paul looks at an ordinary group of people and sees the Gospel at work in their lives. He sees them as evidence of what God is doing around the world.

The heart of this prayer of thanks is verse 6: "This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is changing lives everywhere, just as it changed yours that very first day you heard and understood the truth about God's great kindness to sinners." Paul sees the Gospel as a force that is changing lives around the world. Every time you see an ordinary person who follows Jesus, you see evidence of the power of the Gospel personified. They may look like an ordinary person with ordinary issues. They are actually much more than that. They are part of what God is doing around the world. They are evidence that God is at work in the world changing lives. Every time the Gospel comes in contact with a person, it changes everything about them, even if they look the same from the outside.

This is our challenge as we pray about people: first, to see the positive. It's so much easier to see the faults of others rather than seeing God at work in their lives. I'd like to see beyond the everyday and catch glimpses of the Spirit working in still every imperfect people.

The other challenge is to see other followers of Christ as evidence of what God is doing around the world. The Gospel is making all things new. God is in the process of repairing everything that has gone wrong with this world. He will one day create a new heaven and a new earth, one that is free of death and tsunamis. The very ordinary people that you pray for are advance evidence of what God is doing around the world. As you see them, give thanks to God for the evidence of the Gospel that you see in their lives.

2. Pray that they would understand what God has done for them in Christ

Paul shifts his prayer from thanksgiving to request. His request, though, is in line with his petition. He prays that the Colossians would see what he sees in them: the power of God at work. He prays above the practical (bless them, help them) and prays a prayer that we could learn from. He prays that they would understand what God is up to in this world, and that this knowledge would transform everything else in their lives:

Paul says, "So we have continued praying for you ever since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you a complete understanding of what he wants to do in your lives, and we ask him to make you wise with spiritual wisdom" (Colossians 1:9). At first I want to say, "What an impractical thing to pray for." It's much easier to focus on the jobs that we need or the money we're going to be short this month, or for some request that we can see and feel. Praying for understanding is something that usually doesn't make the list, unless someone feels like they could use some insight in a particular area.

Paul, though, is on to something. The type of understanding that he prays for is the type that could change everything about our lives. The NIV translates it as "the knowledge of his will." This isn't about knowing about God's will in specific areas of our lives - who we should marry, where we should work. This is about knowing what God is up to in this world. It's about understanding what God is up to in this world. The Message paraphrases it this way: that God would give the Colossians "wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works." He's talking about being tuned into what God is doing in this world.

Why is this so important? One of the reasons why it's important is because God seems to work in obscurity so often. You don't see evidence of God at work unless you go looking for it. You won't notice God's work in this world unless you go looking for it. It's far easier to see other forces at work: the stock market, politics, business. It's far easier to see these forces because they are what is reported in the newspapers. We won't notice God at work unless we have the spiritual wisdom Paul prays for.

Another reason why it's important to understand what God is up to is because of the difference it makes in our lives. Understanding God's purposes and activities sounds so impractical. Actually, there's nothing that will more radically change our lives than if we understand God's purposes and activities. This will change everything about our worlds. Paul talks about some of the differences that will come out of understanding what God is up to:

Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and you will continually do good, kind things for others. All the while, you will learn to know God better and better.

We also pray that you will be strengthened with his glorious power so that you will have all the patience and endurance you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father, who has enabled you to share the inheritance that belongs to God's holy people, who live in the light. (Colossians 1:10-12)

According to Paul, understanding what God is up to isn't dry theology that is irrelevant to daily life. He's going to spend a good chunk of this letter drawing out what this means. For now, in this prayer, he lists four qualities that come out of understanding what God is up to. First, we'll live differently. Second, we'll get to know God even better. Third, we'll have more patience and endurance. We won't feel like quitting quite as often. Fourth, we'll become more thankful people.

Understanding what God is up to, and that all of his purposes revolve around Christ, will change the way we live. It will affect our relationships, our finances, the way we see the world. It will affect how we live as employees. The best part about this is that it doesn't involve doing something new. It involves understanding what we already have in Jesus Christ.

I had an aunt who died a few years back. She always had her heat turned down and lived like a pauper. When she died, they discovered that she had tens of thousands of dollars saved. She didn't need more money; she needed to use the money she already had.

You don't need anything more than you have in Jesus Christ. What you and I need isn't more; we need understanding to see what we already have. We need to see what God is up to in this world, to understand that the Gospel that is making everything new is already at work in our hearts. We need spiritual wisdom and understanding to see what God is doing, because that will make all the difference in our lives.

A couple of notes as we close. I wonder if, when we pray for others, we need to shoot a bit higher. I wonder if we need to keep praying for the normal things - for their jobs and health and families - but also pray that these ordinary, everyday people would sense what so often goes unnoticed: that they would see what God is doing in this world, and that this knowledge would change everything about them.

This was a prayer for a church. I wonder if we could make this our prayer for Richview this year. Instead of just praying for our finances and ministries, maybe we could pray that we develop an unusually keen sense of God's purposes and understanding. Then we would sense the power of the Gospel, and see what it is doing in transforming lives all over the world. Maybe we should pray this impractical prayer, which actually turns out to be one of the most practical prayers we could ever pray.

Let's pray this prayer for Richview right now.