With. Before. Ahead - Sunday 7th February 2021
Sermon by Rev'd Lizzie Kesteven
Colossians 1: 15-20
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[h] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together.”
I have a confession. Always good to start with one of those. My confession is that I have a very troubled relationship with a lot of what St Paul writes. On bad days I read bits of what St Paul writes and I want to hurl my bible across the room. On a good day a gentle sigh emerges and I try and engage a bit more positively, or at least a little less violently. And yet my struggle, my frustration with Paul is not at the bits I don’t like so much but is often only the more confounded when I read and listen to the passages that we have today. Not because they cement those bits but because they give us a glimpse of how brilliant St Paul is and can be.
Because for me here we have Paul at his best. And these are the bits that I pray to God we might hear and take notice of a bit more often. Here he is a man who writes from a prison cell about the God who he knows as Jesus Christ and met so dramatically on the road to Damascus. Here he is able to poetically write and pull together some of the most sweeping and majestic images of Jesus and God. Christ as Creator. Jesus as a firstborn. He is before all things and everything holds together because of him. Here is Paul writing in a similar rhythm to St John – just doing it 50 years earlier. He paints a cosmic picture. This is the St Paul that I like. This is the St Paul that I want to sing about.
And I find that it is these words that manage to transport me to other places and images where I can see God. With these short 5 verses ringing in my heart this week I was suddenly struck by that massive statute of Jesus that stands above the City of Rio de Janerio in Brazil - Christ the Redeemer. With his arms that stretch out far and wide as if blessing and protecting not just that city but the world itself. It deliberately towers over the city so everyone can see it in Rio. It seemingly captures in one image that sense of the concrete (literally) Christ, the real person, but also the cosmic Christ. God incarnate. With us, Before us and Ahead of us.
God with us. God one of us is the overriding message that St John writes about. Jesus dwelt among us, not just any man, but God as man. John hangs his whole gospel, all the good news he wants to speak about Jesus. And in that he focuses on the person that Jesus is. The God that Jesus is. And that God is with us. One of us. Perhaps that is why it is these poetic words which are spoken often in the darkness with a glimmer of candlelight at the heart of the Christmas worship. Whether it’s at carols by candlelit or at the Midnight Mass service, my spine literally tingles with anticipation as those words from the bible are spoken, as the person starts with “In the beginning….”. It’s powerful because God becoming human is powerful. Its heart stopping because God being with us is heart stopping. God’s don’t do that, or if they do they play at being human. This is different. This is with and one of us.
John wrote those words about 40 years after Paul was sat in Prison writing to the churches in Colossae. For Paul he grounds the reality of Jesus in another way to God being with. Paul speaks of Jesus, of Christ, as being before us. Before us in all things. Similar to John he makes the point that this is not just a person confined to time or story, but God who was at the very beginning. He was the firstborn. He makes that link from Jesus to Adam and back again. He grounds Christ in creation yet simultaneously speaks of Christ as the author of creation. Paul was already, really early on - as the first generations of Christians were working out who this Jesus was and what that meant - Paul was starting to see the bigger picture and speak about how Jesus was more than just a good man. He was even more than just a good man who was also resurrected. Paul here in Prison is starting to write and speak about how Jesus, was God, is God and always will be God. Not God just for a moment in time, God for a little bit Jesus and then back to being God. But God. That the Jesus that they follow was the very power behind everything that they experience and see of the world. That was why what Paul was writing felt so ground breaking and different.
I guess the final strength and brilliance of Pauls 5 verses here is also that he paints that picture of God being ahead of us as well as before us. It’s been snowing on the last two Sundays here in Fishponds and I was thinking about that Christmas Carol Good King Wenceslas. I love that picture of that big giant of a man striding out into the snow, and how the page boy puts his footsteps in the old man’s print. We sing “Mark my footsteps good my page…tread them in them boldly”…I have always felt a strong connection with that. The comfort taken from being able to boldly and safely go (forgive the Star Trek pun!) where God has been before us. And with that that really interesting thing that I picked up talking to my mum the other day on the phone, about how in the East Shepherds always walk in front of the sheep. Here in the West we have shepherd who gather and drive sheep from behind….with a couple of collie dogs – but the image of shepherd, one that came to be closely linked to Jesus is always one that has the shepherd ahead of the sheep not behind. Its an eastern picture that is in the minds of those writing the Bible, not a western one.
Paul puts Christ ahead of us, so that we can tread boldly into the footsteps. So that we know that we are not alone, because God is there ahead of us, with us and before us.
That is the power and the brilliance of that St Paul at his best brings to us.
These verses would have been life-saving and life giving to the Christian community. Paul went from Prison to his own execution, and thousands others followed.
Most of us may not be facing such immediate threat today, but we do have to be brave and bold as Christians. It takes courage and guts to speak of truth and goodness in all sorts of walks of life. It’s so much easier not to sometimes, so much easier to let things just go, or not to bother. Upsetting the apple cart isn’t really in our nature. Perhaps we are too polite. Yet, words spoken in truth and with kindness are important. Courageous advocacy we call it at the local school. So What ever you face this week, at home, at work, in life - may you do so boldly, knowing that Christ is with you, before you and ahead of you. May you mark his footsteps, and may you in that witness to the God of all creation seen and known fully in Jesus Christ.