Jesus Christ: The Image of the Invisible God - Sermon: 26 November 2017

Colossians 1:15-20
Rev. David K. Wood, Ph.D.

This morning is "Christ the King Sunday" on the Christian calendar and it is an event that is celebrated not just by Presbyterians and Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists, but by our ROMAN CATHOLIC brothers and sisters as well. The tradition was begun in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in an effort to combat what he saw was the rising tide of secularism which he felt was beginning to overtake much of Catholic religious life. He believed that a celebration of the coming reign of Christ as King of the earth and the fulfillment of his kingdom in our midst would help restore greater respect and authority for both Christ and for his church. Christ the King Sunday also marks the CLIMAX and CONCLUSION of the church year with the NEW liturgical year starting all over again with the arrival of the first Sunday in Advent next week. 

This morning’s New Testament lesson comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It was written to the church in Colossae in response to a heresy that was then being circulated throughout the church, one which attacked the unique supremacy of their Lord by saying that Jesus was NOT the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Thus, to counter this false teaching, he asserts here, more than he does in any of his other writings, how Christ is co-equal with God and the perfect representation of his person and will. Had this heresy been left to take root and continue unchallenged, it might well have led to the ruination of the Christian faith.

With verses 15-20, he quotes what was actually part of a hymn sung by the early church extolling Christ as the creating and redeeming Lord over all creation. He was before anything that was created and in him, all things are held together. He is the head of the body--the Church--and the first-born of many brothers and sisters who comprise his church. His purpose in coming in the first place was for the purpose of reconciliation, for healing the breach and overcoming the chasm that existed between God and man. Christ accomplished this through the blood of the cross, through his personal sacrifice on behalf of a broken and estranged world.

Paul emphasizes here how Christ was “the image of the invisible God” and that in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” What he was saying is that amid the many images we have of God, both biblical or imagined, there IS one that expressly reveals the true character and personality of God. Where all others mere POINT to God, that is INTIMATE or SUGGEST the divine, THIS one image—that of Jesus Christ, the Son of God--REVEALS GOD IN ALL HIS ENTIRETY. This one person alone in and through his life and words and character discloses the very heart, will, and feelings of God so that once encountering him, no one can ever say he or she has ever SEEN or KNOWN God; he ALONE is the one infallible and perfect image of God. In other words, if we could somehow take this infinite, immeasurable Spirit we call God and condense him to human scale and proportion, God would be perfectly represented in the nature, actions, and words of Jesus of Nazareth- the fullness of God in human form, a divine heart with a human face. In v.15, Paul uses the Greek word "eikon" which communicates the idea that Christ doesn’t merely resemble or point to God but he PARTICIPATES IN AND WITH the nature of God; he doesn’t merely copy but VISIBLY MANIFESTS AND PERFECTLY REVEALS GOD IN HUMAN FORM. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul talks about "the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God's own being." By virtue of his unique and personal relationship to God, Jesus tells his followers in the Gospel of John, "The Father and I are one" (10:30), and "Whosoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9). The fact is that if one would know the one, true God, he or she must look to Jesus who perfectly represents God in a form which any one of us can see and know and understand.

Paul understood all-too-well how our image of God ultimately influences the way we RELATE TO and RESPOND TO God. For instance, in Jesus' Parable of the Talents, the servant buries his talents in the ground rather than wisely investing them like the other two. He does this because, as he says, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground." Because his image of his Master was that of a ruthless, vengeful tyrant who demanded from his workers more than they were capable of giving, the servant fearfully buried his allotted funds to preserve it rather than take the risk of losing it.

The truth is that we ALL retain different images of God, many of which are nothing more than caricatures and childish images we learned as children and have never grown out of. Years ago, the English pastor and biblical scholar J.B. Phillips in his classic book Your God Is Too Small, identified some of them- images such as God as “RESIDENT POLICEMAN,” where God is seen as a stern judge ready to condemn one for the slightest infraction; or God as "PARENTAL HANGOVER," that is, when God takes on the image of one’s earthly father (or even mother). He said some see God as a "GRAND OLD MAN," the white-headed geriatric seated on a gold throne; or God as "PURE LOVE," that is, as a saccharine, syrupy, sentimental lover who never judges, never becomes critical, but who just "loves"- everything and everyone. There is the image of God as "REASON" or "ENERGY" or "PURE MIND"- the god worshiped by the scientist and philosopher; the image of God as "Nature"- the deity worshiped by the artists and poets; and the image of God as the "NATION-STATE" such as the Nazis promulgated in the 1930’s. The fact is that we are only limited by our imagination as to how we might regard God with MOST of our images being little more than projections of our own feelings, wishes, and desires- what the Bible calls “idolatry.” Such were the gods of the Greeks and the Romans who were little more than human beings with their same human faults and propensities. The result is that we conform our understanding of God to our own fantasies and fashion him in our OWN image than the image of the One who has called us to worship, love, and serve him. This is why the Jews were prohibited in the Ten Commandments from ever making for themselves “any graven image of God, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”(Ex.20:4)- lest they lapse into the same idolatry that characterized the REST of the world.

What we don’t often realize is that our image of God is rarely the same throughout our lifetimes, that like MOST things about us, it evolves and changes over time- or at least it SHOULD. Take for example our view of our parents. Like most children, when I was very young, I thought of my father as a kind of “superman.” I would have told you back then that he was the strongest, wisest, most intelligent man on the face of the planet. There is a story of a father who sat on the beach one holiday with his young son just as the sun was going down. He pointed to it dramatically and said, "Going...going...gone!" And the sun disappeared from view. With the great faith that young children often have in their fathers, the child demanded with all expectancy, "Do it again, Daddy! Do it AGAIN!" We all have that kind of faith in our parents when we’re young, don’t we. However, as I grew up, I began to see that he was human just like myself and thus limited in every way as everyone else, a fact that becomes ESPECIALLY clear to us when WE became parents OURSELVES. Had we retained that image of our mothers and fathers as all-wise, all-knowing, and all-powerful into adulthood, people would have considered us silly or immature or even questioned our mental stability- and RIGHTLY SO. 

Well as our view of our parents changes over time, so does our image of GOD. IT changes because WE change, and the more we know about ourselves and the world, the greater and deeper our understanding of who God is and how God operates. The Apostle Paul says as much at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter,” when he tells the Corinthian Christians, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Paul was implying that as he matured in his walk with Christ, as his heart and mind and sympathies and compassion and commitments became a more perfect representation of Christ in the world, so did his understanding and knowledge of God and of that relationship.

You see, Paul understood back then what many historians and anthropologists do today, that there once was a time when human beings almost universally imagined God as a spirit which dwelt in a river, or a tree, or a mountain. This god was often viewed as angry or vindictive and so sacrifices were made--even involving other human beings--to appease his anger or to earn his favor or to procure his blessing. However, all that changed when Jesus Christ entered our world. Through his life and ministry, he incarnated or revealed the essential nature of God insofar as it could be demonstrated in human form. God’s nature and purposes were fully revealed in and through this one person and no one else: Jesus Christ- “the image of the invisible God” made real to us in human flesh. Sacrifices no longer had to be made because he HIMSELF had become the FINAL, the ULTIMATE, and the ETERNAL sacrifice. He was the “Lamb of God” who by his death on a cross took away the sins of the world. By laying down his life on our behalf, all those barriers which once prohibited us from enjoying a loving and dynamic union with God were once and for all swept aside, and now we could enjoy the same intimate relationship with the Father that JESUS HIMSELF had.

Some of you may remember how a couple of years back there was a comedy starring Will Ferrell called Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Ferrell plays the part of a bumbling NASCAR racer named Ricky Bobby who in one scene is sitting down with his family and best friend Cal for a dinner of Domino’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell. However, before they eat, Ricky has everyone bow their heads while he leads them in grace. He begins his prayer, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” He then proceeds to thank baby Jesus for various blessings, including his “red-hot smoking wife, Carley.” As he prays, he continues to repeat the phrase “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.”

Carley interrupts him and says, “You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.” Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When YOU say grace, you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.” Ricky Bobby continues his prayer, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers, with your tiny balled-up fists.” His father-in-law angrily interrupts, “He was a man. He had a beard!” Ricky Bobby snaps back, “Listen, I’m saying grace, and I like the Christmas version best!”

Ignoring the conflict between the two men, Ricky Bobby’s best friend Cal says, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt. It says like, I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too.” One of Ricky Bobby’s sons says, “I like to picture Jesus as a Ninja, fighting off the evil samurai.” Cal then adds, “I like to think of Jesus with giant eagle wings and singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel band.” 

Ricky Bobby returns to his prayer, saying, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, who does not even know a word yet—little infant, so cuddly but still omnipotent.” He then thanks baby Jesus for all his NASCAR victories and the millions in prize money he has won. He concludes grace by saying, “Thank you for all your power and grace, dear Baby God. Amen.” Immediately after the prayer, Cal says, “That was one heck of a grace, man! You nailed that like a split hog!”

Of course, as silly as that scene may be, it does highlight an important truth. That is that our spiritual lives suffer because many of us continue to cling to images of God and even of Jesus himself which we may have learned as children in Sunday School but yet have never progressed from or moved beyond. I’ve talked to enough church people in my life to know that for many Christians, their image of Jesus, like Ricky Bobby, never gets beyond one that makes them feel good or comfortable. For some, it is, like Ricky Bobby, the image of the INFANT JESUS, sucking his thumb in the manger, that holds their attention, one they find to be so peaceful and completely non-threatening. For some, it is Jesus, the GOOD SHEPHERD, watching over his wayward sheep that they find most meaningful. There are persons for whom Jesus as PROPHET, as the one who courageously confronts the unjust powers of this world in the name of righteousness, who holds the greatest allure, while for others, it is the SUFFERING SERVANT, hanging from a cross, pardoning his enemies for their actions, that speaks most powerfully. Now EACH of these are important to the church and mustn’t be discounted. But according to the Apostle Paul, the image of Christ as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” as shown in Colossians 1 remains the highest, the noblest, and the most complete image of Christ we can possibly have. In fact, the early church found it to be SO inspiring that they could not think about it without turning it into a hymn and offering up praise and adoration to him through it. 

In this morning’s New Testament lesson, Jesus is referred to as the firstborn of all creation through whom all things in heaven and on earth were created, that he was before all things and--in him--all things are held together. In the Gospel of John, we are told that “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”(John 1:3) The Epistle to the Hebrews says that Christ was “appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world,”(Heb. 1:2) and in Revelation, he is called “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”(Rev. 22:13) For Paul, this expression is the highest evolution of our faith and the noblest and most glorious title one can possibly ascribe to him, and yet our Lord is not SO great that he is completely removed from us and our problems in life; he is not SO exalted that he can no longer sense our tears and fears or feel our pain as he once had- he remains Immanuel or “God with us” in every way. Is it any wonder then that this would become part of a great hymn of the Early Church- because they felt they could not dwell upon it WITHOUT ultimately breaking out in song and giving him due praise. Our Colossians text is important because in it, St. Paul is saying that for all the images which one can employ to help us understand and relate to God, there is none MORE DEFINITIVE and TRUSTWORTHY than THIS one; it is the highest and greatest image of God that a Christian can possibly conceive- Christ, the creator and head of all things IN whom all things exist and THROUGH whom all things are held together. And if we continue to think of him as the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” and hold THIS image close to our heart and conduct our lives on the basis of it, not only will we see our faith increase and deepen over time, but we will find that, like those early Christians, it is not long before we TOO break out in song and giving him the praise and honor he so rightly deserves. Let us pray...

Gracious God, thank you for revealing yourself through your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you that because he existed and walked among us, we cannot say we do not know who you are or what you would expect from us. May he continue to be a model and pattern as to how we should conduct our OWN lives- through his life of compassion and humility and peace. In his name we pray. Amen.