St Michael’s, 23rd October 2016
Readings – Matthew 17:1-13; Colossians 1:15-23
If someone asked you what Jesus looked like, how would you reply?
One way or another all of us have our own particular image of Jesus. Perhaps we grew up with the Sunday School picture of a man with blue eyes and flowing robes. Or maybe our mind goes to Robert Powell playing Jesus of Nazareth in the 1970s mini-series. Or possibly we think of Holman Hunt’s famous portrayal of Jesus as the light of the world. What Jesus looked like is a hugely controversial subject and if you want to find out more, I can recommend the great evangelistic website rejesus.co.uk for more information.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that for about the first four hundred years Christians did not create any visual representations of their Saviour. The earliest Christian artwork contains symbols and inscriptions, but you will not find any actual pictures showing what Jesus looked like. Why not?
Well, for one thing nowhere does the Bible give us a physical description of Jesus. We know Jesus touched with His hands, that He ate and drank, and that He looked at people. But none of the gospel writers actually tell us anything about Jesus’ appearance. And there is a good reason for this. We may want images and pictures of Jesus, and indeed they may be very powerful and very moving, but they can only ever show one side of Jesus’ nature. They can teach us something about Jesus the man, and they can bring out His exceptional qualities, but they can only reveal to us His human side.
The central claim of the Christian faith, however, is that Jesus is far more than just another prophet or teacher or wise man. He is the only Son of God, not only fully human but also fully divine. How could you possibly make that point by a mere painting or drawing?
Listen to how Paul begins our passage in Colossians this morning. Verse 15: He (that is Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Now I guess we don’t tend to think of Jesus in these terms that often, because frankly we tend to prefer a smaller, more human Jesus we can capture in a picture or on a film. Yet it is important that from time to time we read a passage like this so that we remind ourselves afresh who He truly is.
So what’s the big deal about Jesus being the image of the invisible God? Sure, it sounds like a very bold theological statement and something we might be happy to agree to, but what’s it got to do with me and my everyday life?
Well, just think for a moment what Paul is saying. Back in the Old Testament the Lord told Moses you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live (Ex 33:20). That wasn’t meant to scare Moses or stop him coming before the Lord, but to point out a very obvious truth, that none of us are able to stand before the Lord by our own merit. After all, just imagine for a moment you met the Lord in all His power, all His holiness and all His splendour. I know that I for one would be absolutely terrified. How could I a mere mortal possibly survive before the one who creates galaxies and holds all things in His hands?
Yet when Jesus came to this earth, He made the most astonishing claim. John 14:9: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. So in some way or other Jesus makes God approachable. We can look at Jesus and through Him know the Lord of Lord, the King of Kings as Father. That is the amazing, life-changing truth which is at the heart of Christianity and it is the reason why we have such wonderful good news to proclaim.
But there’s more. Listen to what Paul goes on to say in verses 16-17: For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
In other words, this Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament, is also the one through whom all things were made. Now sometimes I ask folk when they think the story of Jesus started, and I get a variety of responses. Some say the story began Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, others when an angel appeared to Mary, others when the Lord spoke way back when to the prophets. But in a very real sense the story of Jesus has no beginning.
A week on Thursday we are going to have our second Bible overview looking at the opening words of Genesis. We are told in Genesis 1:3 that creation began when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God spoke through His word and stuff came into existence. As we remember every Christmas, that word was and is Jesus. Jesus is the agent who turns the purposes of God into the reality we can see around us.
And don’t get confused by that word “firstborn” in the previous verse. Some cults and some religions use a verse like Colossians 1:15 to imply that Jesus really was just another created being. But in the ancient world the firstborn of the family was one given all the honour and privilege, and so that word “firstborn” simply came to mean anyone who was in a position of authority. We know that’s what Paul means here, because three verses later on, he talks about Jesus being the firstborn from among the dead and clearly that expression has nothing to do with physical birth. No, Paul is using a way of speaking to make the point that because Jesus has always been around from the beginning of time He is worthy of our praise and worship. He is the eternal word of God through whom everything has been made, and in whom all things hold together – from the smallest subatomic particle to the greatest galaxy to every single person here this morning.
I guess when you start to think about Jesus in those terms, your head begins to spin. But there’s more. Verse 18: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
One of the problems I think we have when we talk about church is that so often we fail to understand what exactly the church is. When we woke up this morning and decided to go to church, probably we were thinking of this building and/or the people who attend St Michael’s. And there’s nothing particularly wrong in thinking this way. On a human level the church is both this beautiful building here on Albert Road and the wonderful people who come and worship here Sunday by Sunday.
But in God’s plans and purposes the church is so much more than just the building and the people. It is the body of Christ. And what does that mean? Well, this Jesus we have just been talking about, the one who has power and authority over all creation, has in His wisdom chosen us to be His physical presence on earth. Our calling is to show by our life together that Jesus has the supremacy, or to put it another way, that He is Lord. And our mission is to be a community where folk experience the resurrection power of Jesus and come to know Him as their Saviour.
After all, the origin of the word “church” simply means, “a people who belong to the Lord”. So on a very basic level everything we do, every decision we pass at our church councils, every plan we make for growth and outreach, should all be focused on one simple goal – to make Jesus known and give Him the glory. Yet I know, you know, that so often the church seems to have its attention on other things, on structures and procedures, for example, or its reputation in the community, or the latest trendy social cause.
Why is this? Because we forget that if we are the body of Christ, then Jesus is the head. He is one who has called us into being in the first place and He is the one who gives our life and our mission. So instead of relying on our own wisdom and our own resources, we need to learn to depend on Him – not just when we run out of money or find our numbers falling – but in all the decisions we have to make, from the biggest plans for growth and outreach to the smallest details about keeping the church going. And that’s something we find hard. Even though we may already have faith in Jesus, all of us have this tendency only to turn to Him in emergencies, when there’s a real need. Jesus wants to be our head over all things, so our faith becomes far more than words, and more a living, growing sense of trust where it becomes second nature to ask for the help and grace of His Holy Spirit.
So Paul wants us to understand Jesus is Lord over creation and Lord over the church. But there’s more.
Let’s read on to verses 19-20: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven… how? … by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Now I hope that when you hear these words you feel a certain sense of shock. Paul has presented the most beautiful and most breathtaking description of Jesus and it all seems to be building up to this wonderful climax, and then right at the end he brings in mention of the cross. If that doesn’t surprise you, or make you wonder, then I suggest you haven’t really grasped the point of what he is saying. Here is Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, the one who has the supremacy over all things, bleeding and dying on a crude wooden structure just outside the walls of Jerusalem, suffering the most unimaginable pain and agony.
So we have to ask: why would Jesus choose to suffer like this? Well, remember what I said earlier that no-one is able to stand before the Lord by his or her own merit. There is from our perspective an unbridgeable gap between our weakness and God’s power, between our wrongdoing and God’s holiness. So when, for example, the prophet Isaiah caught even a fleeting glimpse of the Lord in the temple, all he could do was cry out, Woe to me! I am ruined (Isaiah 6:5). We are in our own natural state cut off from the love and mercy of the God who created us.
You see, there is a basic problem all of us face. We have been created in the image of God to love and serve Him but we have decided to live as if He wasn’t there. God has called us to turn back to Him but we have chosen again and again to silence His still, small voice. Yet mystery of mysteries God had not given up on us. Amazingly He already knew even before He made us that we would reject Him and turn our back on Him. And so He asked His only Son Jesus if He was willing to come to this earth, make Himself nothing and pay the price for our sin. And Jesus turned to His Father and said, “Yes, I am”.
That is why Jesus, the one Paul describes in verse 19 as the very fullness of God, came and shed His blood for you and for me. He took the punishment we deserved so that we could be reconciled to the God of heaven and earth and call Him Father. He came to give us peace at the deepest and most personal level, by dealing all the wrong we have ever done and the justifiable anger the Lord held against us.
So this is where our reading from Colossians suddenly becomes intensely real. Paul isn’t only writing these words to a church somewhere in Greece 2000 years ago. He is also writing them to us to remind us who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
Verses 21-22: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…
That is the difference Jesus’ death on a cross makes to you and to me. No longer alienated, no longer enemies of God, no longer lost in our evil behaviour. But reconciled, acceptable to God, able to stand in the presence of the Lord and live.
So do you have a story of Jesus making a difference in your life? It may be you’ve only just started to coming to church and have never heard that much about Jesus. It may be you have been coming to church for years but somehow you have never seen the big picture of who Jesus is. Well, God doesn’t judge us on how much or how little we know. He simply offers us a fresh start through His Son Jesus Christ, and He asks us to make a response.
So this morning I will, in a moment, invite everyone here to use this passage as a simple prayer to turn to Jesus in faith and trust. If this is the first time you have ever prayed like this, or if today you want to make a fresh commitment to the Lord, then please speak to me afterwards. But whether you speak to me or not, don’t leave this morning without seriously considering your response and the offer of life that Jesus is giving you.
However, before we pray this prayer, I want to make one final point. Look at how Paul finishes this passage in verse 23: if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Now Paul here isn’t telling us to doubt whether we are saved or not. Once Jesus the Lord of all creation deals with all the wrong in our lives we are saved. Full stop. End of story. But He is telling us that from the moment we accept Jesus into our lives we need to build our whole lives on Him. We mustn’t ever move away from the hope He offers us through the cross and the empty tomb.
You see, believing in Jesus is not the end of the process. It’s the start of a lifelong journey learning to follow Him, and to trust Him as Lord and Saviour in every season of life. It’s a journey we make together as the body of Christ, as we own Him as our head and rely on the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it is journey that we make in the hope that is stored up for us in heaven, firm and secure for all eternity.
So do you want to make that journey? If so, then pray with me…
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for your Son Jesus.
Thank you that He is Lord over all.
Thank you sent Him into the world to die for me.
I no longer want to be your enemy.
I am sorry for the wrong thoughts of my hearts and the wrong deeds I have done.
Please give me your peace.
And may I become part of your body here on earth, the church,
To love and to serve you all my life through.
For your name’s sake.