The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 11/26/95

Text: Col. 1:15-23 (Matt 11:2-6)

To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Life was difficult. It always was for prisoners. Meager rations. Hard labor. Sometimes restrained and tortured by the stocks or collar. Left with festering wounds in damp, abandoned cisterns converted to maximum security dungeons. Why was he here? His only crime was criticizing the king for stealing his own brother's wife, Herodias. Herodias wanted John killed, but Herod Antipas was reluctant - he knew the people thought highly of John.

John's ministry had begun in the wilderness where he subsisted on an ascetic diet of locusts and wild honey. He wore the dress of a prophet, camel's hair and a leather belt. John preached the need for repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, the Christos, the anointed one, and called on people to be baptized in recognition of their cleansing - thus his nickname, John the Baptizer or John the Baptist. John was a man of high ethics - he preached fairness and sharing: a person who had two coats should give one to a someone who had none; tax collectors were warned to collect no more than their due; and soldiers were instructed to rob no one and be content with their wages. Fairness. Sharing. But sharing your brother's wife was a bit much. So here he was. The royal prison.

Meanwhile, John's cousin, Jesus, was continuing a ministry that had commenced some months before. Indeed, it had begun as the two were together in the wilderness at the Jordan. John was convinced that this Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the one who had been prophesied for centuries, one who would be specially anointed to carry out God's plan for Israel. The Christ would be great David's even greater son, and a new day would dawn with his appearing. John had been excited at the arrival of Jesus. Jesus asked for baptism, but John was reluctant, claiming to be unworthy even to loose the thongs of Jesus' sandals. But Jesus persisted, John relented, and at the special moment saw the Spirit of God descend as a dove and heard a voice from heaven saying, "You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11).

Now it had been months since that day by the Jordan. But no revolution had begun; Rome was still master of Israel; Herod remained on the throne. Here John was in prison. What was going on? So he sent two of his disciples to inquire: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Not only the question of an ancient text, but the question that has been repeated ever since, and until the end of time, will continue to be asked by every human heart.

Of course, the answer of the Gospel, the faith in which we have been raised, says ABSOLUTELY! Yes, Jesus is the one. This Jesus is unique. He is the INCOMPARABLE CHRIST. Listen again to the Apostle Paul:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together... he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven...
Sounds remarkably like a Confession of Faith, doesn't it? That is not accidental. You see, Paul makes these ringing statements in answer to some questions about Jesus which had been raised in the Colossian church (and others as well). The questions were not centered around, "Are you the one or should we wait for another," but rather, "Just what do we make of you?" "How should we understand Jesus?" The questions were being raised by a group within the church known as the GNOSTICS.

By way of background, a bit about the Gnostics. The term "gnostic" is derived from the Greek word gnosis which means "knowledge" because secret knowledge was so crucial a doctrine to the group. Gnostics developed their theology in terms that would have been very comfortable in the culture of the day, a milieu which was permeated by Greek influence and said that the universe is divided into good and evil (the good being spiritual; the evil, anything material) and populated by a series of gods. At the top of the pecking order was a god who was perfect, untouched by any sin or evil (anything physical). Descending from the top god was a series of lesser gods (so-called "emanations") who were less pure because of their contact with impure things. At the bottom of this totem pole, was the god who created the world and all that is in it. Since physical things are inherently impure, this would be a pretty impure god. Thus, the god of the Old Testament would have been this subordinate god because this god dealt with matter and was responsible for our decaying, tragedy- and misery-filled world.

Now, along comes Jesus the Redeemer to reveal the pure god through secret teachings which, of course, could only be understood by the spiritually enlightened, those with KNOWLEDGE, the Gnostics. And, by the way, since Jesus was representing the PURE god, the one who could not be corrupted by contact with physical things, Jesus therefore could not have been physical himself - not human flesh - because the absolute god would not enter evil matter - Christ only seemed or appeared to be a person, but he was not. Thus, he could NOT have suffered and died on the cross, he just SEEMED to. Some even said that he did not cast a shadow when he walked. Gnosticism was the result of an attempt by some early Christian thinkers to make Christianity understandable, acceptable, and respectable in a Greek world (which, by the way, is often the way a heresy gets started).

Paul says no. First he declares that Jesus Christ is the IMAGE of the invisible God. The Greek word for image is eikon; even though we force Paul to jump through the centuries to explain, those of you who are computer junkies know about icons - click on the icon, and you get the whole program. In the eikon Jesus, you have, not just a picture or some representation, you actually have GOD.

Paul then talks about creation and says Christ is the "firstborn." Firstborn is understood in the ancient world as more than simply order of appearance; it is a title of honor. Thus, for Paul, firstborn of all creation means that this one unique individual must be accorded the highest honor creation can offer. In fact, why not? Paul writes, "for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers (all these lesser emanations, these lesser gods) all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Creation did not come at the hand of some inferior sin-stained god, but through the will and word of this one perfect Lord and Christ. Here is the true sovereign.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he laid the crown on her head with the sure pronouncement, "I give thee, O sovereign lady, this crown to wear until he who reserves the right to wear it shall return." (1) Queen Victoria once told her chaplain that she hoped Jesus' second coming would occur during her reign. The chaplain wondered why, and the queen explained, "So I can take my crown and lay it at his feet." In the words of Isaac Watts' paraphrase of the 72nd Psalm,

Jesus shall reign where're the sun
Does his successive journeys run,
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Now Paul moves to discuss Christ's relationship to the church. He calls him the "head of the body." If the church is the "body of Christ," (a phrase which Paul has used previously), then the image is one of direction - the church does not go about its task running around like a chicken (or anything else) with its head cut off. The body moves at the head's bidding. Through history we can see some strange (and even awful) things that the church has done in the name of its head, but overall, the record of the church's accomplishments in making life on this planet more as God originally intended is remarkable.

Paul says Christ is the "beginning" of the church - not only the "inventor" in time and space, but also the SOURCE of its life and being. He is the "firstborn from the dead" - this Christ is not some fascinating figure of history through whom we learn by old example; no, this Christ not only lived and died but rose again and meets us and greets us at every turn. And he WILL have "first place in everything."

Finally, Paul describes Christ's relation to the universe. He says, in him, "all the FULLNESS of God was pleased to dwell." "Fullness" was a theological term for the Gnostics - pleroma - this was what they called that top god, the one untouched by sin and stain. It was the goal of the believer, not to go to heaven (if there was such a place) but rather finally to be absorbed into the pleroma. Paul says No - the pleroma has come to be with US, RECONCILING - breaking barriers, building bridges - making peace.

Now for the really startling assertion. How is this reconciliation effected, this peace made? "...through the blood of his cross...and you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his FLESHLY BODY through death..." That's right. No pretend Christ, no seemingly real Christ. This one BLEEDS red blood when you cut into his meaty FLESH.

Strange. The sovereign God of all the universe coming in a human body, suffering and dying? Really? "Are you the one or should we wait for another?" Thus, the strange answer to John the Baptist's disciples. Not, "Hang in there for just a bit longer and the revolution will begin." Instead, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them." Different. Very different.

Yes, King of kings and Lord of lords. But there is something utterly unique with this king - instead of being draped with the trappings of an all-powerful potentate, he reigns as a suffering servant. Our Sovereign Lord is revealed in the one who walked the dusty roads of Palestine, who had no place to lay his head, who emptied himself in obedience all the way to the cross. How do we honor such a king? He talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and then this strange king says we show we care for HIM when we care for someone in need. Different.

An anonymous author made this striking comparison: "Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only 3. Yet the influence of Christ's 3-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men, who were among the greatest philosophers of all antiquity.

Jesus painted no pictures yet some of the finest paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci received their inspiration from him. Jesus wrote no poetry but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world's greatest poets were inspired by him. Jesus composed no music still Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn reached their highest perfection of melody in the hymns, symphonies, and oratorios they composed in his praise. Every sphere of human greatness has been enriched by this humble Carpenter of Nazareth.

His unique contribution to humanity is the salvation of the soul! Philosophy could not accomplish that. Nor art. Nor literature. Nor music. Only Jesus Christ can break the enslaving chains of sin. He alone can speak peace to the human heart, strengthen the weak, and give life to those who are spiritually dead." (2)

"Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?" As one commentator has written, "He was to be Emmanuel, God-with-Us, the Prince of Peace, the Branch, Shiloh, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God. His particular human name, Yeshua or Jesus, means Savior. But his followers knew him as Messiah or Christ, God's anointed messenger. In time, they also began to call him Lord, not merely a courtesy similar to "Sir," nor the honorific due a nobleman. They saw him to be Lord and Christ in testimony of his cosmic authority over nature's elements, over atomic particles, over space and time, over disease and demons, and climactically over death. The earliest Christian creed - perhaps also a password among persecuted believers - may have been the three simple words, KYRIOS IESOUS CHRISTOS, `Jesus Christ is Lord.'" (3)

One final thing to note: the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ. If we have not met him before, we will encounter him at the end of human history. There will come a day when the aim of God, the dream of God, the purpose of God will be realized. There will come a day when EVERY knee shall bow...and EVERY tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Yes, there will come a day when the wrong shall fail, the right prevail because Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when the principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness of this world will reluctantly declare that Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when sin will no longer have dominion over anyone and we will be able to shout Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream because Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when all tears are wiped away and there will be no more sorrow or pain or crying or death because Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when ALL God's children, red and yellow, black and white, will join in one mighty chorus and sing, Jesus Christ is Lord! Are you ready?

Can you hear it? Down through the corridors of time faintly echo the strains that have become so familiar but slowly build to a crescendo and which one day will resound through the rafters of the universe. Can you hear it? Louder and louder it gets: "King of kings and Lord of lords and he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!" The Incomparable Christ. Jesus Christ is Lord! Now and always.


1. Dynamic Illustrations, July/Aug 94
2. Don Emmitte, in Dynamic Illustrations, Jan/Feb 94
3. D. Bruce Lockerbie, The Cosmic Center, (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986), p. 182
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