A sermon by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
July 14, 2013
(Holding up a glass of water) And now for the proverbial question—is this glass of water half-full or half-empty?
Because we’re in church we might all be inclined to say, “Of course the glass is half-full!” But howmany of us would opt for “half-empty” if we honestly voted our feelings at this moment?
You could certainly forgive Paul for casting his vote for “half-empty” as he wrote his letter to Christ-followers in Colossae. Tradition says Paul was sitting in a prison cell in
Rome when he penned this letter, and we can be sure his prison was no picnic. Knowing he would almost certainly die for the gospel he preached, Paul might well have written like some disillusioned philosopher, lamenting that life was an empty, pointless exercise full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Then again, you don’t have to be sitting in prison facing execution to see the glass as half-empty.
Someone asked best-selling author Jack Higgins what he wished he’d been told as a child. His reply? “When you get to the top, there’s nothing there.”
Jack Higgins put his finger on the dirty little secret that few of us want to admit to ourselves, much less to others. Despite our comparative wealth and education, and even our participation in church, many of us privately struggle with a “there’s nothing there” sensation in our souls.
In the opening paragraphs of her book, Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson writes: “There is a hunger abroad in our time, haunting lives and hearts. Like an empty stomach aching beneath the sleek coat of a seemingly well-fed creature, it reveals that something is missing from the diet of our rational, secular, and affluent culture…
“For some of us, the hunger is amorphous. Like free-floating anxiety, it lurks just beneath the surface of consciousness. Perhaps we feel an emptiness that leaves us restless for a larger meaning and purpose in life. Perhaps we sense that we are sailing through life in a rudderless ship. Something is missing. Something is out of balance. But it remains nameless.
“For others of us, the hunger is recognizably spiritual. We know there is a vacuum inside us that will suck up an infinite supply of thrills, goods, and successes without satisfying the human heart.”
Richard Rohr says one sign of our aching emptiness is the way we constantly look to discover, or even create drama. When there’s nothing there, you have to create something, usually some kind of drama, to fill the vacuum. Ask yourself—are Americans riveted by the Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman trial because of our passion for justice, or because we need the drama to make us feel alive? And what national drama will we be riveted by a month from now?
Meanwhile Paul has no need to create drama because he is living inside the drama of God, a life-story that puts the life-dramas of People Magazine to shame. And what you cannot miss in Paul’s letter to Colossae are the images of fullness and abundance that appear in every other line.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians differs from his other letters because Paul did not plant the church in Colossae—a dear friend named Epaphras did. In fact, Paul never even visited Colossae. But when Epaphras visited Paul in prison and told him that outsiders were spreading false teachings in Colossae that promised fullness in the Spirit apart from Christ, Paul put his pen to paper to set the record straight about how God truly filled the human soul with himself.
As he refuted these false teachings, Paul cleverly used the same vocabulary of the teachers, but then supplied different meanings to the words. Words like “fullness”, “perfect”, and “complete” appear repeatedly in this brief letter made up of four chapters. And over 30 times Paul uses the little word, all.
But that’s where the similarities end. The false teachers believed Jesus was one among many of God’s special messengers to earth. And they were confident Jesus was not really made of flesh and blood because all flesh, all matter was evil. Furthermore, simply believing in Jesus wasn’t enough. You had to possess secret knowledge available only to the privileged few. You had to engage in ascetical practices that denied the flesh, and follow lots of laws to the letter in order to be fully complete in God’s sight.
Paul uses two words in Colossians to describe this philosophy—empty deceit (2:8). Ironically, the very philosophy that promises fullness of spirit is as empty as a vacuum tube. It is just one more attempt to create fullness rather than discover the fullness of God in Christ Jesus. And it failed, miserably.
Meanwhile, the gospel of Jesus brims with images of abundance. There is no one way to describe the richness of knowing God in Christ Jesus, just like there is no one way to describe falling in love. All you know is that your once empty heart is full to overflowing, and your vocabulary strains to put into words that which is inexpressible.
That doesn’t stop Paul from trying! Listen again to the images of fullness and abundance expressed in Colossians 1. Speaking of the gospel of Jesus Paul writes, Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God (which, by the way, is sufficient to save you, apart from any of the practices taught by the false teachers)….
For this reason, since the day we heard (that you became Christ-followers), we have not ceased praying for you (in fact, the letter to Colossae is an extended intercessory prayer) and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you become strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father….
Paul ends this opening section of his letter by reminding us that God has transferred us from the dark power of this world to the kingdom of his beloved Son. These days we are talking a lot about the kingdom of God. And the good news of the gospel is that in God’s kingdom you don’t have to create your own drama to have something rather than nothing. Instead that something, that someone is already present, in great abundance. His name is Jesus, and he provides a feast for the soul that satisfies our deepest hunger, our aching emptiness like none other.
Notice in particular that Paul prays the Colossians may be filled with God’s wisdom and power. Again, this is not coincidental because Paul knows the false teachers are promising superhuman wisdom and power to live above and beyond the normal human plane. Paul wants to be clear that there is wisdom and power from above—in fact without that wisdom and power we cannot operate as followers of Jesus. But the wisdom and power Paul speaks of is far different than that offered by the false teachers.
For one thing, Paul’s wisdom and power are available to all who follow Jesus, not just a select few. Indeed, says Paul, the gospel is bearing fruit in the whole world. And speaking of good fruit, this wisdom and power are used to help us live the life of Jesus in our bodies and in this world. They are designed to make us fully human, not to help us escape our humanity. God’s wisdom and power transform us into mature Christ-followers who seek not to feather our own nests but serve for the sake of others.
First Baptist, we know more about this spiritual wisdom of God than we used to, don’t we? The biblical word for this wisdom is “discernment”, and we recently emptied ourselves as a congregation before God and followed a discernment process for over a year that yielded results we would never have reached on our own. And we know more about God’s power than we used to, a power that does not always produce supernatural feats of strength—though it certainly can—but can also serve as a steady source of strength supporting us through difficult seasons of life with Spirit-given endurance and joy.
Today we have already witnessed the ordinance of baptism. We filled a baptistery full of water so we might put Hannah Boyte under the water so we might celebrate that God in his goodness filled her young soul with the life-changing presence of Jesus. From time to time Hannah may feel the emptiness of soul that eventually comes to us all. But when she does, she will know that the dry well of her soul can always be refilled with the Spirit of God in a way no earthly drama could ever match.
In acknowledgement of Paul’s promise that we too can be filled, we have located four smaller baptisteries, four “half-full” bowls of water around the sanctuary. In just a moment I will invite you to dip your hand in the water to not only remember and renew your own baptism, but to ask God to fill the empty places of your soul, to fill you with the wisdom and power to follow Jesus as only God can.
When you arrive at the station, place your fingers in the water, and someone will pray the following prayer for you—“May you be filled with God’s wisdom and power.”
Will you come and let God fill you again? What prevents you, too, from being baptized…again?