July 21, 2019
I indulged in a flight of fancy this week. I imagined the preacher as preschool teacher, and the authors of our various lections as mini, four-year-old versions of themselves. Over there is Amos, watching the news on television and scolding the authorities who are explaining why tearing down an old and poverty-stricken neighbourhood to make room for a shopping mall is a good idea. And in that corner, little Paul is standing on a chair looking out the window, declaiming poetry to the squirrel in the tree outside. And here in front of me is sweet Luke. He’s got a big idea for a great story, and he’s sitting at the little tab!e with his crayons and a big sheet of drawing paper, making a map to go with his story world, a la J.R.R. Tolkien. The psalmist is the little girl sitting in the playhouse singing to her doi!. Even little Collect is there. She’s the kid who invariably catches you if you stub your toe and swear. and she mostly only speaks in short, declarative sentences. Working with these preschool iections is a little bit like herding cats. It takes a light touch and a little bit of reverse psychology, but the trick is to get them to realize that in fact, they are all telling the same story.
Of course, this flight of fancy has very limited use as a metaphor for preaching. Not least is the important point that in this metaphor, I should really be the werrd kid in the corner who cries a lot and cuts her own hair.
But it is a joy to the preacher to open the calendar for the year and look up the lections for the day, then begin to read them over, to meditate on them, and see the threads of thought in them begin to glow, and weave together into a tapestry. It’s amazing, and very, very humbling.
The thread that I see running through our readings today is verse fifteen of Colossians chapter one: Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Image of the invisible, first in creation. We can hold this idea in the centre of our tapestry, and see how everything else is oriented toward it.
Last week and this week, we read from the 7th and 8th chapters of the prophet Amos. Actually, from here on out this year we’re going to be spending a lot of our time with the prophets, particularly Jeremiah. Amos is one of the twelve minor prophets, so-called because their books are quite a bit shorter than the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Amos was a shepherd and a tree surgeon. How cool is that? He lived in Judah, but God called him to prophesy to the nation of Israel in the north.
We see the main thrust of his prophetic message in our reading this morning from chapter 8. The nation of Israel was proud of their status as God’s chosen people, and they would do some of the things God had commanded, like keeping the festivals he had ordained. But when it came to the fundamentals of how God had intended for the nation of Israel to function, especially when it came to taking care of the poor, the people of Israel were failing, hard. They penalized people harshly for small debts, forcing them into indentured servitude. When they harvested their crops, they were supposed to leave the edges of the fields untouched, so the poor could come and gather a little grain for themselves, but instead they were mowing their whole fields, and even sweeping up the dust from the threshing floor to sell, leaving absolutely nothing for the needy. And God says through Amos, I swear by the “Godly heritage” you’re so proud of, I won’t forget any of these things you’ve done. I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping. And here is what I found to be the most interesting part of this reading. In verse 11 it says, “The days are coming, declares the
Sovereign Lord, when I will send famine through the land — not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and
wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it. We get used, or at least I get used, to images of judgement in the prophets being chaos, calamity, natural disasters, war, exile. And certainly those images are there in Amos. But what is the thing people will stagger around looking for, craving but unable to find? The word of the Lord.
In the time of Amos, God’s word was the Law and the Prophets. But those are precursors to Jesus Christ, the Word of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. The nation of Israel may have taken pride in their heritage that included the Law of God, and in obeying the letter of that Law, but they completely missed what the spirit of the Law was. We hear Claude declare it every week: Our Lord Jesus Christ said, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. So that is the first thread in our tapestry, that points to Jesus the image of the invisible God. To follow the letter of the law, but ignore or fail to understand the spirit of the law is to miss out on what the law points to: Jesus.
The second thread in the tapestry really has more in common with a flashing neon sion than a fine, subtle line, gently indicating the central truth. What did we hear in Luke’s gospel? Mary, literally sitting at the literal feet of Jesus. It would be difficult to get any closer to the image of the invisible God! Mary and Martha are such interesting characters in the Gospels. And this is one of those gospel stories in which it seems as though Jesus is having a different conversation than everybody else is having, when he answers a question with what appears at first glance to be a non sequitur. To our modern Western ears it seems as though Martha’s complaint was about the division of labour, the apparent laziness of her sister. They’ve invited a distinguished guest into their home, with the expectation of a certain level of hospitality, including feeding people. Martha isn’t wrong in her interpretation of the social expectations of the situation, or that Mary isn’t fulfilling her social role. But what is more foreign to our modern notions is that what really offended Martha was that her sister was acting like a man. At that time in houses there were spaces just for men, and spaces just for women, as well as clearly delineated tasks for each. Mary had crossed the line, and Martha was aghast. To sit at someone’s feet at that time did not mean hero worship or being star-struck. It meant that you were putting yourself under their instruction. To sit at someone’s feet was to be their student. And no one became a student to learn for learning’s sake. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary was claiming a place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God. This is what upset Martha so much. For a woman to do that simply wasn’t done. And that is why she can’t understand Jesus’ behaviour. Why is he letting Mary do that? Why doesn’t he send her back where she belongs?
This is the question Jesus is really answering when he says, Martha, you are worried about so many things. But only one thing matters. Mary has chosen it, and it won’t be taken away from her. Jesus is affirming Mary’s right to declare herself a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom. In last week’s gospel lesson of the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus was breaking down the borders between nationalities, between Jew and Gentile. In this story, he is breaking the boundaries between men and women in the kingdom of God. This is more than just the egalitarianism of western culture today. Jesus bases his valuation of each person not on an abstract principle of equality, but on the overflowing love of God. Mary stands for every woman who hears Jesus speak about the kingdom and knows that she is being called to listen carefully so that she can speak of it too. The invisible kingdom of God becomes visible in Jesus Christ, and we are all called not just to sit at his feet and learn from him, but to learn so that we can then point others to him as well.
This brings us to the third thread in the tapestry of today’s lessons. Paul is in prison when he writes his letter to the Colossians. The church in Colossae is not actually one that Paul founded himself. He has met some of the Christians there, büt not all of them. He writes to them to encourage them in their faith, but he is addressing one problem in particular. The Colossians believe in Jesus, but not necessarily in his complete supremacy over all other forms of religion or spirituality. It was common in that part of the world to revere more than one deity: one of the reasons Christians were persecuted was because only believing in one God was seen as being basically the same as atheism. Paul is writing to the Colossians to emphasize that it isn’t Jesus Christ and Apollo or Jesus Christ and Socrates. It’s just Jesus. That is why he writes this gorgeous, poetic passage about the supremacy of Christ: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creatioo. For by him a!! 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. much room for ambiguity in that, is there? He is before all things, and in him ail things hold together. 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. For God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself ail things, whether things on eatth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Boom. Christianity isn’t simply about one particular way of being religious. It isn’t one way of being saved, or being holy. Christianity is about Jesus Christ.
Paul is like Mary in Luke’s gospel. He sat at the feet of Jesus in order to be able to go and proclaim the kingdom of God fulfilled in Jesus to the world, He tells the Colossians that he rejoices in the things he has suffered for the sake of the gospel because they have led to the building up of the church. He says, I have become a servant of the church by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness — the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
Do you see how even we have now been drawn into the tapestry? We are among those to whom the mystery has been disclosed. It is Jesus Christ in us, the hope of glory.
This past week, a little group of seven saints laboured in the basement of this church to create images of the Image, capital l, of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Icons are just exactly that: images which tell the gospel story, pointing to the prototype, the one who is before all things. It involved sweat and tears, and was deeply, deeply humbling. We prayed a prayer every morning in which we asked that Jesus Christ, who in his divine nature has no boundaries, but who took on the boundaries of human flesh for our sake, would enlighten our souls, hearts and minds, and direct our hands, in order to depict his image. And that these icons we made would be used for prayer, to bring honour to the one they are based on. These icons, too, are part of the tapestry that points to Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God.
What I encourage you to take away from our time together today is a reaffirmation that it is a real person we follow, not an idea, or an abstract set of principles. We are Christ followers. Jesus told Martha, your sister has chosen the one thing that’s necessary, and it won’t be taken away from her. It won’t be taken away from us either. Amen.