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November 26, 2017

“Now or Later?”

Colossians 1:11-20

 

When I was a child, as I have mentioned before, I had the real privilege of spending my summers at a small cabin at Dillon Beach, Ca. It was a great place to play as a child-body surfing in the cold ocean water, building sand castles, climbing trees and cliffs, and playing golf on the beach with my Grandpa. One of the things I also remember fondly is that on at least one afternoon a week, my folks would let me walk down to the general store in town and pick out a piece or two of candy and a soda. I remember often choosing a candy called “Chick O Stix” sort of a precursor to “Butterfingers.” But I also remember stumbling upon a new very chewy candy called, “Now and Later.” They were called “Now and Later” because you could chew the candy in the present, “Now”, but it was so sticky that a good portion of that candy stuck to your teeth, thus saving some of the candy for “Later.” Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we give thanks for Jesus Christ upon his throne as king of his kingdom. But is this kingdom something that is in the present, that is now, or is it something to be established in the future, that is later?

 

Our passage for today from Colossians tells us a bit about Christ and his kingdom. The passage begins with this wonderful prayer of a request for us believers to be strengthened by God, for endurance and patience with joy. Then in verse 13 we read that God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Paul seems to say that this kingdom is a present or “Now” reality, rather than a future hope. A real benefit of being part of this present kingdom is that we have redemption, forgiveness of sin, and therefore can stand before God in righteousness and grace.

 

Verses 15-20 give us a description of the King- the image of God, first born of all creation, a co-creator with God at the beginning of time. Paul tells us that this King is before all things, and that he is in effect the glue which holds the world together. Our King is also the head of the church, the first born from the dead- meaning he has defeated death forever and one day we too will be with him in heaven.

 

What does it mean that Christ the King is Preeminent? It means in effect - he is towering above all things and has done so since the beginning of time upon his heavenly throne. This passage and many others in scripture present our heavenly King, Jesus Christ upon a throne in supreme power and authority over all things now, not later. Theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote, “There’s not square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not say Jesus Christ does not say, ‘ mine.’”

 

There is a problem however. In light of the way life really is, the violence, hatred, injustice, warfare and famine which are all over the earth, how can we make such a claim that Jesus is the power over all things, the high king of heaven NOW? How can we make such claims that Christ rules the earth when the earth is full of corruption and sin? Is this claim in Colossians a current reality, or a later, future promise, or is it somehow off the mark?

There are 4 possibilities

 

1) The kingdom is an ideal that is yet to be realized.- This suggests that Jesus did not bring the reality of the kingdom, but introduced the ideal of the kingdom to earth. To be a Christian is to get to work to make this ideal a fact, to build the kingdom brick by brick through our own accomplishments. Yet this suggests that Christ is not Lord, but ought to be, or will be one day, that the kingdom of God is not a present, NOW  reality, but only a future, LATER hope, a goal for which to strive. The kingdom of God becomes the kingdom dependent upon our own works, and makes us the ones upon the throne instead of Christ. Nothing in scripture supports this idea. So how else might the kingdom of Jesus truly exist?

 

2) The kingdom is solely a future, not now but later hope. Christ may not yet be the victor and ruler.  The true kingdom of God has not yet come; it has not yet replaced the kingdoms of this world, but it will do so at the end of all time, upon Christ’s return. In this scenario, it is God, not humanity that brings about the fullness of the kingdom. Furthermore, this event will happen not gradually through our acts of Christian love and service; it will instead come by a sudden, catastrophic jolt in the destruction and judgment of our world as we know it. There is some biblical justification for this point of view.

 

In Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 the kingdom will be established through nation rising up against nation, a time of great suffering and tribulation, of false Christs, a time of great earthquakes and famines. After this time, we will see the Son of God coming on a cloud in great power and glory. Matthew tells us that Christ will sit on the throne of judgment, separating sheep from goats, those who have followed Christ’s commands, and those who have not. (Matthew 25:31-46) There is also an expectancy throughout the letters of the New Testament that the risen Christ will come again to judge, save and claim the world as his own.

 

It is clear from scripture there is a part of God’s kingdom that has to do with later, with the future. But does that mean there is no truth of Christ the King in the here and now? Do we have to wait for Christ’s kingdom to be established? That would stand in direct opposition to the passage from Colossians. Paul didn’t write that God will one day deliver us from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved son. Paul says he HAS done this. Furthermore, thinking of the kingdom as something to come solely in the future suggests that even if the world is full of hatred, violence, and sinfulness, there is nothing we need to do about this, since the kingdom will come later and Christ will work it all out.  All we need to do is sit back, wait and hope for the end of the world, when the kingdom of God WILL be established and Jesus will finally reign.

 

That stands in direct opposition to Christ’s call to get involved in the world- to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, to help the least of these, and to spread the message of the gospel. In this view, there is no use trying to fight injustice, help the poor, and liberate the oppressed. Christ will straighten everything out in the end. Karl Marx referred to this belief as “an opiate of the masses”, to keep the victims of injustice passive and submissive, waiting for the end times, the apocalypse.

 

 

To sit and wait and do nothing, would be in effect saying Easter was not true, and that the power of the Risen Christ, who is seated upon the throne is not as powerful as the power of evil, sin, and death.

 

Theologian Shirley Guthrie says, “If we believe that all principalities and powers are already subject to Christ, then we must throw ourselves into the fight against evil in our own lives and in the world around us, knowing that we do not fight alone, but with the one who has already triumphed over the forces of evil.

 

3) Some have suggested that the reality of God’s kingdom is fully established now. The coming of Jesus Christ and his resurrection means that the kingdom of God is a present reality, here and now.  It would seem that this idea agrees with our passage from Colossians. Yet this idea neglects the biblical understanding that part of the kingdom still lies in the future, when there will be a final victory over the powers of sin and death.  Furthermore, it is difficult to defend that the kingdom of Christ is a fully established present reality, in light of how our world really is.

 

Defenders of this position limit the rule of Christ, to say that Christ does not rule over the whole world, but only over the hearts of individual believers, or in the church. The world is still gripped by the powers of darkness, but each time a person lets Christ into their hearts, that power over sin and death is defeated. These people experience the reality of a present Kingdom of Jesus Christ, but that kingdom only reigns in certain areas. It is a limited kingdom. Again we come back to Matthew 28:18- Jesus says,” All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.”  Our New Testament tells us that to confess Jesus as Lord, as King of Kings is to confess that he is Lord not just in individual hearts, not only of the church, but of the whole world. This understanding of the kingdom also falls a bit short. So then, what other possibility is there?

 

 

4) What is left is what may seem like a contradiction- That the kingdom of God is a bit like that old candy I found as a kid- It is now and later. Christ’s kingdom is here now, and will be fully established later upon his return. Christ is now the King of Kings, and he will be King of Kings later.  Consider the following analogy. Many WWII historians look to the battle of “D- Day” as the decisive battle which made it ultimately clear that the final outcome of the war was decided. And yet, the war was not fully over. There were still battles to be fought. The enemy would make a long last-ditch effort to fight back, but the outcome had already been decided. The same can be said in the world today. Evil has lost the war, but there are still battles to be fought. The war is already won even though it is not yet over. Easter is the decisive answer, the triumphant battle which has decided the outcome of the war between the powers of good and evil.  Christ is already King of this world, but the battles against evil continue, for the evil one is making a last stand. Therefore injustice, warfare, oppression, hatred, corruption, and greed are still in the world.

 

The final victory, the finality of God’s rule comes upon Christ’s return. Until then, we live between the times, in the established kingdom that is not yet fully realized. We still have work to do, still have battles to fight. Therefore, we must take our roles in living lives of faith seriously, now not later. Why? Because Jesus Christ is King! Jesus Christ is Risen! This means that evil may have more power than humanity, but it is not more powerful than God nor God’s Son upon the throne. The final word at the end of human history is Christ, the King of Kings. 

 

And even now, our God through the power of Christ is at work in our lives here in the present time, bringing sheep back into the fold, changing lives from sin to faithfulness, bringing about the possibility of reconciliation where there has been separation and hostility, of feeding those in need through our monthly Community dinner, sheltering the homeless through our winter shelter on Monday nights. In the face of all the brokenness this world offers, we can, know that the powers of evil are fighting a losing battle. Furthermore, the one who has conquered them is at work to finish what he began upon the cross, and then in the empty tomb- that reconciliation between God and humanity still happens- that new life still comes to this world. Therefore we must continue to bring light into the darkness, no matter how powerful that darkness may seem, for, as Paul wrote, you and I have been transferred from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of Christ.

 

So let us go to work NOW, fighting for all that God stands for- love, compassion, inclusivity, peace, freedom from sin, justice, kindness- because we are Christians, citizens of the kingdom, and because Christ is our King. Christ has won the war, but there are still battles to be fought. So until LATER, until the day when Christ returns, let us work for the kingdom and the king now. Alleluia. Amen

 

Prayer-On this day, O Lord, may we know that God has crowned you with many crowns, as the Lord of love and peace, the Lord of all time and space. May our very souls awake with that knowledge, that we might be faithful servants of the kingdom in thought, word, and deed. Amen.

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