open book on a table

“Idols, Images, and Idioms”

A sermon on Colossians 3:1-11

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Paul is still working on firming up the Colossians’ commitment to Christ and to the way of Jesus Christ, by keeping them oriented towards the big, really big, reality of the invisible God. He’s told them Christ is the visible image of that invisible God – but … at this point, Christ is not exactly visible to them, either, in the sense of being right there in the same ordinary human way Jesus was visible to the disciples, or even in the dramatic way Jesus was visible to Paul in his experience on the Damascus road. Maybe yes, visible, in a couple of real, although mysterious ways … visible in the life of the body of Christ, that they are sharing in their little church, and also visible in other people, since all human beings have something in common with Christ.

But Paul also acknowledges, Christ is hidden at present, with God, along with their lives … their real lives.

This distinction between what is more real and what is less real, and the way what is invisible is often more real than what is visible, keeps coming up in this letter to the Colossians. It’s a point that’s hard for modern empiricist people like us to appreciate … although for that matter, it has probably always been hard for human beings to love invisible realities. We like to see what we’re dealing with. This preference of ours is probably the root, or at least one of the roots, of the problem of idolatry – of making nice & clear, concrete, fixed, images that people can identify with God. Like that golden calf the Israelites made in the wilderness.

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Anyway, at this point in the letter, Paul is beginning to give the Colossians some practical instructions about Christian behavior: turn away from this, turn towards that, because our practical efforts to live like Christians will help keep our faith solid, and will help everyone else, too. Because the more we behave like Christ, the more our behavior takes its cue from a mind oriented towards that invisible cosmic reality above, the more like Christ our community will look – and that will be a good thing. We ourselves will be more and more like Jesus, like that “image of the invisible God.”

I think Paul’s list is uncontroversial, too, on the whole … we’d probably all agree that his list of “earthly” behaviors includes things we should avoid. Modern readers might object to the mention of “anger and wrath” – might note that becoming less angry people overall doesn’t mean buying in to an unhealthy kind of denial of our emotions – and might remind us that sometimes we need our anger responses, that a lively sense of the difference between right and wrong helps us see injustice for what it is.

And I might wish he hadn’t mentioned “the wrath of God” – no one likes to think about that, although he doesn’t seem to think the Colossians need to worry about that, they have left that way of life behind them when they joined the people of God. It’s just an uncomfortable image of God for many of us …

And it definitely reminds us how wrong that idea is, the one that is still stuck in a lot of people’s heads, even though it is NOT an accurate representation of the God of the Bible, that picture of “the Old Testament God of wrath, and the New Testament God of Love.” Because of course, if we actually read the Bible, as we did this morning, the Bible itself will remind us over and over of how poorly that description fits either God, or Bible. Because there is LOTS of steadfast love, forgiving love, refusal to abandon God’s people to sin and punishment, in the Old Testament, as Hosea showed us this morning. And there is still a fair bit of God’s wrath popping up in the New Testament, like in this comment of Paul’s.

A lot of us do have that nice, simple image stuck in our heads, but it’s just wrong. The God we meet in Scripture is more complex than that. That’s the God who tells Moses that the divine name is, about as literally as we can express it in our human language, “I will be what I will be” or “I am becoming what I am becoming.” It’s why Scripture contains lots and lots of images of God – rocks and shepherds and clouds of glory and kings on sapphire thrones and eagles and Ancient of Days and nursing mothers who can’t possibly forget their infants … lots of images to try to communicate the living fullness of the reality of God. Including the tender figure in the prophet Hosea this morning.

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So the God of steadfast love and forgiveness has never been the exclusive property of the New Testament Christians – even though our Christian faith tells us that Jesus Christ really is the clearest image, the most complete revelation of that living God, that one God, that humanity has seen.

And it’s because of that, as a matter of fact, that when we do run into those references to the wrath of God in the New Testament they feel jarring to a lot of people, because we have met God in Jesus Christ, and when we meet God in Jesus Christ, we do meet God as someone who loves us, who has reconciled us to himself – someone who feels much more like that motherly figure we heard speaking through the prophet Hosea!

Calvin makes a big point of this in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is maybe the original handbook of Presbyterianism, that it’s our faith in Christ that makes it possible for us to think of God as kind and gracious. If all we knew was the majesty of creation, and the God revealed in that way, we’d be terrified all the time.

But back to that list of earthly things that we need to put behind us, did anyone notice that Paul says “greed” is “idolatry”?

And do we wonder why he says that? Why he would call greed – literally, covetousness, coveting what other people have – idolatry?

Doesn’t that seem like an important question?

Because I think we would all agree that idolatry is one of the really bad sins. So this is probably something we need to understand.

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And I will confess, before this week, I thought I did understand it, fairly well. For one thing, I have learned – as people here probably also have – over many years of church and Sunday school, about the Baal worship that was rampant in the northern kingdom of Israel in the days of the prophets, including the prophet Hosea we read this morning. We know those ancient Israelites were guilty of idolatry, in the worst way, in the most literal way: they had physical idols, statues of gods that they had set up in temples where they went to make sacrifices, and we know this was all wrong, because not only were they never supposed to make statues of gods, they were not supposed to worship gods besides … God.

And we know some things about the god Baal or “the Baals,” too. If we have done some Bible study work, or taken a class, we probably know of Baal as a storm god or a sky god, who was associated with fertility and fertility rituals. The worship of Baal was supposed to ensure rains and good crops. In an agrarian culture, like ancient Israel, that also depended heavily on commodities trading, the whole purpose of all that Baal worship would have been PROSPERITY.

Something else we think we know about the northern kingdom of Israel in the time of the prophets, Amos and Hosea: that Baal worship seemed to be working for some people; the society as a whole was enjoying a high degree of prosperity; but it was also a highly unequal society, and those who were poor were really suffering in those days. Baal doesn’t seem to have been known for his commitment to justice.

That’s something to know about the idolatry the prophets of ancient Israel were criticizing – it was always linked to injustice and indifference to the poor, and to an attitude that religion was “for” securing a person’s material advantage.

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So, knowing all that, I thought of course, Paul would have made the connection between greed and idolatry from his reading of the prophets; and that connection would have been reinforced by the paganism of the ancient world Paul himself lived in, because his world was full of, again, quite literal idols – statues of gods and goddesses, set up in temples, that people would visit to make sacrifices in, very often for the express purpose of getting something from the god or goddess in question. There’s a Latin phrase that described that kind of worship, that translates roughly to “I give so that I may receive.”

And then, we have probably all learned that idolatry doesn’t have to mean making a statue of a god or goddess, but putting anything in the place of God. Preferring something or someone to God.

So I could see how greed or covetousness would amount to putting that object of greed, whatever it is, that money or that fame or that stuff that we don’t actually need – as “the most important thing,” more important even than God. Especially if it for instance gets in the way of my stewardship, or my sharing what I have with the needy, or even gets in the way of my enjoying the peace of Christ …

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But then, as I kept reading what Paul has written here to the Colossians … I began to think that something else might be going on. And that’s … exclusion, and the narrowness that goes with exclusion.

Because something else that happens with greed is trying to exclude people – if I want more than my share, I’m trying to keep others from getting their share. And greedy people may also exclude all kinds of other things from their lives, because greedy people get so focused on what they’re greedy for that they can’t see anything else. It’s ironic, how that drive to have more and more of something, whatever it is, compels people to have less and less of a whole range of other things.

So we could really think of greed as all about missing the bigger picture, the bigger social picture, of how we’re in this life with other people, and the bigger reality picture, of what matters in life. And idolatry amounts to that, too – missing the bigger picture of the real God, and fullness of God’s mysterious, infinite reality.

Statues are idolatrous, because obviously, the real invisible God is bigger than a finite, visible statue – even if it is a really BIG statue, like the statue of Artemis in the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, or that Christ the Redeemer that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, which is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

And even a lot of mental images of God, if they become frozen or fixed or too rigid, can become idolatrous – because we know, at least intellectually, when we stop to think about it, that God is greater than any of the specific, partial images we have of God, even the really GREAT ones, like the image of “Father” we have in the Lord’s prayer, or the Shepherd of Psalm 23 or “the King of glory” in Psalm 24 …

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But this week, it finally struck me, that one of the things Paul is saying to the Colossians here, is that God is even bigger than any one specific version of “being the people of God” – any one language, any one cultural idiom.

Which is why, I think, he makes this somewhat cryptic comment about how the Colossians’ new selves, their real-life selves that are being renewed in Christ, will not be restricted to the cultural categories they’re familiar with … Jew and Greek, Greek and barbarian or Scythian …

Because the Colossians – just like us – were facing the challenge of how to translate their new lives in Christ, those hidden lives, into the concrete, day to day, visible human life they obviously needed to live in some culturally specific way – in their case, we think they are largely people who would have been described loosely as “Greek,” who were “Hellenized,” who took a lot of the elements of ancient Greco-Roman culture for granted, and who, most importantly, spoke the Greek language.

They took it for granted that it was way better to be Greek than it was to be a barbarian. The very meaning of the term “barbarian” was someone who didn’t even speak Greek, who used unintelligible foreign words, that sounded like gibberish, bar-bar-bar … or, like the scythians, someone who didn’t even have the good sense to live in a city – from where we get our word “polite,” by the way, but were just nomads roaming the hinterland …

But then the Colossians themselves seem to have come in for some of the same cultural contempt, we think, from traditionalists who thought of the real language of the people of God as not Greek, but Hebrew, and the real cultural practices of the people of God as those associated with traditional Jewish observance …

And Paul seems to be saying here that the real language of the people of God is the language of Christ … not the language Christ spoke, not Aramaic, but the more universal language of human relationship Christ lived – the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, the positive way of living Paul begins to describe in the next several verses.

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Historically, it’s been easy for us human beings to fall into the trap of thinking that living like the people of God was a matter of ethnicity, of culture, of language – using Latin in worship, or reading the Bible in the King James Version, or practicing the right form of the liturgy, or singing – or not singing – in the worship service. We’ve even had our issues with the “right” tune for the Gloria Patri, or the differences in culture between different congregations a few miles apart.

But Paul’s vision of the life of the people of God, the one that leaves the exclusions of idolatry behind, the one that’s really open to the constant renewal and learning that will open them up to the fullness of that real God above, is a more universal and unifying one. That vision transcends the many barriers that get between various human beings, in particular the cultural and occupational and other barriers, that divide people from people and person from person; those barriers, which are “earthly” things, get set aside in Christ

When Christ is all, and in all, our way of life, our culture itself will be Christ. Christ will be our “idiom,” our language, and the image we bear. We will be revealed in our true identity in Christ, as Christ’s people.

And based on what Paul tells the Colossians, we can expect that group to include all kinds of people. But for all those differences, we’ll understand one another – because we’ll be speaking the same language – the language of Christ.

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Saint Paul writing

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Valentin de Boulogne / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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