Text: Colossians 1:13-20
Date: Last Sunday in the Church Year (Proper 29) + 11/21/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
On this Last Sunday of the Church Year the last word of it all—it may surprise us—is not the picture of pearly gates and roads paved with gold, the gates of heaven lifted up as the saints go marching in behind the King of Glory, but rather the all-too-real picture of our King of Glory as he hangs helpless between two criminals on a cross in a place called The Skull (Luke 23:27-43). Jesus, crucified! The mocking, the shame and yet the gracious words of the true triumph, “Father forgive,” “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Not any fantasy falsely inspired by images from the Book of Revelation, but the reality and truth as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) is the focus of our attention. We declare in the Prayer of the Church that we gather here in the Divine Service not to entertain ourselves but “to celebrate the remembrance of the most glorious death of God’s Son.” The sacrament of which we partake every Lord’s Day is not celebrated with frivolity but with a joy hidden to the eyes of the world as St. Paul says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Indeed it should strike unbelievers as strange when we sing hymns like, “We sing the praise of Him who died” (LSB 429), “In the cross of Christ I glory” (LSB 427), “The Death of Jesus Christ, Our Lord, We celebrate with one accord” (LSB 634). Indeed, what ever happened to the (seemingly) happier, triumphant themes of a “Christ the King” final blast or “The Sunday of the Fulfillment” of our previous hymnal? Are not the perennial “growthers” of the church right in telling us we should suppress the negative things like sin and the cross and emphasize only the happy and clappy things like so much glitter and window dressing? (What do “they” say about flies and vinegar and honey?)
The Passion of our Lord is, at once, a picture of the most horrific injustice of all history and yet the only and divinely appointed means of the redemption, the salvation of the whole world through the supreme and only sacrifice for the sin of the world. It is by the cross of Christ crucified and only this that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It is for the eyes of faith, then, that St. Paul describes the One our eyes see only on the bloody cross, as crucifix, in a hymn of two stanzas in today’s Epistle. Who is this, after all, weakly dying on the cross? It is the Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor.
The first hymn we sang today should have grabbed our attention to the seeming contradiction, “The Head that once was crowned with thorns Is crowned with glory now; A royal diadem adorns The mighty Victor’s brow.” Today we proclaim the crucified One “the mighty Victor”! Here is the standard of the Gospel, the victory of the cross! The reason we can know the crucified Jesus is the victorious One to be celebrated is as we get to know who He truly is. Our earth-bound eyes see Him the infant son of Mary, then the Preacher of repentance, the worker of miracles, the Teacher of God’s Word, then the threat to the religious establishment, and the unfortunate radical executed in place of a nation [cf. John 11:50], dying on a cross and buried in a borrowed tomb. That our eyes should have also “seen” Him as the One risen from the dead and ascending back to God in heaven is due only to the eye-witnesses, and no unbeliever would ever see Him again until the Last Day of Judgment.
So St. Paul, to whom was given an abundance of visions and revelations, “sings” for us a song to proclaim the true identity and praise of Him who died upon the cross, the sinner’s hope (LSB 429). It is in two stanzas. The first describes our Savior, as we confess in the Creed, “by whom all things were made,” the role of Christ in creation. The second stanza describes our Lord’s role in the new creation and His work of reconciliation.
“He is the image of the invisible God.” As man was created in the image of God but lost that image by the fall into sin, now if you want to know what God is like, look to the incarnate Son, Jesus. Here is truth, purity, holiness, but above all, love. “He is the firstborn of all creation.” Opponents have tried to abuse this phrase to claim that Jesus was only a creature, a human being but not God. But this refers, rather, to, as we say in the Creed, “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds…begotten, not made.” That is, as the Son of God He is first and head above and before all creation, or, as the Apostle John said it, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn. 1:3).
So also St. Paul continues, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,” and that includes, as the Creed and the Apostle have us say, all things visible and invisible, those “invisible” things of creation including at least the ranks of angels “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” So, first of all, on the cross “All that the mortal eye beholds” is a human victim dying. “Before the eye of faith unfolds” God the Creator of all things. The great mystery of the cross is, “O sorrow dread, God Himself is dead!” (LSB 448:2 my translation, “Gott selbst”). But therein is also the only hope of the world, that God Himself, the Son of God should take on our human flesh and in that flesh offer Himself as the only worthy sacrifice by which the sin of the whole world is taken away and thereby also death is overcome. Now all who believe in Him have, as the apostle said, “redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
What St. Paul can express only in the words of this hymn is the eternal reality that is beyond the comprehension of us time-and-space-bound human beings. In a transition between the two stanzas Paul explains, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” As the Divine Son of God He is in the beginning, the Creator and therefore “before all things.” But He still is in all things. Creation and preservation go together. But here is the greatest mystery: these words describe not only our Lord’s Divine nature as existing before and in all things, but also His Human nature! The point is that it is absolutely inconceivable; we cannot wrap our minds around the fact that “eternity” is communicated to Jesus’ human nature as are all other divine attributes. But what faith grabs, understands and believes here is that Jesus Christ crucified is all-powerful even over sin, death and the devil, “for us and for our salvation.” So here on the cross, as we said before, faith sees triumph and victory.
The second stanza of Paul’s hymn celebrates our Lord’s role in the new creation and His work of reconciliation. As the head of His body, the church, that is, our Savior, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,” not only the first to arise from the dead, the first-fruits, but in terms of rank, in absolute pre-eminence and supremacy over death and its destructive powers. Now by faith you see both God and Man hanging on that cross, the sacred blood shed there the price of our ransom, the sacrifice that cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7) and brings peace.
So we preach Christ, crucified. We celebrate the most glorious death of God’s Son. We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. All this because of who He is: the eternal Son of God, full of grace and truth; our all-powerful Redeemer; “Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home” (LSB 733). So here ends the story for another year, the story of the salvation of the whole world. And in case anyone has missed it, next Sunday, God willing, we will begin, all over again, to tell the story of the Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor.