By Pastor Bryan Niebanck
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.Colossians 1:17
A friend of mine was driving home one evening and it was completely dark. The transmission of the vehicle he was driving started acting up about ten miles away from his destination. Having no cell phone, there was no way he could contact anyone if he did not get home. I could envision the prayer that may or may not have been formed like a prayer, but would have gone like this: “Hold together. Please hold together. Just enough to get home… just hold together until I get home.” Thankfully, it did hold together, and he could take care of scheduling a mechanic and getting a rental car from the comfort of his home the next day.
Another couple shelters in place during a tornado. They are entrusting their safety to the structure that they are in. They start talking to the building: “Hold together. You can get through this. You can weather out this storm.” Encouraging the building can help withstand doubt and fear in the moment of danger. I remember driving up Interstate 55 toward Chicago in 2016 when I was visiting seminaries. The weather was not great, to say the least, and the rain was coming down so hard that we had to pull over as we found a rest area. Either my dad or I – I don’t remember who – said something like, “Well, at least we are in a shelter now.” A maintenance worker looked at us as if to say, “If a tornado comes along, this place is not holding together for a second.” Thankfully, none did, and the place held together as a shelter for the rain until the worst of it had passed.
When else have you willed something to hold together? Perhaps you have had to use glue or duct tape to help something hold together. I recall a couple times on Boy Scout backpacking trips where duct tape was quite handy in helping someone’s shoes stay together until the end of the trip. I think it may have lasted through the next trip as well. I think that we all can agree that holding together is a good thing. We do not want things to fall apart. We want things to hold together.
When Paul was writing to the various churches throughout Asia Minor and what later became southern Europe, he knew that many of the churches were divided against each other. People had disagreements about how to do things. Some members of the church were even living in what Paul would call flagrant disobedience of God’s call for our lives. He wrote the letters to try to both hold the church accountable for what was happening and also to hold the church together, encouraging them in the name of Jesus and everything that holds them together. He wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. … He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:11, 12, 17). Paul starts his letter to the Colossians reminding them of the one thing that they can all agree on. He begins with Christ. Jesus is the power that holds the church together, as the church seeks to know Christ more, to be more like Christ, and to spread the knowledge of Christ’s mission throughout the world. If we can agree on one thing, Paul believes, we can be unified. The power of Christ is that compelling. That power of Christ is that powerful.
When you want to restore a broken relationship, how do you do it? You could approach a person and tell them why you were angry with them and all the things that they did wrong. But revisiting that will not restore the relationship; it will only make things worse. Perhaps a common joy is more appropriate to start with. It does not mean that the other person should not be accountable for what they did, but it can be addressed later. Paul addresses concerns like these throughout his letters, but he usually starts by giving thanks for the people who he is writing to. He starts with a positive, with something that he and the church can agree on. What common joy can help restore a relationship, or help it to hold together?
We find in Paul’s message both Jesus the Powerful and Jesus the Reconciler. Jesus is glorious. He is “the image of the invisible God,” he is “before all things,” he is the “head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:15-18). He is like the CEO. He is the head. But he is the CEO of all CEOs. He is the king of kings, the lord of lords. There is a song that sings of this glory within Handel’s Messiah. There are countless other songs that sing of the glory of Christ. He is exalted. He is the Son of the Most High. And he is. But he is the CEO who comes down from his office to have lunch with the employees who work for him. He is the king of kings who comes to eat with the peasants. He does not exalt his own power. He seeks to build bonds with others and between others. He wants to reconcile those who have gone astray. He does not hold what we have done against us; what matters is who we are today. If we can agree on a few simple things, we are reconciled in the name of Christ. We are forgiven. If we are seeking Christ, through whatever means we can – prayer, study, conversation – we have earned favor with the glorious lord of lords. As we read the gospel reading this morning, we saw an example of this very act. Jesus was crucified with two criminals on either side of him, according to Luke. When one criminal said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus extended the hand of mercy and said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). Jesus is our merciful Savior. That is how we can be united with all people, regardless of our background and where we have been. Jesus does not care about the past. He cares about the present. He cares about how you are spending this present moment.
In our book group last week, as we were finishing up Ecclesiastes, we had a moving discussion on a section of the book that seemed to only apply to youth. Solomon reflected, “Rejoice while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. … Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9, 12:1). This section applies not only to youth, but to everyone who reads it. You are the youngest that you will ever be. Start with your youth at this moment, because you will never be this young again. Use this opportunity to know God better. What matters is not however many years are behind us. What matters is what we are doing in the youth of this present moment in which we live.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we can also be unified in what we are thankful for. Many families having different political views will be brought together around one table, not separated by their differences but united by their similarities. We are each unique and we are each meant to be unique. We are going to have different opinions than other people. We are even going to interpret the same words differently than another person. We could separate on behalf of those differences if we are looking for a reason to separate. But our challenge as Christians, and my challenge for you today is this: Do not look for the differences; look for the similarities. This is the only way that God’s people are going to be able to hold together. And in a world where we need encouragement instead of despair, hope instead of disappointment, we need to be able to hold together.
Sometimes, we just need to put up with one another. But sometimes, that seems too hard for us. Will Willimon, author and theologian, reflects on this in a way that we can understand: “It’s so much easier to leave a congregation than to put up with one another in love. Easier to rally around your cherished cause or huddle with folks who share your values than to obey Christ and put up with one another even as Christ has time and again put up with us.” Yet if we are truly to be the church, we are called into unity. We are called to celebrate the sovereignty of Christ on this day that we celebrate Christ as king over all that we know, on Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate that Christ will someday return and show His power over all the creation, reconciling all and making things right. We wait for this day, but we believe in it. We show our belief by doing our part to hold ourselves together until this glorious day. We want to be found working when the master comes. And in addition to praising the sovereignty of Christ in worship and prayer, we are also the church at its best when we seek reconciliation with our neighbor, not matter our differences and what may divide us. My prayer for the church is this: “Hold together. Encourage one another. Be together. Hold together until the storms of this life pass, so that we remain protected in this, the house of the Lord. Please hold together… hold together until we get home.” As we pray for the church to hold together, I know that we will witness more than merely holding together. Holding together is surviving. Being together is thriving. May all honor and glory be to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
23:1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.
23:2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.
23:3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.
23:4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
23:5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
23:6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
1:72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
1:74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
1:16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.
1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
1:20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”