Scripture Readings: Colossians 3:1-11 and Luke 12:13-21
“Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:13-21
Today is the third installment of our mini-series on Colossians. The first week, Part One of the mini-series, we heard the apostle Paul’s greeting to the Colossians. Paul tells the Colossians he is thankful to God for their faithfulness and their love. And he reminds them of the Gospel, the Good News they first believed in, and Paul reminds them to keep on holding on to the truth of this message.
In Part Two of the mini-series, Paul talks about the fact the Colossians find themselves living in very secular culture. The city of Colossae is a fairly large city. It’s wealthy, it’s cosmopolitan, and the people there are into syncretism – combining religions into new and somewhat bizarre practices. And Paul warns the Colossians not to fall into the trap of philosophical debating, or the practices of false religions or human traditions. Paul says these things will lead to spiritual captivity, and he reminds the Colossians their freedom is found in Christ alone.
So that’s where we’ve been so far. This week we look at chapter three of Colossians. I’d like to start with an observation from N.T. Wright. Wright said in his Oxford lectures that he believes the besetting sin of our day – the biggest, most popular, most-often-committed sin of our time – is…: idolatry.
You would think he would choose something like violence, or hyper-sexuality, or racism, or suicidal levels of drug abuse. But he chose idolatry.
And I think he’s on to something. Not that we worship idols like people did in the old days. We don’t build massive stone statues of so-called gods and bow down to them. But the definition of idol in scripture is anything we love and serve more than we love and serve God.
That’s why God starts the Ten Commandments with “Thou shalt have no other gods but me.” And (think about this): if we obey that one commandment, all the others fall into place. If, for example, our love for God is greater than our anger at our parents for being imperfect human beings, then we will honor our fathers and our mothers. If our love for God is greater than our desire for what our neighbor owns, then we will not steal or covet. If our love for God is greater than our anger at our neighbor, then we will not kill him or bear false witness against him. If our desire to be with God is greater than our desire to be with our neighbor’s wife… you get the idea.
Idolatry is the sin on which all other sins are built… because idolatry happens when something matters more to us than God.
This is a hard teaching, especially if we’re in love with someone, or if we have children. Aren’t we supposed to love our partners? Aren’t we supposed to love our children? Yes! But we need to love God more… because it’s the right thing for the other person. If we want our loved ones to be free to be themselves, to be all they can be, to be what God created them to be, we must love God more.
Have you ever seen parents who can’t let go of their grown-up kids? Or couples who are so clingy they can’t stand to be apart? These relationships are smothering. From the outside it’s easy to see the harm in a relationship where someone ‘loves too much’ as they call it today. Love that can’t let go – love that can’t set the other person free – isn’t really love. It’s a form of abuse. On the other hand, if we love God above all else, we will love others better than we could any other way.
God’s call to love God best – and to have no idols – is a call to health and maturity in our relationships and in everything we do.
This talk about idols comes up in Colossians 3:6 in Paul’s list of things to avoid. The last item on the list is “greed, which is idolatry.”
But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Let’s back up to the top of the chapter.
In the first four verses, Paul tells the Colossians to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” He says that twice – ‘seek the things that are above’ – and then he gives us the reason why. Paul says:
“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
Think about that! When Jesus is revealed in his glory, you and I who are in Jesus will share in that glory. His brilliance, his honor, his magnificence, his splendor, his majesty, Jesus will share with us.
And in case we think Paul is over-stating things a little, the apostle Peter says the same thing in I Peter. Peter writes: “the genuineness of your faith… will result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:7) That is, praise and glory and honor for us.
This is our future. This is why Paul says in the second chapter of Colossians, “don’t let anybody disqualify you”. Don’t let anybody take away your prize!
So with God’s great promises in hand, how do we go about setting our minds on things above and not things of earth?
First thought: in Colossians chapter three the phrase ‘with Christ’ appears or is implied at least four times. We are raised with Christ. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. We will be revealed with Christ in glory. Christ is all in all. Our glory is with Jesus! So we need to avoid the things that drag us away from Jesus, things that come between us and Jesus… in other words, we need to avoid the idols of our age.
And so Paul names these idols in verses five and eight. I’d like to spend some time with the list in verse five, because this list is so very contemporary and so often mis-interpreted. In verse five Paul writes: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).”
The biggest mis-interpretation of this passage is that Paul’s list is a rule-book. The problem with reading this list as a rule-book is: it’s human nature to look at the rules and try to figure out “How much can we get away with? How far can we stretch the rules and still be saved?”
Anyone who asks that question is looking in the wrong direction. The rules have been nailed to the cross. Our job is to stay with Jesus, as Paul says, because our glory is with Jesus. So keeping in mind that God is light, God is pure, God is perfect, and nothing imperfect can bear to exist in God’s presence… the question is not ‘how much can we get away with?’ but ‘how close to Jesus can we get?’
With this in mind, let’s look at Paul’s list. Paul says “put to death” the things that are earthly, and he starts off with:
- Fornication (some translations read “sexual immorality”). The Greek word here (and the original Greek words are important in this particular passage to clarify what Paul is saying) – the Greek word here is It’s the word we get pornography from, but in Bible times the word had a broader meaning. Paul does not specify which sexual sins, he’s talking about sexual sins in general.
But nowadays people would say, “oh well… that could be anything, that could be nothing. Pornography is in the eye of the beholder.” OK, well… keep in mind “the beholder” in this case is God. Any questions? Ask God.
God is faithful – and we can put the sin of fornication to death when we learn to be faithful to the needs of others the way God is faithful to meet our needs.
- Impurity. The Greek word here is akatharsia, the word we get cathartic Catharsis is something that cleanses and releases and heals… it’s a medical term meaning something that gets rid of harmful things so healing can happen. The letter “a” in front of it – ‘A-katharsia’ – makes the word negative. Akatharsia is something that prevents healing, and therefore causes impurity and infection.
God is pure, and God is healthy and God brings about wholeness. We can put to death the sin of impurity when we bring God’s health and truth and wholeness into our relationships, keeping our relationships free from… spiritual bacteria, so to speak.
- Passion. The Greek word here is The literal translation is suffering, and it’s the word we get pathetic from, but it doesn’t mean quite the same as either of those words. The sin of passion is one in which the person lacks self-control, not necessarily in a sexual way – it can be, but not necessarily. The word pathos comes from Greek theatre and it describes an actor playing on the audience’s emotions. In other words, the person with the sin of passion is someone who lives for drama.
God is not a drama king. God focuses attention outward – on the universe, on the angels, on us. We can put to death the sin of passion when we avoid unnecessary drama and keep our focus on God and on others.
- Evil desires. The Greek word means a passion or a lust for more. Again, not necessarily sexual, but it can be. It’s having driving needs that nothing can satisfy. Enough is never enough for the person caught in this sin.
God is a God of plenty. We put to death evil desires when we remember how generous God is, and do our best to imitate God in our generosity with others.
- Covetousness (some translations say “greed” and I think greed is the better word.) The Greek word here is plenoexian: pleno=plenty, exion=to have. So ‘to have plenty’. This implies a person who has all they need but craves more, in the sense of more possessions. No matter what the person has, it’s never enough.
Always wanting more – does this describe our culture or what? And Paul goes on to say “greed, which is idolatry” – worshiping something that is not God.
We put to death the sin of greed and covetousness when we love God more than we love anything else. When God is enough for us.
I find it interesting that in our Gospel reading, when Jesus is asked to divide an inheritance between two men, he immediately warns his listeners against greed. Jesus says: “Watch! Keep guard against greed – life is not about riches or the things one possesses.”
And Jesus goes on to tell the story of a rich man who had everything he needed and more. The rich man says to himself: “What shall I do with all my stuff?” And he says to himself: “I know! I’ll build bigger barns! Stash all my stuff in them! I’ll have enough for years. I can finally sit back and take it easy… buy myself a tropical island, build a house, stretch out in my hammock with a drink with a little umbrella in it…” You get the idea. This guy was set for a long time. “Eat, drink, and be merry!” he says to himself.
And God says: “You fool! Tonight your soul is required of you, and then who will get all your stuff?” Jesus says, bottom line: don’t store up things on earth – be rich toward God.
Looking back for a moment to the beginning of Colossians, remember we heard Paul saying be with Christ, be in Christ. The key is the relationship.
This rich man wasn’t with God – in fact he wasn’t with anybody. He was talking to himself. He says to himself. I will do this. I will do that. Not a thought about what God might want or what anybody else might need.
This rich man is the poster child for the band Imagine Dragons’ song called Demons, which says:
“No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come” ( © Imagine Dragons, 2012 )
The rich man’s relationship is with himself alone – his kingdom come – and Jesus says this is the ultimate in foolishness.
So where does all this leave us? Paul and Jesus are both on the same page: be with God. Be rich toward God. Seek the things above.
How do we do this? By doing what Jesus and Paul both teach us to do. Believe the good news of the kingdom of God, and share it. Avoid getting entangled in false ideologies, false religions or idolatry.
And avoid greed in any form. The old English preacher Charles Simeon point out that greed is not limited just to the desire for money. People can be greedy for intellectual things, or for beautiful things, or for physical or emotional pleasures, or for honors or fame. Simeon says, “Crowns, kingdoms, empires, are (in heaven’s eyes) nothing but the baubles of children.” We need to put the needs of our souls – and the needs of other peoples’ souls – above all these things.
We need God. We need prayer. We need to know God better. We need to build our relationships with God, and encourage others to do the same.
We need to not be controlled by our desires. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do in a culture where advertising is everywhere, and is scientifically designed to make us crave things we don’t need.
The people of God, by contrast, are hungry and thirsty for holiness. God’s people fear nothing because we know God’s eye is on the sparrow and so God watches us. God’s people have hope in God’s saving power. God’s people are growing from strength to strength, daily turning away from earthly desires. We are growing in Christ.
God’s people are headed for glory. Let’s keep our eyes on that prize! AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/31/16