SJF • Proper 29c 2010• Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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.
When someone tells you a story that has a surprise ending, whether humorous or shocking, pleasant or painful, that ending is called a “zinger.” Whether it’s a hilarious punch-line or slap in the face, when you get hit with it, you know that you’ve been “zinged.”
Well, the passage from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that we heard today ends with just such a surprise, just such a zinger. It starts off talking about glorious power and the joyous inheritance we await with the saints in the light — the light of God. It continues through words of deliverance and rescue, and then launches into a radiant description of the Son of God, in all his might, majesty, power and dominion. The passage builds and builds in its cosmic magnificence, one of the clearest testimonies in the whole New Testament witnessing to the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ — not merely a human being but Eternal God Incarnate — but then, suddenly, on the last five words, we are shocked to be called back to the horrors of Calvary, and the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross.
Saint Paul no doubt intended this to be a zinger: an abrupt bit of shock and awe to remind the grateful Colossians — and us — just what their and our deliverance cost. I said a few weeks ago when I preached about Zacchaeus that we’d be returning to this reminder of Good Friday in the midst of the autumn — and sure enough here is this zinger: a reminder of Christ’s passion and death right on schedule on the last Sunday after Pentecost in the last year of this first decade of the 21st century.
And our gospel text today picks right up at the scene to which Saint Paul has brought us. It is as if Saint Paul were the usher who has guided us at first through a magnificent lobby or antechamber such as you might see in a great palace befitting the king of the universe: the stones of the polished floor and the marble columns and magnificent decorations themselves seem to sing of grandeur and majesty. And then our usher Paul guides us to the massive and gorgeous bronze doors — surely we expect an even grander sight as the doors open to reveal the king’s throne room.
Instead, comes the zinger. Instead of finding ourselves at the royal throne we expected, Paul has ushered us in to join a crowd of people standing by and watching the pitiful spectacle of a man nailed to a cross, dying the death of a criminal between two other nameless felons condemned to death. We can hear the sounds of the leaders scoffing, “He saved others; let him save himself.” We can make out the mocking sign hanging above that sacred head, sore wounded, “This is the King of the Jews” — Pilate’s exquisitely double-edged insult both to Jesus and the Jews — his cruel and pointed way of saying, “This is what happens when you mess with Rome.”
Finally, we hear the voice of the thief who comes to the defense of Jesus when the other thief derides him, and challenges him to save himself and them. And the second criminal doesn’t even ask to be saved — he just says, Remember me. And then comes one last zinger, the last word for our gospel today: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
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So it is that today we are faced with a double zinger, the great paradox of the nature of God and the nature of humanity, united in one person in Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man, the one through whom and for whom all things — and that includes us — were created and have their being, and through whom and by whom God reconciled to himself all things — and that includes us again. To put it in the perspective of Martin Luther’s two most famous hymns — we affirm that God in Christ is both our Mighty Fortress and the one whose sacred head was wounded by a crown, not of gold but of thorns. He is our Creator and our Redeemer, so we owe him a double debt.
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I want to close with an old story; it’s so old that no one knows who first told it. It happened a long, long time ago, in the days before there were big toy manufacturers, long before Toys ‘R’ Us, long before television tempted all of us to spend more than we could afford. Back in those days children were often happy enough a set of wooden blocks, or with a toy they made themselves.
One young boy worked hard at making a model sailboat, and she was a beauty. But one day when he was sailing his prize model boat in the stream that ran at the back of the family field, a sudden thunderstorm and gust of wind blew up, and blew the boat out of sight downstream. Though he looked and looked for it along the bank, he couldn’t find it and after a few weeks he accepted the fact that it was lost.
Then a month later he was in the town with his parents, helping with the weekly shopping. And across the street, he saw in the window of the local curiosity shop, a model sailboat that looked mighty familiar. He asked his father’s permission and ran, dodging the horse-drawn carriages — I told you this was a long time ago — across the road to the curiosity shop, and pressed his face against the window. Sure enough, that was his boat. He pushed open the shop door and the shopkeeper came out from the back room as the bell tinkled to announce the arrival of a customer. “That’s my boat in the window,” the boy said proudly. “Is it now?” said the shopkeeper. “And here I thought it was mine! I bought it from a gentleman who brought it in last week, and I paid good money for it.”
The boy persisted, “But Mister, it’s my boat. I made it with my father’s toolkit, and the sail came from one of my mother’s old worn out aprons. And here’s the name I painted on it — The Royal Crown. That’s the name I gave it and I christened it out in the out behind our house.”
The shopkeeper was not convinced. “Well that’s as may be, but I paid a dollar to the man who sold it to me, and just to be fair, I will do the same to you: I’ll be glad to let you have it at that same price.”
The boy’s heart sunk. In those days a dollar was a lot of money. He knew he had some pennies in his piggy bank, saved from what he made doing chores and helping out, but he didn’t think he could possibly have as much as a dollar. But he obtained the shopkeeper’s promise that he would hold the sailboat until th boy could came back to town the next week.
Oh, how he itched and squirmed on the way home that day, waiting to see how much he had in his piggy bank. When he got home, with shaking hands, he opened the stopper and poured out the pennies on the dresser — would there be enough? He kept shaking, shaking, hoping to hear the sound of another penny rattling in the piggy-bank. And then began to count slowly and carefully — 85 86 87 — he could see that he was running low — 92 93 94 — he kept on going — 99 100 — just exactly what he needed, but everything that he had!
The next week he carried the coins in an old mason jar, as he proudly pushed open the door of the curiosity shop, and put the payment on the counter, and received the sailboat from the shopkeeper. Cradling the boat carefully in his arms, he said, “You are mine twice now: I made you and I bought you.”
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So beloved, we are to Christ; he holds us in his arms; he made us and he bought us — and that’s the zinger to end all zingers. He is our creator and redeemer, he made us for himself, and when the winds of sin blew us off course and carried us far away, he sought us out and found us, and bought us with everything he had, his life itself — purchasing our salvation by the blood of his cross.
And so, we don’t belong to ourselves any more— however independent we might feel at times. No, beloved, we belong to God: we were made by God and for God, and we were sought out and bought back by him through the shedding of his blood. We are his people, not just the sheep of his pasture but the citizens of his kingdom. Come then and let us offer our thanks and praise to him who made us and saved us, our Creator and Redeemer, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+