A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
July 28, 2013
The story appears in many versions, but it usually goes something like this—a policeman sees a drunk man searching for something on his hands and knees under a street light and the policeman asks the man what he has lost. The man says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together, running their hands through wet grass and over rough pavement.
After a few minutes of getting nowhere, the policeman asks the man if he is sure he lost his keys there. The intoxicated man says, “No, as a matter of fact I lost them in the park.” The policeman asks, “Then why in the world are you searching for the keys here?” “Because,” says the man, “this is where the light is.”
If that story had been around in the Apostle Paul’s day, he might well have told it to the new Christians in a community called Colossae, who unfortunately were looking for love, life, and light in all the wrong places.
If you’ve been with us the last two Sundays, you know we’ve been making our way through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul has never met the Colossians, never visited the Colossian church. But he learns from the church’s founder, a dear friend, that false teachers are undermining the fragile new congregation with teachings that question the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ.
“Christ is a good man,” these teachers say, “even a special man. But he only appears to be human—divinity could never dwell in evil human flesh—and there are other better and wiser heavenly powers to follow. Jesus can’t save you. It’s the secret knowledge revealed by other superior spirits that will deliver you in the end.” “Furthermore,” say these false teachers, “if you want to stand complete before God you will obey our laws to the letter, and deny and even punish your flesh to the bitter end.”
Paul is appalled by such garbage. Jesus, the Light of the world has come, and these false teachers have led the confused Colossians into the dark of night, pointing them toward the broken streetlight of their counterfeit teaching where the hapless Colossians are destined to look forever for what they desperately need and never find it.
“See to it,” commands Paul, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” If you follow the latest, greatest philosophy and its gods hoping to find what you are looking for, you’ll be wasting your time, just like the man under the streetlight.
There’s only one place to go for life as it’s meant to be, life to the full.
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him….For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him.”
Friends, I don’t know that there is a more important word we can hear today. Because the truth is many of us, even us Christians, are looking for life in all the wrong places.
I can think of many Friday nights over the years when Joani and I have been at home, too tired from the week to go out or do anything with friends. So we’ve pulled out a DVD of one of our favorite movies, Nottinghill, and enjoyed “vegging out” together on the couch.
If you know the movie, you know it’s a funny tale of an on-again, off-again, on-again romance between a famous American actress played by Julia Roberts, and a nobody British bookstore owner played by Hugh Grant. Late in the movie when their relationship is in shambles, Julia Roberts pleads with Hugh Grant to take her back into his life. He says no because he feels she has cavalierly brushed him off one time too many. Besides, she is famous and he is not, and that arrangement will never work. Heartbroken, Julia Roberts’ character finally leaves, but not before saying, “The fame thing is not really real, you know.”
And even though we are watching the movie for fun, every time I hear that line “The fame thing is not really real, you know,” I flinch inside. Because I know in my heart of hearts that I, too, have invested heavily in things that are not really real.
How often have I counted on my fame or image, such as it is, to give me what I want? Howmany times have I trusted in my ability to analyze and philosophize with my brain to lead me to the light I need to be under? How frequently have I assumed that a certain measure of success would fill that great void in my life…when it never does?
What I see in myself and so many Christians is this—we affirm that Christ is the fullness of God who fulfills our deepest needs, and then we live as though we must find our deepest satisfaction elsewhere. Contrary to the false teachings in Colossae, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the material world around us—after all, God created this world and called it good, and provided it for our enjoyment.
But not our fulfillment!
And yet you can tell we Christians expect to be fulfilled by what’s in that world by the way we become addicted to food and drugs and alcohol and work and money and sex at about the same rate as everybody else. And you can tell we don’t trust God to really love us and fill us in the flesh because we live with a constant state of low-grade fear and guilt, convinced we are too bad, too fallen for God to really love.
So like that proverbial drunk man searching for his keys, we keep looking for life and love in all the wrong places, when all along the key to what we are looking for lives inside us. And that key is Jesus.
As one who has done his share of searching for keys in wrong places, here is what I have learned. What I most need, and long for is not “out there” but “in here.” It is not in the wealth of the world, or the information of books, or the political discourse of the media, or the stimulation of the Internet community. What I am most looking for, longing for is to be one with God, through the Jesus that lives in me.
Of course, for years I lived as though there was another way. Even pastors can do that! Most of us, I’m convinced, are confident there’s another way. We say yes to Jesus, are baptized, go to church, serve and give where we can, and yet still look for ultimate satisfaction, final fulfillment somewhere else, anywhere else but Christ.
And it’s not until we run smack dab into a wall, suffer a bone-crushing loss or endure a humiliating failure that we realize we cannot do life on our own. Then, and only then do we become open to the real possibility that it is only to the degree that we are connected to the God within, the Spirit in our souls that we can live life to the full.
This truth is mirrored in Paul’s language about circumcision, baptism, and crucifixion in Colossians 2. Something has to die, something has to be cut away before we are finally ready to be filled with the fullness of God. Richard Rohr says that few of us are ready to hear anything about crucifixion and death before the age of 30 because we’re so full of ourselves, so confident that we’ve got what it takes to live life at its best.
I saw that illustrated here in our church recently during the funeral service for Richard Bagnal. Just a few weeks ago Richard died tragically of cancer at age 33, something that is just not supposed to happen. And because Richard had a gift for loving people—especially people his age—this sanctuary was as full as I have ever seen it the day of his funeral. And here were scores of young adults in shock because death had burst their supposedly bulletproof bubbles and robbed them of a dear friend. And you could sense in the room that people were asking the deep questions…questions that can only be answered by Jesus.
What I am learning as a 61-year-old is I cannot think my way to Jesus. Or obey my way to Jesus. Or even preach my way to Jesus. It’s not about what I am saying, or doing, or proving, at any moment in time. All the ingenious ways I devise to make God love me – they don’t work.
See, God doesn’t love me because I’m good. God loves me because God is good!
And that very same God is already in me, waiting for me to discover him and live through him. My job, once I’ve committed myself to his son Jesus, that one in whom the fullness of God resides, is to spend time with him, listen to him, love him, let him love me and live through me.
Some days I spend time with Jesus in solitude and prayer and nothing seems to happen. The cup of my soul feels empty. Other days I come to Jesus with an empty cup, and God fills it like the rain filled the streams and lakes and rivers of Forsyth County yesterday. And regardless of what happens on any given day, I am learning that Jesus can satisfy me at the deepest levels of my being. Paul is not spouting a meaningless platitude but telling the gospel truth when he says, “In (Jesus) the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness (or fulfillment) in him.
In other words, I am ultimately fulfilled in Jesus and only Jesus, in this life and the next. I’ve stopped looking for the keys of life anywhere else. I hope you will, too!