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Thimbleful of Stardust
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Colossians, chapter 1, and follow along as I read verses 15-28. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
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.
17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
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.
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
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.
21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,
22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him--
23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
25 I became its servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,
26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.
27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Thimbleful of Stardust
Undercooked leftovers—that is what some scientists call comets, those heavenly bodies with long iridescent tails that glide through the night sky. They are undercooked leftovers from the vast cloud of gas and dust that formed our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. If it were possible to capture a comet sample, even just a thimbleful of comet dust, perhaps we could answer some fundamental questions about the birth of the planets and the origin of life on Earth.
Well, we have done it. Back in January, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft entered the bright halo of dust and gas surrounding Comet Wild 2.. This armored NASA spacecraft was on a mission to collect a thimbleful of stardust, and return the sample to earth for scientific study.
That the spacecraft survived its mission at all was a tremendous achievement. The tail of a comet consists of particles and debris traveling at six times the speed of a bullet. An astronaut in a spacesuit would have been sandblasted to pieces in seconds, but the spaceship, protected by a series of carbon and ceramic curtains, approached the comet and then flipped open a cometary catcher’s mitt which it used to gather particles of leftovers from the formation of our solar system. This priceless treasure, sealed in a re-entry pod, will be delivered by parachute to a test range in the Utah desert sometime in January 2006.
Researchers believe that comets played a major role in seeding the Earth with the building blocks of life, and they may also have helped to deliver the water that fills our oceans. Scientist Martha Hannerk explains that the comets we see today have been parked in cold storage for billions of years, so that they are, she says, “frozen time capsules.”
What have these time capsules been carrying? Perhaps we wlll find out in 2006 from a pile of dust smaller than a thumbnail. Years of research will be done on this little container of debris, and scientists will discuss and debate the role that comets have played in the formation of Earth and human life.
What is fascinating about all of this is that a tiny sample of material might tell us so much. A half teaspoon of space-stuff may serve as the basis for enormous and far-reaching conclusions about the origin of the universe. There is an application from this to our verses from Colossians. These verses compose one of the great texts of Scripture, a christological hymn which lifts up what Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox have called the Cosmic Christ.
If a single container of dust can tell us about the birth of our planet, then it is not hard to believe that a single, solitary person called the Christ can tell us about the meaning of life and our relationship with God.
We might say that Jesus Christ is our thimbleful of stardust. He is the firstborn of all creation, the “image of the invisible God” (1:15). Jesus is, for us, the human face of God, the One who appears in flesh and blood to communicate to us the character of an infinite and eternal Spirit. Or, to put it in the words of scientist Robert Oppenheimer, “The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.”
Have you ever played hide and seek with a three year old. It is hilarious. The three-year-old hides behind the chair and you pretend that you do not see her. You search all around the room, but you do not look where she is actually hiding, because you are not supposed to find her, and you say loudly, “I can’t find her. She must not be here.” Then she darts out, face beaming, shouting, “Here I am! Here I am!”
God steps out and shouts, “Here I am! Here I am!” We look and see a person, a baby, Jesus of Nazareth.
Harry G. Winsheimer [“The image of the invisible God,” December 29, 2002, National Presbyterian Church Web Site, Natpresch.org.] says, “It is ridiculous! A contradiction to the obvious: God and people are not the same. We are not God. Nevertheless, that is the gospel proclamation: God reveals himself in a person who was born in a stable in Bethlehem, grew up in the town of Nazareth, worked as an itinerant minister for three years, helping people and telling people of God’s will, crucified for what he said, and resurrected from death to live both in God’s glory and in the hearts of his followers.”
The gospel of John puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” and we were able to see with our own eyes the glory of the Father’s only Son, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Perhaps a little school girl put it best when she said, “Some people couldn’t hear God’s inside whisper, and so he sent Jesus to tell them out loud” [see Yates II, John W. “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” December 2, 2001, The Falls Church Web Site. Thefallschurch.org.]. In Jesus, we see God’s compassion — out loud. In Jesus, we feel God’s power — out loud. In Jesus, we get a sense of God’s personality — out loud.
V17 says, “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” He existed before creation, before all the comets and planets and stars. V16 says, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … all things have been created through him and for him.”
Perhaps I should note as an aside that a verse like this is the basis for a Christian view of the environment. Our environment is the product of action by the cosmic Christ. It is not trash. It is not something for us to carelessly misuse or mistreat. How we treat the creation that was made by Christ is a measure of how we understand our relationship with Christ. These verses tell us of a Christ who was before creation, who made the universe and who made it for himself. The world does not belong to us, it belongs to Christ. When we destroy and damage his creation, we express contempt for him.
Moving along with our verses, V18 says that he is the head of the church (1:18). The church contains human beings. In that sense, it is a human organization, but it is not ruled by any human being. It is not ruled by a pope, bishop, minister, or any one else. There is only one head of the church and that is Jesus Christ. All that we are and understand ourselves to be as Christians ultimately ends up in, and answers to, the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Our mission, our work, our love and compassion, our worship and praise is all christocentric. It flows toward Christ, it is directed toward Christ.
This cosmic Christ is working to bless the poor in spirit, to comfort the grief-stricken, to show mercy to the merciful, and to fill all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:3-7). Jesus Christ, who hurled whole galaxies across the endless stretches of space, is the same Jesus Christ in whom “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell” (1:19 NIV) and is the same Jesus Christ whom we obey, by whom we have been commissioned, and to whom we give glory.
We also learn through this cosmic sample of Deity made flesh, who we are. We read in vs 21-22 that we “who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”
We were estranged. Now we are reconciled. We were sinners now we are saints. This is essential Christianity.
Sometimes people ask: What is the difference between Christianity and the other religions we see around us on planet Earth. I usually answer something like this: I affirm good wherever I find it. If another religion teaches something is good, I approve.
When a Moslem says, “I pray five times a day,” I say, “That is great.”
When Confucius says, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to youself,” I say, “Absolutely right.”
When Buddha says, “Birth is painful; old age is painful; sickness is painful; death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful.” Then I admit that he is telling us something essential about this life. Sometimes life is not good, and whether I like it or not, I have to admit that truth.
I accept truth, wherever it is found, but the problem I have with other religions is that they do not address the problem I have. The problem is how can I as a flawed, very imperfect person come into the presence of holy, perfect God? In the depths of my soul, I sense God, and I sense God as something holy, awesome, wonderful. How can I have a relationship with such a God when I am well aware that I am not like God. I am not holy, not perfect. Other religions assume that we have a relationship with the divine. Christianity does not make such an unwarranted assumption. The first part of understanding Christianity is to understand that I do not deserve God. God hates sin. I am a sinner. That pretty much tells you where I stand. I deserve to be condemned. I ought to go to Hell, because I have not perfectly kept the perfect law of perfect God.
Now I know I ought to keep God’s laws, and I make attempts to do so, I try to be a good moral person. I do not rob banks generally speaking. I have not murdered anyone, not recently anyway. So far as I know I filled out my income tax forms correctly. I say so far as I know because some things I was not sure about and apparently the IRS was not sure about them either—because I asked and they were not very helpful. What else, I do not beat my wife, not usually. Now you realize of course, that I am joking, well, I was not entirely joking about the IRS, but my point is simply this, I try to be a moral person, but I am well aware of my failures. If any of you could see all my thoughts, deeds, and words, every minute of every day, then you might say, well, tony, why did you not do this? And why did you say that? And I saw what you thought. I am a sinner.
Now, hear some good news: God loves me anyway. God does not love my sins; God loves me. And God in his love sent me Jesus. Jesus died upon the cross as a sacrifice for my sins, to reconcile me to God.
The greatest mistake people make with regard to a relationship to God is that we think we make some kind of deal with God. We think that we must do something to make things right with God. This is the way human relationships work.
A recent ad for the All-New Toyota Tundra Double Cab shows this big new pickup full of stone and boards, and the message of the ad reads: “Nothing says you’re sorry like flowers, 1500 pounds of Texas flagstone and enough lumber to build a gazebo.” I guess the guy driving the Toyota was trying to work out a reconciliation with his ladylove. And that is the way human reconciliations are done. But that is not the way God works. We cannot do anything to repair the broken relationship between us and the divine. So God does it. God is the one that we sinned against, yet God reaches out to forgive our sins.
To put it another way, When I believe in Christ, God agrees to see me through the crucified savior. And because Christ was righteous, God agrees to regard me as righteous. As Paul says, I am in Christ. And since Christ was without sin, God regards me as without sin.
Understand this. I am still an imperfect unholy sinner, but in Christ I am accepted as a holy saint of God. Now that is essential Christianity.
When we talk of all religions and compare religions, some people say, “All religions teach the same truths.” Not so. Other religions do not teach about Jesus what Christianity teaches about Jesus. Other religions might say that Jesus was a great teacher, and we agree with that certainly, but ultimately that is not what Christianity says about Jesus.
What we say is that I as a poor desperate sinner can only come to God through the sacrifice that Jesus has made for me. And so as the song says, we “cling to the old rugged cross,” because there is no other way. Christ is the only way, the only truth, the only light.
Thus, we cast all our hopes on Jesus and depend entirely on him, and doing that, the good news is that we no longer have to fret about our relationship with God. It has been settled. In Romans 5:10, the apostle Paul writes, “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
We were enemies. Now we are friends.
We were lost. Now we are found.
We were imperiled. Now we are “saved.”
The long and short of it is that Christ is in us, the hope of glory (1:27).
What then must we must do? Colossians says, in 1:23, that we should “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard.”
We keep the faith and we proclaim the faith. As the people of Christ in this time and place, we proclaim that this is the time of Christ and the place of Christ. V28 says, “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
When the Stardust spacecraft lands in Utah in 2006, we will learn a lot from a little. When God landed on Earth in Jesus Christ, it did not seem like much, but in Jesus Christ, as this great christological hymn in Colossians 1 makes clear, we have learned who God is, who Jesus Christ is, who we are, and we have learned what we must do: we must show Christ to the world. Amen.
Bridges, Andres. “Spacecraft collects particles from comet; NASA also hopes for close-ups of comet’s nucleus.” Associated Press, January 2, 2004.
Sawyer, Kathy. “NASA craft gets samples from a comet.” The Washington Post, January 3, 2004, A1.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/29/04