There are some great hymns that some have heard or sung so often that there’s no need a worship guide or hymnal to queue the words – they are there within us. We only need to hear a few notes and songs like “Amazing Grace,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “How Great Thou Art“ and words flow from our lips, and images of other places and other moments when those songs spoke with power into our lives fill our mind. Some more recent music is beginning to find this same kind of footing across the life of the global church. Songs like “Majesty,” “I Love You Lord,” and “Above All” are so common in some congregations that they have become a part of the people’s worship language. These hymns and choruses are a testimony that music can speak into our lives with a power that the spoken word only begins to approach.
As our worship service began we heard the choir offer a grand music gift that set the tone for the whole of our worship experience. If you look the words of the song, you will discover that they emerge directly from our focal passage this morning. It is no accident that we bring these words to you in musical form because they were first heard as one the earliest Christian hymn. Many scholars believe that Paul lifted these words directly from the worship of the church to highlight the power of their message. There is a unique beauty to the way this hymn that becomes Scripture tells the Gospel story. Steven Baugh sees these words as a dramatic medieval tapestry in two panels, one proclaiming Christ as the First Born of Creation, the other, proclaiming Christ as the Firstborn of the Dead. I love his imagery. I can see the grand hand-woven tapestries handing on a dramatic stone all in a grand hall or an ancient monastery. But, I think the reword the panels just a bit. The first would surely read the Firstborn of Creations, but I believe second panel would be better understood as the Firstborn of Eternity. So I invite you to come with me as we hear the words of this early hymn. Come with me as we look at the two grand tapestry panels and the cross that ties them together. Come with me as we hear the gospel story.
Firstborn of Creation vs. 15-17 The hymn begins; 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. The words of the song sing out that Jesus is the Firstborn of creation, the hand of God as all things are made. In our current Western culture we live in a duality that is foreign to scripture and much of the rest of the world. The duality is the core belief in a separated natural world and the supposed but suspect supernatural realm. Our dominant culture has bought into a view creation on its own, separated from the work of God and the presence of God. Some have claimed that science claims this realm, and religion is relegated to a conversation on the heavenly realms. It’s funny, while the intellect awash in science says one thing to our minds, our heart cries out another. Major movie productions that define generations like: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Twilight, along with television series ranging from Touched by an Angel to The Vampire Diaries, draw from supernatural fantasy to try to speak into our inner belief that there is more than hard cold facts. We long to know that there is something spiritual going on –that this is more to all of this than what we can touch or define. We are hungry to know that the creation and the creator are connected. Science has great value and contributes much to our lives, but it cannot displace God at the center of the story. It cannot remove God as the hand of creation. It cannot replace Jesus as the Firstborn of Creation. Science can struggle to explain the how of creation. It is the presence of God that explains the why. Our perceived boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, the created and the creator, is only a cultural myth.
This first Christian hymn begins with the beginning and pronounces with confidence that 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. With faith and confidence these early believers sang out that when it all began Christ was there. The face of God that would walk among us, the plan of God for reconciliation for, was already in place at the moment of creation. Their song is not a desperate act of explain the how of creation, but rather a faith affirmation that God is at the center creation and as the created their story with God begins at the beginning. They saw the power of God in the majesty and beauty of creation. They saw the handiwork of God all around them. God was not far away, but close by. God was not distant but involved; loving, leading caring from the beginning. Jesus was not a teacher or a prophet, but the Firstborn, the very incarnation of God. Jesus was the face of God that loved His creation so much that God was willing to pay an incredible terrible price to make the way for reconciliation for a broken people and a broken world.
The first panel of the grand tapestry would be claim images from across creation. I imagine it would display birds and fish, deer and buffalo, mountains and flowing streams. And, at the center it would offer faces like yours and mine, gathered around the Firstborn of Creation, Jesus Christ.
Firstborn of Eternity vs. 18-19 The song sings out; 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him. When we hear these words we stumble when we hear the image of Christ as the Firstborn from among the dead. Despite the grand advances in medicine, and perhaps because of them, in our culture death is no longer viewed as a normal natural process for humanity. Somehow it has become seen as failure, as final, as the ultimate defeat. This is far from what the young church would have had in mind as it sang. Instead these words would have been words of comfort and promise. Their song sees Christ as the head of the body, the church, a new community born in love and grace. Their song sees Christ as the Firstborn of those among the dead – as the one who claims supremacy even over death. Their song is a song of the promise of eternity – and eternal life found in the promise, the person of Jesus. Their song understood the power and the price of the cross that redefined the eternity that awaited those for whom death was as natural as birth. Their song understood that the Firstborn of Creation; the one that was before time; was also the Firstborn of Eternity; the one who would be after time and space had passed away. The fullness of God which is the Alpha – the beginning - is also the Omega – the God of the end - is seen in the one named Jesus. This second panel in the grand tapestry would not claim the dark colors we associate with death, but would instead claim the vital colors of hope and promise. And, at the center it would offer faces like yours and mine, gathered around the Firstborn of Eternity, Jesus Christ.
The Incredible Terrible Inheritance vs. 19-23a The song sings out; 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. The language of the Firstborn was something that these early Christians would understand without pause. The firstborn son held a unique place in the culture. It was assumed that this firstborn would claim the inheritance of leadership and identity of the family. He would receive the greatest share of all that the Father could offer to make sure the work of the family would continue. The song sings of the incredible terrible inheritance that Jesus claimed as the Firstborn of Creation and the Firstborn of Eternity. The inheritance of the Firstborn of creation is the fullness of the creation and all who are within it. The inheritance changes its shape with the pronouncement of the role of the Firstborn of Eternity. The inheritance becomes the redemption of the creation; the embrace of the reconciling work of God that leads to a cross and the peace found in the shed blood of sacrifice. This early hymn saw the Jesus’ cross not as something that happened to Jesus, but as something chosen by the Firstborn as the means of reconciliation for people like you and me. The Firstborn of Creation could not settle of a people alienated from the creator and defined by death. Instead Paul tells us in verses 21, 22, and 23 21Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. While the inheritance of the cross has cosmic and eternal consequences, it is intensely personal. The Church – the community of faith – you and me – are the beneficiary of Christ’s claim of the inheritance of the cross. He did what we could not do for ourselves. His shed blood of sacrifice paid the price for our sins against God and one another. This incredible terrible inheritance claimed by the Firstborn of Creation and Eternity, made the way to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. Through the cross, those like us, who were hopeless, become the people of a gospel of hope and promise; we who were enemies of God because of sin, now through a relationship with Christ become God’s beloved, the loved and the forgiven children of God.
In the mist of creation there is Jesus. With the promise of eternity there is Jesus. Creating the way for reconciliation –for forgiveness – for peace with God and one another there is Jesus. I join Paul this morning as he proclaims; This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. The gospel story is not a grand religious drama or inspiration for the lyrics of a song. It is my story. I am a witness that my life is changed because of Jesus. The Firstborn of Creation and Eternity has become my Savior and my Lord. Hear the good news.