Sunday Sermon: Reach Up


Text: Colossians 3:1-3
Series: “Seven ‘Ups’ for the New Year”

Years ago, someone passed on to me a “Peanuts” cartoon in which Lucy, that cantankerous big sister, is eating dinner with her younger brother Linus, who is bright and curious and somewhat insecure since he’s always having to deal with Lucy. But on this night Lucy, somewhat out of character, is explaining to Linus how to make a wish on the wishbone of the chicken: “You take this end and I’ll take the other end. We’ll both make our wishes and then we’ll pull them apart. Whoever breaks off the big end will get his wish.”

Lucy, of course, begins the wishing. “Let’s see now,” she says. “I wish for a new doll and a new bicycle and four new sweaters, and one hundred dollars.” Then it’s Linus’s turn. “I wish for long life for all my friends. I wish for great advancements in science and medicine. I wish for peace in the world.” You can see where this is going.  It’s not trending good, because about halfway through Linus’s wishes, Lucy is throwing away the unbroken wishbone in disgust, as she says to her brother, “Oh, Linus, you seem to have a knack for spoiling everything.”

Clearly, Lucy’s small reach with respect to her wishes causes her to feel “called out” and embarrassed by her little brother’s big reach. She’s thinking ‘little picture,” while Linus is thinking “big picture.”  And the disconnect between those two sets of wishes becomes more than Lucy can handle.

So, which sort of soul do you identify with? Do you identify with Linus whose heart soars as high as the heavens, or do you sympathize more with Lucy who thinks postage-stamp sized and in a way that is entirely self-centered?

The reason this story seems so pertinent to where we are today is because of how it speaks to the subject of ambition, which quite frankly many Christians assume to be an inherently sinful thing. They think the only things we humans are capable of striving toward are those things that are diametrically opposed to the purposes of God. But is that truly the case? Can we also not make the choice to dedicate our time, our talent, and our resources to serving the cause of Christ so that everything we are about aims in the direction of pointing others to the fullness faith in Jesus brings?

That seems to be the choice Paul was offering to Christians in Colossae. Colossians, one of Paul’s famous “prison epistles,” was directed to a church full of new believers who were trying to figure their way forward in a day when having “Christian” on your resume wouldn’t open many doors or help you get ahead in any significant way. Not that the subject of ambition was off-limits to the Colossian community of faith. No, the fact of the matter was that the church was being torn apart by two different factions, both of whom had ambitions to “rule the roost” as it were. 

On one hand, you had those who felt that Jesus followers in Colossae needed to forego certain foods and activities all in the name of making much of Jesus. Call them ascetics, or abstainers. But Paul called them and their practice a “false humility,” because it “lacked any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (2:21). In other words, theirs was a misguided ambition because of how it emphasized pure, personal discipline over genuine, Christlike discipleship.

And on the other hand, you had those who had gone overboard in the other direction, believing that they had been released from every constraint by virtue of their superior spiritual knowledge and their having been enlightened as to the faith’s deepest mysteries. Call them libertarians or the freedom party. Paul called them “unspiritual” people whose minds had been “puffed up with idle notions” (2:19).

In both cases, Paul saw these ascetics and libertarians as “little picture” believers whose faith ought to have been compelling them to reach much higher than they were reaching, to reach all the way to where Christ is, “seated at the right hand of God.”  “Set your hearts there,” Paul urged the Colossians.  “Set your mind on things above.”

What Paul was getting at was the attitude and orientation that would enable both sets of believers to attain what they were so earnestly seeking, which was fullness of life through faith in Jesus Christ. But in order to get to that place, they needed to elevate their reach so that they might not miss out on any of the favor God in Christ had for them to know. Instead of wasting their time and energy wondering if they were, in the case of the ascetics, depriving themselves enough or, in the case of the libertarians, constraining themselves in any way, Paul was inviting these Colossian believers to see how they could rise above all of that fear and apprehension by learning simply to rest in the power of the Risen Jesus and discovering that peace that comes in knowing that their lives are hidden in him.

Do you know that peace? Have you come to that sense of confidence and assurance? Is your soul marked by joy and delight because your little life has through faith been hidden with Christ in God? Or do you live with fear and apprehension because you’re never quite sure enough that you’ve dotted every “I” and crossed every “T?”

Some years ago, Pamela Pettler, a television screenwriter and producer, wrote a tongue-in-cheek book titled The Joy of Stress. I call it tongue-in-cheek because, as we all know, there is no such a thing. And yet we go about our everyday lives as if there must be and we just haven’t found it yet.

In a chapter of the book, “They’re Getting Ahead of You,” Pettler tells the story of a young man who went berserk one day in the research library of the University of California at Berkeley. He was running through the library, shouting hysterically at his fellow students, “Stop! Stop! You’re getting ahead of me! Stop! Please stop!” He was of course arrested.

Pettler says that in her opinion his only crime was not so much what he said but how he said it. In other words, people ARE getting ahead of you. "While you’re at your desk, people working out at the gym are getting ahead of you. While you’re at the gym, people are a work getting ahead of you. If a friend gets a promotion, she’s gotten ahead of you. If a colleague reads a book you haven’t read, he’s gotten ahead of you” (The Joy of Stress, pp. 28-29). We might even argue that while we’re at church, someone’s out there getting ahead of us.

The point is, if you follow your ambition in terms of mere activity versus a larger direction, you’ll forever be frustrated by your inability to be satisfied in your ever having done enough. But if you were instead to follow your ambition with a sense of transcendence and a higher purpose, one grounded in your commitment to the Risen Jesus, so that your heart and your mind were set on him, your life would be hidden with his at the right hand of God and nothing in this world would ever be able to take away your joy.

Here, then, is my invitation, which in many ways is so very different from any invitation I’ve ever given. Instead of inviting you to ask Jesus into your life, I’m inviting you to consider how Jesus is asking you this morning to come into his. Instead of asking you to invite Jesus to come into your life, which is filled with demands and responsibilities and countless obligations, not all of which hold very much meaning or purpose, I’m inviting you to reach up and answer Jesus’ invitation to come into his risen life, which is marked by triumph and victory and fullness and joy. 

Perhaps that’s what the famous poet Robert Browning was doing when he wrote that immortal line: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  For if we truly reach for Jesus, whom Paul said is even now seated at the right hand of God, then what we discover is that Jesus will in fact be reaching down for us, reaching down in resurrection power so that our ambitions might be realized, our wishes might be granted, and our joy, which is hidden through our faith in him, might never be spoiled but for eternity be made complete.