FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY January 13, 2019 Colossians 2:8,16-23
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (NIV 2011)
In the name of Jesus Christ, with whom our heavenly Father is well pleased, by dear friends,
Deceptions are all around us. Some are entertaining, like when an illusionist makes his assistant disappear or seemingly pulls a quarter from behind your ear. Other deceptions aren’t funny all. Every day people are deceived by financial scams that leave them penniless or diet scams that damage their health.
Some deceptions can even be deadly. An example of this is the angler fish. God designed it with the ability of camouflage, so it can blend in with rocks or coral. He also designed a special attachment for its head that looks like a fishing rod with a piece of bait on the end. The angler fish hides itself, then dangles this fake bait in front of its own mouth. When another fish sees this bait, it swims up thinking it’s going to get an easy lunch when swoosh, it becomes an easy lunch. That’s a deadly deception.
In his letter to the Colossians Paul warns against deadly spiritual deceptions. Like the angler fish, Satan camouflages his deadly intentions with an appearance of wisdom and humility. Through the basic principles of this world he dangles the bait of a “better, more fulfilling way to God” than Christ. And just when people think they have eternal life, swoosh they are swallowed up by eternal death.
This is why Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (vs.8)
So what are some specific examples of the bait Satan uses to lure us near so he can swallow us? Paul lists two main groups: human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world which I will call the basic worldly mindset.
The human rules confronting the Christians during Paul’s time on earth were wrapped up in Old Testament scripture. God gave Israel regulations for worship, eating restrictions and washing rituals. Regarding worship, Israel was to do no work on the Sabbath. It was a day for sacred assembly—a day for building their relationship with God. It was a day for setting aside their working for God to hear about God’s past, present and future working for them.
God also gave Israel food restrictions. They were to avoid eating meat from animals designated unclean. Yet, even if they followed this law perfectly they would still die. They would die not because of what they put into themselves, but because of what came out of them—evil deeds and thoughts.
For this reason, God gave them washing rituals. After touching a dead body, having an infected sore that oozed pus, or even having a baby they were to ritually purify themselves. It was a reminder everything they did and produced made them dirty in God’s eyes. It impressed on them the need for washing by God.
Camouflaging himself in the law of God which can only show us our sin but not remove it, Satan led many to see the law as a way to save themselves. Human tradition flipped the Sabbath upside down. Instead of telling people it was a day think about God’s saving work for them, they made not doing work a work for God to save themselves. Instead of using the food restrictions and washing rituals to teach sinners they need washing by God, human tradition said sinners can wash themselves by their deeds. It was a deadly deception.
Satan still camouflages himself in human spiritual tradition. Often the problem is not the traditions themselves. The problem is how we use them. How many of you decorated your home and put up a Christmas tree in December? Why? The green tree in winter reminds us Jesus gives eternal life. The lights on the tree remind us Jesus is the light of the world. All good and appropriate things. What would you think of a family who confesses Jesus as their Savior but doesn’t do anything special for Christmas: no decorations, no tree, no cards sent out; they attend regular Sunday worship but not the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services? Would you view them as lesser than you in God’s eyes? “What kind of a Christian doesn’t celebrate Christmas.” God doesn’t command the celebration of Christmas. If we use observance of this tradition as a measuring stick for our relationship with God, we have taken something that started out pointing to Jesus and his work and used it to point to us and our work. That’s Satan’s deception—he uses the bait of twisted human traditions to turn us away from trust in Jesus to trust in ourselves. If we follow them thinking they will give us life, we will instead be swallowed up by death.
Satan also camouflaged himself in the elemental spiritual forces (basic mindset) of this world. The mindset of the world is merit based. If you want playing time on the team—earn it in practice and in games. If you want a promotion, out-sacrifice and outwork your peers. If you want to get noticed, you need to stand out from the crowd.
An example of this self-imposed worship and harsh treatment of the body was Simeon Stylites, who lived around 400 AD. In the name of God, he spent 37 years living on top of a pillar like an eagle in a nest. He sat there through blazing heat, torrential rain and bitter cold. Giving up things that are pleasant and comfortable sounds like a wonderful way to prove how devoted you are to God, right? And doesn’t it make sense that cutting ourselves off from the world will reduce temptation?
It’s all a deception: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Will sleeping on a post make you stop thinking about having a nicer home to live in? Just the opposite. Will separating yourself from the opposite sex prevent you from lusting after them? Not according to the Lord who said, “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
Satan still hides himself in such false wisdom. Some give up the use of modern technology to avoid temptation. Yes, the content available on a television and computer can lead us to lust, but so can looking at a woman dressed in a bonnet and an ankle length dress. If violent video games are outlawed in your home, will that keep your kids from hating and hitting each other? The cause of our sin is not outside of us, it is inside of us. Now add to this problem the fact we lack the ability to cleanse our record and our hearts.
So what is the antidote for these deadly deceptions? How can we keep from being lured to our spiritual deaths? Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. The Law of God was a shadow. It outlined our need for and the shape of our Rescuer so people would recognize him when he came. Who is this Rescuer outlined in the words of Scripture? Our gospel lesson records the great unveiling that was Jesus’ baptism. Jesus completely fits the outline of the Bible shadow. He was born of a virgin, descended from the blood line of David, acknowledged by God at his baptism, arrested, killed and raised from the death all according to the Scriptures.
Satan wants us to listen to the voices of people rather and the voice of Jesus. In those voices he tells us to reach for the shadow of Christ rather than Christ himself. If you are drowning on a sunny day, do you swim toward the voices of those who are drowning with you or the one in the boat who has come to rescue you? Do you grasp at the shadow of your rescuers hand or take hold of his actual hand? The antidote to the hollow and deceptive philosophies of this world is Christ alone.
He is the One of whom the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) Jesus wasn’t born to show us how to please the Father. He was born to please the Father for us. He did not suffer to show us how to earn God’s pity and appease his anger. He suffered to demonstrate God’s pity by appeasing God’s anger for us. We are complete in Jesus—completely loved, completely clean, completely his children.
I have a brother and a sister who live in Arizona where scorpions are common. If stung by them, the venom in their tail will cause excruciating pain that lasts for days. Their flat bodies allow them to hide under boxes in garages and among small rocks in landscaping. The problem is during daylight hours scorpions generally stay hidden away. It is after dark, when they are almost impossible to see, that they become active. So what can you do to avoid and even get rid scorpions? Well, it turns out the scorpion’s shell becomes iridescent under black light. So every few weeks my nephews and nieces walk around their house at night with a blacklight in one hand and a softball bat in the other. Equipped with those two tools scorpions are easy to see and dispatch.
Satan likes to keep his deadly spiritual deceptions hidden, but God’s word and its message of forgiveness and peace through Christ alone is the ultraviolet light that exposes and the bat that crushes them. God help us cling to Jesus, to his word and his work as the antidote to deception. Amen.