The Open Secret – Colossians 1:24-2:5
This morning we are continuing our journey through Colossians. This letter, chapter by chapter, brings us to an ever deeper understanding of Jesus Christ.
Today we see that everything you need to know about God’s plan has already been revealed: in a Jewish man who suffered, died, and rose again. It is an open secret. Let us pray.
When our children were young toddlers, just old enough to walk, we would play a game with them called: I tell you a secret. One of us would say, “I’ll tell you a secret.” Their faces would light up with pure joy, and they would come running over with wobbly legs. We would get close, mouth to ear, and whisper, “I love you.” And they would say, “I love you back.” Of course, it was not really a secret. It was an open secret.
But telling it like a secret made it interesting. Secrets are an easy sell. Everyone wants to know a secret. When someone offers to tell you one, you lean in and listen closely. Your heart even skips a beat.
You remember Dan Brown’s bestselling book The DaVinci Code? A perfect combination of secrets and religion. It was my beach reading ten years ago. A thrilling story that a crucial secret of Christianity had been preserved from antiquity by a covert band of people — the Knights Templar — throughout the centuries. But now — someone threatened to expose the mystery. Brown’s book sold millions of copies. Secrets sell.
In our text this morning from Colossians, Paul is working in a culture that loves religious secrets. The word that was translated secret in our hearing is also translated mysteries. It is knowledge that is hidden from the common view. Secrets that are kept by special societies, arts practiced in the dark. The people of that Lycus Valley believed in rituals and knowledge that would unlock the power of the universe, and guarantee you a spot in the afterlife. You remember, they were called the Phrygian Mysteries — only one of the many mystery religions of the ancient world. Secrets sell, and they always have.
In writing this letter, Paul aims his message into their context and their mindset. He writes to them, “I became a servant of the church by God’s commission … and I am completing it with a secret plan that has been hidden for ages, but which has now been revealed to his holy people.”
A secret plan. Hidden for ages. Now revealed. Dan Brown couldn’t have written it better.
Then Paul goes even farther. “God wanted to make the glorious riches of this secret plan known among the nations…” Glory. Riches. Secret. This is a salesman at work!
Imagine the advertisement. The ad ends, “Buy it today!” “On sale now.” Secrets sell.
I went to Amazon, typed in secret in the search bar, and narrowed the search to Religion and Spirituality. The top result couldn’t be more perfect. The title: The Secret. Here’s the description:
“Fragments of a Great Secret have been found in the oral traditions, in literature, in religions and philosophies throughout the centuries. For the first time, all the pieces of The Secret come together in an incredible revelation that will be life-transforming for all who experience it.”
On sale now. Hardcover: $17.20. Or if that’s too pricey, you can get the Kindle edition for only $11.99. For the mysteries of the universe revealed for the first time, it’s a bargain!
Other mysteries, on sale now.
Secrets of the Lost Mode of Prayer.
Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire
Self-Knowledge: The King of Secrets
The Secret Power of Speaking God’s Word.
I thought that last one might be particularly good for me to read. I confess as I perused the list, I wanted to read them all. At least scan the table of contents to see if I could get the secret for free! I didn’t need to read the book. I just wanted the secret. Secrets sell.
If only the church had a secret to sell. If only there was a secret mystery I could sell you, for the right price of course. Stewardship season would be easier. We wouldn’t have to rely on people to give generously as an act of faith and trust in God’s provision. We could simply sell a secret. Different prices for different secrets. Secrets sell!
There are plenty who will peddle religion for a price. Preachers; writers; self-declared prophets. Their books fill display racks and their sermons are on late-night TV. They usually fly in jets, but don’t like to talk about it. They promise you something only they can deliver.
Plenty of people peddle religion for a price. Others peddle hope for a price. Or joy. They offer a solution to your deepest problems. They hold out a cure for your most anxious worries. They can solve your problems. They have a secret. And it’s on sale now.
You should always be suspicious of anyone who offers to solve all your problems, especially if it’s a sales pitch. You should always be suspicious of anyone who offers to cure your deepest worries, especially if it’s a sales pitch. They are trying to sell you God, and God is not for sale. God gives himself away.
Paul has a secret, but not one he can sell. The secret he has is God’s gift. “Christ living in you, the hope of glory.”
Jesus Christ is God’s open secret. There is no other plan. A Palestinian Jew, the Son of God born to teenage parents, reared in the country; a cultural outsider who taught with authority and lived with power, who died an innocent man, and God raised him to new life. He is God’s secret. It was hidden for ages, but now it’s revealed.
The sales pitch here is simple, the price is free: if you want to know the secrets of God, get to know Christ. If you want treasures of wisdom and understanding, get to know Christ. If you want want deep assurance and contentment. Get to know Christ. If you want your mind to be at rest. Get to know Christ. If you want to a cure for anxious worry. Get to know Christ. If you want to know what your life is about. Get to know Christ. Christ is God’s secret.
I remember sitting once with a pastoral counselor, at a very formative moment in my life. I had many questions I wanted answers to. And I wanted him to give me the answers. I had choices to make, and worries larger than the choices. I wanted this man in a tie and desk chair to solve it. I would have paid whatever has asked. $150 an hour was cheap if he had the secret.
Thankfully, he only thing he was selling was his time. No secrets. The only thing he offered me was the free grace of God. God’s unconditional love and acceptance. What Paul might call, “Christ living in you, the hope of glory.” It is God’s open secret.
Every person at some point wants to know God’s plan. What is God’s plan for my life? What am I supposed to be doing? What is the meaning of this stage I’m going through? What am I supposed to accomplish before I die. What legacy will I leave?
The writer of Ecclesiastes is naming just that in our reading today. God has given us this insatiable desire to explore our world and lives, their events and their meaning. God has given us this drive to work hard and seek wisdom.
Yet all that we work for and all the wisdom we gain, we will have to leave to another. Very possibly someone who hasn’t’ worked nearly as hard! What is the point of it all? What’s the point?
If you walk around the corner here toward downtown, you will see the “Before I Die” chalkboard on the sidewalk. Every week, I glance over the things that are written there. There is at least as much earnest seeking after God on the sidewalk as there is in most churches on Sundays.
Almost invariably,many people scrawl some version of these words in chalk:
Before I die, I want to know my purpose. Why did I come into this world? What is the meaning of it all? What on earth am I here for? It feels like a secret that you have to discover.
But it’s an open secret. The meaning of your life is to know Jesus Christ. This is not a superficial knowledge. It’s not simply saying a few words, or praying one prayer. Knowing Christ is a life-time of maturing. It is a long walk in the wisdom and way of Jesus. It is a deep soul-knowledge of the love of God.
This is not a secret that’s for sale. It has to be given away. It has to be embodied in our lives, and given away. This secret has to take on life in me, and then be given to you. It has to take life in you, and then be given to me. This secret of God’s love has to take on life in us, and be given to the world.
That’s why Paul says he struggles for it. He says, “I’m happy to be suffering for you.” Why is he happy to be suffering? Because his suffering has a divine purpose. He is adding his suffering to the suffering of Christ. Paul is taking his part of God’s divine conspiracy to love the world.
He writes, “I want you to know how much I struggle for you.” He struggled to take on the life of Christ, to embody it, so that they would know and grow in Christ.
The goal and purpose of God’s people, of preachers and prophets and ordinary saints, is to invite the world to know God’s secret, to know Jesus. We don’t have a scheme for salvation; we’re not packing people into heaven or pulling them out of hell. We’re simply allowing the open secret of Jesus Christ to shape our lives.
God is inviting you to allow the open secret of Jesus to shape your life.
Richard Rohr writes about it like this:
He says, “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves–these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.”
That is what makes suffering bearable. No one wishes to suffer; no one wants to walk the hard road. But the promise of Jesus is that the walking can become redemption. On that road, rugged like a cross, we come near to the heart of God.
You can’t sell that. The only secrets that sell promise prosperity and success. The secret that God gives away is the promise to redeem your suffering. God’s secret is to make your joy complete, both laughter and tears.
The secret of God is not like a secret that is hidden away in. It is not like the secret that might be kept by the Knights Templar. God’s secret is a secret of God’s heart. It is so dear you cannot sell it. It is so deep you must only whisper it.
It’s like calling a child to your side. God whispers to your ear: “I have a secret to tell you. I love you.” And God bids you say, “I love you back.”
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina
July 31, 2016