Sunday, July 28, 2019
*This sermon was originally preached under the title “Filling the Emptiness” at Oak Forest Baptist Church, in Chesterfield, VA, April 27, 1997. A version of it was subsequently preached under the title “New Life in Christ” on February 29, 2004 at Greenbrier Baptist Church in Arlington, VA.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). I hear ‘taken captive’ and I think of being kidnapped or of being a prisoner of war. Horrifying images of Liam Neeson’s triology Taken come to mind.
But imagine this scenario. A young man and woman fall for each other. He was adventurous, ready for the next journey, not wanting to be tied down. But now he’s not going anywhere. She has captured his heart. Captured. It describes the terror of a kidnapping and the beauty of falling in love.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe.
Remember Yvonne Hill? No? She was like anyone of us and would feel welcome in our church. Yvonne was a 38-year-old mother of five. She was married to Stephen, an inspector for a tile company. She was a mail sorter at the post office. Stephen and Yvonne, with their kids, had a close knit family. She had a deep desire to know God. Yvonne Hill? No?
How about Michael Sandoe, from Abingdon, Virginia? Surely you remember him, a 25-year-old army paratrooper and veteran of Desert Storm, America’s invasion of Iraq in 1991. The son of an evangelical pastor, the young man was popular in high school, and an army hero after high school. From a small, historic town near the Virginia-Tennessee border, he went on to see the world and serve his country.
Don’t remember Yvonne Hill or Michael Sandoe? I’ll try one more: Julie LaMontagne. No? Really? This 45-year-old nurse from Massachussetts saw her father die of cancer. She lived in different parts of the country, including California. She was a good student, a positive influence on her younger brother, and she was a religious person. Julie LaMontagne? No?
Think about our church family. How many among us are caring parents? How many work hard at our jobs? How many served in the military? How many love their families? Yvonne Hill, Michael Sandoe, Julie LaMontagne; to borrow a popular TV show title, this is us.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe.”
These three along with 36 others were taken captive by bad philosophy, empty deceit, and false religion. In Colossians 2:8, “elemental spirits” likely refers to evil spirits or demons[i] that have beguiled human beings. The deceived individuals developed religious practices in their response to the evil that’s taken over them. Then, they in turn drew others around them into this false religion.[ii]
In Colosse, the deception came from local deities and the priests who served them. Paul taught that the Jesus represented the one and only God. Verse 9 says in Jesus “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Paul said anyone who taught anything other than faith in Jesus is a liar and a fraud. He wanted to help people get away from using idols and household totems to pray to false Gods like Aphrodite and Artemis. He wanted to help the Colossian church lead people to the one true God.
Yvonne Hill, Michael Sandoe, Julie LaMontagne did not fall prey to 1st century Greek gods. What human tradition and elemental spirit captured these three and 36 others? As I lay out the rest of their story, be thinking about what has grabbed a hold of your attention. What movement or passion or relationship or politics or religion is trying to capture you or someone you love?
In their search for meaning, in their quest for truth and a fulfilling life, Yvonne, Michael, and Julie fell under the spell of Marshall Applewhite. He founded the Heaven’s Gate cult, an American UFO millenarian religion. On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the group were found dead in a house in Rancho Santa Fe, California. They had participated in ritual suicide in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial space craft that was following the Comet Hale-Bopp.[iii]
Of course if you knew Yvonne, Michael, Julie, or one of the others who participated in this fatally tragic hoax, you ask might why? Why would they fall for this treachery? How were these bright, hardworking people, good neighbors and good citizens, taken in like this? God only knows the warped spirituality of Applewhite himself. Was he deceived by a demon, one of the elemental spirits of Colossians 2:8? Is that how evil happens? A demon from Hell draws in one person, a particularly charismatic person, and he in turn suckers the vulnerable and the searching?
We are that. We are vulnerable, searching beings. We are certainly no better or smarter or more pure than Yvonne, Michael, or Julie. You might remember a few years ago, we had a bright young woman share her new member testimony here in church. She was incredibly smart, earning a graduate degree from UNC and immediately after graduation, a job in her field, here in Chapel Hill, a competitive job market.
This talented Christian went from joining the church to becoming extremely activity in ministry. She served in music ministry, hosted a small group in her home, served on the elder board, including a year as chairperson, and went on one of the mission trips to Ethiopia. No one could be more of a core leader in our congregation than her. But, before all that happened in her life, before she came to HillSong, she was in a cult. If we are not convinced by the stories of Yvonne, Michael, and Julie, maybe we see our own vulnerability when we hear a similar story from one of our own.
Right here in our morning worship, she told her story of being seduced into a cult. That cult, thank God, did not call on its members to commit suicide. But she will tell you it was just as dangerous a deception. Eventually, her sister helped her escape the lies and turn to the only true God, our Heavenly Father, revealed in the Son, Jesus, and present with us, God the Spirit. We thank God for her rescue and for all people who are rescued from cults like this. At the same time, we empathize with and grieve for the loved ones of those lost when cults go bad.
The Heaven’s Gate tragedy is not the only one is America’s history. On April 19, 1993, a subgroup of the Branch Davidian religion led by David Koresh, who claimed to be the group’s final prophet, ended a 51-day standoff with law enforcement. The final result was a firefight and explosion which resulted in the death of 76 Davidians. How did those followers fall under David Koresh’s spell? Why would they let him convince them to get in a hopeless firefight against federal officials?
November 18, 1978, Jim Jones, founder of the People’s Temple convinced or coerced over 900 of his followers to kill themselves by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. Jones was a truly gifted leader who built a community that in many ways seemed ideal and ahead of its time. But as wonderful his religion seemed, why would the followers knowingly drink poison? One of the songs they sang in their worship services had this line, sang with great joy and enthusiasm: “something’s got a hold on me.”
Paul knew what he was saying when he wrote, ““See to it that no one takes you captive.”
The best and brightest among us can be lured down the road to destruction by temptation. The devil lures us in so that we fall prey to him even when we think we’re pursuing truth and seeking God. No one sets out to practice a false religion. Whether someone commits crimes or hurts himself as a result of his cult participation, he himself doesn’t see it as false. He thinks he’s pursuing truth.
Think you’ll never fall for such a thing as a cult’s lies? Think back to what I asked you to ponder. What has grabbed a hold of your attention? What ideology or trend or social force or past time is trying capture you or someone you love?
Paul wrote this because of how concerned he was for the church in Colosse. Some kind of competing theology was afoot. In 1:12, he prays the church will endure. What trial did they have to endure? What trials have we endured? Paul writes in 1:13, “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” And in verse 21, he reminds the Colossians they were once estranged from God, hostile in mind, and doing evil. The reconciliation has come about through Jesus’ death (1:22).
I contend that we, without Christ, are just as estranged from God. Temptations lurk all around, in every environment in the world as it is today. We need the endurance Paul prayed for the Colossians. We need the rescue God provided them through faith in the crucified, resurrected Jesus. He is the fullness of deity (2:9) and we come to fullness in him. Any teaching, any promise, any offer that claims to give life apart from a relationship with God in Christ is a lie that leads to our destruction.
We see our baptism language in Colossians 2:13-14. “When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when He forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Our connection to Jesus is our protection against false teaching. The Holy Spirit helps us avoid falling into temptation and rescues us when we do. Colossians 2:16 says the Lord “disarmed the rulers … triumphing over them.”
Your life and my life have meaning, joy, hope, and a bright future when we are ‘in Christ.’ We aren’t captured by His Spirit. We willingly give ourselves to Him. That’s your invitation this morning. Look to the cross and realize that Jesus died that you might have joy-filled eternal life. You need not fear the enemy that lurks. Turn to the God that saves, the only true God, and find yourself in Him.
You’ve thought about your life this morning. As we sing our final song, come and give to him the things you need Him to take and receive from Him what you need and cannot get yourself. Come and receive God’s grace.
[i] David M. Hay(2000), Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Colossians, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.87. Hay says the Greek word stoicheia actually refers to supernatural beings that Paul’s Colossian readers understood to be threatening their salvation.
[ii] N.T. Wright (1986), Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, IVP Academic (Downer’s Grove, IL), p.107.