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Big Rocks First

Thomas J Parlette

“Big Rocks First”

Colossians 2: 6-19


There was once a college professor who wanted to make a dramatic point to her Introduction to Philosophy class. As the students arrived they saw a large, clear, empty glass container on the professors desk. When everyone had arrived, the professor closed the door and filled the container with several large rocks, then she turned to the students and asked, “Is this container full?” Everyone shook their heads quietly – “No”

So the professor added some smaller rocks. “How about now?” Some were not so sure, but most said “No, it’s not full yet.”

Then the professor dumped in a container of gravel that filled the spots between the stones. “How about now?” More than half the class said, “Yes, it’s full.”

So then the professor poured in a pail full of sand into the container, that filled in the spots between the pieces of gravel. “How about now?” This time it was unaminous – “Yes, the container is now full.”

But the professor had one more trick up her sleeve. She pulled out a pitcher of water and poured it into the container. Now the container was really full.

The she asked the class – “So what have you learned? What is the point of this little demonstration?”

The consensus seemed to be that the lesson here was that “You can always add more stuff. There’s always room for a little more.”

But that wasn’t what the professor had in mind. “No,” she said, “the most important lesson to be learned here is that you put the big rocks in first.”(1)

Big rocks first, or as author Steven Covey has famously said, First things first. In his book of the same name, Covey says that doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things. He then identifies four of our most basic needs – “to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.”(2) In order to have a fulfilling life, we need to meet these four needs. These are the first things to take care of, and the rest will fall into place. Big rocks first.

Paul sounds a lot like a first century Steven Covey in this passage this morning. “First things first – put the big rocks in first” is what Paul is saying to the young Christians in Colossae. Paul had never visited Colossae personally, but was getting reports that some things being taught there were not consistent with his own message. We don’t know exactly what those teachings were, or who the false teachers were either, but from what Paul alludes to it has something to do with philosophies other than Jesus Christ as the Son of God; something about belief in the elemental spirits of the universe and the idea that Jesus was not the only son of God, but some kind of lesser being, like an angel or something. Apparently, the idea that Jesus was not the one God, but one of many Gods was taking root in the church at Colossae.

This isn’t really too surprising. This was a common idea in the Roman Empire. You’ve probably heard of a building in Rome called the Pantheon. Back in the day, the Pantheon housed statues of all the Gods – the Roman gods and the gods of all the people they conquered. The Romans were only too happy to include another god in the Pantheon – why not, the more the merrier! They would have been happy to include a statue of Jesus as well – sure, why not, there’s always room for one more. “We don’t care who or what you worship,” said the Romans. “The only demand we make is that you worship Caesar as a God – right along with whatever other Gods you worship. That’s all.”

But Paul wasn’t having any of it. He argues very forcefully that Jesus is the first thing. Jesus is the big rock you start with. As Paul says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted in him, built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…. For in him the fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.” First things first. Start with the big rocks. Start by living your life in Christ.

For Paul, we don’t need a pantheon of Gods; we don’t need a shelf full of idols to put our trust in. We have Jesus, God in human form. That is enough. In our baptism, we were made one with him, united in a death like his and united in a resurrection like his as well. We have everything we need in Jesus Christ – our life, our love, our learning and our legacy. We just have to remember what we’ve already got.

William Randolph Hearst was a man who built a massive fortune in the publishing business. In an effort to spend some of his money, he began collecting art from around the world. After many years of collecting paintings and sculptures and other rare and valuable objects, Hearst was looking through an art book and saw a group of pieces he just had to have. So he called one of curators and said, “I want you to find these pieces – do whatever you have to do, I’ll pay whatever price, but I have to have them.”

So Hearst’s art curator scoured museums and galleries all over the world in search of these valuable pieces of art. Finally he located them, but headed back to see Mr. Hearst empty handed.

He arrived in Hearst’s office sat down and said, “Sir I have some good news and some bad news.”

“Well, come on, out with it then.”

“First the bad news – I’m sorry to say I was unable to acquire the pieces you wanted.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I am deeply disappointed. I hope you know this failure may cost you your job. What’s the good news?”

“The good news is, you already own them – they’re in your storage building. You bought them years ago.”(3)

We have to remember what we’ve already got. Paul wants to remind the Colossians that they already have everything they need in Jesus Christ. We have received Christ as Lord. In our baptism, we have been grafted onto the life of Christ. So our ultimate goal is to continue to live in Christ. This means that Jesus should be the ordering principle of our lives, the first thing, the big rock we put in first. Jesus is the one in whom we should find our true identity. In Jesus, we find meaning and purpose. Thus, Christ becomes the trunk in which we are rooted, the source from which we live, the foundation upon which we build, the power from which we find strength and the grace from which we gather graciousness and gratitude. In Jesus, we are transformed. In Jesus we are made alive and find new life.(4)

Sounds a bit simplistic, I know – but Christianity is about remembering what Christ has done for us, and us becoming like Jesus. That’s what “in Christ” really means. Paul encourages the Colossians, and us, to be in Christ, to remember what Jesus has done and strive to live like him.

What might that look like? How do I know that I am in Christ? How do I measure that?

Well, I don’t know if “living in Christ” is something that can be measured – but I think we can know it when we see it. People who live in Christ exhibit two characteristics.

First – someone who lives in Christ knows that they are forgiven. They remember what Jesus has done – conquered sin and death and forgiven our sins. And they generously offer forgiveness to others.

Second – a person who lives in Christ lives a life characterized by an inward and outward simplicity. This kind of person lives with one goal in mind – to please God. There is no hidden agenda, there is no attempt to manipulate or control. What you see is what you get. And may God be pleased.(5)

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a spiritual writer from a past generation wrote eloquently on this topic back in 1955. She wrote:

“I want first of all to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact – to borrow from the language of the saints – to live “in grace” as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in a prayer from the Phaedrus when he said, “May the outward and inward man be at one. I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.”(6)

Still true 60 years later. May we live in grace as much as possible. May our outward and inward nature be one, so we can function as we were meant to in the eyes of God.

And so my friends,

Know that you are forgiven.

Be always ready to offer forgiveness.

And live in grace as much as you can.

That is what it is to live “in Christ.”

That is the first thing. That is the big rock that goes in first.

May God be pleased, and praised. Amen.


1.    Gary L. Carver, Search for Serendipity, CSS Publishing Co. Inc. 2003, p. 299.

2.    Stephen R. Covey, First Things First, Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 44-45.

3.    Gary L. Carver, Search for Serendipity, CSS Publishing Co. Inc. 2003, p. 302

4.    Ibid… p. 301.

5.    Ibid… p. 304.

6.    Ibid… p. 303.