Yes, this text is aptly Christmas-like enough, being all about the “appearing” or Epiphany of God’s Son into our world. It’s all about God’s “indescribable gift” to the world and so has plenty of Advent and Christmas Day resonances. Yet in a real way this is the Christmas story for the day after Christmas, the week after Christmas, and basically ALL THE TIME in between celebrations of Christmas. Because this is a text that reminds us that those who celebrate the indescribable gift of the Christ Child are then obligated to become a whole new people leading a very different kind of life on account of having encountered God’s Messiah.
And, of course, that’s why a lot of people would just as soon not hear this text and, let’s face it, it will be the rarest of preachers who on Christmas Morning 2016 will bypass this or that section of Luke 2 in order to focus on Titus 2. This may be the most under-read Epistle sermon commentary I will post all year!
Too bad because this year more than ever we could use a passage that—like so much of the Pastoral Epistles and Titus in particular—focuses on the need for good spiritual hygiene and, in particular, on the spiritual virtue and the spiritual fruit of self-control.
Titus worked on the island of Crete and, reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, Crete was a tough row to hoe. The residents there were notoriously lazy, self-indulgent, gluttonous and cruel. They lived by their bellies more than their wits and, like so many in the ancient world, they very much had a “If it feels good, do it” mentality that led to an out-of-control form of riotous living and partying.
The Greek word Paul uses all through Titus for “self-control” is sophroneo, which is a curious little word that literally means “to be in your right mind.” The opposite of self-control, then, is to be out of your head, nuts, out of control or, as my mother used to put it when my brother and I did something particularly stupid or reckless, “Are you out of your ever-loving minds!!??”
Doing whatever feels good whenever it feels good is a crazy way to live because it means you are cut off from sensible, normal, creational limits—the stuff God put into place to protect us and to ensure our flourishing. To be out of your right mind usually means you are endangering yourself and probably you will take a few others down with you before it’s over. One need only witness spectacles like binge-drinking on campuses, wild sexual orgies, the broken human wreckage left behind when sex is treated like a causal indoor contact sport to understand what those who lack self-control can do to themselves and to others.
But not so for those who follow the Child of Bethlehem whose appearing, Paul writes, teaches us to say “No” to such living. Years ago Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was caricatured as being too facile by half to combat the serious scourge of drugs and of addiction. Truth is, though, the idea was right. It’s just that most people need some outside help and motivation and energy successfully to say “No” to drugs or to anything else that might prove harmful.
But followers of Christ have that—it’s called the indwelling Spirit of Christ. God’s own power both motivates us and equips us to say No to bad things so we can be level-headed, self-controlled, and in our right minds on things that matter to us and to those around us. What’s more, Paul says this makes the whole Gospel more attractive—literally he says that self-controlled living applies “cosmetics” to the Gospel, from the Greek kosmeo, which, yes, is the root of our “cosmetics.” (You have to back up to Titus 2:10 to see this but it flows right into the Lectionary passage.)
It’s not enough to celebrate Christ’s birth once a year but then walk away from the manger unchanged. We have a whole, great big, beautiful Gospel story to tell to the nations and we tell it best when we adorn that Gospel with attractive living that shows how in touch we are with the goodness of—and the proper limits in—God’s creation.
It has been a crazy, upsetting year in the United States. The presidential election brought out the worst in lots of us and much of the year was a frenzy of out-of-control passions, rhetoric, rancor, and other unhappiness. The church was not immune from getting caught up in all that—neither was I. Alas and mea culpa.
But now it’s Christmas and it’s a season of peace and so on Christmas Day, we can perhaps all agree to set this aside. But if we manage that for Christmas Day only and then march into 2017 out of control and out of our minds, then we have not properly received the gift of Christ and of his Gospel. Despite what some people say, we really cannot “make Christmas last all year long.” Who would want to? But we can make Christ and his appearing last all year long. We must. The grace of God has appeared to help us to say “No” to all ungodliness and wild living so we can spruce up the Gospel and make it attractive. THAT kind of living is the best way to show that we really do know “the reason for the season.”
Note: Our specific Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.
“I must have been out of my mind!” “Oh dear, it looks like she’s lost it!” “I don’t know what came over me!” “I don’t know why I did that but all I do know is that all of the sudden I was insanely jealous!” “Whoa, I need to get a grip here because I feel like I’m losing touch with reality!” These phrases reflect various ways by which we try to explain the terrible things we occasionally do. And over and again when doing this, we find ourselves claiming some kind of temporary insanity. We claim we are losing our grip, out of our ever-loving mind, overwhelmed by something that takes control of us.
Probably most of us know both what it is like to witness another person’s descent into irrational behavior and what it is like to act that way ourselves. Often this is seen best in fits of furious anger. Some years ago I read a woman’s account of what happened to her one day when her kids pushed her too far. The children had been difficult from the moment they got out of bed. They had been crabby and oppositional, had been bickering and fighting almost constantly. The mother tried to keep her cool but was rapidly losing the battle. Finally the kids hopped into the car in the driveway and insisted their mother take them to the swimming pool. They refused to get out of the car when told to do so and even started laying on the horn to coax their mother to get behind the wheel and do what they wanted. And she snapped. As she herself describes it, “I lost it. I lost myself. I jumped on the hood of the car. I pounded on the windshield. I could not stop pounding on the windshield. Then the frightening thing happened: I became a huge bird. A carrion crow. My legs became hard stalks; my eyes were sharp and vicious. I developed a murderous beak. Greasy black feathers took the place of arms. I flapped and flapped. I blotted out the sun’s light with my flapping. Each time my beak landed near my victims, I went back for more. Finally I had to be forced to get off the car and stop pounding. Even then I did not come back to myself and when I did, I was appalled. I realized I had genuinely frightened my children. Mostly because they could no longer recognize me. My son said to me, ‘I was scared because I didn’t know who you were.'”
I didn’t know who you were. If you have ever had someone say something similar to you, then you know how devastating that is. And it is all the more withering because you sense that this is an accurate way to put it. You know deep down that for a little while, you didn’t know who you were, either. You were in the grip of something so powerful that you did feel out-of-control. You were out of your mind, out of sorts, irrational. You could not be reasoned with because your reason had fled.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2016
Titus 2:11-14 Commentary