Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 30, 2018
Colossians 3:12-17 Commentary
Some people who proclaim Colossians 3 this week are old enough to remember a kind of worship battle that largely preceded today’s battles over music. Some of those battles were fought over appropriate clothing for wearing to worship.
During the 1960’s and 70’s my dad always wore a suit and tie and my mom wore a dress to church. While my siblings and I didn’t dress quite that formally, our parents taught us to dress “well” for worship services.
Yet just as the 1960’s and 70’s witnessed many other changes, they also witnessed changes in what constitutes what we once called our “Sunday best.” Some North American Christians began wearing clothing to worship services that grandparents (and even parents) considered too casual for wearing to church.
This morning’s text talks about what the apostle Paul would call appropriate “clothing.” However, he’s not talking about dressing in what we used to call our “Sunday best.” No, the attire about which the apostle speaks is our character. He wonders if we’ve let God “dress” us in the “clothing” that is compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. And if we’ve, most importantly, put on “over” those virtues the “coat” or “jacket” of love.
In the part of Colossians 3 that precedes that which the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul reminds his readers of our baptism into Christ’s death by which the Spirit puts to death our sinful ways of living. The apostle also reminds God’s people that God has raised us with Christ Jesus to a new life of obedience.
Of course, reading such reminders on the last Sunday of the old year may seem like jumping right to Good Friday and Easter. That’s part of the reason why we remember that many Christians just celebrated Christmas because of what happened on the first Good Friday and Easter. Had the baby Jesus not also grown up to be the crucified and risen Christ, his birth wouldn’t be important.
Like what, then, does the “wardrobe” of someone whom God has crucified and raised with that Christ look? In verse 8 Paul challenges us to “strip off” our “clothing” that is anger, slander, filthy language, lying and other vices. Christians who “wear” things like that are like people who wear a Speedo to church or a wedding dress into a farrowing house.
That’s an appropriate message for this last Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2018. After all, our culture sees the start of a new year as a time of renewal. Yet Christian renewal takes on a cruciform shape. After all, God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t want to just be better people. You and I also long to be people who increasingly imitate our crucified and risen Savior.
Colossians 3 reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that those who celebrate Christ’s birth do so, in part, by putting on the right clothing. However, the apostle is not talking about wearing that new sweater Grandma knit or the tie your neighbor bought you.
Instead Paul invites God’s beloved people to “clothe” ourselves in the new “outfits” that are Christian virtues that are compassion, kindness and humility, as well as gentleness, patience and forgiveness. The apostle invites us to respond to Christ’s birth by “wearing” a fruit of the Spirit such as love.
For Christians making New Year’s resolutions is about reclaiming our identity as those who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On this last Sunday in 2018 the Epistolary text the Lectionary appoints invites to reclaim our identity as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.”
Yet this description shows a shift in Israelite thinking. Passages like Deuteronomy 7 show that these were, after all, titles God gave originally to the nation of Israel. God, however, showed Paul that God graciously chooses and loves both Jews and Gentiles. Those whom God has chosen and loved respond, says the apostle in verse 12 and following, by adopting some of the virtues of Christ himself.
God, of course, created our first parents in God’s image, to be in many ways like God. However, while their as well as our own sin blurred that resemblance, our text reminds us that God is restoring the likeness, making us more and more like Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is, in other words, increasingly “clothing” us in compassion, kindness and humility.
Of course, this isn’t very fashionable “attire.” We, after all, naturally prefer to “wear” things like sexual immorality, greed and filthy language. So when God clothes God’s beloved children in virtues like compassion and humility, we stick out. Few of our neighbors and co-workers think of our bearing with each other and patience, for example, as fashionable.
Yet Christians profess that the filthy clothing that is sin didn’t just drive our first parents out of God’s loving presence in the garden. Our sin also drove Jesus Christ to the humiliation, torture and abandonment of the cross.
So those who celebrate Christmas can be honest about not just our sins, but also the sins of the Church and broader society. We sometimes find it hard to forgive others and ourselves for the sins they and we have committed. Yet those whom God has forgiven want to lovingly view and treat those who have sinned against us the way God views and treat us.
However, as Leonard Kline notes, “Love is not just an empty slogan” for those who have just celebrated Christmas. It’s part of the new “wardrobe” in which God has clothed us through the death and resurrection of the Christ.
So while our media and entertainment industry talk much about love, Jesus Christ’s cradle and cross give it its Christian shape. Christian love is not a sentimental or mushy feeling of attraction. It’s the kind of self-sacrifice we see in Jesus’ giving up heaven’s glory to become just like his adopted siblings in every way except that he was perfect.
So those who “wear” love are willing to give ourselves, as Jesus did, to even undeserving people. Those who love as Christ loved are always looking beyond those we like and ourselves. We even want to love our enemies, just as Christ loved his enemies.
However, Paul goes on to remind us, we always “dress” ourselves in things like forgiveness, peace and love in the context of the Church. In verse 16, after all, he invites us to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and … sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude … to God.”
This reminds us that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, as Klein notes, to “clothe” a group of rugged individualists. He came, instead, to create a body that, dressed in forgiveness, love and peace, would show the world God’s love.
So it’s appropriate that these twelve days of Christmas are a time for singing. Praise is, after all, one of the most appropriate corporate responses to God’s loving presence in Jesus Christ. While we want worship to comfort and bless us, its first goal is to bring honor and glory to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet Paul concludes our text by reminding us that whether God’s beloved children sing or share our food with the hungry, we do it in Jesus’ name. Whether we teach each other or learn from each other, we do it in Jesus’ name. In fact, we do everything in Jesus’ name.
Sometimes that means that we do or say things in distinctly Christian ways. However, most of the time doing things in Jesus’ name simply means consciously “dressing” ourselves in words and actions that bring glory not first to us, but to God.
In The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Vol. I: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, William Manchester writes about Londoners’ sense of fashion. He notes that each Victorian group and class of people had its own distinctive attire.
“Identifying a stranger’s class has always been a social challenge for Londoners. Today it is a matter of vowels. In [Victorian] days it was far easier, and would usually be accomplished by a glance.
“J. M. Bailey, an American visitor to London in the 1870’s, wrote that he could find ‘traces of nobility’ in an aristocrat’s ‘very step and bearing.’ He asked mischievously: ‘Can you conceive of a bowlegged duke? Or is it possible for you to locate a pimple on the nose of a viscount? And no one, however diseased his imagination, ever pictures a baron with an ulcerated leg, or conceived of such a monstrous impossibility as a cross-eyed duchess.’
“This was Yankee wit, but the plain fact was that you could tell. Gentlemen, no less than ladies, could be identified by their clothing. They wore top hats, indoors and out, except in homes or churches. Cuffs and collars were starched, cravats were affixed with jeweled pins, waistcoats were snowy white, wide tabular trousers swept the ground at the heel but rose in front over the instep, black frock coats were somber and exquisitely cut.
“Swinging their elegant, gold-headed canes, gentlemen swaggered when crossing the street, dispensing coins to fawning men who swept the dung from their paths. (These men were followed by nimble boys with pans and brushes, who collected the ordure and sold it in the West End for fertilizer.) Bowlers were worn by clerks and shopkeepers and caps by those below them. Switching hats wouldn’t have occurred to them, and it wouldn’t have fooled anyone anyway.
“Despite advances in mass production of menswear, dry cleaning was unknown in the London of the time. Suits had to be picked apart at the seams, washed, and sewn back together. Patricians wore new clothes or had tailors who could resew the garments they had made in the first place. The men in bowlers and caps couldn’t do it; their wives tried but were unskillful, which accounts for their curiously wrinkled Sabbath-suit appearance in old photographs.”
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