(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 12/27/2015)
Merry Christmas! Did we have a good time? My prayer has been that you would find some level of joy and peace in this season of celebrating Jesus’ birth, however you celebrate.
But now it’s the Sunday after Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found that the days after Christmas are kind of a bummer. I know Christmas day was only two days ago, and New Year’s is this week, so the holiday season certainly isn’t over. But in my life, there’s always this huge build up to Christmas, with all of these expectations from Christmas movies and commercials and just general society that when Christmas finally comes and goes, it’s kind of a bummer. I’m normally left thinking “Now what?” Right? Anyone else? Stores have had Christmas stuff out since early November, we’ve been building up to this relatively short season since before Thanksgiving, even if we ourselves tried to wait until after that. And now it’s over. Now what?
Have you experienced the same thing? Maybe you’ve had all of this build up to Christmas and even though the holiday season might not be over to you, maybe you still have family to visit, maybe you have fun New Year’s plans, but maybe you’re already starting to think “Now what?” Why does any of this celebration matter? Is this just a time of year when we make ourselves feel happy, and then move on? Is that it? Do any of you feel the post-holiday blues already coming on, or know that they’ll be coming in a few days? Christmas is over…now what?
I think our Scripture for today can really speak some truth into this.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17, NIV)
Now I want to explain what I think Paul is saying here in Colossians, but I want to start in a different place. I want to talk about the baptism practices of the early church, what baptism looked like in the 1st and 2nd-century church. This is going to help us in a few minutes, just stick with me.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries baptism was done by immersion; the person to be baptized would be immersed completely in a pool of water. Baptisms would usually happen on Easter, so leading up to Easter, the group of people to be baptized, called catechumens, would go through intense preparation for their baptism. Then early Easter Sunday morning, the group of catechumens would gather in the baptistery of whatever church they were a part of the room off of the sanctuary containing the baptismal pool or font. They would all gather there, the bishop or priest would bless the waters and then the group of people to be baptized would come up to the side of the pool one by one.
Each person would first disrobe, they would take off their old clothes and kneel on one side of the pool completely naked. Aren’t you glad we don’t do it that way anymore? The priest or the bishop would then anoint them with oil, the catechumen would take their baptismal vows to reject the power of evil and profess faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then they would be immersed in the pool, still naked, in what I am sure was freezing cold water, they would come out on the other side, get anointed with oil again, be prayed over, and then finally they would get new clothes to put on, new bright white baptismal robes to wear. Their old clothes would be thrown away, and they would go out to join the congregation for the Easter Sunday service.
I want to make sure you notice the big parts of this. The people to be baptized would take off their old clothes on one side of the baptismal pool, they would be baptized, and come out on the other side and put on brand new clothes, bright white robes. They would take off their old clothes, symbolizing their leaving behind their old life; they would be baptized, and they would put on new clothes, symbolizing them stepping into their new life. This imagery of taking off old clothes and putting on new clothes, is the imagery Paul had in mind in this passage. We can really see it in the context
In the verses leading up to our passage, Paul says that if you’ve been raised with Christ (during the Christmas season, we might say if Christ has been born in you)then you must set your mind on things above, not earthly things. Paul calls for us to get rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene language, all of those practices that characterized life before Christ. But he says it in a particular way. He doesn’t just say “Those are bad things, don’t do them.” He says that you have stripped off your old self, like a pair of old ratty work clothes, and you’ve clothed yourself with your new life, like bright white baptismal robes.
Clothe yourself in Christ. This is the metaphor Paul uses here. And what he’s really talking about here is the concepts of justification and sanctification. Maybe you’ve heard those words, maybe you haven’t. But let me briefly explain them, because this is important.
Justification-That is the moment in which a person once separated from God is brought back to God, their sins forgiven, and the relationship restored.
Sanctification-this is the process following justification where you gradually allow the Holy Spirit to work in your life and transform it, piece by piece, into an image of Christ’s life.
I pulled those definitions from a paper I wrote for my theology class this past semester in seminary, and I got an A on that paper, so I know I have the right idea. But this is confusing stuff to think about and conceptualize, so I think it’s easier to think about it using metaphors and imagery like Paul does. Paul says that in Christ, you’ve stripped off the old self with all of its practices, like changing out of old ratty work clothes, and you’ve put on the new self, like bright white baptismal robes. You might understand it as justification being the moment you decide to change clothes and sanctification being the process of changing. Paul says you’ve taking off the old human nature and put on the new nature, “renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.” This is the dynamic Paul’s talking about.
Now if we’re going to keep this imagery of changing clothes, Paul tells us what the Christian’s clothes look like: Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. This is the clothing we’re called to put on once we’ve changed out of our old clothing of selfishness, pride, hardheartedness, frustration, and impatience.
Now Paul is not saying that these behaviors save you. Think back to the baptism illustration a few minutes ago. When someone is baptized, they are welcomed into a new life and a new family-the church. So the idea here is that you have a new life and new family. Act like it. Don’t act like you’re still in your old life with your old family.
What’s more, Paul makes sure to say in verse 12 that God has already chosen you. God has named you holy and beloved. So Paul is saying that this is a way of life that you are able to take hold of. These clothes do fit you, you are able to step into these new clothes.
And when you do live into all of these outward behaviors and actions, when you do change into new clothes on the outside, there is a change on the inside.
Think of it like this. When it’s cold outside, I put on a winter coat. After I put it on, I get warm inside. But if I hadn’t put the coat on and just tried to make myself warm inside by thinking really hard about it, I would still be cold, right?
This is what Paul is talking about here. He tells us to put on this outer clothing of humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, and then he says that the peace of Christ will rule in your hearts. The Word of Christ will dwell in you.
This is the change that Jesus wants to work in us. To put it simply, Jesus wants to make us more compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. Jesus wants to help us step out of our old clothes, like old, smelly, sweaty work clothes, and into our new clothes, like bright white baptismal robes.
This is the kind of change that the Incarnation brings about. The Incarnation-when the divine and human natures joined together in Christ. When God became human. That’s the mystery of the Incarnation, that’s what we really celebrate this season, right? And this is the kind of change the Incarnation brings about. The Gospel of John tells us the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And it’s even more beautiful than that-Jesus dwells in us, in our lives, in our families. And Jesus calls us to dress appropriately.
But the thing is, we have to cooperate. We have to choose to take off the old clothes, take off our ratty old work clothes, and put on our new clothes, the bright white robes of our baptism. And we have to continue to choose to put on those new clothes each and every day.
I asked you at the beginning, now that Christmas is over, what now? That’s a question that I think is on a lot of our minds. The truth of this season is that Christmas is not just an event, remembering a time when Jesus was born sometime in the distant past in a far away land. That’s not it. No, Christ is born in us each day, changing and perfecting us, continually pushing us to change clothes from the old to the new.
So the question before us today is: What new clothes do you need to put on? And what clothes do you need to change out of and leave behind? New Year’s is this week, and I know we may make resolutions that we may or may not keep. But as you’re thinking about what your next year is going to look like, ask yourself this question: How is Christ calling me to change clothes? Maybe you need to change out of the old clothes of indifference toward your spouse or family’s feelings or thoughts or contributions, and put on the new clothes of compassion and self-giving love for them. Maybe you’re still clinging to the old clothes of arrogance and self-importance, assuming you’re right and they’re not, that your thoughts and feelings and skills matter more than someone else’s, and maybe you need to put on the new clothes of humility and gentleness. What new behaviors, attitudes, and actions is Christ calling you to step into? And what behaviors, attitudes and actions is Christ calling you to step out of?
Church, what would the world look like if everyone wore these new clothes that Paul put before us? What would our community, the Village of Alger look like, if all of us here put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience? What would your family look like if you stripped off your old clothes of selfishness, pride, hardheartedness, and frustration and put on the new clothes, like bright white baptismal robes, that Jesus is offering you?
We talk about the good feelings and charity and kindness that everyone feels around Christmas each year, and we complain that those feelings don’t extend through the rest of the year. Well this is how that happens-we choose to put on the new clothes that Christ gives us each and every day, each and every hour, each and every minute, even when you don’t want to. Christmas is over. What now? Now, we step into the new clothes of Christ and into the new life Christ calls us to.