1st Sunday after Christmas C
December 21, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
The movie Home Alone could probably have worked as slapstick comedy no matter what time of the year the story was set in. But as it stands, the story takes place at Christmastime when a frantic family jets off to Paris for Christmas only to discover too late that they had left their youngest child behind. Thus Home Alone has become a Christmas movie and so is on various cable channels with some frequency during December every year now.
The movie’s plot strains credulity: how can a family leave a house, ride all the way to the airport, board a plane, and only THEN, midway over the Atlantic Ocean, realize a child has gone missing? “How in the world could something like this ever happen?” you want to ask. Seems far-fetched but you have to believe it for the film to work.
Of course, if I asked my incredulous question in the presence of Joseph and Mary, you sense that they’d soon start looking down at their feet and shifting their weight side to side in discomfiture. They did, after all, take off from Jerusalem one day without their boy. Worse, they took off without God’s boy.
Does it get any worse than to be entrusted with the only beloved Son of God and then you lose him? That’s just got to be somebody’s textbook definition of a “bad day.”
But bracket the fact that Jesus was the Son of God: he was Mary and Joseph’s son first and foremost in their minds and as any parent reading this knows, there is no panic like the panic that rises like a gorge in your throat when a child goes missing. The narrative at the end of Luke 2 tells us that Mary and Joseph just assumed their son Jesus was hanging out with the other kids somewhere in the pack of folks making the return trip from Jerusalem to Nazareth and they kept on assuming it across an entire day’s worth of walking. Didn’t see him at breakfast, but he must be around. Lunch? Well, no, they didn’t see him, but he must be grabbing a tuna sandwich with the other boys. Finally after dinner (still don’t see him but . . .) it got dark and all the children returned to the safety of their mothers and fathers to settle down for the night. At long last it dawns on Mary and Joseph: he’s not there! And upon a little checking with some cousins and the other kids, no one had, as a matter of fact, seen him all day.
It’s a curiosity of Luke’s gospel so see how the sprawling two opening chapters of Luke end. After all, these two very long chapters featured no fewer than three angel visitations, miraculous pronouncements, lyric songs, and above all the birth of the Savior of the world. Yet as it all comes in for a conclusion, we have a story as mundane, as utterly earthly and simple as they come: lost child. Panicked parents. A frantic search. The whole thing started with angels and it ends . . . paging for a lost child on the P.A. system at Walmart??
It takes them three whole days to locate him—it took one day just to get back to Jerusalem (they probably had to wait until first light the next day to head back) but that still meant there were two whole days of panic, 48 hours of further anxiety. It must have about done Mary in. Fifteen minutes of this kind of panic is enough to make the average parent feel dizzy and lightheaded and on the verge of mental and physical collapse. Even five minutes of this can feel like a lifetime.
Someone recently noted that when people lose things, they often say, “I finally found it and, of course, it was in the last place I looked!” But that’s silly: of course it was in the “last” place you looked because once you found it, you stopped looking! But behind that phrase there is a certain truth: the longer you look for something, the more unlikely are the locations you check. If you lose your car keys, you check coat pockets first, then countertops, then drawers, then the car itself, then you look under the sofa cushions. If by some chance you ultimately locate the keys in the freezer, you might remember how in the world it was you accidentally stuck them in there but the freezer surely was not among the most likely of spots to check.
So also in Luke 2: Mary and Joseph spend 48 hours before finally tumbling to the idea that just maybe they should check the Temple. “I can’t imagine he’d be there” they must have said to each other, “but we we’re running out of likely places so let’s check.” For his part Jesus is merely confused. The Temple was the first place they should have looked as it turns out. Jesus was not exactly “home alone” but he was “home” at the Temple. His parents don’t understand, however. They are too flush with a combination of intense relief and a little abiding post-traumatic stress to be able to suss it all out just then.
Who knows what Mary and Joseph had been thinking or why they actually managed to lose God’s only Son for a time. In its own quirky way, however, this conclusion to Luke 2 provides us with a nice window onto the very human, very earthy, very mundane nature of the gospel. The same chapter in Luke that began with angels singing in the sky concludes with an utterly homely little story about parental error, deep panic, great relief yet with all of it played out on a very ordinary stage.
The Lectionary assigns this story for the Sunday after Christmas. It fits well then. After all the tinsel and the glitter, all the hyperventilating of the media (and even of the church sometimes) to make this season so “special,” we need to come back down to earth and watch God’s drama of salvation unfold quietly and steadily. We come back down to earth because that is what God’s Son did, too: he came down to earth in order to redeem that same earth and all the lives we lead here.
Some while back I was delighted to have a commentator point something out that I had never before seen in this text. But notice that in Luke 2:51, having been found by his parents and scolded by them to boot, suddenly it is Jesus who is in the lead. In verses 41 and 42, when this story began, we are told that they all went up to Jerusalem from Nazareth. But in verse 51 the subject of the verb becomes he, as in Jesus. He went down to Nazareth and his parents are said to accompany him. Jesus the child leads the way out of Jerusalem. This may indeed have been Luke’s subtle way to set up the next portion of his gospel in which Jesus’ active ministry will take center stage.
Luke 2:51 is the second time Luke tells us that Mary treasured things up in her heart. The first time was after the shepherds popped in to see the infant Jesus. But now this second time follows a troubling and frightening incident. It seems that Mary at least discovered that when it came to her son Jesus, there would be plenty of opportunity to treasure up both wonderful things and perplexingly troubling things. We sometimes forget this in the Christmas season and in its aftermath. We view tragedy, illness, or bad news that comes during December as an unwelcome Advent guest.
If we, blessedly enough, can get by without any real sadness within our own family circle during December, then we shut out and bracket for a few days the tragedies we hear from others. But if we are forced to deal with a tragedy in the holidays, we conclude that Christmas is maybe ruined forever for us. If from now on Christmas Eve will remind us of that night when grandpa had a stroke, then we have the uneasy feeling that this unfitting event will keep us from ever really observing Christmas the only way we think it should be celebrated: namely, with a busy joy that must not stop for or include sorrow.
But Mary’s wrinkled forehead as she pours ever-more ponderings into her heart points us a different direction. It was the incongruities of it all, the cross-currents and contradictions, that motivated Mary to do her pondering. That’s why you get the feeling that the woman who gathered up those disparate events and pondered them in her heart would not find pain and sadness at variance with “the holiday spirit.” Mary had no other way to ponder what we call Christmas other than to recall hurtful memories.
Throughout her son’s life, Mary tried to make sense out of it all. How well she succeeded we don’t know, though it seems a lot of confusion remained for Mary. But at least she recognized that the birth of the one whom the angels had called Savior and Lord had something, and just maybe had everything, to do with the world’s jagged edges. We don’t know what, if any, conclusions she drew. But a few decades later, when she wept over her baby boy as he writhed on a Roman cross, she most certainly continued her confused pondering. This son of hers just never had an easy road–not when his life began and certainly not when it ended. “What could it all mean?” Mary’s heart screamed. We do well to ask the same question—to ask it and then trust God’s Spirit to help us answer it.
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Author: Scott Hoezee
Two Temples. Two Boys. One boy apparently lost. One boy apparently given away.
But, of course, the one boy is not at all lost but is at home in the Temple doing his real Father’s work. The other boy is making his home in the Temple and slowly discovering what may well be the focus of his own life’s work for God.
That’s the side-by-side picture you get if you nestle in this Old Testament lection for the Sunday after Christmas (Year C) next to the Gospel lection regarding the boy Jesus at the Temple. The language of the two texts is a near echo of each other. The difference between them is also easy to see: whereas Jesus was, from his parents’ point of view at least, lost in Luke 2, Samuel is where he belongs. His mother knows where he is and provides regular little gift packages for the boy, too.
There may be one other similarity between the two texts that may not be so obvious, however. Because I would imagine that both Mary in Luke 2 and Hannah in I Samuel 2 looked at their sons with tears in their eyes. For Mary they were mostly tears of joy and relief at having finally re-located her 12-year-old following three days of sheer panic. But just behind Mary’s tears of relief were tears of a pain regarding this son, of future pains that she could only begin to imagine. She had been warned earlier in Luke 2. Old Simeon had warned Mary that a sword would pierce her soul where this child of God’s was concerned, and by the time she found that son a dozen years later teaching the scribes in the Temple, she was beginning to believe Simeon’s words. The tears she shed over Jesus at the end of Luke 2 would not be the last such tears.
Hannah’s tears in I Samuel 2 were sad tears. She missed her boy and even though she had never thought to renege on her promise to give her son over to God’s service if God would grant her a son (after years of infertility struggles), it tore her mother’s heart out to do it. That day she and Elkanah left Samuel at the Temple for the first time just about killed her, and she cried the whole way home. When we read in verse 20 that Eli blessed Hannah and asked that God give her more children to take the place of the one she had dedicated to the Lord’s service, you have the feeling that the old priest did this because of the pain he could see in Hannah’s eyes every time she lovingly looked at Samuel during her annual visit to the Temple.
Those involved in the service—and in the long run in the salvation—of God suffer. Mary suffered. Hannah suffered.
That aside, however, the vignette sketched by the verses scooped out of I Samuel 2 by the Revised Common Lectionary present a portrait of the young boy Samuel that is endearingly sweet in its own way. He was doing his little altar boy duties as best he could. And each year his mother made him a “little robe” and brought it to him. These verses look nearly idyllic in their own way. Somebody cue Normal Rockwell.
But wait . . . we’ve joined a story already in progress by the time we pick up the action in verse 18 and it’s a story that continues in the four verses the Lectionary would have us skip over (verses 22-25). But that’s because there’s nothing idyllic about those verses! They are ugly, they are brutal, they are shockingly tawdry. Eli’s sons are the ultimate bad seed. They are the anti-Samuel. They steal from people making sacrifices. They act like rock stars on a tour by picking out the prettiest girls from the crowds to have sex with them later. And when old Eli, who seems to be milquetoast personified, tut-tuts his sons, they laugh him off, chalking up the old man as precisely the ineffective loser of a parent he actually is.
Little Samuel serving the Lord in the Temple is a Disney-like portrait that is definitely Rated G. But all around him swirls a moral drama that is Rated NC-17. This is not kid’s stuff. Hophni and Phineas are synecdoche for all that is wrong with Israel at that time. They were a covenant people adrift, behaving in ways that were not discernibly different from the pagan nations all around them in the Ancient Near East. Something had to change. But at the time of the events narrated in I Samuel 2, few could have guessed what that change would look like and fewer still would have surmised that the salvation Israel needed was even then being nurtured by Yahweh in the heart of that adorable little boy in the Temple, the one whom Hophni and Phineas brushed past rudely day after day, nearly knocking the little guy over as they rushed past him en route to their next ugly deed.
Again and again in the Bible this seems to be the divine M.O., bringing salvation slowly but surely and usually from quiet corners and through unlikely characters. In my sermon starters for this First Sunday after Christmas based on Luke 2:41-52, I noted that on the first Sunday after Christmas it is good to come back down to earth with a homely story about parents’ losing track of a child and such. Christmas has become altogether too surreal, too ethereal, for its own good. We need a salvation that comes to the real world, warts and all, in order to heal that same world.
That’s also why we need to pay attention to the dark and difficult verses that surround this nice little portrait of Samuel at the Temple in this lection. No one likes to see—much less stare at for long—the antics of people like Hophni and Phineas. It’s revolting! (Probably there are even a few people in the average congregation who would just as soon not have their pastor point out the sexual goings-on as described in I Samuel 2:22.) But we can’t hunger for the salvation of God properly without seeing how and why it is so desperately needed nor can we marvel aright at the amazing ways by which God gets things done if we cannot see little Samuel—or in the Gospels, little Jesus—going up against such great odds to accomplish the work of the Lord.
Some things are not easy to look at or to see. In this month of December and in this season that has been punctuated by terrorist violence and politicians playing on our fears of still more violence, we know perhaps better than at some other times how ugly, brutal, and dark this world can be. It was so in Samuel’s day. It is so in our day. But thanks be to God, the Word of the Lord and the plans of the Lord are not derailed by the ugliness.
Indeed, it’s the little child off to the side of all that who brings true hope in a world of terror and dread, of fear and deep, deep confusion. In all that it will be, indeed, as the prophet said that “a little child shall lead them.”
Thanks be to God.
Why did God choose so quiet, humiliating, and apparently weak a path when he sent his only begotten Son to this world? Because to do us any good in this damaged, disabled world, God had to duplicate in Jesus the conditions we face. In the Incarnation, God obliged, making Jesus common, not famous; ordinary-looking, not GQ handsome; quite poor, not dazzlingly rich.
Because of the way Jesus came, Kathleen Norris has recently written, we can see in the ordinary commonness of our own everyday, workaday lives glimmers of holiness. The Incarnation means that the one who is true God came down here, into the fleshly, earthy, gritty reality of life on the third planet out from the sun. And what that Son of God in skin saves is also this gritty reality, this creation of cobblestones and hummingbirds, of Chardonnay and fried rice, of sexuality and walks in the woods.
The Incarnation reveals that something about my typical life and your typical life contains a little mystery, a little gospel, and so a lot of potential for good news. Jesus was born on the wrong side of the tracks, and that is profoundly good news for all of us who live east of Eden. We need to celebrate the earthy reality of the Incarnation for in that lies our very salvation. After all, as Frederick Buechner once wrote, one of the blunders we religious folks routinely make is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
This is a stirring call to praise that’s strikingly reminiscent of Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.” It’s an invitation to “all creatures of our God and King” to lift up their “voices and with us sing, alleluia, alleluia.” In fact, Psalm 148 doesn’t just, with so many other psalms, open and close with calls to “praise the Lord.” The poet is also absolutely relentless throughout the psalm in his call for representatives of God’s whole creation to praise the Lord.
Of course, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints this psalm for the first Sunday after Christmas. However, that Sunday also happens to be the last Sunday of the year. So those who preach and teach it might ask worshipers to dig into Psalm 148 by asking themselves why this psalm might be fitting even during our final worship services of the year. Services near the end of the year often look back on the past year. How, then, might this relentless call to praise the Lord fit into such reflection? Might, for example, the Spirit use it to prompt reflection on the many reasons for praise during the past year?
The poet fills this psalm with verbs in the imperative form. So she isn’t just inviting the whole creation to praise the Lord. The psalmist is, in fact, commanding the whole cosmos to join in praising our God and King. Yet she isn’t even just commanding that whole creation to praise the Lord. The poet also calls for all members of its various species and groups to offer that praise. Note, after all, the rhythmic use of the word “all” throughout the psalm.
Psalm 148 anticipates, in some ways, the very closing phrase of the whole psalter: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (150:6). Yet having “breath” is somehow not a requirement for praising our God and King. After all, this psalm essentially invites not just every living creature but also every created thing to praise the Lord. In fact, the psalmist extends Psalm 96 and 98’s calls to the whole earth to praise the Lord to the whole creation.
J. Clinton Mc Cann notes that this invitation to the whole cosmos to join in praise to the Lord recalls God’s covenant in Genesis 9:8-17. There, after all, God doesn’t just covenant with flawed Noah and his troubled descendants. God also draws “every living creature” under the protective umbrella of God’s gracious care. God even includes “the earth” itself in that loving covenant.
Psalm 148 intersperses reasons for praising the Lord with its relentless calls to such praise. Yet the poet spends most of his time commanding to praise rather than explaining why that praise is so appropriate. In fact, the calls to praise seem disproportionate to the reasons for that praise. Humans naturally want to know why we should praise the Lord. While not entirely ignoring that question, the psalmist largely simply calls us to praise the Lord.
We can almost neatly divide Psalm 148 between its first half (verses 1-6’s) praise the Lord from the “heavens” (1b) from its second half (verses 7-14’s) from “the earth” (7). We recognize how parts of that chorus offer their praise to our God and King. We can understand how, for example, angels and heavenly hosts, as well as rulers and various other people can praise the Lord. The angels and heavenly hosts, after all, praise God in celebration of Jesus’ birth. Some of us also just heard lots of young men and maidens, old men and children joyfully sing Christmas carols.
However, it’s harder to know how other parts of God’s creation join in that cosmic choir of praise. How, for example, can the sun, moon, stars and waters that have neither tongues nor vocal cords praise the Lord? Some scholars suggest things like the sea creatures, lightning and hail, wild animals and small creatures praise our God and King whenever they simply do what God created them to do. This, of course, challenges our natural concept of praise. It suggests that bullfrogs, for example, praise the Lord not when they show perfect pitch, but when they simply burp out their communications.
Some of the psalmist’s pairings of choristers are particularly instructive. By pairing the sun that praises God during the daytime and the moon that offers its praise at night, she reminds us that God’s praise is never silenced. By combining the highest heavens and waters above the sky with the earth and what’s under its waters, the poet reminds us that God’s creation from top to bottom praises the Lord. By pairing the mountains and hills with creatures and flying birds, the poet reminds us that both the noticeable and scarcely noticeable offer their praises to our God and King.
The psalmist’s call to the whole creation to join in praise to the Lord has ecological implications. She reminds us that the sun, moon, stars, waters and various creatures are fellow members of the universal chorus of praise to God. So we might say that each time we kill a sea creature or wild animal, we silence its alto or tenor voice. In fact, it’s sobering to think that each time even just one creature dies, praise to God is muted, if even just slightly. This lays a special responsibility on people whom God has created in God’s image. After all, as Mc Cann also notes, among the unique things about humans is our ability to respect and protect creation so that it may join us in praise to the Lord.
After directing all the rest of the creation’s sopranos, altos and basses to offer their praise, the psalmist turns, finally, to humanity. Humans are, in fact, the last to enter Psalm 148’s picture of the cosmic chorus. Perhaps, Mc Cann posits, that reflects Genesis 1’s account of humanity as the final piece of God’s masterpiece that is creation. However, the psalm’s call to mighty people as well as young and old, men and women to join the chorus is also a reminder that people are just “one section” of creation’s chorus.
Of course, as Walter Brueggemann points out, human praise is fundamentally different than, for example, the sun or cattle’s. Human praise takes the form of what he calls “lyrical self-abandonment” in its yielding of one’s self and desires to God and God’s loving purposes. We praise the Lord not just by singing Christmas carols or “All Creatures of our God and King,” but also by responding to God’s grace with our obedient faith. Such praise is, after all, the most appropriate response to God’s loving and sovereign care for everything God makes, including the members of Psalm 148’s cosmic chorus.
Verse 14’s reference to “the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to” God’s heart is a bit puzzling. It may be linked to Israel’s praise to God for God’s raising up a “horn” that refers perhaps to Israel’s king. However, Terrence Fretheim suggests that it may also be linked to how we praise God. Those creatures praise God by being what they are as God’s creatures. In a similar way, Israel has been made what it is by God. So she offers her praise by being who God created her to be, God’s redeemed sons and daughters.
As noted, the psalmist spends comparatively little time elucidating reasons for the cosmos to join in praising our God and King. At the heart of those reasons, however, lies God’s “name,” (5, 13), in other words, God’s character. Psalm 148 especially focuses on God’s creative nature. Verses 5-6 speak of how God “commanded and they were created.” They reflect Genesis 1:1-2:4’s teaching of God as the universe’s creator. David Migliore says that that creation reveals that God’s nature is essentially love. God, after all, not only lovingly created all things that were created, but also lovingly cares for what God creates. So it’s most appropriate for that whole creation to respond in praise.
USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2012/12/04/cosmic-radio-waves/1746729/ recently reported on a new addition to the cosmic chorus of praise to the Lord. It noted that twin spacecraft have captured sounds that mimic the chirping of birds from earth’s radiation belts.
The crafts collected measurements of radio waves. Those waves can produce an energy boost to radiation belt particles. However, those waves also operate in ways that can be heard with the human ear.
As University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing played a recording of those high-pitched radio waves, he noted that you can’t just hear what sound like “chirps.” You can also hear what he calls “that sort of cricket-like thing in the backgrounds.” Even radio waves are, it seems, part of creation’s chorus that praises the Lord.
Author: Stan Mast
The Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good day to find a guest preacher to fill in for you. I mean, after all the hoopla of the holidays, people are exhausted and after exploring the depths and heights of the Incarnation. So is the preacher. What do you say on this first Sunday after Christmas?
Here the lectionary is very helpful. The Gospel reading for today focuses our attention on the (already?!) 12-year -Jesus speaking in the Temple, while the Old Testament reading parallels that story by taking us back to the even younger child Samuel ministering in the Tabernacle. There are abundant homiletical possibilities in those readings. The Psalm (148) for the day calls for everything in heaven and on earth to praise God. Cosmic praise is surely an appropriate response to the miracle of the God with us.
Our reading from Colossians 3 calls for a very different response. Think back to Christmas. How did your children respond to their gifts? My adult sons and their wives smiled warmly and offered sincere thanks when they received their traditional (and sizeable) checks. Our grandchildren squealed with glee, jumped up and down, hugged us around the neck, and said, “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s just what I wanted!” Or at least that’s how it went in my dreams; reality is sometimes a little different.
But how do you respond to a gift that changes your entire life? I think of those people who win the lottery—not just the little ones, but the Mega Millions and the Power Ball. Recently someone won $330,000,000. Her first response was, “Now I don’t have to go in to work tomorrow.” When asked what she would do with the money, she said, “Provide for my grandchildren’s education.” It was a happy day for her. Her life was changed forever by that immense gift. But studies of former lottery winners reveal that such huge windfalls more often ruin people’s lives. In a few years, most of the money is gone because they didn’t respond in an appropriate way to the life changing gift.
What is the appropriate way to respond to the life changing gift God gave the human race at Christmas? Paul introduces the answer to that question with one word. “Therefore….” With that word, he points back the life changing work of Jesus—not only his birth, life, and death, but also his resurrection and coronation. That awesome work of Christ has created a whole new self for us (3:1, 3, 10) and incorporated us into a whole new community (3:11). Paul had sung of the all-sufficiency of Christ in the gorgeous hymn of Colossians 1:15-23. Now here he sums it all up in the closing words of verse 11. “Christ is all, and in all.”
How shall we respond to all that? In effect Paul says, Christ has put on your flesh, therefore you should put on Christ in your flesh. And he explains that not with a call for some mystical practices or heroic sacrifices or esoteric knowledge, but with a call to be Christ-like in our everyday living.
In the immediately preceding verses (5-10), he gives the negative side of post-Christmas living: “put to death,” “ rid yourself,” “you have taken off.” There are things you can’t do anymore, now that Christ has come and is “all in all.” Paul writes a big “NO” over the life we used to live. Sadly, many serious Christians stop right there and live a “NO” kind of life, emphasizing all the things we cannot do because we are Christians.
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop there. He focuses on the new life with all its fresh possibilities. You can have a whole new set of attitudes toward life and a whole new set of behaviors, a positive way of living that will give you the joy Jesus promised and show the world how good life can be when “Christ is all in all, and in all.” Those last words are important. In calling for a new way of living, Paul does not emphasize a new set of rules or a new philosophy of life, as the Jewish Gnostics in the Colossian church did (2:6-23). Rules and regulations, knowledge and philosophy are “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality is found in Christ.” (2:17) Thus, Paul simply points to Christ as the key to this new life.
Using the imagery of putting on clothes, Paul lists 5 qualities or characteristics or attitudes that are Christ-like: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. In Romans 13:14 Paul commands all Christians to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ….” Here he gives us the articles of clothing that will make us look like Christ. A better way to put it is this; if we habitually wear these clothes, displaying a Christ-like character, the Christ who is “in all” will become visible to the world.
That is Paul’s first answer to our post-Christmas question, “now what?” Because of the all-sufficiency of Christ, we must put on Christ, clothing ourselves with the character qualities that distinguished his life and death. In the rest of our text, Paul outlines the behaviors or actions that will both demonstrate and sustain and nourish those inner qualities. You have a new life and a new family; now act like it.
Again, note how Christ-centered daily life should be. It is “the peace of Christ” that should rule in our hearts and in our lives together. It is “the word of Christ” that should dwell in us richly. It is “the name of the Lord Jesus” that should govern our behavior. No legalism here.
And, again, note how relentlessly positive Paul is about the Christian life. What an attractive people we would be if we focused on the “yes” of peace and gratitude and teaching and singing! Of course, there are ways of living we must avoid; Paul does call us to “die,” and “take off,” and “get rid of.” But his last words in our text are a clarion call to live toward God in Christ, rather than away from the world.
I’m not going to say much more about the behaviors outlined in verses 15-17, except these three general comments. First, all of the “you’s” are plural, which makes sense, given Paul’s words about the body of Christ in verse 11. We are in this together, since Christ is in all. So, although we must put on these attitudes and display this behavior in our personal lives, we need each other to do that. Following Christ is a personal matter, but never a private matter. So Paul calls on the community to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.” In an individualistic age, Paul’s insistence on the corporate is a needed reminder. We can’t do this alone. We must do it in our life together.
Second, isn’t it interesting that Paul highlights the role of music in the Christian life? As preachers, we believe that the main way of dwelling in the word of Christ is “teaching and admonishing” one another with all wisdom. That’s why you are reading this page. But haven’t we all experienced how the right song will seal the message of a sermon better than anything else. It doesn’t matter what kind of music, says Paul; it could be a song or a hymn or a spiritual song. It must only be wisely chosen, so that it fits with the teaching and admonition, and it must be sung with gratitude in our hearts to God. Let those who have ears to hear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Third, it strikes me that those closing words of verse 17 are a most helpful guide in a morally ambiguous world. Yes, there are specific rules given by God which must not be shunted aside in the name of general principles. But in those gray areas of life where we can’t really be sure how the rules apply, let these two words determine our behavior. “And whatever you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Could you do this morally questionable thing “in the name of Jesus?” And can you genuinely “give thanks to the Father” as you do this thing?
On this first Sunday after the Big Event, Paul calls us to live our ordinary lives focused on the One who came to live and die among us. The Incarnation calls us to Christ-like and Christ-centered living down in the trenches where things can be very messy and very confusing.
Paul’s image of clothing made me think of the pictures from a recent Wall Street Journal (a gift from my unused airline miles). That issue covered a recent show of designer clothes. I’ve never seen more elaborate and outlandish outfits in all my life. Contrast that with the articles of clothing Paul describes. Without using too much imagination, here’s how I would describe this wardrobe.
When we get dressed each day, we begin with what? Our underwear, what old timers called “foundation garments.” When Paul talks about compassion and humility, he is talking about the foundation garments of life, because those two character traits are fundamental to human relationships. They summarize how we feel deep down inside about each other and about ourselves. Putting on compassion means that we feel with each other. And humility is how we feel about ourselves—not negative feelings about ourselves, but a lack of focus on ourselves. Humility will keep us from insisting on our own way, our own rights, our own agenda. Without compassion and humility, human relationships don’t work.
Next, Paul calls us to put on the basic work clothes of the Christian life—kindness and gentleness. Those are the jeans and sweatshirt we wear in the everyday world. Kindness means, at least, be courteous and considerate of other people. That’s not very fancy or sexy, but simple human kindness will do more to demonstrate the life changing work of Christ than almost anything else. And put on gentleness, because we are all so fragile that we need gentle treatment. In a violent world, the children of God must wear gentleness like old worn out jeans.
Then, each day we must put on the shoes of patience. The world is filled with problems, but problems become splits, divisions, and warfare when we run out of patience with the problem. So, says Paul, put on the shoes of patience and keep walking with each other, even when it feels like an endurance race. And just because we humans can so easily annoy each other, we need to carry a full wallet of forgiveness. Realistically, we can’t keep from “grieving” each other, as Paul says. So we’ll need to reach into wallets daily and pull out a big wad of forgiveness, sometimes 70 times 7.
The final article of clothing Paul mentions is the overcoat of love; “and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity.” Indeed, we can’t and won’t put on any of the other articles of Christian clothing without love. In contrast to the heretical teachers who were leading the Colossians astray, Paul says the main thing you need for Christ-like living is not deep philosophy or secret knowledge or obedience to a long set of rules, but Christ-like love that covers a multitude of sins.
In Ephesians 6 Paul describes the full armor of God. Here he describes the Christian’s workaday wardrobe.