It’s a pleasure to be here among you this morning and to be working with the words from this epistle.
Colossians is a complicated text in a number of ways, but the Scripture for this week, right here in the heart of Christmas, offers us some really useful words as we look to make sense of where we are in this moment.
And where exactly are we?
Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, that time of hope and expectation, is over.
Christmas the Consumer holiday is over. Now we’re into the After-Christmas sales. I’ve heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus enough times for at least another 11 months. Maybe for twice – or three times or ten times – that long.
Christmas the family holiday is over, for better and for worse. Some people are still fellow-shipping, still traveling, but a lot of folks have begun to make their way home or at least are making preparations to do so.
Christmas the long weekend this year is about over.
Christmas the Christian observance is still with us, right?
A child was born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the inn. According to the Christian calendar, this is the Christmas season. The good news is made manifest among us. Jesus is born into the world. That event happened on Christmas Day and because of that, as this Scripture holds before us, the Word of Christ, rich as it is, can dwell in us.
It’s a moment of opportunity, yet it’s all too easy in the busy-ness of the season to let this moment of opportunity slip by us. The great poet WH Auden puts the risk to us this way:
As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away
That’s the risk of the present moment.
Do we contain Christmas too much?
Do we make it into a single moment defined by our human standards of a holiday?
Do we make it about the presents that come in boxes instead of the presence of Jesus in our world?
Do we skip too quickly to the next thing?
We don’t have to. The Christian calendar gives us 12 days. Christmas lasts until we mark the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Here in the United States we have often failed to pay attention to that. But in doing so we missed something important and I’m glad to reclaim it.
It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world in the form of a migrant baby.
It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as a helpless infant in a time of empire.
It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as an embodied rejection of our material concepts of power and privilege.
This is the good news, the Christmas Spirit, the mystery – this improbable reality that the prince of peace was born in a stable.
It takes more than a morning crowded with wrapping paper and excitement and ham to figure out what that good news means for the essential question of how I am to live? And how are we to live together? We need some time – and we need it each year because the quiet steady voice of God is easily drowned out by the noise of our culture.
The 12 days of Christmas give us that chance, that opportunity to take this transformative moment and put it to work in us.
We’re on day 3. Can I interest anyone in some French hens? That’s where the song comes from, right?
Okay, maybe those are hard to come by in Birmingham, but we can still find gifts of this day and of the remaining days of Christmas. We can work on this question of how to live Christmas.
The period of Christmas takes us from 2015 into 2016. It binds the old calendar year with the new.
And how does it carry us forward? What can help us to mark this ongoing Christmas season in our own lives, this sacred time?
The text today provides useful instruction. In a passage that precedes our text, we hear these words:
What you have done is put aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new self, one that grows in knowledge as it is formed anew in the image of its Creator.
For the month of December, we had our Christmas sweaters, didn’t we? Reindeer socks and Santa hats. Maybe you go for the garish or maybe you have that one item that fits perfectly and feels so good. One look at it when you pull it out of storage reminds you of all the season has to offer, so that when you put it on, it fills you with delight.
But now that we’ve left those other Christmas’s behind, we start to pack those clothes away. The passage from Colossians we read today tells what we could wear for the rest of Christmas. Hear it again – clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together.
How’s that for a Christmas outfit? Think about wearing these things. You get out of the bed and – because of Jesus’s presence in this world and in your life, you put on heartfelt compassion. You put on kindness. You put on humility and gentleness and patience.
What if that were to be our uniform as Christians? Every single day. When you wear something it touches you all the time. You feel it. It goes with you all day long. It’s a part of your identity. It’s a visible marker of who you are.
These days I have to get up each morning and figure out if it’s going to be 35 or 75 degrees on any given day. You know what I mean, right? And then I’ll get the right clothes out.
But no matter what the weather is outside, no matter what the circumstances, no matter whether you are going to the grocery store or to a book club meeting, if you’re going to work or to a wedding – you can clothe yourself in compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and love. No matter what.
It’s important to say this – that doesn’t mean we let people run all over us. But it means:
if you speak truth to power, you do so from a place of love;
if you call out the meanness of the world, you do so with humility and kindness;
when you face the community-breaking miseries of institutional racism and structural poverty and ingrained homophobia and ableism, you confront them clothed in the wisdom and peace that comes from knowing Jesus in your life. We are called to instruct and admonish one another wisely.
If we keep working with that Scripture, we learn more. We hear the call to forgive and to dedicate ourselves to gratitude, the call to sing joyfully to God and to let peace reign in our hearts. This takes practice. This is active work and often difficult work.
But if we make it our practice, if we make it the work of this moment, if we use this time of Christmas to focus on these disciplines, we begin to live into the sacredness of time – not just at Christmas, but all the time.
Jesus Christ was born into a world of fear and poverty and great distance between the powerful and the powerless. Does that sound familiar? And furthermore we live in a world of feuds and fights, of death and destruction, of shootings and storms.
I don’t know about you, but on Christmas night I was wondering if somebody pulled up the wrong story. It wasn’t supposed to be the Ark story. This was supposed to be about Jesus, not Noah. But we are not in control all the time, are we? That’s part of the stark reality of living as human beings.
There are so many things that are out of our control.
But how I treat someone else is in my control.
How we treat one another is in our control.
How we live our time as sacred time is in our control.
So which Christmas do we carry forward? We remember the joys – and the limitations – of the consumer Christmas. We treasure the moments of the holiday celebrations with friends and family and church family. And in these 12 days of Christmas – the heart of the Christian observance:
let us put aside our old selves and live new in Christ
let us clothe ourselves in heartfelt compassion and love
let us forgive
let us allow peace to reign in our hearts
let us dedicate ourselves to gratitude
let us permit the rich word of Christ to dwell in us
let us sing joyfully to God
and whatever we do as we go about our daily routines, let us remember that we are formed in the image of God – and so is everyone around us. Jesus was born among us. Let us each carry that good news into the new day.