Colossians 3: 12-17
During my childhood Christmases, many evenings we read stories and watched television specials; we were part of the Christmas Eve services and we sang Christmas carols; and each year we heard the Bible story retold. At the beginning of this decade, writer John Grisham moved out of his law firm box and wrote a short novel that he called SKIPPING CHRISTMAS. In it Luther and Nora Krank decided to skip Christmas. Since their daughter announced she would not be coming home that year, they decided to do what some in Florida might be tempted to do: they signed up to take a cruise at Christmas instead! Little did they know what hostility they would encounter from neighbors when they did not put Frosty the Snowman on their roof, lights on their gutters, or take part in the neighborhood Christmas parade. They were treated as if they were renouncing their country! Holiday traditions run very deeply in families. As a child, I remember the annual playing of a crackly record from the 1950s called The Stingiest Man in Town. It was, as you may have guessed, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens has been called “The Man Who Saved Christmas,” since many of out holiday traditions do not go back to the little town of Bethlehem, they go back to England. Dickens wrote there where winters were cold and damp, carolers shared music door to door, and people who had means would feast on a Christmas goose or turkey. But the best part about what Dickens gave us was the narrator’s description of the man who repented because three spirits showed him life’s outcome if he didn’t.
Today can be a day to start over for us as well; on the threshold of a new year we can say “be gone!” to our nasty habits, to hateful hurtfulness, and to hearts filled with darkness. The fictional character Scrooge was miserly, selfish, and materialistic; descriptions that, like a suit of clothes, some people in our world wear even now. Today it is time to go shopping; it is time to cast off the old clothing that the Apostle Paul described to the Colossians as sexual immorality, indecency, evil passions, and greed as described in Today’s English Translation. The list continues with some other characteristics that are difficult to dismiss: “anger, intense destructive rage, doing things deliberately to hurt someone else, insults, and foul language.” How often people have been hurt physically or emotionally by the anger of another; schools children may become victims of insults because of how they look or act or dress; and in public I have heard strings of words from others that made me and others cringe; I’ve even heard parents in shopping centers use them as verbal land mines that poison and corrupt their children. Children speak as we speak; what a shame to hear what they are being taught. But we can change all that! We can choose to be less involved with people whose anger, improper contact with us, greed, or words make us uncomfortable. But we can also give a tremendous gift to those around us if we will choose to “clean up our own acts” instead of using the lame and indefensible excuse, “That’s just the way I am.” The whole story of Jesus’ ministry describes people changing because they have met him. You and I can change too. This week is New Year’s resolutions week. Why not start today with a life change that will change eternity for you?
From the beginning of creation in Genesis, God has given human beings choices; we can move in lock-step with the qualities that the Apostle Paul describes: “impurity, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing.” The tentacles from each of those activities start to choke, cripple, and even destroy its victims. But Paul has another list that brings life. If we are people of God’s promise, accepting God’s offer to repent, we can have life like we’ve never had before. It takes work and will in our walk with God. One commentator, Leonard Klein, wrote these words when he looked at our Colossians text in light of Christmas: “[Christmas] is not just a matter of thinking warm thoughts about others and throwing some coins in a kettle. It is about reclaiming the new identity that is ours in Christ. The baptized (vs. 12) are ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.’ Therefore they should clothe themselves in ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.’” [THE LECTIONARY COMMENTARY, VOL 2. 393.]
Women, children, and even men are likely trying on new clothes that they’ve received at Christmas to see if they fit. And if they fit they might have even worn them already. Paul implores us to try on clothing for choosing: so we will make good choices that help us to keep Christmas, to remember our baptisms, and to honor the Christ who we call Savior. Imagine, if you will, going to a wardrobe or your own closet, and taking off a garment of hate and anger and obsession, and putting on a garment of compassion and patience, of kindness and forgiveness. In likelihood the garment will be white, and the one you have just taken off will be soiled. This white garment makes you feel new, and fresh, and changed. Imagine that garment as your baptismal garment. In some traditions, people put on special baptism gowns or robes to symbolize how they are made new in their Christian baptisms. But by the end of the ceremony, or at least by the end of the day, their garments are removed; only then can we can decide if we will retain our Christian spiritual qualities.
We know that the birth of Jesus is a highlight for Christians and the world. But without his meaningful death and his theological identity as Son of God, that birth in Bethlehem would never have made the annals of history. It would just have been another birth. It has been up to Christians for generations to let the world know love, mercy, and integrity. At times the record shows that we have failed. It is now another year to live into our baptisms; another year to not just wear new clothes, but to put on the new ones that God’s love and our acceptance allow us to wear. The world is watching us: how will we show others, and God, that we get it; that this big holiday has not just been about ourselves and our presents, but about inquirers “preparing him room” in their hearts, and for the rest of us to demonstrate who is on the throne of our lives today? Each Christmas is a moment in time when we can measure our progress using Paul’s list of Christian characteristics or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But today we might measure ourselves by the character created by the man who saved Christmas- looking at the commercial, industrial, and self-serving policies of 19th c. London and imagined a change coming to the poor and needy. He imagined it starting not with government, but with one person’s heart leading to another. At the end of his story Dickens says: “And it was said of [Mr. Scrooge from that time forth] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us.” Will you put on the new clothes that have been a gift for you since the beginning of time? Have you received the child gift-wrapped in swaddling clothes? We have some wonderful new clothes to put on, not just for Christmas, but forever! The shopping is done; may the wearing begin today.
Jeffrey Sumner December 27, 2009