Sunday, December 27, 2015

It's not over yet!

Colossians 3:12-17   (CEB)

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.


The birth of the Christ is such an important event in human reality that it can be found represented in every conceivable way.  And because that is true I have a small collection of Nativity sets from all over the globe.  It doesn’t begin to rival Liz’s collection, mind you.  But just as with her collection, each of my sets means something special to me.  Each depicts the birth of the Christ in a way that is consistent with a particular culture.  In both materials used and the appearance of the persons and animals present at the scene, each of my nativity sets is very different from every other one - some are made of straw, some of clay, some of glass, some of wood.  Some look like actual people, others represent people much less realistically.  Here in the sanctuary we have a set that clearly comes from the European Renaissance period and is representative of the realities of that place and time.  I’ve seen nativity scenes made up of various cartoon characters, and even some that include Santa Claus.  And on the screen, in honor of the new Star Wars movie that was released this week, we have a scene made up of Star Wars action figures, set in a small Galilee far far away.  

The Christmas Shopping Season is over, although some will have already started buying next year’s gifts at the massive after Christmas sales.  Although I am spared the incessant demands that I buy this or that because I don’t have cable, I do get lots of sale ads by email, so I know that all the stores are busy trying to clear their shelves of Christmas stuff so they can move on to the next Sale season.  Just to make it quite clear that in the secular world Christmas is effectively over, I even saw one cartoon on Facebook yesterday proclaiming that there are only 364 days until Christmas!     For a lot of people Christmas ends pretty much as soon as the presents are unwrapped.

And I have to admit that it’s hard to stay in the season when all the planning and hubbub have passed.  Like most other clergy people - and department stores - I am beginning to look ahead to the next season.  Yesterday I sent an email to Dee Anne asking her to pull previous year’s Ash Wednesday services so I can get an idea of what we have done here in the past.  I’m considering a Lenten sermon series, maybe even a Bible Study, or perhaps a Members Class aka what it means to be a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I have had to keep reminding myself that it’s not over yet.  It’s still Christmas.

But as I mentioned last week, It’s not over yet.  All of those things that we sing about during Advent and Christmas, all the peace, hope, joy and love, don’t end when the Christ child is laid in the manger.  All our desire to help the helpless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, have compassion for the enemy . . . these things don’’t end when the angels head back to heaven, and the shepherds head back to their fields.  In fact, it is now that all those things begin.  As the hymn says, now that all those things have ended, the work of Christmas has begun.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written in response to a situation that had arisen in the congregation.  All his letters were, of course, but we know a little more about this particular situation because it was arising everywhere in those early days.  Some had begun to teach that it was necessary to add other practices to their religious lives.  Some were teaching that if you didn’t observe this festival or refrain from eating certain foods, you weren’t really a Christian.  Others were saying that by fasting and other ascetic practices Christians could attain a higher state of ecstasy than with mere prayer and worship, thus becoming closer to God than others who did not practice these things.  There were those, also, who claimed that there was a secret knowledge that would likewise bring a person into a deeper experience of and relationship with Christ.   Some of these teachings came from the continual disagreements between Jewish and Gentile Christians, some were imported from the secret religions some of the Gentile converts had practiced before finding Christ, some came from the more ascetic Jewish practitioners such as the Essenes.  

And who doesn’t want to be closer to God really?  For some, it’s almost a competition.  Take the story of the two church ladies, Mary and Joanna.  They were both involved in Sunday School and the women’s ministry, served on various committees and had their fingers pretty firmly on the pulse of the congregation.  Joanna had dropped by Mary’s house for a visit one Sunday after leaving church.  While Mary’s husband sat reading his paper, they proceeded to dissect the personal lives of every member of the congregation, including the pastor and his entire family.  Once they had convinced themselves of their own personal righteousness in comparison to everyone else’s sinfulness, Joanna took her leave.  After closing the door behind her dearest friend, Mary turned to her husband and said, “You know, dear.  Joanna is a good Christian woman, but I do believe I’m closer to God than she is.”  Her husband never looked up from his paper as he responded, “I don’t think either of you is crowding Him any.”

Paul said if you have faith and live your life in imitation of Christ’s life, then you will be close to God. Period.  You don’t have to do any more than this. Regarding those other things being taught he said,“If you died with Christ to the way the world thinks and acts, why do you submit to rules and regulations as though you were living in the world?  “Don’t handle!” “Don’t taste!” “Don’t touch!”  All these things cease to exist when they are used. Such rules are human commandments and teachings. 23 They look like they are wise with this self-made religion and their self-denial by the harsh treatment of the body, but they are no help against indulging in selfish immoral behavior.”   (Colossians 2:20-23)

All you have to do is live the way Jesus would have you live.  Give up those things you know are not pleasing to God.   “Take off the old human nature with its practices and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.”  (Colossians 3:9-10).  And put on these virtues as if they were clothing - compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.   Be tolerant.  Forgive each other even as God forgives you.  And over everything, put on love, which is what binds us together in unity.  

And be thankful, people! . . .   Or is it, be thankful people.??

I love those cartoons that remind us just how critical it is to properly place our commas.  For example, writing; “Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage” has a very different meaning from “Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage.”  Just as “let’s eat, grandpa” is completely different from “Let’s eat grandpa.”   

With Paul, however  . . . You may know that not all of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul.  Some were written in his name by students and followers after he died - which was perfectly acceptable behavior at the time.  One of the things that makes Paul’s authentic writing easily identifiable is his complete disregard for punctuation. He made run on sentences into an art form!  Later on, editors and translators would add punctuation as they thought best.  Which means that I really don’t know whether Paul meant “Be thankful people.” or “Be thankful, people!”  For that matter, neither do the editors and translators.  

Anyway - Paul told the people to be thankful, a theme he returns to repeatedly in his writings.  And to sing!  Go out into the world singing God’s praises in hymns and psalms and spiritual songs!  Sing with gratitude in your hearts, Paul says.  Sing all the time!  And whatever you do, everything that you do, do it in the name of Jesus the Christ.

These virtues of which Paul speaks don’t stand alone, but all relate to each other.  You cannot be compassionate and not kind. You cannot be tolerant and not patient.  You cannot love and not forgive.  Each of these virtues is intertwined with all of the others.    

Here is what we are told to do.  We are to go out from this place to live in imitation of Christ.  We are to act in all things with kindness, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, and gentleness.  We are always to love one another.  We are always to be thankful to God, even when it’s hard to find something to be thankful for. If nothing else, we may be thankful that today we know Christ, and are known by God.   

I know how hard it is to be all those things simultaneously all the time.  I’m thinking it’s close to impossible, sometimes. Sometimes the best I can do is act as if these virtues are part of me.  You know?  Sometimes the peace of Christ is miles away from controlling my heart, because I am focused on the things in the world that bring dis-ease and pain instead of God’s grace.  

Paul said, “…live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him.  Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught.”  

The Good News is that it’s not over yet.  The work of Christmas is just beginning.  Although we only celebrate the birth of the Christ for these few short weeks, for the whole rest of the year will celebrate his life, his work and his resurrection.  For the rest of the year we reach back to these weeks to remember what that peace feels like, how that joy came into our lives, how aware we had become of God’s great love for us, and how hope filled our hearts.   

So come, all you faithful people, and together we will go forward to continue Christmas, to live as Christ’s family, to be one body together, serving God by serving the world God created, with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, with tolerance, forgiveness, and love for one another, doing all things in Jesus’ name, and above all, singing our gratitude to God.

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