December 30, 2018, First Sunday of Christmas Year C, Colossians 3:12-17
With December 25th once again in our rear view mirror, many would tell us that we are done with Christmas for another year. Radio stations have stopped playing Christmas music. Trees, lights, and other decorations have been packed up and put away in the attic. Unwanted Christmas gifts have been returned or exchanged. Retail stores have put their Christmas merchandise on clearance and have stocked the shelves for Valentine’s Day. Much of the world has moved on from Christmas until next year.
However, as the church, we know that we are still in the middle of the Christmas season – the time that goes from the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day on December 25th through the arrival of the wise men at Epiphany on January 6th. Yet, even as we in the church know that we are in the middle of the Christmas season and will be for another week, with the world around us having moved on as if nothing ever happened with all the celebratory signs of the day removed, we might find ourselves wondering what difference does Christmas even make in our lives and world anymore?
Then we read our reading from the letter to the Colossians today and we see how Christmas changes us and the world through us. We are reminded that because God chose to come down to earth in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, we are changed to be different than we were before and to live differently in the world. As God’s chosen ones, the ones God chose to come down to earth to live with and among as a helpless infant born to refugee parents, we will never be the same again so we can’t help but to live differently because of it. Because God chose to come down to earth in Jesus, the world is turned upside down and inside out as everything we thought we knew about how God should and could work, is found to not be true. God can’t and won’t be sewn in by our human-made boundaries. Instead in Jesus, God shows an unbounded and unlimited love that will stop at nothing to reach us, to transform us, and to set US free to transform the world in his likeness.
The author of the letter to the Colossians – whether the apostle Paul who tradition attributes its authorship to, Timothy his co-worker in the gospel who others attribute as the author, or some other unknown follower of Paul still others think wrote it – writes to the church at Colossae in response to certain rival teaching that is seen as needing to be corrected. It seems someone is telling the Colossians that Christ alone isn’t enough for them. More is needed from them in order to gain wisdom and proper access to God. However, the writer of the letter tells them to have none of that message. Christ alone does change everything for us. The author says all we need to know God we will find in and through Jesus Christ and his love that alone is enough to change us and the world.
We see this in the portion of the letter we read today where the author uses the language of baptism – of how we are clothed in Christ and made new and different as we put him on as we rise up out of the baptismal waters. Early Christians were clothed in a white baptismal garment as they stepped out of the baptismal waters to emphasize how we put on this new identity in Christ in baptism. Here the letter’s author reminds the Colossians what that new identity through baptism looks like for the believer. He reminds them just how different it makes them to possess these characteristics through Christ.
Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Meekness. Patience. Forgiveness. Love. Peace. Thankfulness. All these things describe what our new life looks like to ourselves and others when we live out our new identity in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. We live like this not in an effort to somehow get closer to God because Jesus wasn’t enough and we need to do more on our own to earn a more full and complete access to God. No, we live like this because we are changed through our life with Christ and so want to live more like him so that the world might know him through us and be changed too. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we put on Christ and live out our new identities in him each and every day and change the world as his presence in it.
Of course, this way of life looks vastly different than what we see most days in the world around us. Often these characteristics that describe what our life in Christ looks like are thought of as attributes of the weak. Especially to a world around us that lives by a survival of the fittest mentality that calls us to no compromise, win at all costs, and take no prisoners. We see evidence of this every day all around us in how our nation interacts with other nations on a global scale, how our government works or doesn’t work to make our country run, and on a more local level how we treat those around us who we view and identify as “the other.”
Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way for us as the author of the letter to the Colossians writes. Living clothed in God with us – God a helpless baby born to refugees, God an itinerant preacher condemned for breaking all the religious rules of his day, God a convicted criminal hung on a cross – it can and will look totally different. It can look like the relationship Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania has with Christopher Rhoads.
In October 2015 Christopher Rhoads was working as a roofer and was battling major depression that he was self-medicating with alcohol. One night that October he went to Lansdale Tavern, drank himself into such a state of intoxication that he got kicked out of the bar, and walked down the street where he stole a box of firewood from the local Acme grocery store. After which he walked further down the road to Trinity Lutheran Church where threw a log of firewood through the window pane of a side door and broke in. Once inside he did $10,000 worth of damage. Breaking vases, ripping and burning hymnals, spreading donated jars of tomato sauce around the sanctuary. Then done with his misdeeds he went home, went to bed, and woke up the next day with no memory of the night before.
That next morning the church staff arrived to find the damage Christopher left behind. They made a report to the police and quickly set about the clean up process as they had a funeral scheduled in just an hour. Police soon put the clues they found together and arrested Christopher Rhoads for felony burglary and vandalism. Rhoads initially pled guilty and the story could have ended there with him going to jail, a just punishment for his actions. But it didn’t.
Instead, the next Sunday Trinity’s pastor, Paul Lutz, used the children’s message time to talk to the congregation about the importance of forgiveness. He handed out pieces of paper that said, “God loves you, and so do we” and he invited the children to decorate them with pictures and personal messages. Weeks later at the preliminary hearing, Pastor Lutz and Dennis Smith, the facilities manager at the church, went to the hearing bearing the cards. The judge allowed the two men to meet with Mr. Rhoads to present them the gift of cards they carried. Christopher Rhoads was shocked to receive their gift and surprised to find that they were concerned about him and how he was doing after what he had done to their church building. He apologized to them and told them that he wanted to right his wrong.
To help him to do that the church went along with the court’s recommendation that Rhoads attend a rigorous program of mental health treatment offered through the county’s Behavioral Health Court. He completed that program earlier this month and with his graduation all charges against him were dismissed. And along the way to that day, as he worked his way through the program and put his life back together by going to regular AA meetings, taking antidepressants, and finding work, he also began to regularly visit Trinity Lutheran to bring money to make restitution for the $10,000 in damage he caused.
In a recent interview Rhoads said before all this he thought religion was “fire and brimstone.” He said he didn’t think religious people really lived by the virtues they preached. However, he said with how the people of Trinity Lansdale loved and forgave him, “It’s opened my eyes to realize some people ARE like that.”
As God’s chosen ones, living clothed in Christ who is God with us, we ARE people like that. In Christ God has made us people who live clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and thankfulness. In Christ God has made us people who through living with him, in this way, change the world so that it can become more like God’s vision and hope for it.
Living like this isn’t easy, it is a daily challenge. In fact, Martin Luther said the baptismal life is a daily dying to self and rising again to new life in Christ. He said each day as we wash our face we should use the practice to remember our baptism, to remember that through our baptism in Christ we are made new each and every day.
So, if today you are leaning toward thinking that Christmas is over in one day or even twelve, think again. Because God has come to earth in Jesus, God is with us always, and Christmas continues each day of the year as we put on Christ and carry him with us to the world through lives that reflect him and his continued presence with us. As Mother Teresa once said, “It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you.” So, Merry Christmas you today and all year long! Amen.