Knox Presbyterian Church
December 31, 2006
Welcome to Knox Presbyterian Church on this, the last day of the year 2006.
I must confess that I always feel a bit hesitant about the kind of self reflection I know I’m supposed to be doing today. I have a checkered history with New Year’s resolutions. They’re a lot like my many journals. I have a whole collection of journals that stop and start like a teenager learning to drive with a clutch.
Typically I start well … a little too well, clearly ambitious, often verbose. My entry on January 1st often begins, “It’s been a long time since I last journaled and I’m hoping to turn over a new leaf.” I spend pages summing up the last year, lamenting all that I’ve forgotten and left undocumented. Transition to this year. This year will be different. Here are the classic closing words: “I am committing to write in my journal as often as possible, at least twice a week, for the rest of this year starting today.” I remember the feeling of completing that first journal entry, the satisfaction of turning over a new leaf. Well, that was the last leaf that got turned until mid June where I find something like this: “It’s been a long time since I last journaled …”
It’s not just journaling. All too frequently, December 31st rolls around, my ambitions get the better of me, my hope swells and I bite off far more than I can chew only to find that come February, my schedule has filled up just like it was in December. I’m sleeping past my early morning quiet time, skipping my thrice weekly jog and chewing my fingernails as I realize the extent of my lack of discipline.
So forgive me if – as I sift through my stack of nearly blank journals – I’ve grown a little skeptical about my chances of making large scale improvements.
Now, I may find that I’m alone too far out on this limb, but I am guessing that when you read a passage like our text for today, a text in which Paul encourages us to “put on the new self” a display a long list of Christian virtues, you may have the same instinctive reaction that I do. I sigh deeply and think to myself: how am I ever going to be this person?
If you can relate with what I’m saying, I want to tell you this passage has good news for the two of us. It is not a list of unattainable virtues to drag us down. It is a cause for celebration and an invitation to enter more fully into the reality of new life in Jesus Christ.
Introduction to Colossians
The book of Colossians was written by Paul from prison to a church with whom we think he may never have met face to face. He had been informed by one of their leaders, a man named Epaphras, of false teachings which were threatening the church. There is a wide range of speculation about the source of the teaching, but its content is fairly plain. The Colossians were being told that true Christianity consisted in strict observance of various feasts, seasonal days, Sabbaths, regulations about food and drink, and various forms of asceticism. Paul’s response to this problem was to pen a hymn in praise of Christ in order to bring the Colossians’ focus back onto the source of their salvation and new life.
It seems to me that the book of Colossians is especially appropriate for this time of year.
Everything in this letter centers on the identity and work of Christ. Chapters 1 and 2 are beautifully written and they are short enough that you can read them through in about 20 minutes but a good summary can be found in chapter 1:15-23.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled* in his fleshly body* through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— 23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.
What does all this mean for you and me? Two things:
1. It means that because of Christ, we have been made holy and blameless, able to stand before God without fear of punishment, even in spite of all the selfishness that we know is true of us. Christ has wiped the slate clean.
2. But on top of that, Paul says in 3:10 that having been made pure, we are also being renewed in the image of our Creator. All that we long for, all that we know has been missing … these things are being built back into us through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
It is especially important for us to take these things into account when we come upon a text like ours. All of Paul’s letters contain a section devoted to ethical living. But these are always predicated on statements which establish our identity in Christ. The only reason Paul can exhort us to live up to standards which we know Christ alone met is that we now live in a new reality created for us by Jesus Christ. Essentially Paul writes to the New Testament churches again and again, this is who you are in Christ so just live it out!
Our passage begins with a hint at what we’ve just said, which is that Christian ethics are based on identification with Christ. Paul writes …
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
Whatever follows from this point is based on the fact that we are God’s chosen ones. Now, I believe that God is the one who has chosen and pursued me, but I like to think that in the end, it was really my decision to choose God. I tell you what though, I’m glad that it’s God that does the choosing and not me. If it were just me choosing God I can tell you what the outcome would be. It would likely look a lot like a stack of nearly blank journals filed away in a box in the closet.
The good news is that God is the one doing the choosing. If I look to the Old Testament nation of Israel as an example of the importance of being chosen by God, I see the same two things Paul has mentioned here: a call to holiness and a promise of unconditional love. Unfortunately, for Israel, holiness was a calling they would never be able to live up to. Faithful priests, kings and prophets cycled up like New Year’s resolutions calling Israel back to an ideal she could never attain to. The nation would fail and fall into idolatry and the cycle would begin again.
But for those of us who locate our hope in Christ, he is our holiness.
In Christ, you are chosen; In Christ, you are holy; In Christ, you are loved.
Before we move on, hear this one thing. No matter what this last year contains for you: despair, pain, grief, self-loathing … so long as our hope remains in Christ, we are chosen, we are holy and we are beloved. These are simply the facts of life in Christ. What a freedom!
What remains then is simply to learn to live what Christ has made true of us by grace. Here is Paul’s long awaited list.
12clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord* has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
16Let the word of Christ* dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.*
17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Now this is something we can start to focus in on: task items, if you like that kind of language. But notice this: even this list of Christian virtues points back to Christ. Paul begins specific and interpersonal, concerned about the ways we treat one another. But he just can’t bottle it up towards the end, he gets expansive and starts pulling Christ in again.
In fact, I think that when Paul gives us a list like this it is less a checklist to mark off as we progress in our spiritual lives and more a description of the character of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who is the epitome of compassion? Of kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love? CHRIST is! It is the peace of Christ that must dwell in our hearts and the word of Christ which must dwell in us.
What does it look like for us to live out these virtues in our own lives? It looks like Jesus Christ. Focus on emulating Christ – the one who has guaranteed our holiness and beloved-ness – and we will find our lives looking like his.
I don’t want to suggest naively that just because this is true, the whole thing requires nothing from us. One year in Estonia, I had focused in on a character trait that I wanted to change and was struggling desperately to overcome. I would go through cycles of renewed resolve, a season of victory, then in a moment when my defenses were down, I’d react in the same old way and find myself right back where I’d started. I’d beat myself up for a bit, then gather my resolve and start again. The beginning of the big break came when one day in prayer I saw myself standing on a little pile of chains and shackles. The shackles were broken open at my feet and I knew that they had previously bound me. I heard God asking me, why when I have freed you, do you not walk away from your chains. I looked into my hand and realized that I was holding a chain in my hand, rubbing it like a rabbit’s foot. In that moment I realized that my problem was no longer bondage to sin, but over familiarity with it, even a sense of comfort I got from these old patterns.
The issue for us as Christians is no longer bondage to sin, it is learning how to walk away from the chains we’ve been freed from and to walk again without them as free men and women.
As we prepare today to take off the clothes of the old self and cloth ourselves once again in the new self I want to suggest a couple of ways we can apply this passage in light of the New Year.
First, make some time in the next week to slowly read the first two chapters of Colossians listening for the words and ideas Paul keeps repeating. Read again and listen to the level of Paul’s gratitude and praise for the amazing work Jesus Christ has accomplished on our behalf. Then, in light of this, read chapter three and listen for the vices and virtues that hit you. Pray that the Holy Spirit will make you attentive to the places where he is most at work to reform you to the image of our Creator. Identify one or two – a manageable bite – that seem to ring true in this particular season of your life.
I need to add in some edits to this conclusion … coming soon.