Listen in the audio player below or on iTunes, or read the manuscript of my sermon below.

Preached April 10, 2016 at Sojourn Community Church, New Albany, IN.

Colossians 3:12-17

Think back to the first time you read or watched A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I remember being perplexed by the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, not just because he was greedy but because he subjected himself to poverty for no reason. He was freezing in that office right along with Bob Cratchit, although he could obviously afford more coal for the fire.

But did you know that Dickens based Scrooge off of a real person, who was even more extreme? His name was John Elwes. He’d inherited millions from his father and his uncle. But with each year of his life he displayed more bizarre, miserly behavior.

In spite of all his money, he lived in panic, fearing that he would fall into poverty if he spent anything. He only wore ragged clothes, so dilapidated that people who passed him on the street would mistake him for a beggar, and put a penny in his hands.

He lived in a mansion but it was crumbling around him, and he ate moulding food and putrefied meat. He’d sleep in the same tattered clothes he wore during the day. And finally he died in his sleep, in worn out shoes, an old torn hat, and frayed, smelly clothes.

You know how much money he had in the bank when he died?

$40,000,000.

He’d lived a miserable, destitute life even though he owned the equivalent of $40,000,000 current U.S. dollars.

That’s a weird story, but it also makes me angry. Think about how many of us have to stretch to make ends meet. Think of all the need here in New Albany. Think of all the good we could do, if we had even a fraction of $40,000,000. And John Elwes let his fortune rot in the bank while his clothes, his food, and his house rotted around him.

But we’re not just poor in money; there’s a deeper poverty in our hearts and souls. When I came to Sojourn I was already a Christian but I was searching for two things. If you’re like me, and you’re a member of this church, you were probably looking for the same things. If you’re a visitor, these same two things are probably eating away at you, to:

First, you want peace. You’re done with turmoil, confusion, fighting, loneliness.

Second, you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself. You’re searching for significance. You want to feel that your life matters. You want to leave a legacy that will live on in this world after you die.

What the Bible says we must do:

The good news is that today’s text tells us how to accomplish both those goals.

The bad news is if we carefully consider whether we’re equipped to do what it says, we might be just as frustrated as if we were living in poverty and being told we had to buy our ticket to peace and fulfillment, and it cost $40,000,000.

Today’s passage says we’re supposed to “clothe ourselves” with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

We’re supposed to practice extreme forgiveness.

We’re supposed to have peaceful, thankful hearts.

We’re supposed to let the message of Christ dwell among us richly.

We’re supposed to teach and admonish each other with all wisdom.

And then just in case Paul, the writer of this passage, has left anything out, he says, “Whatever you do, whatever you say, do it and say it as a representative of Jesus, giving thanks to God, all the time.”

A community that did those things would be a really great group of people to be around, right? It would feel great to be a part of it on the inside, and it would be very attractive to those outside.

But why do we fail at all these things so many times? Are we – even those of us who’ve been Christians for years – simply too stuck in spiritual poverty to ever afford to clothe ourselves in luxurious garments like gentleness and patience? After all, these things are harder than they seem.

First, this garment of godly living is like one seamless, flowing robe. It’s not a patchwork of virtues sewn together. Remember, they wore robes back then, not separate pants and shirts. So you can’t truly clothe yourself with compassion but not humility, with kindness and not patience. You can’t have all of those things but still hold out on forgiving someone.

Second, forgiveness itself isn’t just saying, “I accept your apology.” It means living with the consequences of someone else’s sin. It means never throwing that sin back into the face of the one who hurt you. It means giving up any chance at revenge. And beyond just deciding not to retaliate, it means to actually do good to the guilty party.

Third, when Paul talks here about love and peace, these aren’t just fluffy, feel-good, abstractions. Love and peace are the bonds that unite us into our common life as a church family. So this “peace of Christ” ruling our hearts doesn’t just mean you do things based on whether you “feel at peace” in your heart as an individual.

Paul is saying that whenever there are different opinions, conflicts, or decisions to be made in this family, we must honor the peace between us that Christ gave. And this sounds easy until you’re sitting next to someone in community group who just isn’t like you.

Did you know there are actually people in this church who think this nation needs much tighter gun control laws? Did you know there are also people who think we’d actually be safer if all law abiding citizens were armed in public? I promise, people with both of these views are sitting around you here this morning – I’ve talked to them. And each is sure that their view is the most logical, reasonable and moral.

There are all kinds of other differing views among us, too. And while peace and love sound good in the abstract, when you get two people who look at the world so differently, it’s not only hard to live in peace, it’s hard to carry out a ten minute conversation in peace.

All that to say, it is really hard, maybe impossible, to do everything that today’s passage commands. It’s like we’re being told to put on our finest clothes, deck the halls, spread the banquet table and throw a party for the ages … but we’re broke, and homeless.

How Jesus did it:

When Jesus came to earth people had been trying to do the things in today’s passage for ages and ages, and they all failed, from the least to the greatest. Adam and Eve failed. Moses failed. King David failed. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, failed.

Jesus came and he called 12 disciples who would form the nucleus of a new people called the church. And he demonstrated to them how to live like today’s passage calls us to live. He demonstrated on them, within the group, and he demonstrated to them, in the way he dealt with the masses of people around him, with the outcasts of society who were hiding on the fringes, and even with his enemies.

Jesus poured out his heart in friendship to a tax collector who was collecting more taxes than was legally proscribed, and pocketing the extra for himself.

Jesus stuck his neck out and risked his reputation as a godly man – and maybe even risked his life – for a woman caught red-handed in adultery.

Jesus raised the dead child of a soldier from an enemy army that was occupying his homeland.

Jesus washed the dirty feet of his disciples, even though he knew they were all going to run away from him in his moment of need.

And he maintained the strength to do these things through his communion with God the Father. Several times in the Gospels, we read that Jesus “withdrew to a private place to pray.”

On the night before his crucifixion he prayed long and hard for his disciples. Then after washing their feet and eating with them, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray again. When his enemies arrived to arrest him, they found him praying – spending time with his Father.

He demonstrated that the commands of Colossians 3 can be done, and he showed us where to get the strength to do them.

But of course he would. The Lord of Heaven owns everything; of course he can afford to put on the luxurious garments of compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness and the like. That’s like some of you ladies saying, “Of course a rich, famous Hollywood actress can afford a stunning, expensive gown for her red carpet entrance. But me? I have to wait for items to go on sale at Walmart.”

How we can do it through communion in the power of the Spirit.

But wait a minute. How did today’s passage begin?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved …

— Col 3:12

Not, “In order to become God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved …” but, “as God’s chosen people …”

And what have we already learned in our Colossians series? Remember chapter 1, verses 12-13:

the Father … has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves

Then same chapter, verse 27:

God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

This is exactly what Jesus promised would happen in the Gospels. After dying for our sins, he’d rise from his grave, ascend into heaven, and then send his Holy Spirit to live inside of us.

Some of you were taught that if you get the Holy Spirit you’ll know it, because it will feel like a lightning bolt going through you, or you’ll speak in tongues, or you’ll have a vision. But do you know what the Bible says you have to do, to get the Spirit?

Repent and be baptized.

If you’ve done that, if Jesus is your Lord and Savior, then you’ve got the Spirit. If you believe he created the universe, and you believe he rose from the dead, why would you not believe that he gave you his Spirit?

Now, there’s overwhelming evidence that Jesus arose from the grave. If you want to dig into that, a good place to start would be the book The Case For Christ. So if he kept his promise to conquer death, I’m going to believe he kept his promise to give me his Spirit, which enables me to become like him and to share in this inheritance in the kingdom of light.

In short, we were paupers but then he gave us $40,000,000. He bought us new clothes! Today’s message isn’t about God telling us to somehow become rich through our own cunning and effort, he’s just telling us, “Change clothes! The new ones I gave you are in your closet, in the mansion I’ve prepared for you, in the kingdom that is your inheritance.”

Those old, stinky, worn out rags are the things he told us to strip off earlier in chapter 3, if you remember Pastor Jonah’s sermon last week. We “take off the old self,” which was dirty with rage, crawling with greed, and stinking of sexual immorality. We don’t need those nasty clothes; we’ve been given garments fit for kings and queens.

If we’re not communing with Christ, in the Spirit he gave us, then we don’t experience the power to do as today’s text commands. The power is available to us though, like money in the bank. I don’t want to be like the original Scrooge, John Elwes, running around in dirty, flea-bitten tatters because I think I can’t afford to put on the luxurious clothes that God has already provided.

And why eat putrified game and mouldy food when our kitchen is stocked with the Word of Christ that can dwell within us richly, like the sweetest chocolate and the richest coffee? Taste and see that the Lord is good!

If you’ll press into the reality of your union with Christ, that his Spirit is within you – if you’ll read his word as a love letter, if you’ll talk to him, if you’ll set down your iPhone or turn off your TV and listen for his voice, then he will change you over time.

Ask him to help you put on kindness every day. Ask him to help you put on humility, gentleness, forgiveness.

In fact, he’s given us one wonderful tool that teaches us how to put on our clothes every day of the week. Verse 16:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

— Colossians 3:16

The “message of Christ” means everything the Bible reveals about Jesus – everything he said and did, everything the prophets foretold about him, everything the apostles explained about him. We let this “dwell within us richly” as we teach and admonish each other when we come together and sing here in our worship gathering.

So wait, this means we all have a responsibility? We’re not just coming here as consumers to see the show? It’s on all of us to teach and admonish as we sing with gratitude in our hearts to God?

How many of us treat the Sunday gathering as a consumer experience? Maybe you don’t realize you do, but have you ever said anything like, “The worship wasn’t that great today because it was bluegrass Sunday, and I hate bluegrass music.” Or, “I can’t believe we sang a Chris Tomlin song and a Matt Redman song. I thought we were the cool, indie church. Why are we doing the commercial stuff?”

Or the room was too hot, or I was sitting behind a really tall person, or my favorite singer wasn’t on stage today.

Today’s text tells us not to worry so much about when our favorite singer will be on stage again, but to concentrate on singing ourselves. We have a job to do – God is using your voice to teach and admonish the person next to you as you sing the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. You don’t have to sing well, but you have to sing out.

Besides being a once-a-week worship experience, our time together is like a dress rehearsal for the rest of the week. If you allow the movements of worship we go through here on Sunday to become daily habits, the Spirit will use these habits to form you, to make the godly virtues of today’s text come naturally.

For example, promptly at 9am we read a Call To Worship, where we’re reminded that worship begins with God, not with us. He has called us out of darkness into the kingdom of light, where we see his holiness.

This reminds us that we are sinners so we confess our sin together each week. This is followed by scripture readings and songs that celebrate the forgiveness of our sins. And think about the Passing of the Peace, where we greet each other because Christ has broken down the walls of hostility between us – even those of us with opposing views on gun control.

When we actively participate in these movements each Sunday, we’re making these godly virtues into habits that the Spirit empowers us to carry out Monday through Saturday. For instance it’s easier for us to “put on forgiveness” daily when we’re confessing our sin together and then celebrating our forgiveness in Christ every Sunday.

But there are two challenges we have to talk about.

First, it’s really important to come to the worship gathering on time. The Call To Worship comes promptly at 9am, but some of you are never here.

Some of you even miss the Confession of Sin and Assurance of Forgiveness every week, so this service isn’t helping you form the habit of “putting on the garment of forgiveness.”

Others may or may not come late, but you don’t come very often, which means you don’t get much of a habit-forming effect in the services. Two weeks ago at Easter we had 715 adults and children. Last week we had 515. This is similar to what happens at every church, including the other Sojourn churches.

Conventional wisdom says those extra 200 people were visitors who only come to church on Easter. There are a few people like that, and there are always visitors on Easter as well. But most of the increased attendance is members and casual attendees who come every two weeks, or once a month, or just every now and again. They all come at Easter, but they don’t come the next week because that’s not what they’re in the habit of doing.

Now some of you can’t come on time or you can’t come every week for reasons that can’t be helped – maybe because of your job, or a medical condition, a change within the family or something like that. If there’s nothing you can do about it then I’m not talking to you. And it’s better to come late, or come whenever you can, than to not come at all.

And even for the rest of you, I know it might be hard. When I first started coming to Sojourn, I was a single father of three. We lived in Jeffersonville, and the only Sojourn Church then was off Bardstown Road in Louisville. Parking was so horrible that we usually had to walk three blocks to church – me carrying a one-year old, walking with five and eight year olds.

It was hard – I get it. But it’s worth it because Paul’s instruction to worship together, in Verse 16, provides a way in which we’re schooled in putting on those rich clothes, those virtues from earlier in the text.

The times in my life when I feel like I’ve lived out the instructions in today’s passage the most faithfully are the times when I’ve been closest to Jesus, through actively participating in this “dress rehearsal for life” on Sundays, and then living out those movements of worship each day, as well as Bible reading, prayer, serving, living in community — all of it. When I’m immersed in those things, then putting on these virtues begins to come naturally.

Communion

You’re not a pauper. You’ve been given more than $40 million dollars, because of Jesus. Let him show you to your luxurious garments and make sure they’re buttoned just right. And then he will break out your savory, fresh foods, and (lift up the bread) he will dine with you.

On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took a loaf of bread like this one, and after giving thanks he broke it, and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Then he took a cup of wine like this one, and said, “This is my blood, shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me, until I come again.”

If we become a people who spend time with Jesus, together and individually, then he will make us like him. We will do and be the people described in today’s passage.

We will have peace, and we will leave a legacy, and it will ripple through our neighborhood, across this city, and around the world – not because we are self made millionaires, but because we’ve been given God’s riches at Christ’s expense, and others want in on the offer.

In a moment you’ll come forward after we pray, tearing off a piece of bread and dipping it into either wine or juice as your conscience permits. The cups with wine will have strings of twine tied around them. And we’ll have a gluten-free station here on my left.

If you’re not a Christian we ask that you don’t come forward to take communion, because it symbolizes a union that you haven’t chosen yet. Instead pray at your seat to receive Christ as your Lord and Savior. Then tell a pastor about it, or our volunteers at the Welcome Table, or the Christian who brought you here. Then we can prepare you to be baptized and to share in this meal, in the weeks to come.

Let’s pray.

 

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