A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on December 30, 2012.
The First Sunday after Christmas Day
Well, here we are on the first Sunday after Christmas Day. I’m happy to see you, and this year more than most. If you were here during the season of Advent you know we played with the idea that the world might be coming to an end on December 21. It was a way of talking about waiting and preparation, which is what the season of Advent is all about—waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ—not only his first coming, which we celebrate at Christmas, but also his second coming, which hasn’t happened yet. “If the world were coming to an end on December 21,” I asked, “what would you do to get ready? What debts would you need to pay off, and who would you need to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I forgive you,’ or ‘I love you’ to?” It wasn’t a huge leap from there to the idea that it might not be the end of the world that was coming, but the day of the Lord, and to ask what you would do to get ready for that. Would you, like those people who came to John the Baptist, need to spend some time confessing your sins and repenting from them? Would you want to get baptized as they did so you could greet the Lord freshly washed, still wearing your long, white robe?
I think it worked.
I think we spent more time this Advent waiting and preparing for the coming of the Lord, as we should, and less time celebrating his birth, which we shouldn’t, at least not before December 25. I tried to reassure you from time to time that the world wasn’t really coming to an end on December 21, that according to our old friend Walter Witschey it was only the end of one long cycle on the Maya calendar and the beginning of the next. Sure enough, when the big day came, the Maya calendar rolled over as smoothly as the odometer on your car. I didn’t feel a thing. And when we lifted our candles at midnight on Christmas Eve it seemed that all that waiting and preparing had been worth it. I did feel something. I felt a wave of relief wash over me, and a rush of exhilaration. “Christ the savior is born,” we sang. “At last!” I thought, and for the last several days I’ve been celebrating. I hope you have, too. This is the season of Christmas, and when we do it right we celebrate Christ’s birth for twelve full days. On this sixth day, with any luck, your true love will give to you something more exciting than six geese a-laying.
Like tickets to the Redskins game.
The world didn’t come to an end on December 21. Even the Maya calendar didn’t really come to an end; it just came to the end of one long cycle. But tomorrow night at midnight the Year of our Lord 2012 will come to an end. I’m pretty sure about that. I’m probably not even going to stay up to make sure it happens on schedule. But this whole end-of-the-calendar business has had me thinking about time and how it works. Sometimes people tell me that as they get older the years seem to go by more quickly and I say, “It’s true!” Every year that you live is a smaller fraction of your total life. For a two-year-old child, for instance, a year is half a lifetime, while for his 82-year-old great-grandmother it’s only one eighty-second. I was going to say that time stays the same while our perception of time changes, but maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe it’s only our measurement of time that stays the same—the ticking of the clock, the crossing off of days—while time itself ebbs and flows like the tide, depending on our circumstances. You’ve heard it said that time flies when you’re having fun, and that’s true. But you also know that when you are not having fun the hands on the clock stand still.
The world didn’t end on December 21, but here’s the truth: today you are nine days closer to the end of the world, or to the end of your world, than you were on that day. I was impressed by that truth throughout the Advent season. Each Sunday I would make reference to those rumors about the end of the world but, inevitably, by the time we gathered for worship the next Sunday the end had come for someone. Some of them didn’t know it was coming. If they had, would they have done things differently, lived their lives differently? We all have less time than we did to get it right, and here’s another truth: the less there is of something, the more precious it is. Diamonds are expensive because there aren’t that many of them, relatively speaking. Gold is valuable because there’s not all that much of it in the world. Each day that you live is a smaller fraction of your total life, and arguably more precious than the day that came before. So, what should we do with the precious, remaining days of our lives?
Back in 1999 I was pastor of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina, and there was all this talk about the end of the millennium and what it might mean. Some people thought the little clocks in our computers weren’t going to roll over as smoothly as the Maya calendar. They thought the double zeroes might bring all computer-related functions to a screeching halt, that the banking industry would collapse and airplanes would fall out of the sky. Even the most skeptical among us stockpiled a little extra food and water in those days, because we just didn’t know. It seemed like a good year to have a watch night service at church. We didn’t usually do that, but that year it seemed like the perfect thing to do—to gather in the sanctuary on New Year’s Eve, to say some prayers, sing some hymns, read some scripture, and welcome in the new millennium. At some point in my planning I had the idea of including baptism in the service. I can’t remember how many people we baptized that night—lots more than usual—but for each of them it seemed like the best of all possible ways to greet the Year 2000: freshly washed and wearing their long, white robes.
Today’s epistle reading from Colossians sounds as if it were written for that kind of occasion, for people who know that life is precious, and that there are no guarantees we’re going to be around next week, much less next year. The author of Colossians seems to draw his inspiration from the ritual of baptism which, as you know, is a symbol of dying and rising with Christ. As it was practiced in those days, baptismal candidates would strip off their old, dirty, smelly clothes—symbols of the old life—and enter the water completely nude (there are lots of reasons we don’t do it that way today). They would be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and when they came up out of the water each one would be given a new, white robe to wear—a symbol of the new life in Christ. With that image in mind, listen to some of the language from the first part of Colossians 3, and pay attention to the things we are supposed to leave behind on the river bank:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Colossians 3:5-11, NRSV).
Did you hear that? “You have stripped off the old self…and have clothed yourselves with the new self.” So, what is it that you put on when you come up out of the water? Listen again to Colossians 3:12-17, this time from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear 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. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let 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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).
Just to be clear, let’s make a list of the things we are to leave behind on the riverbank and the things we are to put on, understanding that it’s not a comprehensive list—there are plenty of things we could add—but one that gets us headed in the right direction. We are to leave behind whatever is “earthly,” including (but not limited to) fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lies. We are to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are to bear with one another, forgive one another, and clothe ourselves with love. We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, and the word of Christ dwell in us richly. We are to teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and with hearts full of gratitude we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The author of Colossians is trying to tell us that that’s what the life in Christ is supposed to look like and if your life doesn’t look like that yet here is another chance to get it right.
The world didn’t come to an end on December 21, but this year will come to an end tomorrow night. Suppose you were like one of those people who got baptized at the watch night service in 1999 and decided that this would be as good a time as any to leave behind your old ways and put on some new ones? Would that be such a bad thing? Does the world have to come to an end before you make a change? Remember this: that even if the world doesn’t come to an end in your lifetime, your world—your life—will one day come to an end. When it does, what kind of life do you want to be living? What kind of clothes do you want to be wearing? The old, dirty clothes of your earthly life, or the long, white robe of your life in Christ? These are serious questions, and even as I ask them I hope you will take them seriously, and do with them what you need to do.
I hope you will make some changes.
But let me remind you that change doesn’t usually come quickly, all at once, but slowly, one step at a time. I have a friend who told me last week that he’s trying to give up Diet Coke and he’s down to one a day. I didn’t even ask him how many he had been drinking before that; I just congratulated him for making progress. We didn’t read the Gospel lesson for today, which is about the boy Jesus in the temple (mostly because it didn’t seem right to me that Jesus should be twelve years old, questioning the religious leaders of Israel, when he was only born last Tuesday), but at the end of that story Luke tells us that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Which means that even Jesus did things a little at a time. He increased in wisdom, which means he wasn’t born knowing everything he would ever know. He increased in stature, which means he didn’t come from the womb fully grown. He increased in favor with God, which means that God favored him a little more each day. And he increased in favor with man, which means people began to think more and more of him as time went by. Even for Jesus these things didn’t happen overnight. Change takes time.
So, what if you did this? What if you picked one thing off the list in Colossians 3 to give up, and one thing to put on? What if you looked at that list in verses 5-11 and decided that you were going to put off “abusive language,” just as an example—that you were going to try to say the kinds of things that build people up rather than the kinds of things that tear them down. And what if you looked at that list in verses 12-17 and decided that you were going to put on “compassion,” which—as Steve Blanchard often reminds us—is not just seeing the suffering of the world, and not just feeling it with those who are suffering, but seeing it, feeling it, and doing something about it. Putting off abusive language. Putting on compassion. Those are just two of the things on that list in Colossians 3 but I promise you that if you try to make those changes it will take some time. It won’t happen overnight. But tomorrow night, at midnight, you can take the first step.
The world didn’t end on December 21. I’m glad about that. It means we have another chance to get it right, another opportunity to do the things God wants us to do. The author of Colossians would encourage that. “Don’t just go through the motions,” he might say. “And don’t just make some New Year’s resolutions. Leave your old life behind on the riverbank of 2012, and when you come up on the other side put on the new life in Christ. Live it throughout this next year. Let the change in you be real and lasting, so that everyone who knows you will know there’s been a change.” Here’s the good news, friends: the world didn’t come to an end on December 21. We have another chance to get it right. What will we do with that chance?
By this time next year, we’ll know.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.