(Today I had the privilege of sharing a sermon message at St. John UMC. I offer the message to you now as a reflection for the new year.)
In recent years, these last few days of the year have become treasured times for me. We can still savor the joys of Christmas, as it lingers without the rush of preparations and holiday parties. I like reading by the Christmas tree, eating the leftover treats, and slowing my pace for a few days. And as the New Year approaches, I also like to reflect on the past year- and then to anticipate the new one.
These days offer sort of what we call a liminal space; they are like a threshold between two rooms- as we stop to pause between what was… and what is yet to come.
When I look back over the year that has passed, I always find many reasons to celebrate; I remember lots of joys and even some small victories; I recall wonderful moments of blessing and some surprising ways that God has worked in my life. And as you might remember, I see each year as another special gift, a bonus year of life.
But, looking back can bring sadness or disappointment, too. I grieve for difficult circumstances, or losses that seemed unbearable at the time. I regret that I didn’t reach some goals I had set or accomplish all of the plans I had made. I cringe at the mistakes and missteps I made along the way, when I let my selfish will override God’s perfect will. I recall times when I didn’t trust, when I didn’t remain patient, when I didn’t seek understanding, or when I didn’t react with a loving heart…
Each year presents us with a mixture of blessing and loss, rejoicing and regretting, joys and sorrows, doesn’t it?
So our celebration of Christmas comes at the perfect time. In this threshold of the holiday season, these days between the old year and the new, we can rejoice that Jesus, God’s gift of perfect love, has come to live among us and within us even now! When we pause in this liminal space, this threshold between two years, we can see that it is glowing with the love of Christ given to us at Christmastime.
Because of Christmas, we can understand that all of the joys and blessings of 2018 have generously come from God.
Because of Christmas, we can be relieved that our mistakes and regrets of 2018 have been mercifully removed and forgiven by God.
Because of Christmas, we can recognize that all of our trials and sorrows of 2018 are being tenderly healed by God.
Because of Christmas, we can anticipate 2019 with all the joy, hope, peace and love that freely flows from God.
Now let’s look ahead to that new room, that new year that is before us. As we make new year resolutions, we might ask ourselves, “How will we live as followers of Christ in 2019? How will we live with the joy, hope, peace and love of God in our souls?”
Earlier this year, Kyle (our youth director) gave a sermon message that has really stuck with me. At the end of our worship time, he blessed us with the words, “Let God’s love be conspicuous in our lives.” The word, conspicuous means to be obvious, noticeable, striking, or visible. This has had me wondering- how might we live so that people will visibly and obviously – conspicuously- see God’s love in 2019?
It seems that (our reading for today) Colossians 3:12-17 gives us the perfect answers.
12. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…
Paul describes the Colossians as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. We can claim this description is for ourselves, too. Wouldn’t this be a beautiful way to begin each day in 2019?
Through the grace of God alone, we can awaken each morning with the understanding that we are chosen, holy, and dearly loved by God. No, we are not perfect or sinless. God still calls us holy and beloved because God is God, and through Christ, we are shown just how much God loves us as God’s children. Just think how we might live this new year differently if we see ourselves as such, as God’s holy and beloved people. If we center ourselves on that love, if we know at the core of our being that yes, we are holy and beloved, we may find that we can more readily live as God’s love in the world. We center in God’s love, and we move out from there to share that love with others.
12b. …clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
If God’s love is to be conspicuous, we are to become less conspicuous! God’s love is not made conspicuous by clothing ourselves with any physical adornments. We may wear a cross, or we may have a Bible verse bumper sticker, or we may carry a Bible with us. And these are ways we might show that we love God, but they do not show God’s love itself. God’s love does not need our personal image in any way. With the precious knowledge that we ARE beloved and holy, we no longer consider our own image, but we actually turn our attention away from ourselves and onto God and others.
These words- compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience- all speak to us of putting others before us. They instruct us to set our egos aside in order to make God’s love readily visible. We trade our selfishness for compassion, our criticism for kindness, our pride for humility, our power for meekness, and our willfulness for patience. We become a kind and gentle presence that sees God and others as first and important. People see less of us, because we are pouring love and attention onto them. We become less… and God’s love becomes more.
13. 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.
If God’s love is to be conspicuous, and if we are God’s holy and beloved people, we are to live as such, together. And so we must bear with one another. Bearing with one another means we all need to put up with one another- our flaws, our quirks, and our unique ways (Jim and I choose to call our flaws “adorable”). We are also to bear one another’s burdens. We are in this together. And in those times when one of us hurts another, we must forgive, because we know how much we have been forgiven. This Body of Christ, St. John UMC, is made up of a wide variety of people, with different gifts and spirits and attitudes. And every single one of us is needed here.
We as the people of St. John will make God’s love conspicuous- especially to those who do not yet know of this love- by how we live and serve together in this faith community. If people witness the love and care we have for one another, if they notice that no one is gossiping or complaining about another, if they see us listening and encouraging and serving together, and especially if we welcome them to join us, they will know: “These people must love God- see how they love each other!”
14. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
There is a definition of the word, integrity that I really appreciate. Merriam Webster’s one definition of integrity is: the quality or state of being complete or undivided. As God’s holy and beloved ones, our integrity would be complete and undivided love. Totally and consistently throughout our being. Paul says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with LOVE.” Paul invites us to have this integrity, this complete love of God, inside and out. Our integrity as beloved children of God becomes our loving way of living. Love binds everything together in perfect harmony, or perfect integrity. We will walk as God’s love- within us, through us, and over us.
15. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Peace and thankfulness go hand in hand. When we fully trust that God has us, that God loves us completely, we are able to see ALL of life as gift. When we surrender our lives to the God who loves us more than we love ourselves, we have the peace of God even during the trials and the challenges that come our way. In this peace, we find that we can be grateful. On the other hand, dear Grandpa Bob always said, “If you are thankful every day, you will have a happy life.” We can find a reason to be thankful in spite of our circumstances, because we have God, who will heal, comfort, redeem, and restore. In being thankful, we discover we also have peace and even joy.
16. 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.
We do not do faith alone. We need one another- for study, worship, mentoring, and serving together. There are times when Jim and I worship at another church when we are traveling. The service may be beautiful. But it is not the same. We need relationships, we need to live and serve in a faith community in order for our worship to thrive. We need to come together in forgiveness and joy, we need to share a meal together, we need to stand with one another in praise, we need to pray for one another, and we need to love and serve our God by loving and serving one another.
On Christmas Eve, Pastor Michael reminded us that God used inconspicuous people, places, and times to bring forth an incredible gift, the gift of Jesus. God does this still today. God uses humble people who long to serve, with our small acts of kindness, with our trusting obedience borne out of love, to create incredible goodness. We may never be a missionary in a foreign country, or a nationally recognized evangelical speaker, or a well-known Christian author. But we are to do something. If God’s love is to be conspicuous in our lives, we are to do what we can.
And verse 17 tells us how to do so.
17. 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.
In this new year, may we all make God’s love conspicuous, whatever we do.