March 17, 2010
Updated June 29, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Colossians 3:1-17
icky Gumbel, the British pastor associated with the Alpha course, tells about a woman in the neighbourhood of his London, England church. The kind of woman we would call a "bag lady". Let's say her name is 'Tilda'.
Imagine an older woman with graying hair. Some of it is greasily plastered to her head; some of it is sticking out at odd angles. Layers of ragged clothes hang on her body. She distinctly smells as she shuffles along lugging her cart. She sleeps outside somewhere under some makeshift shelter, eating what she can scrounge.
Now this Tilda was actually a particularly nasty brand of bag lady. She not only begged for money persistently, but if she thought you gave too little, she would revile you. Yell at you. Call you names! Tilda was not into making friends for herself.
When Tilda died, Nicky's church was approached to have a funeral for her. Nicky was asked to lead it, and he thought: No problem. Who is going to be there, after all? But his Senior Pastor said, "Be prepared for the church to fill up at this funeral".
Surprised, Nicky asked, "What do you mean?" To Nicky's amazement, the Senior Pastor explained that Tilda was actually a very, very wealthy woman. She owned several houses, famous paintings, and even various hotels.
And, in fact, at her funeral, the church filled up with rich and famous people: dignitaries, bankers, politicians, and ladies decked out in jewels and furs. Yet Tilda had lived out her life as a dirty, begging, bag lady.
Tilda was a person with a severe identity problem! We look at her and say, "Why in the world would you DO that? Who would choose a grubby life of hunger and poverty and pain and humiliation over what she rightfully owned?"
Keep those two images in mind as we reflect on this passage. On the one hand, a grubby, filthy, ragged bag lady; and, on the other hand, a clean, accomplished, well-dressed rich lady. What was Tilda's true identity? What is your identity?
Paul gives snapshots of two different time frames for us to look at in his teaching about identity: 1. The Past 2. The Present.
So, first, we look to the Past.
I. The PAST contains two important stories to consider.
A) Your story and
B) The story of Jesus
A) Your Story
The story of your past, says Paul, includes some dirty history, a "bag lady" existence. This showed itself in certain behaviors. You used to walk in these paths:
-sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry (5)
-anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (8)
-lying (9) and division (11)
These attitudes were the rags that you wrapped yourself in. You put them on each day. You became comfortable in that existence. It was the only thing you knew.
B) The story of Jesus
And in a totally different arena in the past is the story of Jesus. Jesus, the God-Man who obeyed God perfectly. Jesus, who was tempted just like we were, but never sinned. Who was then killed. Who died. But who was raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven to sit at God's right hand.
The past contains your story and Jesus' story. One is a story of filthy rags, and one is a story of glory. But then something miraculous happened. When we became believers in Jesus, when we accepted that he did those things on OUR behalf. Then those two stories came together. In some strange mysterious way, our ragged dirty story got picked up by the story of Jesus, and woven right into it. And, miraculously, our story didn't make his story dirty, or ragged. Instead it was our part of the story which got transformed, got cleaned up and it BECAME the story of Jesus.
His story becomes our story. What he did, gets credited to our heavenly account.
-He died: we died. (3)
-He was raised; we have been raised (1)
-He is now seated at the right hand of God; our life is safe there with him (2,3)
Paul says, "You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self" (9,10). We have been changed. It's been a rags to riches story. We have metamorphed from one story to another. From one existence to a completely different one. We've gone from being an earthbound caterpillar to finding the wings of a butterfly on our backs.
There's a little cartoon about two caterpillars. Creeping along a twig. Munching their way through life. And suddenly this large, beautiful butterfly flutters by. And the one caterpillar says to the other, "You'll never catch ME riding in one of THOSE things!". Little does he know!
Secondly it's a passage about
II. The Present
We now have a new identity in Jesus. What we are now, Paul says in verse 12, is "God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved." That little phrase packs a huge punch.
We are now God's "chosen people". We belong to him. Out of all the people of the earth, he has picked us to have relationship with him. That is an awesome thing. In other places in Scripture, we are called God's adopted children. Ones he takes out of the "orphanage" to be a part of his family. Parents of adopted children have sometime used this language to say, "ItÕs true, you weren't born from us. But you are special. You are adopted. You were especially chosen to be in the family."
You ARE "holy", it says. In that sense holy is not what you become, it's what you already ARE. Here "holy" means "set apart for God's purpose". You are holy because God chose you. You individually, but also us collectively. The people of God are holy, set apart from all other people. That is God's doing. He's the one who chooses.
Not only that, you are "dearly loved." God really, really loves you. The kind of word that Paul uses here means that you have been loved by God (it started at some point in the past) and you are continuing to be loved by God. God's love is an ongoing kind of love. God really loves you. Can you believe that?
A pastor became the father of adopted children. One was a daughter who had been physically and sexually abused before. As her new father, the pastor grieves over what that has done to her small person, how that has scarred her sense of identity. His words to her show us the Father heart of God to us his children, "And you, the child who's been ravaged, you must not call yourself ugly. You aren't. You are beautiful. You are the image of the Creator. You are his best art, his portrait, his image -- and his child. You are not an accident. You were planned. You are the cunning intention of almighty God -- God loves you. And so do I. Sleep now child, in perfect peace. You are God's and he spreads his wings above you now."**
That's our new identity in the present. "God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved." Those are wonderful words of affirmation. But God isn't content for us to just have warm fuzzies; he also wants those words to spur us into action.
What must we do? We must take off the rags that belong to our old identity. In fact we may even have to burn some of those stinking old clothes. Listen to the radical commands:
Verse 9: Do not lie...
Verse 8: Rid yourselves of all these things...
Verse 5: Put to death...
Living out our new identity requires some work on our part. Have you ever put something to death? Even if it's just a mosquito it can take some effort. Especially if it's buzzing around your ear in the dark and you can't see it. And putting something to death also leaves a mess. Even just a mosquito. It may even be your own precious blood that gets slammed onto the wall with the mosquito's body.
Listen again prayerfully to this list of rags. What is God convicting you to get rid of? [Note: read slowly] "sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry (5); anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (8); lying (9) and division (11)"
You see -- if what you really are is a butterfly, if, inside, you are a heavenly creature, then you can't crawl around like a caterpillar any more. If inside you are a Christ-person, you can't look and act simply according to your "earthly nature." You must stop doing these things that are not in line with your identity. With God's help, burn the rags!
And replace the rags with God's beautiful robe. Paul says, "So therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with..." (12) And then follows a list of wonderful characteristics. You have put off dirty deeds, and now you must put on that which is good and lovely. You must wrap around yourself the attitudes and actions which will show your true identity:
-Compassion -- a tenderness, a softness of heartfelt compassion- feeling with others
-Kindness -- what compassion can lead to. It shows itself in actions.
-Humility -- the opposite of pride. It means having a proper view of yourself before God, but also "counting others better than yourselves". Philippians 2:3
-Gentleness -- not harshness, but an attitude that has grace for others.
-Patience -- this is sometimes literally translated as "long-temperedness." Instead of having a short temper, you have along temper. Instead of a short fuse before the dynamite explodes, there is a very long fuse.
-Bear with each other -- it's actually "endure one another." Put up with each other. Stay together. Learn how to extend the grace to each other that you both need.
-And forgive -- Why? How? "As the Lord forgave you."
Picture the image of a tunic, a sort of gown. The characteristics are sewn together as strips. And then comes the last piece: "And over all these virtues put on love, which bind them all together in perfect unity." Paul says to tie these strips together with love. That's what will keep them together in perfect unity.
How do we know what love is? Well, God shows us some pretty dramatic displays: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16
We agreed that Tilda the bag lady was a woman with a severe identity problem! We look at her and say, "Why in the world would you DO that? Who would want to live like that? Who would choose that grubby existence over what she rightfully owned?"
But, you know who would do that? Jesus would! Jesus DID! He exchanged a life of glory and power for a grubby life of hunger and poverty and pain and humiliation. And he did it for us. For you. For me. Now THAT is love! Jesus went from butterfly to caterpillar. From prince to bag lady. All so that we could go from caterpillar to butterfly. From bag lady to Queen.
So, people of God, what are you wearing?
The story is told of some enthusiastic youthful evangelists charging into a small community to do some witnessing. They approach an Amish farmer and ask him, "Sir are you a Christian?" He ponders that for a second and then takes out a writing pad from his pocket and a stub of a pencil and writes some things down. He gives them a list of names and says, "Here, these people know me very well. Go and ask them if I am a Christian."
How about the people who know you well? Your spouse, your children, your parents, your roommates, your co-workers? Do they see and experience someone clothed in compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience? Do they see a caterpillar or a butterfly?
Are you living out of your new identity? Given to you by God?
If not, it's never too late for change. God is happy with our repentance, with our calls for help. We can't do it on our own. But in Christ all things are possible. Don't be discouraged. God has changed our past. He has given us a new identity. It is new, but it is also still "being renewed." There is something both complete and incomplete about our new nature.
We are always, God's chosen, holy and dearly loved. God's disposition towards us will not change. But we will change. Our identity is being renewed after that of the Creator. And we must cooperate with God in this. He changes us, but we must also change ourselves. Take off what is dirty, put on that which shows your true identity: God's person, holy and dearly, dearly loved.
And all God's people say: Amen
**Walter Wangerin, Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?, p.101-2
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US BY HIS SPIRIT
GOD CLOTHES US WITH HIS GRACE
GOD CHALLENGES US WITH THE WORD
WE RESPOND TO GOD'S WORD
GOD SENDS US OUT INTO THE WORLD
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