07/10/22 “We Need a Little Christmas”

Colossians 1:1-8

The musical movie “Auntie Mame” opened in theaters in 1958. Whether you ever saw the movie or not, you know one of its songs; we hear it over and over again when the radio stations start playing Christmas songs. Based on how much earlier that happens each year, that should be any day now. The song is “We Need a Little Christmas.”

In the movie, a wealthy and free-spirited woman named Mame loses her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. Although it’s only a week after Thanksgiving (no Christmas creep here), she decides that what she, her orphaned nephew, and their friends need is a little Christmas to lift their spirits. She sings:

“Haul out the holly; put up the tree before my spirit falls again.                                                        Fill up the stockings; I may be rushing things, but                                                                              deck the halls again now.                                                                                                                          For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder,                                                                          grown a little sadder, grown a little older,                                                                                            and I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder.                                                                                   We need a little Christmas now.”

It may be July, with nary a snowflake in sight, but I think we, too, can use a little Christmas, and we can use it right now. There’s a lot going on in the world and in our lives that can leave us feeling weighed down. Inflation and gas prices are pinching our pocketbooks like a winter wind pinches our faces. Grief and pain make the world look as dreary as a December day.  Anxiety makes us feel like the future is an icy sidewalk, just waiting to send us flying. Our spirits shudder at the cold reality of  yet another mass murder by someone with a semiautomatic gun and the on-going grind of COVID and political division. And that’s not even counting the illnesses of people we love, or our own, or the losses that break our hearts.

All this can make us, like Mame, grow a little colder, grow a little sadder, grow a little older, and maybe even grow a little meaner, if not leaner. So we, like Mame, need a little Christmas now. We need the boost to our faith that Christmas offers. We need to feel the love that flows so freely at Christmas, and we need to be reminded of the good news of hope that was born on Christmas Day. So, for the next few weeks, we’ll be enjoying Christmas in July.

The churches around what had been the city of Colossae before it was leveled by an earthquake needed a similar reminder. Paul, or someone writing in his name after his death, was concerned that the Colossians’ hearts were in danger of growing a little colder towards the truth that had been taught to them by Epaphras. Some other missionaries had approached the churches around Colossae with their own take on the gospel—that believing in the Gospel of Jesus wasn’t enough to be saved. You had to complete a list of other requirements as well.

Are you familiar with “Elf on a Shelf”? It started out innocently enough as a children’s book about an elf who keeps an eye on children for Santa. the book tells of how, in the days leading up to Christmas, the elf reports back to Santa about who is being naughty or nice. The book also comes with a little elf doll. At first, not a single publisher was interested in the book, but it gradually picked up steam. Parents began to buy it and, in the days before Christmas, they place the elf doll in different places around the house for their children to find after he returned from his nightly reporting trip to the North Pole. Now “Elf on a Shelf” is a Christmas sensation, with some parents coming up with elaborate settings where the elf can keep an eye on their children and ensure their good behavior.

As a parent, I was really lucky to have escaped this fad. Personally, I think it’s a little creepy to have this elf serving as a spy for Santa in your own home. In fact, as an adult, I’ve come to believe that children don’t have to behave any particular way for Santa to come. We told Peyton that Santa came and gave her gifts just because he loved her. There were never any threats of finding coal in her stocking if she wasn’t good enough.

The new missionaries among the Colossians were selling the theological equivalent of telling children they have to be good in order to get gifts from Santa. According to them, God’s gift of salvation was only available to those who were good enough. Being “good enough” meant having insider knowledge and transcendent experiences like worshiping with angels. You had to treat your body as something evil—as a roadblock to communion with God rather than God’s holy and beautiful creation. Salvation wasn’t a gift from a loving God to those who placed their trust in Jesus. You had to earn it.

This is entirely at odds with the truth of the gospel. Salvation is a gift from God, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might have life and have it abundantly and eternally. We are offered salvation, not because we’re good but because we are loved.

Most of the letter to the Colossians encourages the Church to hold fast to this truth and debunks the new false teachings. But first, Paul gives the Colossians a taste of Christmas. He gives them a booster shot of faith, hope, and love.

Imagine it as a Christmas letter. Paul begins with greetings to his brothers and sisters in Christ, calling them faithful saints. He offers them a blessing for grace and peace. He brings them up to date on what he and Timothy have been up to: they’ve been praying for the Colossians, thanking God for them.

But now this Christmas letter takes a turn. It’s not about the letter writers. It’s about the letter readers! Paul’s and Timothy’s prayers have been motivated by what they’ve heard about the Colossians: “We’ve heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.”

Faith, hope, and love. You might remember that Paul spoke of these three gifts in 1 Corinthians 13. He ends that beloved passage by saying that “faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” But here, in the letter to the Colossians, there’s a twist. Here, hope takes center stage. Faith and love are only possible because of hope—the hope of the Gospel, the hope that came into the world at Christmas.

When we use the word “hope,” we use it in two ways. Usually, when we say we hope for something, we’re expressing a wish for the future. We “hope” for a desired outcome when the outcome is uncertain. But as Christians, “hope” is something much bigger and much better. Our hope isn’t a wish for something which may or may not come to pass, like a child’s hope that a special toy will be in Santa’s sleigh with their name on it. Our hope is an accomplished fact, secured by Jesus. Our salvation isn’t something that may or may not happen in the future, depending on whether we’re on God’s naughty list or nice list. It’s a done deal—done by Jesus’ death and resurrection, not because of anything we accomplish but because of what jesus accomplished. Not a promise that we’ll be saved sometime in the future, but an assurance that we are saved now. Our hope is the thing in which we place our trust, and the person who made it possible.

This is the truth that the Colossians had heard from Epaphras and embraced for themselves, and it’s bearing fruit. It has led them to faith in Jesus. And, it’s led them to love for others. They are caring for others, within their community and beyond it. It’s made them part of something bigger than themselves; the word of the truth is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world.

This is all possible for the Colossians because they are “in Christ Jesus.” He is the object of their faith: they’ve placed their trust in him; they have faith in him. But they’re also bound together with him and in him, and this shapes how they live their lives. All that they do, they do within the sphere of their relationship with Jesus. It’s as though Jesus is a cosmic snow globe, and they are inside him. In this sphere, they live and move and have their being. And what makes their life with him and in him possible is the hope that he alone provides.

Paul reminds his readers that this love-and-faith-producing hope—this fruitful hope—is a gift by the grace of God. No angel-worship expected. No special supernatural knowledge required. No need to abandon the body that God so lovingly created and then occupied in Jesus. No elf on the shelf or nice-and-naughty lists. Pure gift. Pure grace. Unearned and unearnable. A gift of great price, but one which was purchased for us—by Jesus. All we need to do is accept this gift of hope—to grab it with both hands, rip off the wrapping paper, and enjoy it forever.

Like the Colossians, we live in a world that constantly challenges our faith in the hope which is a gift of unconditional love. Acceptance in the world around us has always been hard to find, and the world keeps moving the goal posts. Just when you think you’ve mastered the look, gotten the right car or the right phone or the right credit card, moved into the right address, found the right kind of job, gone on the right vacation and made sure to document it all on social media, the definition of “right” changes. That’s what the new teachers in the Colossians were doing—changing the requirements for salvation.

The danger is that, as we move through our lives, we may start applying this way of thinking to our spiritual lives as well. We start to think that we need to give enough, or work hard enough, or be in church often enough to earn our salvation. We may pick up on signals from other people or just respond to our own insecurities, worrying that we’re not good enough for God to love us—that the hope of salvation is for people who would have no fear of a heavenly elf on a shelf.

But to all these outer and inner voices, Paul would have the same response as he had for the Colossians: “Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven in himself, by making peace through Jesus’ blood on the cross.” The single bar we have to cross to obtain this salvation—this hope of reconciliation with God—is to believe in this truth. God doesn’t care if we leap over that bar like a deer or drag ourselves over, inch by inch. God doesn’t care what we’re wearing, or what we’re driving, or what our bank balance is when we approach it. There’s no elf on the shelf reporting on whether we’ve been naughty or nice. All that matters is that we rely on the truth of the gospel, which offers us a living hope.

Embracing this hope frees us. The accusing record of our sins is erased, set aside, nailed to the cross. Freed from the burden of our sin, we are made new in Christ. Because we are made one with him, we experience the new life of resurrection—his resurrection—now, even as we wait for his return and the completion of the kingdom.

The resurrection we enjoy now and anticipate in the future makes a difference in our earthly lives. The certain hope of our salvation that is given to us as a gift frees us to love others in the same way. It bears fruit in the world. And, while there’s no elf monitoring our actions, there is a world watching us to see what difference it makes to believe the Gospel. What we do, out of joy and gratitude for the great gift we’ve received, is our testimony to the power of life lived in Christ. It is the sweet fruit that draws a hungry world to taste and see for itself.

Auntie Mame’s prescription for curing despair and discouragement with a little dose of Christmas seemed to work for her and her friends. They decorate the house (and each other), and then they dance their way through the snow to a waiting car. We don’t need to haul out the holly, but we do need a little Christmas now. We need the excitement we felt when we first heard of God’s gift of salvation in Jesus and truly comprehended the grace of God. We need a renewal of the faith and love that spring from our hope: faith that grounds our lives in Jesus and pours itself out in love for others. We need to live every day with the sure and certain hope of salvation that was first laid in a manger bed and is even now laid up for us in heaven. We don’t need a little Christmas; we need a lot of Christmas, and we need it every day. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young