As we continue observing Christmas in July, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts. Some people are really good at gift-giving. If your “love language” is gift-giving and -receiving, you’re probably one of them. My husband is a natural when it comes to gift-giving. He just sees something he thinks will make a great gift and buys it. We used to have a lot of family to buy Christmas gifts for, and sometimes he’d buy something he thought would make a good gift and then figure out whom to give it to. He doesn’t worry about whether it’s the “right” color or style, or if it’s similar to what someone already has. If he thinks it would like nice on someone, or be a good addition to their home, he sees it as an invitation for them to branch out and try something new.
For someone like me, though, gift-giving can be a source of real anxiety. I get hung up on trying to find just the perfect gift, especially for people who have everything they need. Nothing ever seems like the right gift. An inexpensive trinket that seems perfect doesn’t seem “big” enough. An expensive item that also seems perfect seems over-the-top and show-off-ish. I was so relieved when my brothers and I started exchanging donations for Christmas, because I always knew exactly what they wanted.
The author of our passage for today doesn’t have any trouble coming up with a gift list for the Colossians. He knows what they already have, and he knows what they need. These are gifts that can’t be delivered by a “miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.” They are gifts that can only be delivered by the Holy Spirit. So, Paul has been seeking them in prayer.
We learned in the opening words of the letter that the Colossians were already blessed with faith and love that springs from their hope in the salvation secured for them through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Theirs was a faith that was born when they first comprehended the grace of God, and it expressed itself in fruitful, Spirit-moved love. Strictly speaking, they have all they need. The rival teachers had been trying to convince the Colossians that simply believing in Jesus and the truth of salvation isn’t enough to have communion with God, but those teachers are wrong. The Colossians need nothing else to secure their salvation beyond the truth of the word that Epaphras shared with them and which they had embraced.
The Colossians have everything they need for salvation. But, that doesn’t mean that are no more gifts to receive and nothing left to learn. By the power of the Spirit, the faith they already have can grow deeper and the love they have can spread wider. Someone once said “You can never be too rich or too thin.” I don’t know about that, but I do know we can never know too much about God’s grace. Paul is on the same page. The Colossians have all they need for salvation, but there are more gifts for them to receive. So, Paul tells them what is on his gift list for them—all the things he wants for them, all the things he has prayed ceaselessly that they will receive.
First is knowledge. But, this knowledge is different from the knowledge that the rival teachers are insisting is required for salvation—a kind of insider scoop that’s only available to some. Paul wants the Colossians to have a knowledge that is greater than that. He wants them to have a deeper understanding of something they already know. They already know what God has done for them in Jesus. They know that God’s will is to draw them close and to give them eternal life. But Paul wants them to grow in that deep, heartfelt knowledge of God. He wants them to understand God’s will—God’s desires—for them more fully, more clearly.
Next on Paul’s list are wisdom and understanding. Wisdom in scripture generally has a practical side, as you know from the time we just spent in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom helps guide us through the choices we need to make each day so that we can live productive, peaceful, satisfying lives. But Paul desires more than that for the Colossians. He wants them—and us—to have the wisdom and understanding that’s produced by the Holy Spirit—spiritual wisdom and understanding. Spiritual wisdom has an ethical dimension. It enables us to discern what God wants for us and from us, and then to live righteously, in ways that line up with God’s will for us and the world.
This Spirit-given wisdom allows believers to lead lives “worthy of and fully pleasing to the Lord.” I always imagine God looking at us and smiling when we do that, as a proud parent smiles at a beloved child who’s showing signs of greater maturity.
Worthy and Lord-pleasing lives are marked by good work that bears fruit in the world. Paul doesn’t describe what kind of fruit such a life will produce, but we can guess. Generosity is one kind. Generosity prompts more generosity—of resources, sure, but also in attitudes towards others—a generosity that refuses to pigeonhole people but gets to know them as unique individuals. A generosity that sees people as they are but also sees and encourages who they might become. A generosity that sees past differences—even deeply divisive ones—and recognizes the divine image that we all share.
Kindness is another kind of fruit. One act of kindness leads to another. You’ve probably seen or heard stories about how one act of kindness encouraged the recipient to “pay it forward,” so that that one act of kindness becomes a self-perpetuating chain of kindnesses.
In Bible study, we learned about a young man whose life bore the fruit of kindness and generosity. As a child, Jeff Hanson was diagnosed with a brain tumor that impaired his vision. As a boy, his mother encouraged him to make hand-painted note cards to keep him bust during chemo treatments. She used them for writing thank-you notes, and the friends who received them started asking if they could but the notecards for themselves. Jeff decided to sell his notecards at a stand outside his home. His mom added her baked goods to his sidewalk shop, and they earned thousands of dollars, which they donated to the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Jeff began painting on bigger canvasses, and people began to bought his paintings as well.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation arranged a backstage meeting between Jeff and the singer Elton John. Jeff presented Sir John with a $1000 check for Sir John’s children’s charities. Sir John commissioned paintings for each one of the orphanages he supported. Word spread, and other celebrities began to buy Jeff’s paintings. As a teen, Jeff set a goal of raising a million dollars for charity by the time he was twenty, which he did. He set a new goal: to give away $10 million by the time he was 30. Sadly, Jeff died at the age of 27, but not before he had raised $6.5 million towards his new goal. Jeff’s business model was founded on the idea that “generosity begets generosity,” and he believed that “every act of kindness helps create kinder communities, more compassionate nations, and a better world for all.” This is Spirit-bestowed wisdom made fruitful in the world.
This way of life is counter-cultural. Everything in our world pushes us to focus on ourselves first. Advertising tells us that we “deserve” everything from a Dr. Pepper to a car that thrills you (according to Nissan). Spirit-given wisdom and understanding may give us the ability to discern what is right and pleasing in God’s eyes, but it’s not easy to live according to kingdom standards. We need some spiritual muscle to help us. So, Paul adds strength to his gift list. This strength comes straight from God’s power, and it enables us to live a counter-cultural Christian life with patience and endurance until the kingdom comes in all its glory.
Finally on Paul’s list are joy and gratitude. For Paul they’re inseparable. He writes, “May you be made strong ‘while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.’” Christians have many reasons to be grateful to God, chief among them what Paul points to in the letter: that God “has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” We will share the inheritance of eternal and abundant life with all the saints in the world to come, and we share it now. What a gift to be grateful for!
When Paul speaks of joyful gratitude, he’s describing a condition that psychologists today would recognize. Gratitude fosters joy. But it’s not just feeling gratitude that creates joy. It’s practicing gratitude. Paul doesn’t talk about feeling thanks; he talks about “giving thanks.” It’s this “gratitude in motion” that fosters joy.
The Mayo Clinic published a summary of findings about the links between joy and the practice of gratitude, and they found a strong correlation between the two. The easiest gratitude practice is to simply say “thank you” as often as you can—to people in words and to God in prayer. Nearly any act can be a practice of gratitude if you intentionally think of it as a “thank you” for something you’re grateful for. Open the door for a mother with a baby, and be thankful for that new life. Pay for someone’s meal or coffee, in gratitude for the fact that you have enough money to enjoy a meal or coffee out. Send a note or a card or a small gift for no other reason than that you’re grateful for the person who will receive it.
Keep a gratitude list, where each day you write down something you’re grateful for. Studies have shown that people who take time to write down what they’re grateful for or who express gratitude for someone else’s kindness are happier, exercise more, and have fewer visits to the doctor. Couples who express gratitude to each other have better communication and feel more positive toward each other.
A while back, I was invited to participate in a “gratitude challenge” on Facebook. For thirty days, I was supposed to post about something I was grateful for. Honestly, I wasn’t that crazy about doing it; it just seemed like one more thing to add to my to-do list. But, each day, as I decided what to post, I would find more and more things to choose from. And yes, it did make me feel good as I thought of all I have to be grateful for. Just as kindness begets kindness, and generosity begets generosity, expressing gratitude—giving thanks—increases gratitude—and happiness.
Paul tells the Colossians that he has been praying ceaselessly for these gifts for them. But Paul isn’t praying alone. “Since the day we heard of your love in the Spirit,” he says, “we have not ceased praying for you.” This is a group project! Timothy is in on it, and so is Epaphras.
Remember Epaphras? We know that he was the one who brought the good news of the Gospel to the Colossians, and the good report of the Colossians to Paul and Timothy. In the closing verses of the letter, we learn he is now with Paul, who is in prison. Paul writes to the Colossians, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus…is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills…he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.”
Unlike rival teachers who have come from outside the community in Colossae, Epaphras is a member of the community—someone they know, someone who cares about them. In fact, he cares about them so much that he is in constant prayer for them.
These aren’t just your standard-issue, bedtime inventories of prayer concerns. These prayers require his effort, his attention—literally, his toil on their behalf. The Greek word that we translate as “wrestle” is related to the word agon, as in “agony.” Our translation says that Epaphras has “worked hard” for the Colossians in his prayers. But that Greek word also means deep concern—even great pain. This is how hard Epaphras has been praying for the congregations in and around Colossae—that they might have the gift of “standing mature and fully assured in everything that God desires.”
Have you ever prayed like that for someone? Maybe we have when someone was in desperate need of some kind—suffering from a life-threatening illness or is such deep trouble we don’t know how to help them. But, the Colossians are not in that kind of trouble. They’re not sick. They’re not destitute. They’re not being persecuted. If we know the Colossians, they wouldn’t make it onto our list of joys and concerns in worship. But Epaphras is praying as though his life depended on them receiving the gifts the Paul has described. He prays for their growth in knowledge and wisdom. He prays that they will be able to discern God’s will and have the strength “to live into a reality with which they have already been gifted,” as one theologian writes. The items on the gift list can only be given by the Spirit, but praying that the Colossians will receive these gifts is a gift in and of itself—one that Epaphras and the others can give.
How often do we pray for those gifts for our brothers and sisters in Christ? How often do we pray that they will be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”? How often do we leave behind for a time our prayers for healing and comfort, important as they are, and pray instead that those who sit next to us in the pews will be strengthened with God’s glorious power—power that will be enable them to lead lives worthy of and fully pleasing to the Lord, with every good work bearing fruit? Have we ever prayed that our brothers and sisters might be gifted with patience and endurance, and moved to joyfully give thanks to God?
I’m betting that unceasing, sweat- and pain-producing prayers for the continued spiritual growth of our brothers and sisters isn’t typically part of our prayer practice. And, if we’re not praying like that for others, it’s unlikely that anyone is praying like that for us. If we are to find the gifts that Paul speaks of under our spiritual Christmas trees, we need these kinds of prayers—we need to pray them for others and we need others to pray them for us.
Last week, we thought about how we all need some Christmas—not just in December but every day. And just as there are gifts waiting under a tree in December, there are gifts waiting for us every day—the same ones that were on the gift lists of Paul and Timothy and Epaphras for the Colossians: spiritual wisdom and knowledge of God, righteous lives and fruitful work, God-given strength, endurance and patience, joyfulness in our thanks-giving. And, we have gifts to give each other as well—the gift of our prayers. These are gifts we can give and receive every day, as we strive to lead lives that are worthy of our Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young