Hallelujah! 12/30/18 (Christmas 1C)

HALLELUJAH!
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
Texts: Colossians 3:12-17; Psalm 148
December 30, 2018
First Sunday after Christmas (Year C)

When a group of seminarians were asked to pray with and reflect on the passage we just heard from Colossians, one of the students said that this passage made her nervous: she felt as though she could never live up to the demands laid out before her. “It’s a lovely list of character traits and aspirational behavior,” she said, “but the standards seem impossibly high.”

Lest we feel tickles of that same nervousness, we do well to remember that our passage today begins this way: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” Our starting place is not one of having to earn God’s love by being good. This is not a list of traits we have to force ourselves to exhibit or else. Rather, the author of the letter is reminding us of who we are: God’s beloved ones. We are already chosen – we don’t have to earn God’s care and attention. We are already holy – we have been created by God and God has called us good. We are already beloved – we don’t have to convince God to love us.

The five traits listed here – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience – aren’t a shopping list of characteristics we make sure we exhibit so that we stay on God’s good side. We’re already on God’s good side.

Furthermore, the author of the letter tells us, these traits can come as naturally to us as putting on our favorite clothes. We don’t have to manufacture them. Here’s what I mean.

These specific virtues have a particular importance. They are used elsewhere by Paul and the authors of the other letters to describe the actions and characteristics of God and Jesus. So we, who are God’s beloved ones; we, who are God’s family; we, who are made in the image of God; we already have these traits within us, stitched into our very DNA, as it were.

When we remember who we are and remember to try to act from that place of belovedness, then we will more and more display those characteristics which so beautifully describe our God. We will keep putting on those clothes until they fit us well and feel natural to us.

Commentator Stan Mast says, “On this first Sunday after the Big Event, [the author of the Letter to the Colossians] calls us to live our ordinary lives focused on the One who came to live and die among us. The Incarnation calls us to Christ-like and Christ-centered living down in the trenches where things can be very messy and very confusing.” [1]

The authors of the lectionary intentionally chose this text for the first Sunday after Christmas – the first Sunday when we begin to move away from the manger and out into that often messy and confusing world. As one commentator has said, “The exhortations here are not just another set of commands to be good, but they are encouragements to let things happen,” [2] to trust that our truest, best nature is already within us, and there are already ways to let it flourish and bloom. There are ways to keep the spirit of Christmas – the wonder and joy, Christ at the center, remembering who God is and who we are – alive in our hearts throughout the year. The author of Colossians suggests two such ways.

First, the text is urging us to live in community. All of the “you’s” in this passage are plural. The entire letter is written to a community, not an individual. As one commentator has written:

There are no singulars in this passage; everything is directed to the “y’all” of the congregation. To live in a Christmas state of mind, peaceable and wise, is to live counter-culturally, and you cannot maintain that on your own for long. To carry the songs and hymns and odes of the season on into the bleakness of winter and then on into even the dog days of summer takes a critical mass, a body, brought together by the spirit from a variety of backgrounds that can teach and admonish one another to live giving thanks to God always. [3]

So the peace of Christ is to rule not just in one individual’s troubled heart, but in the very heart of the community – even this community! The word of Christ is to dwell in all of them richly – even in all of us richly – all of us, together.

Thus, the first strategy for keeping the wonder and joy of Christmas at the center of our lives year-long is to dwell together in community, where we can remind one another of the Greatest Story Ever Told, where we can help one another clothe ourselves with the garments of God, and where we can teach, admonish, uplift, support, and celebrate one another as God’s holy and beloved ones.

Next the passage offers us a second suggestion for how to keep the spirit of Christmas alive long past the Twelve Days of Christmas: live thankfully. “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God,” the text says. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God.”

These words lead us very nicely to the lectionary’s choice of Psalm for today. Ours – number 148 – is the third of five so-called “Final Hallel” psalms. These five psalms (146-150) each begin and end with “Praise the Lord!” – hallel / praise; and Yah / God. Hallelujah!

You might have noticed as we read it together a few minutes ago, “praise” is said twelve times in this one psalm. In reflecting on this psalm, Shauna Hannan writes:

[As I prayed with this psalm, the] repetition in fast succession of “Praise” in the Psalm was a reminder [to me] of the abundant and random nature of reasons to praise the Lord that arise in any given day.

I wake up. Praise the Lord! I have food to eat. Praise him! I have meaningful work to do! Praise the name of the Lord! I encounter people who know my name and care for me. Praise him! Praise him! I breathe in the crisp, clean air and note the gorgeous magnolia tree attempting to bloom as I walk to work. Praise the Lord from the Earth! There are all these reasons to praise the Lord and I have not even been awake for two hours. [4]

I wonder if this is the kind of thing the author of the Letter to the Colossians had in mind when he urged us to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God, with gratitude in our hearts? And when he encouraged us in whatever we do to give thanks to God through Christ?

I bet it was something like that.

One of the things that’s amazing about this Psalm is that it isn’t just “all you people” who are urged to praise God. All of creation is called to praise – heavenly beings, earthly creatures, even inanimate objects – all are to sing praises to the one who created and sustains them. The Psalmist is telling us, “we’re all in it together.”

Professor Rolf Jacobson reminds us that the message of Psalm 148 “is especially fitting in the Christmas season, when we remember that when the Savior was born, he was laid to rest in a manger, amidst the animals, sheep and goats, cattle and oxen.” Jacobson gives a few examples of all creation singing praise in our favorite Advent and Christmas carols:

o In “Joy to the World,” we sing that “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” of praise…
o In “All Earth Is Hopeful” we sing “all earth is hopeful the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open for God’s creative task.”
o In “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” we sing “all creation, join in praising God, the Father, Spirit, Son, evermore your voices raising to the eternal three in one.”
o In “People, Look East,” we sing “Furrows be glad, though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there. Give up your strength the seed to nourish.” [5]

And, to quote Leise rieselt der Schnee, which the choir sang:

In our hearts it is warm,
Silent are sorrow and grief,
Life’s worries fade away:
Rejoice! The Christ Child will soon be here.

And in In dulci jubilo the choir sang:

In sweet rejoicing,
now sing and be glad!
Our hearts’ joy
lies in the manger;
And shines like the sun
in His mother’s lap.

As we close out 2018 – a year filled with a great deal of turmoil – it’s a good time to pause and give thanks for all the big and little blessings all around us. It is good to turn away, for a moment, from the painful or frustrating or awful aspects of 2018 – which we may so often have found ourselves dwelling on or even obsessing over. It is good to pause and reflect on the past year with a spirit of gratitude and praise the God of all creation.

And it is good to look forward to 2019 with trust, believing that we are indeed God’s chosen, holy and beloved, and that, as Julian of Norwich so beautifully said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Looking back, we give thanks. Looking forward, we trust God. And through it all, we sing.

Hallelujah! Amen.

 

[1] Stan Mast, “Colossians 3:12-17” at cep.calvinseminary.edu, 2015.

[2] William Loader, “Christmas 1: 30 December Col 3:12-17.”

[3] Amy L. B. Peeler, “Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17” at workingpreacher.org, 2012.

[4] Shauna Hannan, “Commentary on Psalm 148” at workingpreacher.org, 2013.

[5] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 148” at workingpreacher.org, 2014.

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