The Epistle for this Sunday is filled with exhortations for the Christian life: compassion, kindness, humility, etc. In preparing a sermon from Colossians 3:12-17, the imagery both of being clothed and of birth would make excellent homiletical hooks that would keep the sanctifying work of the Gospel in God’s hands. It should be clear from the context that these exhortations are not appeals to get us to work on sanctifying ourselves. The text is not a legalistic set of principles. It is a description of the way things are for us now that Christ has entered in, “Christ,” who Paul says, “is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
And yet it is entirely appropriate and needed for us to preach all the virtues or characteristics of the Christian life that set forth God’s will for us. It is God’s will that we should be all St. Paul says we should be in these verses. Preaching this text as Law, works as devastating condemnation. But I do not believe this text requires any finger pointing, as if you must spell out how your people are not as meek as they should be or that they are all too busy complaining or holding grudges, etc. Simply by magnifying these most beautiful works, the preacher will have done plenty to accuse those whose lives do not conform to God’s will. Some of our most powerful preaching of the Law comes not by telling people what they have done wrong and why they need to repent, but by preaching what is truly God-pleasing.
I remember learning this through personal experience after preaching a sermon against the sin of homosexuality (which appeared in one of the readings for the day). After some members, who had relatives caught in that particular sin, were upset by my sermon, I was forced to do some soul and Scripture searching. It was certainly true what I had preached. I said nothing contrary to God’s Word. In fact, I preached very clearly God’s condemnation against such sexual sins. However, I had failed to emphasize God’s beautifully created order of marriage and sexuality. I could have said, for instance, that God loves marriage, He created the sexual act, and He blessed it both with pleasure and with the hope of children. I could have magnified God’s gifts, which would have caused those same members to see why God condemns homosexuality and any form of eros outside of marriage. My point is, we may want to take each Christian virtue in the text and turn it into biting law, but maybe we should be more creative. Preachers have better ways to spell out how we have not been compassionate with each other or failed to forgive each other or be thankful. By preaching what compassion is, for instance, you lead hearers to the obvious conclusion they are not compassionate. Likewise, by preaching what chastity is or what it means to be a faithful spouse, you make clear that we have not lived according to God’s holy will, whether married or single.
So how are these exhortations not merely moral imperatives? The Christmas season gives us a hint. In His birth, Christ put on our human flesh and weakness, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2). Now we are to put on Christ (Romans 13:14) and His virtues, as laid out in our Epistle. Christ is what God has willed for us. After the incarnation, all things have changed for humanity: “Er wechselt mit uns wunderlich: / Fleisch und Blut nimmt er an / und gibt uns in seins Vaters Reich / die klare Gottheit dran” (Translated: He changes with us whimsically: / He takes on flesh and blood / and gives us into His Father's kingdom / the clear deity. - N. Herman, 1560). Christ is wedded to our flesh and we are wedded to His divinity. We need more than 12 Days of Christmas to contemplate this great mystery. A lifetime is not enough to learn all that we have in our baptism. The angelic proclamation of our Savior’s birth “for us and our salvation” turns now to the effects of His birth in us. This is not about what we must do, but what we are to believe. He gives His peace and His Word to “dwell among us richly” and to create in us thankful hearts. In preaching the Gospel from this text, you may want to keep in mind some basic questions:
- How have things changed in the world now that Christ is born?
- How have things changed for us now that Christ is born in us through Holy Baptism?
- What ought our life look like now that it is inseparably bound up in His?
Avoid making anything here rest on our will. Throw it all on Christ, because He’s the one who clothes us with His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You will have a joyful week after Christmas looking up and exploring the meanings to these beautiful virtues of Christ we are called to put on.
Concordia Theology: Various resources to help you preach Colossians 3:12-17 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.