A Sermon (more or less): “Keeping the Christ in Us”

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This is, more or less, a sermon I preached on December 26th at my churches. This sermon is my ordination sermon, meaning this is the one I’m submitting to my annual conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry as part of my application to be ordained as an Elder. I wanted to share it here for any feedback anyone might want to share, but also because I want to share this message with as many people as possible. I hope you find inspiration and blessing in this attempt at articulating the gospel. – Jonathan

The text: Colossians 3:12-17 (NLT)

For many years, I have been hearing, reading, and otherwise seeing encouragement from various people and groups to “keep Christ in Christmas.” There are parts of this notion that I believe are valid, as the Christmas celebration has become more and more secular even among professing Christians, with many people choosing observances of the holiday that have little or nothing to do with the reason Christmas exists in the first place (spoiler alert: It’s when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday). Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Christmas is all about.

A heads up for next year: Next year, Christmas will fall on a Sunday, and I have no plans of calling off worship. I remember the last time Christmas was on Sunday, there were churches cancelling services because it was Christmas! Think of this for a moment: The very idea sounds obscene and silly, but it was happening. I was even berated in a Facebook group for pastors when I expressed that the pastors who cancelled their worship services because Christmas fell on a Sunday were misguided and missing the mark of what the day even means. I remember one of the members of the group referred to me as an “old fashioned and uncaring” person, followed by a… well, it was a name I won’t repeat here because he said I wasn’t being sensitive to the needs of families. But, you get the idea. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.

The world we live in has, indeed, become more secular. I see a lot of hand wringing among people who worry that we are losing sight of God and that we’re “trying to take God out of everything.” First, know that none of us are that powerful. Trying to take God out of anything is like trying to command the oxygen out of this room right now. We simply can’t do it. Not to mention, God is where God wants to be and there’s nothing we can do about that. What’s more: The reason God often seems absent from our celebrations and our world is because we seem to forget about God. God hasn’t left, we simply fail to acknowledge him. We want others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” but what have we done to bring that about in our own right? As disciples of Jesus, keeping Christ in anything ought to start with us.

Here’s the thing: We can’t give the impression that we’re keeping Christ in Christmas unless we keep the teachings of Jesus and the ways of Jesus close to our hearts and act upon those teachings. If people can’t see Jesus in us, why should they be concerned with the true meaning of a holiday we care deeply about? If we want to truly keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep Christ in ourselves, every single day. Keeping Christ in Christmas – and beyond – starts with us keeping the ways of Jesus on full display in our lives.

Christmas is vital to the Christian faith because the birth of Jesus brought about what I daresay is the most important aspect of the entire story, but one that we often overlook: It’s the incarnation. Dr. Ken Collins was one of my professors at Asbury and he spent a lot of time – at least two full class days – lecturing on the importance of God becoming flesh for us. Let me save you a lot time and expensive of going to seminary and boil down what Dr. Collins told us: Had the birth of Jesus not happened – that is, if God had not been born fully divine and fully human – then anyone who claimed that Jesus truly was the Messiah would have been wrong. That would have included the angels who appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed explicitly that the Messiah had been born and told the shepherds where they could find him. This much trouble would not have been brought forth for a lie so we know that Messiah came that night.

As Jesus was alive in the barn that night, and is still alive at the right hand of the Father today, so should Christ be alive in us today. Paul is writing his disciples in Colossae and saying just that. If you want to summarize his message, he’s telling the Colossian Christians that if they’re really saved by Jesus and have the Holy Spirit within them, this is how they act like it. I don’t believe that Paul is telling them – and us – to simply play nicely together, rather he’s saying that every single day we must choose to put Jesus fully on display in every aspect of our lives, from how we treat one another, how we talk, even how we think. We choose to show mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and to make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.

If Jesus is alive in you, then this is what it will look like to other people. This is how people will know that you have Jesus. Paul is listing these attributes and asking, “How well are you keeping the Christ in you?”

Paul’s metaphor of putting on clothing as a way of displaying one’s devotion to Jesus is a frequent instruction and here’s one reason why I believe he states this: What we wear is a choice. It was your choice to wear what you have on today, just as it was my choice to have this robe on while I preach this morning. You or I could have chosen differently but this is the choice we made.  Our faith is the same way: Every single day, we choose to put on Christ by daily accepting His grace and mercy and choosing to live out that faith by taking the teachings of Jesus seriously enough to live them out. The way we treat each other and people in general is a choice that we make every single day. Everyday, we can choose to treat each other the way the world expects – with distrust, thinking the worst about the other, and general disdain – or we can choose to live “love your neighbor as yourself.” Being a disciple is more than saying we go to church or having a fish symbol somewhere on our car; being a disciple is an intentional way of life. It’s an ethical and moral responsibility.

Conflict is going to arise, even within the church. I believe Paul is telling us to be on guard for that. In spite of any decision that we make to put on Jesus every morning, we are still going to have problems come up. Paul teaches us here that putting on Christ involves knowing that not all of us are on the same level and we are going to get plenty of things wrong. Lord knows I have my faults. Sometimes I can really put my foot in my mouth when I allow my fingers or my mouth to move faster than my brain and heart. We all have those times. We have a choice, however: When we are on the receiving end of offense, we can choose to hold that against the other person or we can choose to love, forgive, and understand that we all have faults. Paul tells us to choose love.

I like verse 17 the best of all in this passage: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus.” Every day, we are a representative of Jesus. People know us and know that we profess Jesus as our savior. The choice is ours as to how good of a representative we are of him. When we send representatives to Jackson or to Washington, we want them to remember where they come from and who they represent, not only to vote the way they believe is in our best interest, but also to represent us in the best way possible. As Christ’s representatives, we have somewhat of the same responsibility: Everyday we vote to uphold the gospel and follow it. Everyday, we represent Jesus and it’s up to us to give a good picture of Jesus to all people we meet. It may sound hyperbolic but one’s impression of Jesus could be based on you. What kind of impression do you want to make? Paul is letting us know that we have a responsibility to remember who we are, where we come from, and who we belong to. We belong to Jesus. Let’s represent him well.

The choice is ours: We can take on this moral code that Paul is teaching about here or we can do our own thing and say it’s of Jesus when it really isn’t. There has been much damage done to the church throughout the ages by people – well-meaning for the most part – who have made majorly bad decisions in God’s name. From judgment on who’s worthy to come to the table, rants about coffee cups and “happy holidays” to the more heinous examples of genocide, these people do not represent Jesus well at all. I saw something recently that said, “People say they want to keep Christ in Christmas but I’d settle for keeping Christ in Christians,” Ouch. How well have we represented Jesus lately? Have we put on Jesus of the Bible of an idol of our own making and own moral judgments? Would Jesus approve of how we treat our neighbors?

Let’s keep Christ in Christmas by putting on full display the Christ that’s within us. What’s more, let’s do it every single day. Let’s keep Christ all year ‘round.

Cancel Christmas?

one-does-not-simply-cancel-christmasPerhaps I’m still somewhat naive and idealistic to this whole ministry thing. I say that because, to me, some things should just not be up for debate. One of those things is having worship on Sundays unless some sort of unusual situation – such as snow emergencies which close the roads, and the return of Christ – occurs which forces the worship service to have to be cancelled. Doing so is something I would never do flippantly and without a very good reason.

Perhaps out of this acknowledged idealism and naivety, I was reading a forum for clergy on Facebook and I was shocked to learn than many of my fellow clergy were planning to cancel worship on Christmas Sunday due to the holiday.

Say, what?

The excuses (note that I did not say “reasons”) given mainly centered around anticipated lack of attendance. And then someone said this:

Guess my priorities are wrong, then. We are not having a Sunday service on Christmas, at my request. If we had one I would be unable to be with my family for Christmas – some of whom I am only able to see every year or so. I’m single and my only family live a distance away.

Again, perhaps I am idealistic but in my opinion those of us who are called to pastoral ministry are also called to make sacrifices in order to answer that call. We are considered set apart for a reason. My parents and siblings and all of my wife’s family live a great distance away and we are sacrificing time with them so that we may worship Word made flesh. I’m sure there are at least a few people in each congregation who would love to cancel worship for any number of reasons but I could not in good conscience do such.

I make no apologies for thinking that canceling worship under the guise of “family time” communicates to the world that we are willing to give in to the whims of the world and celebrate not by worshiping but by celebrating as the world does. In short, many clergy and congregations have forgotten who we are and whose we are.

And yet, these people have the audacity to question why the church in America is dying.

When we cite “family time” as the reason to cancel worship on a holiday, we neglect our calling to gather as the family of Christ to worship and celebrate. Christmas is one of the highest and holiest days in the Christian church. If worship is scheduled on this day, there is absolutely no reason to cancel it so that families can spend an extra few minutes with their trinkets.

A clergy colleague relayed this story:

A couple women chewed out the cashier for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”…I was sitting next to them as they had many conversations including one about Christmas morning…

“I can’t believe our church is having services on Christmas morning…My husband has to hand out bulletins…Why don’t they just cancel it? I mean really…”

Me (inserting myself into their conversation): “Yeah, I just hate it when Jesus gets in the way of Christmas….Merry Christmas, right?” (they took their things & left, calling me a Christian name on their way out.)

Fellow pastors, such is our fault when we willingly cancel worship so that secular Christmas celebrations can take priority over worship as the body of Christ. The same people in the story above are the ones who scream the loudest about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” If we really mean that, we must put our money where our mouths are, unless we, like the two above, are simply giving lip service to Jesus.

Not to mention that not everyone has family to be with during the holidays and will find comfort with their church family. How dare we cite “family time” as a reason to cancel worship when we have such people in our midst.

Fred Day, the General Secretary of the General Board of Archives and History for the United Methodist Church (who I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know on the Wesley Pilgrimage in England this past summer), said this about Christmas worship:

Early Methodists in England and America saw [Christmas] as less illicit and more a golden opportunity to save souls. They viewed the increasingly popular, sometimes rowdy feast day as a prime-time for the pulpit: “Always avail yourselves of the great festivals (of the Church of England) by preaching,” says John Wesley in the Large Minutes. The unique opportunity Methodist preachers were to seize, like Christmas, is evident in a 1798 commentary on Wesley’s words: “Shall the men [ sic] of the world have carnal festivals on their birthdays and we not communicate the birth of the Lord.”

Let’s heed the words of Wesley and get back to our roots!

Yes, I’ve been on my soap box about this and very outspoken. Having worship on Christmas Sunday is something that I feel should not even be up for debate – simply, we should have worship even if it’s just the pastor and the pianist. If the church wants the world to remember why we celebrate Christmas, we must practice what we preach. It’s time for us to remember who we are and whose we are. Anything less just means that the culture of the world really is influencing the church rather than the other way around. Let’s not be party to such. We’re called to be better than that.

Sermon: “What’s The Fuss?”

Shiloh-UMC-logo-final-webI wrote and preached this sermon last week at Shiloh as a reminder of what we celebrate on Thursday (Thanksgiving) as well as a reminder of why we will celebrate Christmas in December. It’s all about perspective. I incorporated some material from the sermon I preached at the community Thanksgiving service at Stanton Baptist Church last week. I had several people tell me that it served as a great reminder of the true purpose for the holidays as well as a means of centering in preparation for the craziness. I hope you find a blessing from reading this sermon (it’s not perfect and I did end up throwing in a couple more thoughts while I preached but, more or less, here it is).

In Christ,

“What’s The Fuss?”
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
November 22, 2015

John 18:33-37 (NRSV) – Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Today is one of the days on the church calendar called “Christ the King” Sunday, which is when we remember and celebrate the kingship of Jesus. Next week we will begin the season of Advent which is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is extremely easy to forget that the “stuff” of the season is not why we are celebrating. The reason we celebrate is the one who would be born in a stable and grow up to be the greatest king the world has ever known. So today, I want us to spend this time together remembering what all the fuss is about.

We have all been there. Let me tell you about one of the experiences of holiday craziness I witnessed. I was a teenager and we arrived at my grandmother’s house early on Thanksgiving. We actually arrived earlier than normal because my grandmother had called and said she was overwhelmed and needed some help getting the thanksgiving meal prepared. We arrived and Moo, as we called her, looked flustered. I’m don’t remember exactly what happened but she had some sort of mishap in the kitchen and also had found out that a few more people were coming than she had expected. I do remember her saying this: “I just don’t understand why I go through all this fuss.”

I remembered that incident and those words recently when I was working on an assignment for one of my classes at Asbury. The assignment was to write a column for a church newsletter about the Christmas season called “What’s The Fuss about Christmas” in which the object was to remind church members of the purpose of the holiday season, specifically why we are supposed to be celebrating Christmas. We tend to ponder that a lot as we go through all the hustle and bustle of the year. We forget about the main purpose because it gets lost in all of the stuff we are expected to do. We wonder why we should even bother with preparing a feast for Thanksgiving and why we go to the trouble of decorating for Christmas and making such a big deal out of things like the Cantata or any number of other things.

It’s obvious to state that the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because we want to take some time to give thanks to God for seeing us through, for providing for our needs and simply to thank him for loving us. Just as the pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock did, we give thanks. The fuss is worth it because it is a correction to our egos to remember how blessed we are and how grateful we should be for even the smallest things. For example: When was the last time you gave a quick word of thanks to the man who picks up your trash so that you can live in a safe and healthy house? When was the last time you thanked the clerk at the grocery store? When was the last time you thanked God for even the things that make us frustrated like our computers, TVs and cell phones? Giving thanks helps us to keep our priorities in line with God’s will and is an important correction to our egos.

Does anyone remember the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special? I love Charlie Brown because I can relate to him in so many ways, namely how he often undertakes things with the best of intentions but he just ends up making a mess of it. In the Thanksgiving special Peppermint Patty invites herself to Charlie Brown’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and then Lucy and Franklin are invited by Patty. Charlie Brown finds himself in a mess because he is supposed to go to his grandmother’s for a meal with his family. Linus convinces Charlie Brown that he can have two Thanksgiving meals and to prepare one for him and his friends. So Charlie Brown sets out to prepare a feast but it’s not exactly traditional. When the gang sits down for their meal, Linus leads them in a prayer and then the food service begins.

By the time it’s all said and done each kid ends up with an ice cream sundae, two slices of buttered toast, and a handful each of pretzel sticks, popcorn, and jelly beans. Peppermint Patty is not happy and has some harsh words for Charlie Brown, who leaves the table in shame. Peppermint Patty gets a reminder that she invited herself over; eventually she apologizes to Charlie Brown. All ends up well because the gang all end up being able to go to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Does this kind of sound like what happens at your house around Thanksgiving? We prepare a meal and someone complains. Then you start to wonder why you even undertook this project in the first place. Thanksgiving is a good reminder that it’s not about us. It’s not about the turkey, the sides or the parades. Thanksgiving, at its core, is a reminder that we should be thankful to God His provision, his protection and for his love. It’s out of this love hat he came to us in the form of a baby who from his birth was the great king that had been long expected and excitedly anticipated. That’s the fuss about Thanksgiving. The fuss is we give thanks not for how we have gained but for what God has given.

Although Thanksgiving is our next holiday and I certainly believe in taking the one at a time I know we have all been thinking about our Christmas plans. As a church we have been practicing for the upcoming cantata and I have been planning our Advent sermons and some other special times of worship that you will hear more about soon. I hope that you are looking forward to Advent as we prepare for Christmas. Even more, I hope you’re looking forward to Christmas as a time that we celebrate the birth of Christ our savior. But I know that Christmas and the preparation for it causes a lot of stress. Perhaps you’re even now asking, “What’s all the fuss about Christmas and why is it worthy of my effort?”

The fuss about Christmas is something called the incarnation. Just in case you don’t know, what I’m referring to is the coming of God in the form of Jesus Christ. The incarnation is vital to our salvation story because without it, there would be no point. Without the coming of the long promised messiah there would be no need for us to celebrate Good Friday or Easter or really to have much hope because we would still be expected to keep the commandments and the other rules and such found in the Old Testament to the letter. Oh, we could repent but in order for our sins to be atoned for there has to be blood spilled. Again, we can look through the Old Testament to see all of the ways in which atonement for our sins could be achieved and none of it is pleasant or pretty. From the very beginning, God planned to do something to reveal Himself to us and to bring us once and for all His grace and mercy.

The incarnation is how God reveals himself to us. You see, Jesus was born just as any other baby was. The only difference was that this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and therefore was divine. He was God, yet he was also fully human. John 1:14 says, “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” The incarnation of Christ is vital and even is one of the central tenants of our faith.

Let me put it this way: As with anything else, certain conditions have to be met in order for something to work. In order for a light bulb to work properly, there has to be a power source, wires to transmit the electricity, a socket connected to the wires and that acts as a way for the lightbulb to, in turn, be powered by the electricity and to shine bright. A switch is also helpful so that the power can be turned on or off (and so we can sleep at night). Without any of these things, the lightbulb will not be illuminated and we are left in the dark.

Jesus works he same way. Without His being born like you and I were, without Him having lived among us, without His having taught, healed and performing miracles, without Him having been nailed to a cross, died and then being resurrected three days later, God’s work to reconcile us to Him would not have been completed. It is a wonderful thing when you really think about it. God came to the world as a human being, grew up from a tiny baby, and lived among us. He did all of this to draw us closer to Him by drawing closer to us. Without His coming and living among us as one of us, this mission would not have been fulfilled.

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis wrote: The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation. There is no question in Christianity of arbitrary interferences just scattered about. It relates not a series of disconnected raids on Nature but the various steps of a strategically coherent invasion—an invasion which intends complete conquest and “occupation.” The fitness, and therefore credibility, of the particular miracles depends on their relation to the Grand Miracle; all discussion of them in isolation from it is futile.

That’s what the fuss about Christmas is all about. Jesus Christ, being born in a stable after being turned away from proper housing. A tiny baby who, at a young age, had to flee to Egypt with his human parents to see refuge from a plot to kill him. A child who would grow up to teach in the temple and overturn the stranglehold the temple elite had over the people. This divine man who would perform miracles, demonstrate mercy, and teach us the way. It’s all about Jesus who would do what no other king in history would willingly do: Lay down his life for the entire world, including people who were not even born yet. And he would go on to cement his title as the king of kings by being raised from the dead on the third day. All of this is out of God’s abundant love for us! All of this so that all who believe in him could be restored and reconciled to God as well as enjoy eternal life with him rather than suffer apart from him.

As we go through these next few busy weeks, let us remember that the fuss is ultimately about God. The fuss is about being thankful for God’s love, both in how he provides for our needs so richly and for his becoming human so that we can be healed of our sins. May we remember that the fuss is about the ultimate ruler, the King of Kings whose kingdom includes us. May we remember that the fuss we are making is a fuss to make much of Jesus.