September 9, 2007

New Clothes: From Sackcloth to Cashmere
Colossians 3:1-17

Few things I know of put a smile on a teenager’s face faster that a trip to Old Navy or American Eagle. But in truth, everyone, regardless of age, enjoys getting new clothes from time to time. A new outfit for school. A dress for the prom. A coat and tie for Easter. Shoes for the first day at work. Everyone, once again, enjoys wearing something new once in a while.

For most of us, however, new clothes often simply replace clothing that we are tired of, clothing that we will at some point pass on to someone else or leave with the collectors at Salvation Army. We tend to trade in one piece of clothing for another, exchanging cotton for wool or nylon for polyester. That was certainly not the case with John when I invited him into my apartment in the Bronx several years ago. John, a homeless man, hadn’t had a bath in months, if not years, and his filthy clothing stuck to his body like plastic wrap. After prying off those old clothes and showering in my bathroom, John for the first time in memory put on a complete set of fresh, clean clothes. Need I say that neither John nor I took his old clothes to Good Will?!? They were fit only for the trash, to say the least. For John, a change of clothing meant far more than simply exchanging one garment for another. Changing clothes involved a complete alteration in his countenance and appearance.

Paul uses precisely this change-of-clothes analogy here in Colossians 3:1-17, when he describes what occurs when someone becomes a follower of Jesus. When we commit our lives to Christ, we gain an inheritance in God’s estate (1:12), move from darkness into light (1:13), receive forgiveness for all of our sins (1:14), and are brought into intimate fellowship with God—we are adopted into his family (1:20). But that, as overwhelming as it is, is not all. God, in his infinite mercy and limitless generosity, takes us to the grandest of all clothing stores and provides us with an entirely new wardrobe—a closet full of beautiful, new clothing. Clothing that makes the smelly garments that we are already wearing pale in comparison to even John’s wretched rags. But we have to put them on. Wouldn’t it be silly to leave these new clothes hanging in the closet?

First things first, however. It is clear, isn’t it, that Paul is writing to people in the town of Colossae who are already followers of Jesus—he is writing to Christians. “If you have been raised with Christ,” he begins, “then….” “If you have died to yourself and to your former way of life, and if you have at the same time been raised to newness of life in Christ, then….” By simple deduction, it is equally true that what Paul goes on to say here is of little consequence to those who have not yet committed their lives to Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, you can do everything in your own power to tear off your dirty clothing, and you can take advantage of every opportunity that promises self-advancement and self-renewal, but you will remain helplessly caught in a straight-jacket of filthy rags. For people who are not followers of Jesus and who have not been brought to new life through the power of the Holy Spirit, whether in 1st-century Colossae or 21st-century Grantham, that is the place to begin. The new clothes spoken of here come only through Christ.

For those of us who are followers of Jesus and who have been raised to new life in Christ, however, Paul now instructs us, as he always does, to move from theory into practice. For Paul, the metaphor of new clothing is more than just an isolated and empty figure of speech. It is a new way of life. “Look at the new wardrobe God has given you,” Paul suggests. Wouldn’t it be silly, then, to leave it hanging in the closet?

Actually, Paul instructs his readers in Colossae—and us!—to do two things: shift our focus and change our clothing. We are called, first of all, to shift our focus and our affections. I’ve not said much lately about Sniffles, my wire-haired miniature dachshund. Some of you have reminded me of that! Well, here goes. I’m often struck at how Sniffles is able to focus—to concentrate—on something when I hold it up over his head. It rarely even matters what is in my hand. When I hold something up over his head, he stares at it, shakes, drools, and barks. At that moment, all of his attention is focused squarely on whatever is in my hand. He is aware of nothing else.

It is quite problematic for Sniffles, however, if two of us hold up something at the same time. He turns his head first to one hand, then to the other, and then back again. And unless he is already familiar with what is in one hand or the other—the smell of smoked meat, for example, would override his confusion—he typically appears incapable of deciding which hand to go for. Even if one hand is holding a biscuit and the other a rotten grape.

We humans, in Paul’s analogy, likewise set our sights and focus our attention on certain things—on certain dreams, possessions, experiences and accomplishments. And like Sniffles, we often find ourselves caught between two options. The world dangles one way of life before us—one set of priorities, one set of values, one set of dreams, and one closet full of clothing. And God offers another—a different way of looking at things, a different set of values, an alternative array of dreams, and an entirely new wardrobe. And there we find ourselves, our spiritual lives invested in heaven, but our physical connections rooted right here on earth. So we gaze at one hand, then the other—back and forth, longing one moment for God and then drooling the next for the things of the world. Refocusing our affections, our desires, is not easy, is it? It sometimes feels like a constant battle, I know. But such focusing—centering—is absolutely imperative in the Christian life.

The story’s been told of an old Indian who was instructing a very young brave
about the inner struggles of life. “Every person,” the old man began, “has two wolves living inside of him. One of the wolves is benevolent, gentle and kind, and he seeks only to aid the person within whom he resides. The other wolf, however, is vicious and destructive, seeking only to harm and to kill. On and on they fight,” the old Indian continued, “and the struggle is fierce and intense.” With that, the old Indian stopped talking and sat perfectly still. After just a few moments, the young brave could not bear the silence any longer. “Which of the wolves wins the struggle?” the boy anxiously inquired. “Which one comes out on top?” With a compassionate but thoughtful grin, the old man responded, “The one you feed.” Stop feeding the wrong wolf, Paul tells us here. Stop cultivating your worldly dreams and desires. Stop devoting your time and attention to your worldly passions. “If you have been raised with Christ,” Paul states with great clarity, “stop vacillating back and forth.” Stop drooling for whatever the world dangles before you, and instead focus all of your energy and attention on the things of God. Rather than running off to American Eagle, stop and listen to Amos or read through the book of Acts. The wolf we choose to feed is the wolf that wins.

As we focus our affections on the things of heaven, Paul continues, we will, in short, change our clothing. We won’t trade in one tiresome outfit for a newer version of the same. We won’t take off cotton, only to put on wool. What Paul envisions here is a change far more dramatic than that. We take off the worn-out, stinky, lice-infested rags of the world and put on the robes of royalty. We take off rough, scratchy, worthless sackcloth, and put on cashmere. Wouldn’t it be foolish, to leave our new clothing hanging in the closet?

If we sit for even a few moments with the change of clothing that Paul envisions here, a rather simple thought occurs to us. The clothing we wear will, in effect, reflect our fundamental affections and values. The dirty, lice-infested clothing that we are told to take off in vv. 5-11 is all self-centered clothing. These garments are all about us and our deepest and most volatile instincts.. Fornication and impurity involve a fixation on our sexual urges and our drive for bodily pleasure. Passion and evil desire reflect an obsession with power and our persistent need to control everything. Greed belies a harmful and climactic preoccupation with all of our wants and wishes. Greed, for this reason, is in Paul’s mind tantamount to idolatry, for it keeps our affections focused firmly on earthly things and prevents us from transferring our affections to the things of heaven. And the list goes on.

What, after all, do anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying and bigotry, or prejudice have in common? What is the unifying thread? They are all about us—about you and me. Each and every one of these is a filthy rag that elevates you or me at the expense of someone else. Wrath, for example, implies a thirst for revenge. Malice suggests evil intent. Slander amounts to a verbal assassination. Lying involves an act of hiding, a refusal to come clean on something. And prejudice—associating the value of particular people to either their ethnic, religious or economic position—is perhaps the most arrogant form of self-advancement. Believing that I am better than someone else because of the color of my skin, content of my religious convictions, or extent of my material wealth is about as contrary to the Kingdom of God as one can possibly get. All of these garments—these shirts, pants and shoes—are about us—you or me. They are self-serving, destructive, and weighty. They lead people to war with each other and even to sacrifice their own welfare in reckless pursuit. “Take them off and throw them away,” Paul pleads. They are earthly and have nothing to do with the things of God.

How different—how drastically and fundamentally different—are the beautiful new clothes that we are told to put on in vv. 12-17. They are, you will notice, made of an entirely different fabric. They look different, feel different, and even smell different. The new garments that Paul highlights here, I should point out, are virtues that most believers would readily associate with Jesus. Put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Clothe yourselves with forgiveness, love, peace, and thankfulness. These are all garments that Jesus wore. These are the shirts and pants that Jesus taught his followers to wear. Paul is describing Jesus here. And what is the common thread? These new clothes—these new attitudes and values—are not so much about you and me, but about God. They are not so much about worldly pleasures and self-advancement, but about service and the things of heaven. We are to think like Jesus, feel like Jesus, and yes, dress up for God like Jesus.

So we are left with three questions, I guess, as both the world and God dangle differing sets of clothes and varying values before us. If we have never decided, once and for all, to follow Christ, then that’s where we begin. That’s the first question. Nothing else matters yet. But once we have, two additional questions remain. On which of the two hands—the world’s or God’s—will we focus our attention and affections? Which wolf inside of us, in other words, will we feed? That is the second question. The wolf we feed is the one that wins. And finally, will we take off our filthy clothing—our old garments with large holes, entrenched stains, and a revolting stench—and put on the cashmere of Christ? With God’s help and by his remarkable generosity, we can throw away our old shirts and pants—our old self-centered attitudes and worldly values—and put on new, kingdom clothes. They look better, fit better, and even feel better. Wouldn’t it be foolish—crazy—to leave them hanging in the closet?