Matthew T. Phillips

Returns & Exchanges (Colossians 3:12-17)

The First Sunday of Christmas (C)
Asbury & Longtown United Methodist Churches

Hamptonville, North Carolina

41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Luke 2:41-52 NRSV

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:12-17 NRSV


This year, my wife and I celebrated our first Christmas in our own home. It was exciting to have both our families come to our house and see the work we’ve done decorating and getting ready. I was amazed at the way the house we’ve lived in for six months now became home over the past couple of weeks.

One of the things we tried to do as we decorated our house and planned meals and bought gifts was to work at connecting those things with who we are. We gave gifts that came from this area—our hometown now—and we made our favorite foods for family meals. The theme continued when we decorated our house, too: we wanted it to represent who we are. As we’ve driven around town lately, I’ve looked at Christmas decorations on other houses with that thought in mind too, looking to see what decorations might show about the people who live in the house: are they especially festive and excited about Christmas with lighted bushes and ice-cycles on their porch, or do they want to focus on the birth of Christ with a nativity scene in the yard, or do they want to celebrate the heritage of this part of the state with a Moravian star?

Starting the New Year

Figuring out who we are is an important part of our job at this time of year. Nathan has probably mentioned over the last few weeks that Advent is the beginning of a new year in the church. The first Sunday of Advent, back on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, was the beginning of the church year. During the season of Advent, we learn about who God is. We wait and watch for the coming of God on Earth as a mighty king, and if we think hard about it, it’s still a little surprising now two thousand and three years later that God in fact comes as a vulnerable, impoverished infant.

Now, with the king born and God revealed in ways we could not possibly have expected, we have to figure out how to react. We’ve spent Advent anticipating God’s coming and learning who God is: now in response we have a chance to figure out who we will be. Just as being in a new house this year gave us a chance to think about new ways of reflecting who we are, receiving the Christ child at Christmas gives Christians a chance to rethink how they will live in God’s world.

That’s why we didn’t read a familiar Christmas story this morning. Today is the first Sunday of Christmas, but in its fullness the festival of Christ is not just about a baby born in a manger: it is about how Christ shapes who we are. Paul’s words in Colossians spell out for us what should make us unique: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

‘Tis the season for… meekness?

There’s not much about a modern Christmas that points to those qualities. I’d imagine that like me, many of you made a trip or two down to Winston-Salem to go to Hanes Mall this season in search of some good deals for Christmas gifts. As I drove near the mall early last week, I noticed at least two or three times the normal number of police cars on patrol, and saw five or six cars stopped and receiving tickets in the span of no more than twenty minutes. I heard later that the Winston-Salem police had increased their patrol in that area because of the Christmas rush. Apparently that area at this time of the year is one of the worst places in the state for aggressive driving. Somewhere the same Christ who cried in a manger two thousand years ago weeps that we celebrate his birthday by cutting off our neighbors in traffic and running red lights.

But now Christmas is over, as far as the shopping world is concerned. It’s the weekend after Christmas where everyone goes to the after-Christmas sales and returns the sweater that didn’t fit and the shoes that were the wrong color. Returning and exchanging presents has, for many people, become as big a part of Christmas as picking the perfect gift for someone else.

Finding the perfect gift for someone else carries a unique feeling of excitement. Not the excitement that you’re going to get something in return, but the knowledge that you’ve found something that your husband or mother or niece will really enjoy. I’ve never gotten that feeling when I exchanged a gift on the day after.

Some of you are bound to be thinking by now, “where did Nathan find this guy? He’s up there behind our pulpit, supposedly preaching the Word of God, and really just giving us a lecture on not returning Christmas gifts? What’s he want me to do with the pants that don’t reach my knees or the hat that swallows my whole face?” Of course there’s nothing particularly sinful about exchanging presents. I’m sure in fact that it’s morally correct to return something you’re not likely to use in favor of something that you will use. What I’m wondering is if the same things that lead us to return Christmas gifts sometimes lead us to treat people in ways that make us look quite different than Paul’s image of the identity we are to put on ourselves.

No returns on people

When you’re used to getting exactly the gift you want and to taking it back if it’s wrong, then other people can really ruin your day. I have never successfully exchanged an annoying relative, and I tried to return a rude store clerk one time, but the manager was worse. People do not come with a receipt, and there’s never a merchandise return label attached.

Teaching people how to live with each other is an important part of Colossians. Now that we set about the task of determining what it means to be Christians, part of our task is just learning to be in close quarters with other people as part of a spiritual community. And like your family, you have to love the people in your church. And, I might add, you’re part of a two-point charge, so you even have to love the people at {Asbury, Longtown}. And we’re part of the Methodist connexion, so we have to love people in churches all over the world. And we Methodists see ourselves in communion with Christians of many denominations, so it turns out we’re stuck with a pretty big group of people to love. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” Paul wrote to the Colossians. In other words, interact with others in such a way that they see you love them. When you get right down to it, that might be the hardest thing God asks us to do, but God seems generally unconcerned with how difficult our callings are.

Loving people is a nice idea, and Paul’s words are beautiful as we would expect, but we need more concrete ways of thinking about them, because it’s too easy to accept the idea that we should love other people and to manage to never really do it except where it’s convenient.


A friend reminded me a recently that I wrote a letter to the editor of my college newspaper years ago complaining that they had said students were customers of the university. The view of the editors seemed to be that since students pay tuition, they are customers of a business which produces education and degrees. I suppose at some level that is correct, but it’s not the traditional conception of education at all, and it has dangerous effects. I’ve been around universities for quite a few years now, and I see a significant trend of students behaving as if the university community exists to serve them and complaints about what special favors they should get for all the money they pay as tuition.

I can’t help but believe that those same people will one day happen into the door of a church, perhaps one they saw advertised on TV, and assume that like other places that ask for money and advertise to get their attention, the church exists to provide services to them, the effective customers: education services, in some places daycare services, entertainment services, and perhaps in some warped way, salvation as the ultimate product.

There is a lot about our world that shapes us as consumers: people who are primarily concerned about what other people can do for us. But when Paul describes how we should clothe ourselves, he doesn’t tell us to put on the clothes of customers, but of servants: “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Some of the strangest stories in the gospels will make a lot more sense if you look at Jesus’ life with the idea that when he saw other people, he imagined what he could do for them rather than what they could do for him.

Blessings in disguise

Our gospel lesson this morning, in which Mary and Joseph leave Jesus behind at the temple, is one of those fantastically human stories in the Bible. What parent hasn’t either worried that they might leave their child behind somewhere or actually done it? When Mary gets back to her son, her frustration and guilt both show through as she asks him, “child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” That frustration foreshadows the feelings of the faithful throughout the ages: Jesus was just not what she had expected. She had finally been able to be excited about giving birth to a son as she understood that it was the result of God’s choosing her and that her new family would not be torn apart by controversy. She might have even had some wonderful ideas about the things her child would do in the world, but he was very different than the child she had imagined having: the devoted son who grows up at a respectable pace, goes into the family business, and loves his mother. Instead she got a rather odd and aloof boy whose definition of a good time was to hang out with the ministers in the church.

The wishes we have for what other people will do for us are usually not very well-informed, and they’ll leave us frustrated with the people who should mean the most to us: upset because they don’t fit into our plan correctly. At Christmas, we can look to a struggling young mother with a handful of a son, or to a sweater that doesn’t quite fit, and we see the way we often feel about other people. But our job now that Christ had come is to figure out what Christians are so that we might figure out who we will be: his people, his church.

“Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” Paul asks of us. Beautiful words that lead us to search for ways we can be of service to others rather than to be quite so concerned with what they can do for us. We can’t return or exchange people, but part of God’s grace is the opportunity to work on ourselves and exchange the attitude of a customer for the attitude of a servant.