I probably mention each year how I always look forward to the beginning of a new year. I find the whole idea of doing better, of being better, of wiping the slate clean and having a chance at a new beginning tantalizing. We seem to carry within us a vision, a picture, of a better self who will be kinder—more generous—less selfish—neater—more disciplined—more balanced. And yet no matter how good our intentions or sincere our attempts, we all too often find ourselves at the end of another year having fallen short of these lofty, often noble, ideals. And what is perhaps surprising is that despite failing each year to become better versions of ourselves, we nonetheless are ready and willing to try again this year. Despite how difficult it is to break deeply-ingrained behaviors and habits and bring about out any genuine and meaningful change in our lives, we nonetheless resolve, each year, to try again.

Why do we do this? Why do we, against such high odds of succeeding, nonetheless resolve to do better? If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, why do we, despite so many failed attempts in the past nonetheless determine, with all sincerity, that this year things will be different? I’ve often thought that if someone were to write a book about how to succeed in bringing about change in our lives, they would be writing a best-seller for if many best-selling “how to” books have been written that don’t work, writing one that did work would surely be a book that all would purchase and read. And yet hasn’t that book already been written? Isn’t the Bible that so many of us own multiple copies of a book that does in fact provide us with the answer to the question of how we can change? Hasn’t the Bible been given to us, revealed to us by God through his prophets—and his Son, Jesus Christ—and his apostles so that we might know why we’re unable to be the people we yearn to be? And doesn’t the Bible provide us with meaningful and substantial answers about how we can change?

What is interesting to know is that according to a Business Insider report in 2012 the Bible is in fact the most read book in the world with sales of 3.9 billion copies over the past 50 years.[1] What is more, according to Guinness World Records, the Bible is the best-selling book of all time with an estimated 5 billion copies sold and distributed.[2] But I suspect the implication behind these numbers is misleading for owning a book isn’t the same thing as reading it, is it? Owning a book isn’t the same as reflecting upon its teachings, meditating upon its meaning, and asking God to help us live according to its precepts. So perhaps our problem is bigger than we care to admit. Maybe, deep down, we don’t want to change. Or perhaps we only want to change if change can be done easily. For in God’s holy Scripture we have been provided with instructions about how to change but like an alcoholic at an AA meeting whose first step is admitting that they have a problem and that they are helpless, in and of themselves, to change, we creatures of the Fall need to admit our inability to change our character in a meaningful and lasting manner. Our challenge is that though we carry a vision inside of us of how we would like to be and perhaps even of how God intended us to be, we too are unable, in and of our own power, to follow through with the steps entailed in becoming better people.

Even the apostle Paul, speaking about his desire to obey God’s spiritual law, understood this dynamic when he wrote,

18 …I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…. 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? [3]

This is Paul the apostle, appointed by Christ to follow and serve him,[4] who is speaking. This is the very Paul who viewed himself as a slave of Christ[5] who is expressing this frustration. So if the apostle Paul seemed to despair of genuine change occurring in his life, what hope have we?? Well we need to hear the end of what Paul had to say for he does harbor a hope of genuine change. But this hope is placed not in himself, but instead he exclaims, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[6] Ahhh so we can’t deliver ourselves. We can’t bring about change of our own power but rather need Jesus to deliver us. And in our morning’s passage, Paul tries to help us understand how that change comes about by using the analogy of changing our clothes.

Years ago as a young seminary student, I had an amazing opportunity to spend six weeks in Colombia, S. America, serving and learning from believers in a church as part of my ministry requirement. Now though my purpose in going was to serve, nonetheless since I had never been to Colombia, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like a tourist as well. And so, with camera in hand (in the days before smart phones were invented) as we went around visiting different families, I often asked permission to take photographs, wanting to capture how people lived and how they dressed in their day-to-day activities. Unfortunately, I was never allowed to do so. Although people did allow me to take their photograph, there was always a condition: they wanted me to wait for them to change into their best clothes before I did. So I never did capture these dear people in their ordinary daily rituals but only at their stunning and most attractive best.

Now though this experience was mildly frustrating for me, it’s an apt metaphor for how God desires his children to live. God doesn’t want us to go around wearing morally shabby clothes that we find comfortable. No, if we are followers of Christ, we should put on our morally best clothes, clothes given us by none other than our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, if we say we are followers of Christ we can’t walk around with morally dirty clothes for we have died with Christ and been cleansed by his death. This death and cleansing are beautifully captured in the ritual of Christian baptism which tells how Christ’s death has washed us clean and stripped us of our formerly dirty clothes. For in that baptism, a number of realities of the Christian life are represented. As we plunge our dirty selves beneath the water, we are symbolically stripped naked and cleansed as we die to our former selves; but we do not die alone but die with Christ who is the one who has taken our judgment and punishment upon himself that we might receive the eternal life he provides; and so having died, we then rise with Christ, the Lord and Giver of life, as cleansed new creatures who have been given a new and righteous wardrobe to wear.[7] Our old clothes have been removed and we’ve been given Christ’s clothes; our former sinful nature has been cleansed and we are now declared to be holy as Christ is holy so that now, when our loving and heavenly Father looks upon us, he sees the righteous nature of his Son even though, this side of heaven, we still struggle in becoming holy as he is. God chose to sacrifice his Son because the means of entry into his presence are the wedding garments, the holy clothes, Christ Jesus has purchased for us to wear.[8]

So how is change possible? Again, apart from Christ it isn’t possible. But as followers of Christ, we’ve now been united to him and so his holiness covers us and changes us. Listen to how Paul puts it in Romans 6:

[Since w]e are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sinbecause anyone who has died has been set free from sin…. Therefore…13 offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

Because all who believe in and have given their lives over to Jesus Christ are now joined to him, we are not only called to live as he did but we are enabled to live as he did by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us and who indwells us, individually and corporately, and thus makes us one with him and one with one another.[9]

This is why earlier in our morning’s passage, starting in verse 5, Paul provided some behaviors that are representative of our unredeemed natures, of dirty clothes we formerly owned that represent our lives apart from Christ. And so he exhorted these believers, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” And then he added starting in verse 8 how “now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” We are in need of both inner and outer cleansing. If our thoughts and attitudes aren’t cleansed, our actions can’t be cleansed. This is because since the time of the Fall, our very inclination, our very nature, is oriented toward the wrong. What we do expresses who we are. Our sin cannot be managed but our very nature must be changed.  And the good news is that this sinful nature must be—and has been—taken away by God in Christ. This isn’t something we could do of our own willing or discipline or trying. And because God knew we couldn’t and wouldn’t want to do this on our own, he determined to die for us that he might give us a new nature, new clothing, with which we might be clothed.

And so beginning with verse 12 in Colossians 3, Paul provides a list of some attitudes and behaviors that typify this new, beautiful wardrobe God in Christ has given us: “12 … as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” By wearing and displaying these clothes, these morally good and desirable behaviors, we are telling the world that we belong to Jesus:

Because Jesus was compassionate, we are called to show compassion to others;

Because Jesus was kind, we are called to show kindness to others;

Because Jesus was humble, we are called to live in humility before others;

Because Jesus was gentle, we are called to be gentle towards others;

Because Jesus was patient, we are called to be patient with others.

We are called to be like Jesus in all of these ways. As we consider even just our political climate right now, we can appreciate how counter-cultural it is to be compassionate—and kind—and humble—and gentle—and patient. Yet it is isn’t only now that these behaviors are counter-cultural but since the time of the Fall they’ve been counter-cultural for the Fall resulted in humanity becoming indifferent rather than compassionate; cruel rather than kind; proud rather than humble; brutal rather than gentle; and short-tempered rather than patient. And so, tragically, since the time of the Fall indifference and cruelty and pride and brutality and short-temperedness have become commonplace.

Yet Jesus calls us to more. He not only calls us to be like him in these inner attitudes and virtues; he not only wants us to be compassionate and kind and humble and gentle and patient as he is, but he also wants us to be like him by sticking with one another through thick and thin and forgiving one another when we aren’t exhibiting his morally good clothes. So we’re told in verses 13–14, “13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” This is a high bar indeed. Yet this is why Christ came. He came not only to be an example for us, to demonstrate for us, what human behavior was intended to be. But, knowing that our problem wasn’t merely that of not having a good example but a far deeper one of not seeing that we have a problem in the first place; of not knowing about our inability and lack of desire to be and do good, our dear Lord Jesus  “at just the right time, when we were still powerless” died for us, the ungodly. And he demonstrated “his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[10] So how do we “forgive as the Lord [has forgiven us]”? By loving and forgiving those who may still be bound in their sin; by bearing with one another—hanging in there with one another—persevering with one another, recognizing that because we belong to one another leaving one another isn’t an option. We forgive others knowing that God in Christ has forgiven us, knowing that just as God is for us,[11] so we have to be for one another. As Jesus promised that he will never leave or forsake us[12] and that he will be with us until the end of the age,[13] so we must never leave or forsake one another during our earthly sojourn as we remember that we will be together for all eternity.

Paul ends this section of his letter with various admonitions. The first is found in verse 15: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” How can we let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts? We can do so by recognizing that it is through him and because of him that we’re able to have a right standing before God. It is through Christ that we are now recipients of God’s peace rather than God’s wrath for he who was sinless took God’s wrath upon himself that we might never have to experience eternal death but might instead have the eternal life he so freely and generously offers. Therefore all of our past sins—all of our present sins—all of our future sins, all of our sins have been placed upon him. Because Jesus has taken all of our sins upon himself, all of our sins have been paid. And so it is through Christ that we are now joined to him and to our heavenly Father and to the Holy Spirit he has sent us for now and forever. And he, therefore, is the means for being thankful. He is the source and means God has provided to know and experience and be ruled by Christ’s peace.

The next admonition in verse 16 is, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” This past Fall Ron has been leading us in a study of Sing!, Keith and Kristyn Getty’s book about how worship ought to transform our lives. And much that he’s talked about has to do with the very point Paul is making here. Music is a powerful means of being reminded of deep and important truths from Scripture. Though we usually simply read the psalms, originally they were songs—songs of hope and of lament and of joy and of despair—that address the many facets of our human condition yet always with an eye towards God who made us for himself, who is greater than we could ever imagine, who is more loving than we can ever fathom, who is more long-suffering and good and kind than we could ever hope. And we as God’s children are encouraged to dwell upon the richness of Scripture that we might experience his unfathomable love and goodness and respond with gratitude for all he is and all he has done.

And finally in verse 17, Paul admonishes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Martin Luther, that great if occasionally controversial Reformer came to grasp this well. Having understood that it isn’t our love for Christ that saves us—for who could ever love Christ enough to save themselves?—but that it is Christ’s love for us that saves us, Luther realized that the purpose of good works isn’t that God might approve of us but rather to express our gratitude for who he is and what he has done by and through Jesus Christ, his Son. Good works should be a natural outflowing of knowing that we are loved by God so much that he has sacrificed himself that we might know and love him both now and forever.

To be like Christ is indeed a worthy resolution. But how do we do it? What does it require?

As already suggested, I think that the first thing that it requires is an admission that we, in and of our own power and best intentions, are unable to be like Jesus. We need to confess this inability and ask him to help us. A prayer to become like Jesus is a prayer our heavenly Father and indwelling Holy Spirit loves to answer! And so change begins with admitting that it is only Jesus who can rescue us from our sins; it is only Jesus who can take away our sins, declare us “not guilty” through his obedience, innocence, and taking of our sins upon himself; and it is only Jesus who can give us his righteous clothes in place of our filthy rags.[14]

Second, we need to turn to the means God has provided us for help. We need to turn to that best-selling book of all time, the Bible, and actually read it; and ponder it; and pray about it; and talk about it with others; and try to learn and understand it. For the Bible has been left for us that we might know who God is and how he would have us live; that we might know what a holy life looks like; that we might know what loving God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength entails as well as loving our neighbor as ourselves. For it is in Scripture that we find spelled out for us what clothes are worthy of wearing and what clothes need to be discarded.

Third, we need to turn to one another for help for Christ died not simply for me as an individual but for us. The many images of the church given us in Scripture are corporate images: we are his body—we are his temple—we are his bride, intended to function as one; intended together to love him and each other and proclaim the good news of his love to those around us.

And finally, we are called to do all of these things with an attitude of gratitude as we thank our powerful and gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for his goodness—and greatness—and kindness—and compassion—and mercy—and justice—and love. We should thank him for the big things, the gift of life and the gift of new life in his Son; we should thank him for those things we often take for granted, the family he’s given us in each other, our health; we should thank him for the seemingly small things, finding a receipt for a vacuum that is broken and needs to be returned. Thanking God is a means of reminding ourselves that we belong to him, that every good and perfect gift comes to us through his hands,[15] that we are never alone in life, not even in those moments when we feel most alone or frightened or abandoned. And so let us thank him and praise him and rejoice in him this morning and always.

Let us pray.

[1] The 10 Most Read Books in the World [Infographic] by Jennifer Polland, 12/27/12. https://www.businessinsider.com/the-top-10-most-read-books-in-the-world-infographic-2012-12

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books

[3] Romans 7:18–19, 21–24.

[4] Though some view Paul in these verses as speaking of his pre- vs. post-conversion self or as Paul the child vs. Paul the man, I understand these verses to express Paul’s experience as one who has been redeemed by Christ and yet still struggles with the old nature God in Christ has put to death in all who know and love him.

[5] See, for example, Romans 1:1: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God; Philippians 1:1a: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

[6] Romans 7:25.

[7] See, for example, Colossians 2:9–12: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.; Galatians 3:26–29: 26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.; 1 Peter 3:21–22: 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

[8] See the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1–14: 1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

[9] I Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.; 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

[10] Romans 5:6b, 8.

[11] Romans 8:31–34: If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

[12] Hebrews 13:5: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Quoting Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

[13] Matthew 28:20b.

[14] Isaiah 64:6a: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

[15] James 1:17–18: 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.