Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022
Over the years, I’ve worn many uniforms. I had my football and baseball uniforms. I’ve had my marching band uniforms. I’ve had my Boy Scout uniforms. And you know, there’s a certain comfort in having a uniform. You don’t really have to think about what you’re going to wear. I just had this conversation with a police officer and a harbor pilot. We all agreed that we took the jobs we have now because there’s a uniform. We don’t have to think about it, just open your closet and put it on.
And I don’t mean to be trite about this. In a very real way, clothing signifies something. Think of the white coat ceremony at medical schools; we are saying, as a community, that this person is now trusted with our healthcare; and we signify that by their white coats. The same thing with clergy. At our ordination, the vestments are placed upon us, a symbol of the trust that the community is putting into us. Clothes mean something. And even when people say they don’t care about what they wear, that usually means they care just as much as people who do care about what they wear. The casual dresser often puts just as much thought into their outward appearance as the snappy dresser. By the clothes we choose to wear or not wear, by the clothes we can afford or not afford, we are conveying something about ourselves. Clothes mean something.
As it is now, so it was in the time of Jesus. Today we hear this little bit from the Gospel of of Matthew. “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John [the Baptist]: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces’” (Matthew 11:8). The soft robes are the uniform of an earthly king. The clothes mean something. But of course, John the Baptist wore camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. That is the uniform of a prophet. Clothes mean something.
And clothes have meant something from the beginning of the Bible. What’s the first thing Adam and Eve do after eating the forbidden fruit? They make clothes for themselves. Or think of the elaborate detail the Old Testament goes in to to describe the clothing that Aaron, the priest, must wear. The Bible describes his turban, his cloak, everything he wears is exhaustively prescribed.
Then there is Elijah, the prophet. He wears a mantle, a type of scarf. When Elijah is taken up, his follower, Elisha, picks up the mantle. “The mantle of leadership.” That’s where this comes from. Our Lord Jesus is born and wrapped in swaddling clothes – a sign of Mary and Joseph’s care for this child, even though he was born in a barn. And then Jesus is stripped naked at the crucifixion. His lack of clothes is meant to humiliate him as he dies.
And finally, later on, Saint Paul says that when someone is baptized they are “putting on Christ,” like a fresh, clean robe. Like a new skin for a new creation.
Clothes mean something. So when the Bible goes out of its way to mention that John the Baptist wore camel’s hair and a leather belt, and when Jesus takes the time to say that people in palaces wear soft robes, we know that something is going on here. There are uniforms for prophets, priests, and kings.
So when the Bible talks about clothes, that language is supposed to be symbolic of our outward behaviors. It’s not about clothing at all, it’s about the choices we make, it’s about the things we say, it’s about what we do. It’s about our outward appearances and behaviors. This whole bit about clothing – it’s asking us that terribly difficult question. Are we wearing the uniform of discipleship, or are we wearing a costume? Do our actions align with our faith?
For instance. This week someone called the church office and asked to speak with me because he had a question about the Bible. I should have figured something was amiss. Immediately he launches into a tirade about how I’ve been reading the Bible wrong my whole life. He harangues me, speaks over me, tries to manipulate me to believe what he says.
Or, earlier in my ministry, I had someone come in to my office and tell me that I wasn’t saved because I had not uttered the exact words, “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior.” Granted, I had made vows at confirmation and ordination, I hadn’t said that precise phrase. So I wasn’t saved.
And it all just makes me think that so much of Christianity is a costume. Looking good but not meaning it. I’m much more interested in how to live a holy life, how to care for the poor, about worshiping God Most High. That, I think, is the true clothing of discipleship.
Now, I don’t mean to bash other Christians. I don’t want to get into that business. I don’t want to go looking for the speck in my neighbor’s eye while keeping the log in my own eye. So where I have fallen short, when I’ve worn the costume, I repent. I confess. Because I really do want to wear the right clothes for Jesus.
This will be the challenge for the church in the next generation. The world has been watching to see if what we do aligns with what we say. They want to see if we are really wearing the uniform, or if we’re masquerading about in Christian costumes. That is the gut punch that Jesus throws in this passage. Your outward appearance, your actions, your behaviors – they will show the true nature of your character. You might say all the right words, but everybody can see what you do.
In the same way, when someone manipulates, coerces, or shames in the name of Jesus, they’ve proven themselves to be an impostor. The outward appearance doesn’t fit with what they are doing. But when someone feeds the poor in the name of Jesus or offers their prayers in silent witness, they’ve proven themselves to be wearing the uniform of Christ. They’ve shown themselves to be faithful.
We could get fancy or technical and call this Christian ethics. That’s what it is. Christian ethics is making sure that our behaviors align with our principles. It’s about practicing what we preach. It’s about putting on the clothes and meaning it.
And so, tomorrow morning, when you are picking out your clothes for the day, first consider how you will behave. Think about how your actions, your behaviors, the things you do and say will be seen by others. Think not of what other people will see you wearing, but how they will see you living. You will have the choice – to put on the costume or the clothes of Christ.