“Clothes make the man.”
You’ve probably heard that saying before. Clothes are a status symbol in our society. The shoes on your feet, the clothes on your back, the watch on your wrist all seem to MATTER. At least to some. Your clothes say something about the person you are. Wearing the “right” clothes can place you firmly with the “in” crowd, or definitely “out.” When I was in high school, the things to wear were Air Jordan shoes, Members Only jackets, and Guess jeans. But it changes with every generation. Every new group of kids has their own set of clothes that make them cool. The same is true for adults. This isn’t a youth only movement. What you wear and when you wear it goes across all generations. But fashion is fickle. It’s here one day and gone the next. Sometimes it comes back – whether we want it to or not. Bell-bottom jeans and neon sweatshirts have both made a reappearance in my lifetime. For what reason, I don’t know if anyone knows. Interestingly, what you wear not only affects how other people perceive you but even how you perceive yourself. Some researchers did an interesting experiment involving a white lab coat where participants were asked to either wear one or not wear one while doing a task. Now a white lab coat is often a symbol of authority, discipline, and knowledge worn most often by doctors and scientists, but the researchers were curious if it would affect not just the people who interacted with the white lab coat, but the people who wore them as well, and what they found out was that the people who wore the lab coat did significantly better at the task than the people who didn’t. They not only LOOKED more studious and professional, but putting on the coat actually MADE them more studious and professional. The kind of clothes we wear seemingly affects not only other people’s perceptions of us, but our own perception of ourselves.
Interestingly, God talks a lot about clothes in the Bible.
He talks about it in both a spiritual way and a material way. For God, it isn’t important what kind of clothes you wear. It doesn’t matter how good you look or how much money you spent on a pair of shoes. Those things don’t measure a person’s worth. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about this. He said, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)” James is warning us that this is not how Christians are supposed to behave. We’re not supposed to place value on someone based on their clothing or jewelry or anything they put on. We’re supposed to love everyone equally. Jesus tells his followers they shouldn’t worry about clothes at all. He tells his disciples in Matthew 6, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” Jesus isn’t an advocate for nudist colonies. He’s not saying that people should walk around without clothes. Jesus wore clothes. What he’s trying to get his followers to understand is that they shouldn’t focus their life on these things. That there are far more important things to focus your life on than what shoes someone is wearing or what designer made that dress. Jesus wanted us to stop worrying about the inconsequential things and focus on what’s really important.
But there is a type of clothing that IS important to God.
Clothing yourself in Christ. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Romans 13).” Paul writes again to the church in Corinth, “53 …the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15).’” And in his letter to the church at Colossae, he writes, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3).” In each of these instances, Paul is using a metaphor for clothing. He’s telling us that we need to “put on” the likeness of Christ. We need to act as Christ does with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We need to put aside the things that will lead us astray or take us away from our faith, but instead protect ourselves by being covered with Jesus’ teachings. Because Paul knows that as human beings we are prone to go astray. And just as clothing protects us from the weather and from the elements, clothing ourselves in Christ protects us from everything that seeks to pull us away from God.
Not that physical clothes are meaningless.
It’s one of our basic needs and over this Advent season, that’s what we will be focusing on – basic needs that everyone has and how we can meet them. We need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink. We need shelter to keep us safe from the elements and wild creatures that go bump in the night. Like we said earlier, we need clothes to protect us from the weather and from things we want to keep away from our bodies. And those are just our physiological needs. We also have the need to be loved, the need to feel safe from harm. Albert Maslow hypothesized that before we can become the people God created us to be, we had to fulfill those basic needs first. He called this the Hierarchy of Needs. It’s gone through a number of revisions over the years, but the basics of his hypothesis have pretty much stayed the same since he shared it back in 1954. Did you know Maslow’s hypothesis wasn’t new? God thought of it first. If you remember from our earlier reading, each of these basic needs is called out by God. He challenges us to stand up for others, to feed the hungry, to provide shelter for the poor, to clothe those without clothes, and never to turn our backs on our family. In essence to fulfill the basic needs of all human beings. But it’s not just in the Old Testament that we hear about this call, but in the New Testament as well. In this passage we hear the words of Jesus’ cousin John who has been preaching to anyone who will hear it that we need to have our sins cleansed from us and to repent before God. The earlier prophets predicted that someone would come as a herald for Christ, a guy who would pave the way for Christ’s coming. Sort of like the stand-up comedian that comes out before the main act, except in this case, John is giving a preview of exactly why Jesus has come to Earth.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
John is a passionate preacher.
He’s not afraid to tell it like it is and he’s warning the people of Israel that they shouldn’t assume God’s favor. That just because they are the children of Abraham doesn’t mean they do not need to ask for forgiveness the same as anyone else. I like how John tells the crowd, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” He’s telling them not to be smug in their heritage. Being a child of Abraham is nothing to a being who can create life from the rocks around them. He’s warning them that they have become too complacent in their faith and when someone asks him what they should do, his first answer is this: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even before Jesus would come and basically say the same thing, John told the people of Israel that they needed to provide for one another. They needed to attend to the basic needs of their brothers and sisters. And the first reference he makes is to clothing.
We tend to take clothing for granted.
We don’t worry about HAVING clothing, but about what KIND of clothing we have. But we are so privileged. The New York Times estimated that between 40% and 80% of people in the world live on subsistence income, barely making 50 to 60 cents per day. 40-80%! And even though there are tons of programs to help with other needs, clothing tends to get overlooked. Anshu Gupta, a freelance reporter in India, looked around and saw how in need of clothing so many people in his country were. He said to a reporter for the Times, “In earthquakes, the shake kills people; in a tsunami, the water kills people; but in winter, the cold does not kill people. It’s the lack of proper clothing,” says Gupta. “Why don’t we consider lack of clothing a disaster?” Even in America, many people lack enough clothing just to protect themselves. As part of our ordination process in North Georgia, we took a tour of different Methodist facilities all over the area, but the one that stuck out to me the most was our trip to the United Methodist Children’s Home. Two of my friends have now served as director of this great place that does so much to children in need. They house kids from broken homes or kids in need of protection or kids who have no place to go from all over, but the story I’ll never forget is the one we were told when we visited. The director at the time told us that most of the kids who arrive on their doorstep come with nothing more than a virtually empty backpack that the home often provides. Not only do they lack toys and games and other things we normally associate with kids, but sometimes they don’t even have a change of clothes. Sometimes they don’t have a jacket or a sweater or anything to protect them. Sometimes they don’t have clean underwear. They literally come with the clothes on their backs with no home, no family, no friends. It’s hard to imagine that in a country like ours, we have kids in need like that. That we have ANYONE in need like that. If we are truly Christian, we can’t stand by and do nothing. We must heed God’s call and do more. We must put on the clothing of Christ and reach out to clothe the world. When we help one another take care of our basic needs, we can all grow closer to Christ together. In the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.