We live as people of the day, children of light, even if the time looks like it’s still night; so Paul invites us to act as if it is day right now, live as if it is Isaiah’s “days to come” right now.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, First Sunday of Advent, year A; texts: Romans 13:11-14; Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The middle of the night is a mysterious time, but far stranger are the wee hours of the morning, those hours before the sun rises, the time that isn’t quite night but isn’t quite day, either. I’m blessed to be able to sleep well most nights, but every once in awhile I’ll wake up a bit early, in those strange hours.
If it’s a big day ahead, with lots to do or many things to attend, I find myself dreading the possibility, as I turn my alarm clock around to see the time, that it actually might be time to wake up. To see that it’s 3:15 a.m. and I can sleep some more is a gift of grace. I don’t have to get up yet; I don’t have to start a day that will be full of whatever it’s full of. To be able to close my eyes and sleep some more, this is a good thing. But if I look, and it’s only 15 minutes to the time I need to wake up, there’s really no point in going back to sleep. It’s day already, for all intents and purposes, even if it’s dark. Best to get up and get at what needs doing.
That time when it’s not quite night and not yet day, that is the time of our lives in this world as disciples of Christ Jesus. Images of light and darkness, night and day pervade God’s word. They thread throughout the words of witness believers have spoken and written for 2,000 years, that we live as people of the day in a world threatened by night, that we follow a risen Christ in a world where death seems to have immense power.
Yet a preeminent witness among those witnesses, the apostle Paul, suggests that things might be closer to dawn than we tend to imagine. “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;” he says, “the night is far gone, the day is near.” Paul tells us that it’s more like 15 minutes to wake-up time, rather than three hours. Which suggests that our response needs to be accordingly different.
One of the challenges we have living in the 21st century is that it is the 21st century, nearly 2,000 years since the resurrection of Christ Jesus and the birth of the Church. Paul’s sense that the time of fulfillment was near at hand has been muted by two millennia of waiting. We’ve become so accustomed to waiting we’ve developed a centuries-long practice of having a special season, Advent, devoted to teaching us the art of waiting, the practice of patience. We have come to live our lives with the spiritual expectation that it’s always still a few hours from dawn, not a few minutes.
That’s something I think Paul would have us correct, even now, twenty centuries removed from his writing these words to the Roman church. To a God in whom, as Peter writes, a thousand years is like a day, time is relative, and 2,000 years is nothing. Paul, I think, understands this, and his words, still read in our worship, still carried in our Bibles these many years later, still speak to us as a truth we need to hear. An alarm we do not want to shut off.
When we see what Isaiah says the morning, the day of the LORD will bring, our hearts sing with hope.
The prophet tells us a promise of what the LORD will do in the new creation. It’s a beautiful vision.
It’s a vision of hope, of all peoples coming to God. “In those days, says the LORD, all peoples will gather together at the mountain of the LORD.” They will gather in peace, to learn from God. To learn God’s ways, that we might walk in God’s paths, that’s why all will gather.
It’s a vision of peace, of God’s people laying aside hatreds and weapons. But it’s a vision of peace that is one of peace with justice. Where all our weapons are transformed into tools that feed, nourish and sustain God’s people.
There are moments, sometimes painfully brief, where it seems that might be the way the world is moving. Many swords have been destroyed. Peace has been made in places where it was long absent.
And there are far more times when we realize bitterly, “not yet.” Many swords continue to be made and sold, while millions of children starve for lack of plows to till soil and raise food. We still look to our ways to solve our problems, not learning God’s ways and living them.
This promise of God’s is still just that: a promise. We still wait for the LORD to come and restore the world.
So when we consider what Paul says, that this restoration is near, at hand, it makes little sense to what our perception of reality tells us.
We know we must hear what he says, because that’s exactly what our Lord tells us as well. It’s not yet dawn, Paul says, but we’re past the darkest hours. Today Jesus tells us it could happen at any time. The hope of all Christians is that Jesus will return soon, to restore all things, and today we’re told he will.
But it’s been a long time, and we’re still waiting. What are we supposed to do with that? If waiting for Jesus’ return is like waiting for morning, well, it’s sure a long night. Wars, famines, plagues, hatreds, all these things still torment our world.
And sometimes if the wait for something is too long, we stop waiting, stop believing anything will come. And that leads us to inaction, for a couple reasons.
We begin to live as if we’ve got hours to sleep, and that lulls us into inaction. What’s the rush to act, when it will be far ahead in the future that all this will happen, if ever?
Or we live as if night could never be stopped by day, as if it is all-powerful, and that cows us into inaction. What can we do, just a few flashes of light in a dark world?
Regardless of what our reality seems to be, we can’t escape one simple thing: our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, and Paul affirms for us, that we are to live our lives at the ready. Always. Thinking we know when the time will be is foolish, but Jesus doesn’t tell us to do that. Acting as if it will never come is also foolish.
So Jesus says again and again, “just live lives at the ready, at all times.” “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” That’s why Paul’s urgency is simple: it’s time, he says, to start waking up. Start being ready.
And since we do seem to struggle with long waits, it’s a good thing that Paul gives us an answer to how we might stay awake, how we might be ready for our Lord’s return.
Live honorably as if it were already day, he says. Live honorably as if it were already day!
If it truly is just before dawn, Paul says, then get up, get out of bed, get dressed. Even if it looks like night. There’s not enough time to go back to sleep. We need to take off the works of darkness, he says – put them aside – and start removing from our lives that which is a sign of the darkness.
Put aside our swords and spears: that is, our hatred, our indifference, our pride, our love of violence. Put aside our self-centeredness and our ignorance of the pain of others. Put aside our sin and wrongdoing, actions which Paul frequently compares to things of the darkness.
Get rid of them, he says. You know what time it is: time to put those things away.
And then get dressed with “the armor of light,” he says, start living as if it were already God’s day. Using plows and pruning hooks, to borrow Isaiah’s words, that is, caring for the world God made so that all may live. Living honorably.
In fact Paul then seems to say “let’s keep it simple”: just put on the Lord Jesus Christ, get dressed in Jesus. Cover ourselves with his way of life, his love, his grace, by living our lives as he did, loving and caring for the world and being a sign of God’s love. Being in our very bodies and lives a preview of the new creation yet to come.
And isn’t this exactly what Isaiah says? “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” Because when we do, we learn that God’s kingdom has already begun and the day is breaking: first in Jesus, and now in each of us. Swords and spears do turn into plows and pruners as God transforms our hearts in love.
Second, we also learn what it is to live in the light, to live as light, even when we are surrounded by darkness. This is the other reason for our inaction, that we fear the work of darkness is too strong, so we won’t be able to make any impact or dent in the night.
Paul addresses this more fully in the verses preceding our reading today. This whole section of his letter to the Romans, from chapter 12 up to today’s reading, is Paul’s great “nevertheless”: nevertheless, he says, live that way anyway.
Let your love be genuine, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, Paul says in chapter 12 (12:9, 12). This is not life in full daylight, but it is light-filled life to be lived in a world where there is darkness and hate and pain, because the light of this love can make a difference.
And if people aren’t going to be responding in peace or love, so be it, he says. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” Paul says (12:9). There may be many swords wielded, many weapons fired. But Paul says, why does that mean you and I shouldn’t start making plowshares with ours? That’s how the kingdom starts. We go first.
And the same Jesus who tells us to be ready at all times also tells us parables of mustard seeds and yeast, tiny things that look to have no value but which grow and transform their environment. Just because the night seems too powerful and evil too strong doesn’t mean we’re not a little seed of hope and light and grace, and that we can’t have any effect. That’s the gift of the Master whom we serve, the one who is coming but who in the meantime needs us to be about our work.
Friends, the time is now. “It is now the moment for [us] to wake from sleep.”
It’s almost day. It’s time to get up, get dressed, and start walking in the light of the Lord. There are plenty of things that make us want to roll over and close our eyes, but the light of the Lord is already upon us.
So, . . . let’s wake up! Let’s ask God to keep us ever watchful, ever ready and prepared with lives of love and service, lives that will transform this world in tiny but powerful ways. When Christ returns there will be a reign of justice and joy and peace, that we know. But in the meantime, we prepare for that return by living in justice and joy and peace in this broken world, by being a tiny fleck of light in a world of darkness, and so being a sign of the rising sun that is to come.
And that’s all Christ needs of us, that we live the light-filled life as a sign in the darkness to others and as a beginning of the dawn of God. And since the day is almost upon us, let’s be at it.
In the name of Jesus. Amen