November 21, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Anne Tyler’s novel, The Amateur Marriage, we witness a sad series of events. The book’s main characters are Michael and Pauline, a pair of World War II-era sweethearts who get married and eventually have three children. But then one day their oldest child, Lindy, just disappears. She runs away from home and promptly falls off the face of the earth. For the first days, weeks, and even months, they watch for her return. They seize on any and every clue as to her whereabouts. The pace, they peer out windows, they listen for a key scratching at the front door’s lock, they sit bolt upright in bed each time they think they hear footfalls on the driveway.
But Lindy does not return. Over the years, her absence becomes just another part of life. They never finally give up on the idea that they’d see her again, but they stop watching for her. At first they were certain she’d be back soon. They would not have been at all surprised had she walked back through that front door. Years later, though, the surprise flipped: after a while, they would have been surprised if she had come back.
When you’ve got at least some idea of the day and hour of something, you watch for it. When you have no idea, even if deep-down you still hope it might happen by and by, you even so find it difficult to watch. So what does it mean for us to keep watch? I think the concept of “the days of Noah” provides the answer. The Lectionary technically cuts off the reading of Matthew 24 at verse 44 but the final half-dozen verses of the chapter go on to provide an analogy about household servants. In verse 45 Jesus mentions that a commendable servant would be the one who gives the other servants their food at the proper time.
In other words, the good servant is commended for making dinner! It doesn’t say that what is commendable about this servant is that he set up a huge telescope on a mountaintop to keep scanning the heavens for the first sign of the master’s return. It doesn’t say that he became an itinerant preacher who held rallies to teach people that the end was near and so they had better shape up or else. It says simply that what made him a good servant was that he made dinner and served it at the usual time. In other words, he did what he had to do in the typical days of Noah.
Can it be possible that being faithful to our Lord in our everyday routines demonstrates holy watchfulness for his return? Is being an honest office manager, a careful school bus driver, an ethical attorney, a thoughtful housewife or househusband really a sign that we are aware that Jesus is coming back? Yes, it is. And if you doubt that, look at the lives of those who do not share an awareness that there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus.
Look at all the ethical and moral shortcuts that are available and that many people in our society take all the time. Whether it’s something big like the corporate scandals that brought on the financial crisis some years ago or something comparatively smaller like the employee who uses company equipment to make invitations to her son’s birthday party; whether it’s resolving the consequence of having quick and easy sex by getting a quick and easy abortion or taking the easy way out by pouring mercury into a river rather than going through the expense of disposing of it properly–whatever the scenario, people all over the place live like there is no tomorrow and as though no one who cares is watching them anyway.
The days of Noah are our inevitable context, and according to Jesus this will remain even the church’s context right up until the end. But within that setting we display our watchfulness by living as fine of lives for our great God in Christ as we can. In big things and small ones, at work and at home, in what we do with our body parts as well as what we do with our income, we do everything in the context of a God-infused world. True, no one will ever write a best-selling novel about ordinary Christians going through typical days and being faithful in preparing dinners and putting in an honest day’s work, but when history’s curtain at long last rings down, the first thing our Lord will talk to us about will be the days of Noah and how we experienced and displayed our Lord’s grace during all that time.
In the Anne Tyler novel mentioned above, Lindy returns eventually, although her mother Pauline never lives to see it. When Lindy shows back up, her father says to her, “Your mother never gave up hope, I could tell.” Of course, Pauline had gotten on with life. But she just had a way of glancing out the window that let you know the hope was still there. When she had the chance to take a cruise with a group of friends, she refused. She came up with a dozen excuses but everyone knew that deep down the real reason was that she didn’t want to be gone . . . in case Lindy came back.
We may not live to see our Lord’s return. But as we go through our routines in these days of Noah, we certainly want it to be true that as people look at the shape of our lives, they can say of also us, “Those Christians never give up hope. We can tell.”
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
I have to admit to feeling yanked around a little bit by our Lord’s words in Matthew 24. In verse 43 Jesus says that if someone knew at what hour a burglar was going to come to rob the house, he would keep watch. Yes, he would. Yes, so would we all.
It reminds me of that scene from the movie Home Alone in which the little boy Kevin—accidentally left behind when his family took a trip to Paris—is peering out an open second-story bedroom window. As he looks down, he sees and then overhears two cat burglars saying that they’d be coming back to rob Kevin’s house around 9pm that night. Now Kevin knows when they are coming and so he spends the rest of the day setting up one booby trap after the next to foil the thieves who, indeed, show up promptly at 9pm.
If you know when a burglar is coming, you get ready and watch, Jesus says. True enough.
But then in the very next verse Jesus encourages our own readiness and watchfulness on account of the fact that we do not know when he will return. Huh? What’s the linkage here? Knowing when something is going to happen makes you watchful. But doesn’t it follow that not knowing makes us less vigilant, less able to watch when we are supposed to? The analogy does not work. Or is the point that we have to assume that the burglar could come any night and so we have to sit up in the living room with a baseball bat every single night for the rest of our lives?
If you tell me burglars are coming next Wednesday around 1:30am to smash through my kitchen window, I am going to be there and be ready. This is useful information. But if you tell me that my house is going to be robbed—certainly robbed—at some point in the dead of night sometime in the next 15 years, I am going to start to wish you had never told me because I wonder if I will ever sleep again. This is not terribly useful information.
Let’s assume Jesus is trying to be useful, however, and is not trying to trip us up. How then are we to understand his words and his analogy? Perhaps what he is saying is that if you did know when, you’d for sure do something. In the case of the return of the Son of Man, we do not know when but we do know that it will happen—no matter how long it takes—and surely this information is useful on some level, too. Because we over-extend Jesus’ imagery if we make Jesus’ return out to be something as bad and unhappy as a burglary.
Jesus’ return will be a profoundly good thing and so living with an awareness that this is going to happen need not make us nervous or sleepless but it is intended to make us simply faithful. We don’t need to perform heroics—walking humbly with our God will do. We don’t need to spend our days calculating time charts for when the Lord will return (as some, alas, do)—living with the hope of the New Creation will do. We don’t need to quit our jobs in order to devote ourselves 24/7 to praying—faithfulness in our callings as a witness to the kingdom will do.
In this sense, Jesus’ telling us that this is going to happen (even if the when is unspecified) is perhaps like telling a desperately lonely person, “I cannot tell you when but I can assure you that you are going to meet someone very special one day. You will be married, you will have children, and you will be very happy.”
Knowing that will not erase the loneliness that will continue until that happens, but it will prevent the loneliness from having the last word. And if the lonely person believes your prophecy, despair will never take over, either. Instead, hope will remain. And vigilance will continue—Mr. or Miss Right is out there. Maybe today will be the day I meet him/her. I will, therefore, get out of bed, keep my eyes open, be the best person I can be, and wait.
The Greek text of Matthew 24:36-44 is not particularly remarkable. One item to note is that throughout this passage when Jesus refers to our not “knowing” the day or hour of the Parousia, he uses the Greek oidein verb, which is the verb to perceive or understand. Only in verse 43 when Jesus makes the analogy to the homeowner “knowing” about the hour of a burglary does Jesus use the Greek verb gnoskein. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, there is not a great deal of difference to be observed between them, though insofar as there is a little difference it may be that oidein can convey the more intimate kind of knowledge that believers are to have about God and Christ (versus for fact-based knowledge of the “gnosis” variety). Probably there is not much to be made of this point but it could be alleged that the “knowledge” we have about Jesus’ return is that it will happen even if we have no clue when. What’s more, we know that it will happen only because we do have a close, intimate relationship of faith with Jesus and it is that relationship, even during “the days of Noah,” that makes all the difference for us.
Can you be surprised even when expecting something? Of course! Just ask many women who have had children. A common phrase to refer to a woman’s pregnancy is that “she is expecting.” Indeed she is. She is expecting the child and makes many preparations to be ready. A nursery is created. Baby showers are given at which lots of useful items are collected: strollers, toys, clothing, baby monitors, car seats. It’s no secret the baby is coming.
Yet it is not at all unusual to hear a story that goes like this: “Boy were we in for a surprise! There we were, nearly 3 weeks out from our due date, stuck in traffic during a terrific thunderstorm on I-75 just outside Detroit. Out of nowhere I went into labor! I ended up having the baby in the backseat of the car with two police officers assisting while my husband was about going berserk!! We sure never expected anything like that!”
They had been expecting. But they had not “expected” it just then and in just that way. Surprises can come even when we know what’s coming. And so, Jesus said, it will be when the Son of Man returns. True believers won’t be surprised that it happened but they will almost certainly be shocked when it does even so! But as with the birth of a child, because what we had been expecting was a good and joyous thing, once the surprise of just when and how it happened wears off, we’ll be left with just the joy.
Author: Doug Bratt
How can we experience peace in a world that’s so desperately short on it? It’s a question both as ancient as our first parents’ fall into sin and as modern as ongoing war in places like parts of the Middle East.
Some people assumed that we’d finally figure out how to have peace during the twentieth century. Great optimism about humanity and its future filled people little more than one hundred years ago. Even some Christians thought that people were getting better and better.
The 20th century turned out to be, however, the bloodiest in history. It basically began with the near annihilation of the Armenians. It included at least one “war to end all wars.” The twentieth century perhaps bottomed out with the mass murder of as many as six million of Jewish people.
Peace was also in short supply among the ancient Israelites of whom our text speaks. Isaiah 1 shows that their nation and capital, Jerusalem, are in deep trouble. The Israelites are morally bankrupt, religiously rebellious and guilty. Their capital is full of “murderers.” Israel’s leaders are wantonly corrupt.
The land of Israel lies in tattered ruins. Foreigners plunder her fields so that the land of “milk and honey” is covered with little but rocks and scrub brush. Israel’s cities are shabby wastelands that foreign powers have thoroughly looted. God calls the Israelites, “survivors,” just a shell of their former glorious selves. Large armies have shrunk Israel to nothing more than a fortress under attack whose citizens have a siege mentality.
In this depressing context God speaks a potentially even more depressing word of judgment through the prophet Isaiah. The Lord condemns the countless Israelite acts of religion as a burden of which God is tired. God even threatens to close God’s eyes and shut God’s ears to Israel’s prayers. God also warns that resistance to repentance and obedience will result in Israel’s final annihilation.
Many of the countries in which people read this posting enjoy relative peace. However, we too long for a word of hope, a word of peace. Isaiah 2’s preachers and teachers will want to mine the media and their own experiences for examples of places where this hope for peace, as well as well as threats to peace exist.
Of course, Christian don’t have to look overseas to find examples of violence. The streets of our communities are filled with large and small acts of both random and systematic violence. Gangs in some of our schools embattle our children.
However, we don’t even have to look beyond the walls of our homes to find violence that makes us long for peace. Our families know little more peace than Adam and Eve’s did. How many of our hearers don’t, in some ways, for instance, dread the upcoming holidays for the tension they’ll produce? Tensions the results of the recent American presidential election only exacerbate.
We even sometimes freely let conflict plague us. You and I let hostility scar our congregations and denominations, friends and families, homes and hearts. People sometimes even cultivate or contribute some of the tension that haunts our relationships. As a result, the disappointments, doubts and despair that mar our world all too frequently entangle even Christians.
At the heart of our text for this morning, however, God insists that God refuses to desert us. God hasn’t abandoned even sinful people who freely choose to make swords and spears. God hasn’t abandoned people who still aim our nuclear missiles at each other. God hasn’t even abandoned people who let vines grow tangled and ground lie fallow because we prefer making swords to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. God won’t even abandon us to our own limited understanding of reality and vision for the future.
After all, God gives us a vision of a world that’s radically different than the one we’ve chosen to produce.
We still “train for war,” in the words of verse 4. So some of our finest young adults must spend the holidays in distant places to risk their lives in defense of our countries. We must also employ some of our best minds to defend our country’s soil.
Jesus Christ defeated Satan, his allies, the principalities and powers at the cross and his empty tomb. So you and I no longer have to run and hide from God like Adam and Eve did. After all, in Christ, God has graciously given us peace with himself. God has made us God’s sons and daughters who even begin to taste peace with our Christian brothers and sisters.
Now Christ intends that his church be a place where, like a lonely candle, the light of peace shines in the darkness that surrounds us. So you and I start to experience peace right now when we receive God’s greeting of peace and then pass that peace to each other. We also work to reconcile ourselves to each other so that you and I can come with joy and peace to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. In church we proclaim and hear the message of alternatives to the way of tension and violence.
What good, however, is a promise that remains largely unkept? What good is it to talk about peace in a world where nations still beat their iron into swords and their steel into spears? What good is it to talk about peace in church when tensions sometimes scar our fellowship? What good is talk about peace when so many of our communities and neighborhoods are pockmarked by tension and violence?
It’s good because texts like this one remind us of the alternatives to the course of war and violence that we’ve chosen and choose. It’s good because while we remain stubbornly unimaginative in our pursuit of peace, God’s promises stretch our imaginations.
God doesn’t lift up God’s sword of judgment or the spear of punishment toward those who hear and believe God’s promise of peace. Instead, God challenges and equips you and me to pursue peace even now. It reminds me of an installment of the cartoon Pontius Puddle about which I read once read. In it two “religious” frogs sit on a riverbank talking to each other.
The first says to his friend, “I’ve often wanted to ask God why he doesn’t do something to stop people from dying of hunger and the affects of war.” So his friend asks, “Why don’t you?” The first frog replies, “Because I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”
It’s time, says Paul, for us to wake up from our sinful slumber. It’s time for you and me, in the words of Romans 13:12, to “put aside the deeds of darkness.” It’s time for God’s people to put aside our attitudes and actions that make for hatred instead of love and war instead of peace. After all, Christians don’t know when Christ’s return will usher in the complete peace for which we long.
So how do we work for peace in the meantime? Psalm 122 challenges God’s people to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” In anticipation of the peaceful day of which our text speaks, Christians pray for the peace of the city over which Jesus once wept. We pray that all the people of Jerusalem will know the wholeness and healing that comes from a faithful realization of God’s presence among them.
Many people cynically assume that no one can solve the problems of the Middle East. In the light of God’s promises of peace, however, we don’t give up. Instead, we continue to pray for just and equitable solutions to the tensions between Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis.
We also, however, pray for peace in regions and countries where it seems like an endangered specie. You and I pray for peace in places like our schools and our streets. Christians pray for peace in our families, workplaces and church. For we know that someday God will usher in a complete reign of peace in the new heaven and earth.
However, in preparation for that day we also live peaceable lives. In the language of Romans 13, we shed the soiled “clothing” of spiritual darkness. You and I don’t act in ways that are consistent with spiritual darkness. We behave, in Paul’s words, “decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.” Christians don’t even think about how to behave sinfully. Instead we exercise self-control over our alcohol, sexuality and social relationships.
In preparation for the peace that his return will usher in, you and I clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ right now. With the protective power of the Holy Spirit, we arm ourselves against the potentially harmful attacks of Satan.
You and I also act with love, compassion and peace today. We love our enemies right now. Christians are compassionate with our neighbors and co-workers today. You and I are peaceful toward our family members and friends immediately.
After all, we approach the beginning of a new year in a world that is not just broken and hostile. We live in a world that also belongs to God who keeps God’s promises, no matter what.
In his intriguing book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, Lawrence Write describes what led to what we sometimes call the “1973 Yom Kippur War.” “The illusion that led to Israel’s greatest military setback, and was the source of [Kosher] Satan’s disgrace, was the Bar-Lev line. It was one of the greatest defensive fortifications in military history…
In 1973 Satan, then minister of defense, took an American diplomat, Nicholas Veliotes, on a tour of the fortifications…
As usual, the Egyptian soldiers were playing soccer, fishing and swimming in the [Suez] canal. Veliotes asked what would happen if Egyptian forces attacked without warning.
‘The Egyptian Army today is like a ship covered with rust while anchored in harbor and unable to move!’ Satan said dismissively. He was detecting the consensus of the Israeli defense establishment. Peace no longer seemed necessary or even desirable [italics added].
Peace no longer seemed necessary or even desirable is a banner we might hang over the 21st century.
Author: Stan Mast
When I began to study Psalm 122, I thought it was one of those homiletically barren texts from which any smart preacher should run as fast as she can. It seemed utterly unfit for this first Sunday of Advent. However, having plowed it now for some time, I’m not so sure my first impressions were right. In fact, this might more fertile ground than I thought at first. So stick with me for a moment or two.
A quick glance at the other Lectionary readings will show you why my first instinct was to cut and run from Psalm 122. I mean, they seem much richer and more appropriate for an Advent sermon. Isaiah 2 speaks up front about the last days, and its invitation to go up to the house of the Lord is followed by a beautiful promise of peace, not only in Jerusalem, but also in the whole world. Its classic words about “beating swords into plowshares” and “nor will they train for war anymore” speak directly to our war torn world. Matthew 24 sets the tone for Advent with its warning that we do not know when the Son of Man will come and its attendant call to keep watch. What better entre could there be to this season of expectation than the last verse of the reading from Matthew 24; “because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” And the reading from Romans 13 tantalizes us with the announcement that our “salvation is nearer now than when we first believed….” It shakes us awake, “because the night is nearly over and the day is almost here.”
With such meaty and juicy texts to preach on, why would anyone labor over the dry bones of Psalm 122? Well, chew with me for a while, and maybe you’ll decide to preach on this non-Advent Psalm. The first obvious piece of homiletical meat is found in the superscription, “A Psalm of Ascents.” This is the third of such Psalms, which many scholars believe were sung as the tribes of Israel made their annual pilgrimage up to (cf. verse 4) Jerusalem for one of the major feasts in Israel’s cultic and national life (Deut. 16:16). These Psalms of Ascent begin with Psalm 120, in which the pilgrims leave the place where they are troubled. In Psalm 121 they are in transit. Now in Psalm 122, they have arrived at Jerusalem. They are filled with joy because their “feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” The connection between the pilgrimage of Israel to Jerusalem and the pilgrimage of Christians to Bethlehem is obvious, though not without difficulty.
One of the several Songs of Zion scattered throughout the Psalter (cf. 46, 48, 76, 84, 87), Psalm 122 is a celebration of the wonders of Jerusalem. One can easily understand why a Dispensational Pre-millenial Christian would find Psalm 122 exciting and eminently preachable. With their Israel-centered eschatology, in which Christ will return to the physical site of Jerusalem on the Last Day, the continued existence of Jerusalem is terribly important for the future of the church and the world. Such Christians would find rich sermonic fodder in the call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” I’ve seen famous televangelists preach whole series of eschatological sermons standing before a huge banner with those words emblazoned on it.
How can we preach on Psalm 122 if we’re convinced that the Church has replaced Israel as the focus of God’s saving activity in this world? Well, look at what Psalm 122 says about Jerusalem. Why is Jerusalem so praiseworthy? I could find four reasons. First, it is a place of refuge for God’s people, suggested by its description as “built like a city that is closely compacted together (verse 3).” The fervent wish/prayer that there may be “peace within your walls/ramparts and security within your citadels/palaces” furthers the idea that the construction of Jerusalem makes it a place of refuge in time of trouble and insecurity.
Second, Jerusalem is a place of praise, particularly of united praise. “That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord to praise the name of the Lord…. (verse 4)” As Israel finally took possession of the Promised Land and dispersed to their God ordained locations, God commanded them to gather together regularly as a people to praise his name. This was the covenant “statute” mentioned in verse 4b. This united praise of God in Jerusalem would bring them back together to remind them that they were one people, not just disparate tribes, and that they were the possession of the Lord, not a self-made people. Jerusalem was the site for this united praise.
Third, Jerusalem was a place of justice. Of course, there could be justice in their separate towns and villages, where the elders sat in the gates. But the Supreme Court of the land was in Jerusalem for those cases that couldn’t be settled in lesser courts. ”There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David.” With that last phrase, we are reminded of God’s great promise to David that he would always have a son on the throne (cf. the repetition of that promise in another Psalm of Ascent, namely, 132).
Fourth, and most important, Jerusalem was the place where Israel could meet their God, because that is where God had chosen to dwell in his “house.” Psalm 122 opens and closes with the joy of coming to “the house of the Lord.” Though the whole earth belongs to Yahweh, so that he is everywhere, he dwells in a special way in that house up there on Mt. Zion. No wonder the Psalm says, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” That was an invitation to journey into the very Presence of the Lord.
If we think of Psalm 122 in those terms, as an invitation to go on pilgrimage in search of peaceful refuge and sure justice, in the spirit of united praise, in the hope of coming into the presence of God, we can find some Advent connections. What Israel sought in their journey to Jerusalem, we shall seek and find in our journey to Bethlehem. In an age of terror, we shall find refuge in the Babe of Bethlehem. In a time of injustice and oppression, we shall find justice in the One whose first sermon in Nazareth was based on Isaiah 61. Our Advent journey can be a time of united praise to the One who is God with us, the very Presence of God in human form.
But is all that a reach? Where do we find any reference to Jesus Christ in this most Jewish Psalm? What does a Psalm that celebrates a city have to do with a season that celebrates a Child? Well, we could make a connection by simply stating that Jerusalem and, particularly, the Temple has been replaced by the Christ and his Church, as Patrick Reardon does in his book, Christ in the Psalms. He says explicitly that Psalm 122 is not talking about the physical city in Israel, but about the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem referred to in Gal. 4:26, Heb. 12:22, and Rev. 3:12. Psalm 122, then, is a celebration of the Church, particularly, the church in heaven which will come down to earth when the Christ returns, as in Rev. 21. That is an easy and, in my opinion, a proper, though mighty, interpretive leap.
A more organic connection between Psalm 122 and Jesus Christ can be made by recalling that time when The Pilgrim approached Jerusalem, not with joy, but with tears. Luke 19:41-44 remembers that as Jesus approached Jerusalem on his Triumphal Entry, he “saw the city, [and] he wept over it….” Why did his pilgrimage end in tears? Because “you did not know what would bring you peace….” And “because you did not recognize the time of God coming to you.” After all those years of pilgrimage into the Presence of God and prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, the people of God did not recognize that God had come to them in the person of Jesus. And in missing him, they missed their long awaited peace.
Rather than preaching on Israel’s failure, however, we can address God’s people today about the pilgrimage of Advent. How many of us are on spiritual pilgrimage, looking for the Presence of the Lord in the house of God, praying for the peace and prosperity of whatever city we inhabit, trying to find security and seek justice in this world? Some of us may actually be on such a quest, but Jesus weeps over us, because we “do not know what will bring us peace” and “we have not recognized the time of God coming to us.” You can spend a whole sermon investigating those two clauses. Let’s make sure that our spiritual quests lead us finally to Christ, and not some earthly substitute, however sacred and venerable it may be.
With this sort of turn to Christ, we can legitimately preach an Advent sermon on Psalm 122. “Let us go to the house of the Lord” is a call to come closer to the Lord Jesus, in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The other texts for this First Sunday of Advent alert us to the dangers of doing nothing to get closer, choosing instead to sleepwalk through life like everyone else (Matthew 24). Romans 13 encourages us to wake up, because the time is getting nearer. Wake up and get dressed, taking off the filthy clothes that come from pursuing the desires of the sinful nature and putting on the clean clothing of Christ himself. As the time is getting closer, “let us go” to One whose Presence is with us always.
One of the delights and disappointments of the holidays is the annual pilgrimage home. My son in Kentucky sets out for Grand Rapids, Michigan, twice in the space of a month to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. But it isn’t Grand Rapids that is the goal of the trip. It’s our house and, more specifically, us, his parents. So, for Israel, it wasn’t just the city, magnificent as it may have been. It was the Presence who lived there, and all the blessing that came from being near to the heart of God. And for us, the holidays aren’t just about the houses and parties and gifts, or even family. They are about the Presence of God in that Baby. What if we went to as much trouble and effort and expense to get close to him as we do to meet with our families and friends?! Sometimes we’re disappointed by what we experience in our family festivities. We’ll never be disappointed by a genuine encounter with Christ. So, let us go to the Christ in this season of Advent.
Author: Scott Hoezee
As with any number of Lectionary readings, we have a “this” in Romans 13:11 whose antecedent you cannot know unless you back up to the first ten verses of this passage. The immediate context of the “this” (as in “And do THIS . . .”) is the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The slightly wider context is living as an obedient citizen of what was an immoral Roman Empire and respecting the governing authorities as God’s “deacons” even so. And if this all seemed strange in the context of Paul’s writing to Christians living under the thumb of the Caesar, the bottom line of Romans 13 makes it clear why this is all necessary: we are to clothe ourselves with Christ. We live as people of the daylight even in a world that still has its fair share of dark nighttime passages.
Yes, you can get hung up in this lection by Paul’s seemingly immanent sense of the parousia. Reading these words 2,000 years later, we cannot help but feel that whatever urgency Paul felt has long since been blunted by the passage of the centuries and millennia. But we err if we make that our focus.
The fact is that Paul had an overwhelming sense for the presence of Christ no matter how relatively near or far off Christ’s return may be. His letters are peppered with references to living in Christ-like ways on account of our being able to see the kingdom and sense the nearness of our Lord at all times. You should not need some tidbit of knowledge that Christ is coming back next week to finally straighten up and fly right as a disciple. Indeed, if your only reason to behave as a child of the light is because you think the master is coming back to check up on you and declare a final verdict on you next month or something, then you are missing a huge piece of what it means to live as a temple of the Holy Spirit already now—to live “in Christ,” to invoke Paul’s favorite two-word summary of Christian existence now.
As Paul makes it plain in these lyric few verses at the end of Romans 13, our lives are already bathed in a holy light. We cannot pretend we are ever operating under the cover of darkness. The whole “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality will never do to excuse sinful behavior. The “Nobody will ever know if I do this bad thing anyway” line of thought doesn’t cut it for people who live in the light of Christ and under the watchful, loving gaze of our great God. Children of the light are not about trying to get away with something, trying to explain something away, trying to cheat on this or that corner of life. The whole world lives that way, Paul essentially says here. Surely people living in the heart of Roman darkness knew that much 2,000 years ago even as we know it now.
“Nothing good happens after midnight” many’a parent has said to a teenaged child when setting some 11:30pm curfew for coming back home. And it is striking how much crime, how many rapes, how many out-of-control drinking parties, how many tawdry sexual deeds, orgies, and rendezvous happen only after darkness has fallen. There does seem to be this weird, illogical yet pervasive mentality that thinks you can get away with more stuff after the sun has set than you’d ever even try to do under the blaze of the noonday sun.
But when Christ is your very sun and when you clothe yourself with this Christ and with his armor of light, then you cannot indulge the fantasy that says you can do and say whatever you want when no one can see you or hear you. Somebody can always see you and hear you. But it’s not finally about living under a threat or in fear, either. This is all meant very positively and is presented by Paul very positively. This is the Gospel. This is Good News. This is a new life lived in glorious freedom in front of a gloriously gracious God.
This Epistle text comes on the First Sunday of Advent as the Year A Lectionary launches. It’s paired in the Gospels with Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Matthew 24 and his urging that people “watch” because as “in the days of Noah” you don’t know when what’s coming will actually show up. But even in Matthew 24 Jesus seems to be commending our leading pretty ordinary lives but that we lead them in extraordinary ways because we just know the truth of the universe: that God is love, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that the whole cosmos really has turned the corner from darkness into light. Despite all appearances, the morning star really has dawned in our hearts and shines for all to see.
When my friend Frederick Dale Bruner teachers John 1, he makes a point to emphasize the present tense of verse 5. When he recites the passage, he says “The light shinesssssssssssssssss in the darkness.” It has shone, it IS shining, it will ALWAYS shine and the darkness cannot do a thing about it. Yes, there is still a surrounding darkness. No doubt about that. But while believers and unbelievers alike can agree on the darkness, it is only the followers of Christ who see a superior light that shinessssssssssssss even so.
Advent prepares us for the birth of Christ. According to Luke, that birth, too, took place under the cover of darkness. While all the leaders of Roman listed at the head of Luke 2 and again at the head of Luke 3 were doing their deeds of darkness in a crooked and corrupt empire, God tiptoed down the back staircase of history and deposited the Light of the World into a manger (Buttrick). We live in his light, not just at Advent and not just in the twinkly glow of a Christmas tree but always.
We all act differently when we know other people can see us. God sees us and we see each other always because we live in the light of Christ. What remains is to act and to live in ways that tell the world we know this to be true and are exceedingly excited about this wonderful knowledge.
Most of us have heard the humorous old story about the 19th century farmer whose wife went into labor in the dead of night. The doctor was fetched and delivered a child while the farmer held a lantern aloft to help the doctor see. But then the doctor said, “Hold on—there’s another one. We’ve got twins here!” And the doctor delivered a second child. The farmer was shaken by this unexpected development but then, “Hold on! We’ve got triplets—another one is coming.” At this the farmer began to back out of the room. “Come back here with that lantern,” the doctor shouted. To which the farmer replied, “No, no—it’s the light that attracts ‘em!”
Well, we are perhaps all of us attracted to the light all things being equal. Until or unless we contemplate some nefarious or underhanded deed. Then it’s the darkness that beckons. Although there are any number of bank robberies committed in broad daylight, most crimes are of the cat burglar variety. Most mafia hits take place after the sun has set.
If people prefer darkness to light, there’s usually a reason and it’s rarely good (astronomers get a pass). But if we are people of the light, then that’s where we want to stay because we have nothing to hide but everything to display to the glory of the God in Christ whose light we radiate for also others to see and be seen by.
“I believe in God for the same reason I believe in the sun that shines in the sky” C.S. Lewis once said. “Not just because I can see the sun but because BY it I can see everything else.”