November 25, 2019
The Advent 1A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 24:36-44 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 2:1-5 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 122 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 13:11-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 105 (Lord’s Day 40)
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 taking the easy way out by pouring mercury into a river rather than going through the expense of disposing of it properly or 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.”
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
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.” Many couples follow the progress of the pregnancy through the perennially bestselling book What to Expect When You Are Expecting. Indeed. A pregnant woman 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: Stan Mast
What a text for this first Sunday in Advent! What a text for this moment in history! This promise of universal peace arouses hope in our war torn world. Or it sounds like an impossible dream. As I write this, President Trump has just removed all US troops from northern Syria and Turkish forces have launched an all-out attack on Kurdish troops who had helped the US defeat ISIS. Russia approves, so does Iran, and many other nations hostile to the US. Within the US voices from both parties are screaming in outrage at the President’s action. Meanwhile, off in the distance, North Korea rattles its sabers and launches its spears. The words of Isaiah 2:4 are etched in stone in front of the United Nations, but those words seem pretty empty right now, and have for millennia.
This historical situation makes Isaiah 2:1-5 mandatory preaching. In a hopelessly hostile world, we need to hear again God’s promise of peace with justice. In Advent we look forward to the coming of the Prince of Peace. He has already come, of course, bringing peace to millions of people, having broken down the dividing wall of hostility that had separated Jew from Gentile (Ephesians 2). But there is still much peacemaking to do before he comes again to settle disputes with justice and mercy. In a war weary world filled with cynicism and despair, we have the opportunity this Sunday to hold up this magnificent promise of world peace.
Our text begins with the assurance that what follows is not a human pipe dream; it is a divine revelation—“what Isaiah saw,” a vision, a word from God. This is not one man’s “hope against hope” in a disintegrating world. This is the sure promise of the one true God who rules the world.
What Isaiah saw was a mountain, “the mountain of the Lord’s temple… established as chief among the mountains… raised above the hills….” This is a reference to Mount Zion on which the temple was built, and therefore the place where God dwelled in Israel’s history. That temple would soon be destroyed and Mt. Zion covered with its rubble, a pile of ruins. But God shows Isaiah that sometime in the future (“in the last days” or “in the days to come”), God will raise up that temple and the mountain on which it stands. And “all nations will stream to it.”
That prophecy has been the subject of huge dispute. Literalists take it as a prophecy that will be physically fulfilled in the last days during the millennium. Other Christians believe that this prophecy has been spiritually fulfilled by the church as it preached the gospel to all nations who streamed into the church following Christ.
Still others think this prophecy has been fulfilled by Christ himself, who claimed to be the new Temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days (Matthew 26:61). Jesus was the person, not the place, in whom God dwelled in grace and truth (John 1). And not insignificantly, Matthew’s gospel shows us Jesus teaching on a mountain at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 5) and sending his disciples into all the world to make disciples while ascending from a mountain at the end of his ministry (Matthew 28). In the middle of his ministry, he said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).”
However we take the “mountain” part of this prophecy, the “all nations” part is remarkable. The rest of Isaiah will be filled with pronouncements of judgment on all the nations around Israel (see Isaiah 13-23 for a list of the condemned nations). But here people from every nation invite each other to join the pilgrimage to the place where the God of Israel dwells.
They come to Zion, not to worship, but to be instructed. And not just to gain knowledge, but to actually “walk in his paths.” The law that God had given to Israel as a special blessing on his redeemed people will now “go out from Zion….” What good news! The law will go out to the world and shape the life of the nations.
Not only does that seem unlikely, it also doesn’t seem like very good news, not to many Christians who celebrate their freedom from the law. Rachel Held Evans, in her provocative book, Inspired, sums up the way many Christians view the law of God. “Christians have long struggled with exactly how to interpret and receive what is commonly referred to as ‘the Law’ of’ Hebrew Scripture…. [we] have a rockier relationship with Old Testament law. Conservatives are quick to cite it when condemning same sex behavior or supporting the display of the Ten Commandments on federal courthouses, while progressives like me tend to shrug it off as outdated and irrelevant until we need a quote about ‘welcoming the stranger’ to scribble on a protest sign.”
For the Jews, on the other hand, “the Law was God’s gift, given as a sign of God’s special, covenant relationship with them… these divine instructions helped forge a unique national identity…. It reminded them, too, that the God who parted the Red Sea and conquered Pharaoh’s armies was sticking around for the long haul. This is not a God who liberates, then leaves. Deliverance… is not a onetime deal.” And, “in a world that often celebrated violent indulgence, the Law offered a sense of stability and moral purpose.” (Inspired, pp. 51-53)
Now says Isaiah 2, God’s law will one day bring the same sense of identity and stability and moral purpose to all the world. All will be the beneficiaries of God’s good rules that structure life so that humans flourish. And when a sense of rights trampled and wrongs done threaten to divide nation from nation (as has happened for millennia now), God will “judge between nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.”
There can be no peace without justice. Recall how WW I ended, with the victorious nations visiting heavy penalties on Germany, sanctions viewed as unjust by the defeated nation. That sense of injustice lingered and festered and became the bitter root from which Nazism sprang. It has been argued that an unjust peace led to WW II. Surely, the experience of being unfairly treated has led to many family fights, gang warfare, popular uprisings, and international bloodletting.
So, God promises that when God’s law is the law of the nations, God himself will judge the squabbles between nations and people. As a result of divine justice, there will be real peace. Nations will transform their weapons of destruction into instruments of flourishing. Because of God’s just reign and his law’s fair rules, there will be no need to fight. There won’t even be training for war– no more basic training, no more advanced SEAL training. Instead, people will live together in peace all over the world.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? How can that ever happen? Well, humans can’t make it happen. That’s the point of the prophecy. Only God can do this. Only when “the mountain” is raised up, and all people stream to it, and everyone lives by God’s law, and God brings peace with justice, only then can there be peace on earth. That’s exactly what the angels sang when that baby was born. That’s exactly why that grown baby died on the cross, to make peace through his blood, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. And that’s exactly what the new heavens and the new earth will be like when “the nations walk by the light [of the Lamb].” (Rev. 21:24)
In the meantime, God calls his people to be peacemakers. That’s what verse 5 of our text is about. After announcing the coming peace, God exhorts his people to walk in the light of that vision. “Come, O house of Judah, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” As you live through your war torn times, live in the light of God’s promised peace.
Here is a call to live by faith. We cannot see the peace of God ruling among the nations, or even in our church. We are tempted to complain or despair, but God calls us to live by his light, not by this present darkness. It is easy to become cynical or depressed, belligerent or beaten down. God calls us to faith in this soaring promise of peace and become peacemakers wherever and however we can. No, we cannot bring the peace of God, but we can demonstrate it in our own lives, as we “walk in the light of the Lord.” From a mountain top Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
In Advent, we light a candle for hope and peace when we preach on this text.
This prophecy of peace through God’s law and justice gets surprising affirmation from Jordan B. Peterson, called by the New York Times, “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” In his book, Twelve Rules for Life, Peterson lays out 12 deceptively simple rules that are, in his words, “an antidote to chaos.” Without rules, life descends into chaos, which, he says, is exactly why our world is such a mess.
So he proposes rules like this: “Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back,” “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping,” “Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize The World.” These rules are not as simple as they sound and there are problems with some of Peterson’s ideas from a Christian perspective. But the idea that rules make life better fits our text very well.
Much simpler were the rules laid out in Robert Fulghum’s classic, Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. Remember? “Don’t hit people, share your toys, put things back where you got them, play fair, clean up your own mess.” What would life be without such rules?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 122 is one of fifteen psalms extending from Psalms 120-134, each of which is labeled “A Song of Ascents.” The sense of that title is that these were pilgrimage songs sung by Israelites as they ascended up to Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, therefore, the terms “Jerusalem,” “Zion,” and “house of Yahweh” occur with great density and frequency in these fifteen psalms.
In Psalm 122 there is no missing the absolute specificity of the geography. This is a song about a very real city. The immediate setting appears to be the pilgrims’ arrival, as indicated by verse 2, “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” The travelers have just now arrived and so are marveling at their initial glimpses of the city.
The psalmist marvels over the architecture of the place, specifying for us the walls, citadels, and closely compacted structure of the city. Special note is given to the halls of justice in Jerusalem as the place from which wise decisions for God’s people are issued. Because of all this, the psalm concludes with prayers for peace. Jerusalem is a place of refuge for God’s people in the midst of a hostile world. So the psalmist begs God to keep Jerusalem intact, to keep its walls strong and its gates secure so that the people living there can know also an internal shalom founded on the outer sense of living in a safe haven.
Given all of that, this must certainly be among those “songs of Zion” referred to in Psalm 137–the songs which the Babylonians sneeringly asked the Israelites to sing while in exile. But how could they sing such songs in a foreign land? How could they quote a psalm about Jerusalem’s wonderful fortifications when, as it turned out, none of them was sufficient to keep the Babylonians out? How could they sing a song celebrating Jerusalem’s walls when those walls were a smoldering heap of rubble and a haunt for jackals?
How could they celebrate Jerusalem when Jerusalem was no more? Then again, we can ask the same question of ourselves: what can we do with this psalm, how can we sing this song of Zion when we ourselves are not connected to this city? Many of us have never been to even the current Jerusalem, much less to the one Psalm 122 celebrates. The city referred to in this psalm long ago ceased to exist. Even the city Jesus knew was not the same one but a re-built Jerusalem with a new temple erected by Herod to replace Solomon’s Temple, which had been thoroughly trashed 600 years before Jesus’ birth. Today even that city is lost to us, having been replaced with the modern city of Jerusalem.
So what do we do with this psalm? Aside from being an historical curiosity or a reminder of how the Israelites once regarded their capital city, what can we Christians make of or learn from Psalm 122? I suppose it’s possible to answer that question by saying, “Not much at all.” It is possible to say that this just is one of those places in the Bible that is all about history but not at all about today. We can appreciate the poetic artistry of this psalm the same way we can admire the work of Homer from the ancient Greek tradition. But beyond such a literary study and historical lesson, there’s not much here. Perhaps, then, it would be best just to move on to Psalm 23 or something.
But even with a full recognition of this psalm’s historical specificity, I still think there are truths reflected here that stay stable across the ages. Perhaps what I am about to say will seem like a bit of a stretch, but if we believe in the unity of the Scriptures as inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, then we are allowed to look for certain themes that run throughout the entire Bible and make some connections accordingly.
So we can ask why Jerusalem was celebrated the way it was. The reason was not political, though the political viability of ancient Israel contributes at least a little to the background of Psalm 122. But politics was not the main event, and neither was nostalgia nor the sheer wonder all travelers experience when visiting some place new. No, the main spring for this psalm’s bubbling prose is the presence of Yahweh in Jerusalem. God had revealed that his peculiar dwelling on earth was, for that time at least, on Mount Zion in the Holy Temple. For that time in the wider flow of salvation history Israel was the target of the covenant–a covenant whose promises finally extended to all the nations of the earth whose future beatitude depended on the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants.
In short, God was there. God was doing something cosmic through Jerusalem. The covenant was in bloom there, replete with the global salvation it portended. This was why Jerusalem deserved its place of honor. This was why it was a worthy destination for pilgrims. Today many people go to the Holy Land to think about the past, about what happened to Jesus, to walk where Jesus walked, as in the past tense. It’s pious nostalgia that draws many. But back when Psalm 122 was written it was not only what Jerusalem had once meant in the past but what it promised for the future that was vital. God was on the move there, his Spirit was present, and he was doing a marvelous work in the sight of his people.
But with Pentecost’s outpouring of God’s Spirit onto all his children, with the revelation that we are now all temples of the Holy Spirit, the Christian tradition has over time diffused this specific sense of location or place. We do not have a single locus for our piety. Well and good. But while most of this is a natural outcome of what the New Testament reveals, is it possible we have also lost something which we should not have lost–a truth of which even so ancient a relic as Psalm 122 can remind us? Perhaps so. The “problem,” if we wish to label it thus, ties in with something that, all by itself, is not a problem at all but a true blessing; namely, the holy presence of God’s Spirit in each of our hearts as well as in every true Church of Jesus Christ on the planet.
That’s a real blessing but it tends to blunt our sense for sacred spaces and for the divine presence. How easily our minds slide from the notion that everything is truly holy to the notion that, therefore, nothing is particularly holy. If our faith did have one central, identifiable sacred shrine, we would probably venerate that place, protect it, speak gently and reverently about it. But because we have a multitude of churches each of which is regarded as similarly holy, our sense for this very holiness gets washed out. One is as good as another, or not, we think.
But how often do we make praying for God’s peace within any given congregation a priority? How often, in assessing some note we’re about to send to someone or in pondering something we want to say to the staff, the Council, the church Board, the Session, or even privately to a friend in the narthex, how often do we weigh those words against the sacred integrity of the place? How often do we ponder if what we’re doing will contribute to God’s peace within our walls or whether we are harming that shalom in any given church in ways that are only destructive and not up-building?
Our faith does not have a “Jerusalem” where we locate the full presence of God or of his advances in covenant love. What we do have, however, is the presence and work of God’s Spirit in each of our hearts as well as, collectively, in any given church. What we do have is pulpit, font, and table, each of which we believe is a dispenser and means of grace. And the fact that any given church member could, if he wished, simply pull up stakes and transfer to another, very similar congregation ought not blunt for us, or make us the less wondrous about, the work of God in all churches and in every church.
Advent reminds us that God did indeed come down to us and so can now, by the Holy Spirit, live in each of us and in each congregation. But the broadness of that claim is no reason not to have the holy fervor reflected in Psalm 122—an eagerness to go and meet with God in worship, an abiding desire for the Spirit of God to help each house of worship flourish!
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
It has been noted in recent decades that to the minds of many people, “church” has become just one of many social institutions that is not in any overly obvious way distinct. There is your home, your work place, your “third place” (as Starbucks used to call itself), the Rotary Club, your yoga studio or Planet Fitness, Panera, etc. And then there is also the church. We “go” to each of these places on a weekly basis and the way we feel when we hop into the car to “go to church” does not feel particularly different to us than when we get into the car to “go to Planet Fitness” for a workout. Even architecturally some contemporary church buildings look far less like cathedrals of old and more like contemporary office complexes. Some have even tried to duplicate a Starbucks-like atmosphere replete with gourmet coffee and snacks. All of this may make it even harder to have the kind of awe over God’s presence in any given church that the psalmist reflects about God’s dwelling in Jerusalem in Psalm 122.
Author: Doug Bratt
While few people have labeled procrastination a “deadly sin,” our text at least suggests that one form of it may be the deadliest sin of all. That’s a sobering assertion for someone like me who is naturally one of the worst procrastinators that I know.
At least some of us are tempted to procrastinate in the face of looming deadlines. So what about the most important deadline of all? Can any of us claim that our lives would be markedly different if we were absolutely certain that Christ was going to return on, for example, December 2, 2019?
Those who proclaim Romans 13 might ask our hearers and ourselves how our lives might assume a different shape and flavor if we knew Christ were returning tomorrow. Would we, for instance, feel any urgency to rearrange our priorities? Would we treat people any differently if we knew exactly when Christ was going to come back?
If they knew the world was going to end on December 2, some people might try to squeeze all of the life they could into the preceding week. Others might simply spend their last days indulging all of their desires and fantasies.
Of course, even Jesus’ followers can’t know when Christ will return. Even Jesus didn’t even know when he’d return while he lived among us. Not even heaven’s angels share God’s knowledge of when our world as we know it will end.
Such a lack of precise knowledge has sometimes led to spiritual indifference, even among some Christians. In combination with Paul’s emphasis on God’s amazing grace, such uncertainty about Jesus’ return apparently led some of the Roman Christians to largely ignore God’s law for their lives. So Paul tries to inject some ethical and spiritual urgency into the believers in Rome with words about the nearness of the Lord’s return.
Some Christians seem preoccupied with the details of the return of Christ. On this first Sunday in Advent, at this “beginning of the church year,” however, Paul invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to live in faithful ways, to live in the constant expectation of Christ’s imminent return.
In the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday Paul insists that the Spirit wants to shape our lifestyles according to the reality of the nearness of Christ’s return. He calls Jesus’ followers to “wake up” from what he calls our “slumber.” After all, he reminds his readers that Christ’ return is nearer now than when we first believed.
With the passage of the time, God’s adopted sons and daughters should grow in our relationship with God in Christ. Paul seems to imply, however, that his Roman readers’ lives don’t reflect God’s work in Christ for them. Some of the Romans Christians are less than fully spiritually alert.
Paul, however, warns that his readers don’t have time for such spiritual lethargy because it’s getting late in the day. That was certainly true for Paul’s Roman audience. While Christ didn’t return within their lifetimes, they were living on “borrowed” time anyway. After all, shortly after Paul probably wrote this letter, the Roman Emperor Nero threw all of the Christians out of Rome. Those he didn’t kill in that persecution went literally underground.
While some who preach, teach and hear Romans 13 don’t live under the threat of immediate persecution like the Romans did, we too live on borrowed time. After all, Christ may come for any of us at any moment. Not one of us can be completely certain that we will even live to see this afternoon, for instance.
I recently learned that my good friend Brian died of a heart attack. He, like me, was “only” 61. He was in apparent good health. He had received God’s salvation with his faith. But it turned out that Brian’s “salvation” that was his entrance into God’s eternal presence was far “nearer” than any of us would have imagined.
So how, then, do Christians who live on borrowed time actually live? How do our lives, perhaps especially our relationships, reflect our status as those whose time on this earth as we know it is short? Essentially Paul tells us that those who know that Christ’s return is near obey God’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul reminds us that those who know that our time is short let love inspire and shape our relationships with not just our fellow Christians, but also with unbelievers and enemies. In fact, he suggests that while we have various obligations to people, our highest obligation toward each other is to love each other. That, after all, may be the force of his words, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing to debt to love one another . . .”
However, while we often think of love as an emotion that people who, for instance, plan to marry or are dating have, biblical love is primarily an action and an attitude. To love is to treat our neighbors as God in Christ treats and would have us treat them. Those who love our neighbors view them as God views them and want only God’s very best for them.
Such love, Paul points out in verse 8, fulfills God’s law. So when Christians fulfill our highest obligation to love, we also fulfill our other obligations as God’s Word describes them. For love for God and love for our neighbors lies at the very heart of God’s commandments.
Those who know our time is short, then, show our love by leading what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “decent and chaste lives.” Those who know Jesus could return at any time also show our love for our neighbors by never “belittling, insulting, hating or killing” them. In these and nearly countless other ways, those who know our time is short fulfill God’s purposes for us.
Of course, no matter how hard we try to love the people around us, all of sometimes get sidetracked. We become so busy leading our lives that we don’t think much about how to love the people around us in concrete ways. Further, God’s beloved children encounter people who don’t always deserve or couldn’t care less about our love.
However, those who know that our time is short and loving can be hard remember how naturally unattractive we are to God. God’s adopted sons and daughters certainly did nothing to deserve God’s love. Yet while we were still rebellious sinners, God sent God’s only Son into our world to live and die for us.
Paul goes on to tell us how love shapes the lives of those who know our time is short. Those who know our time is short “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” We let the Spirit “cover” us in virtues that imitate Jesus’. That means that the children God has adopted into God’s family seek to act in ways consistent with the way God treats us. In baptism, after all, Christians have been buried with Christ and raised to new life. God has put to death the stranglehold sin had on us and freed us to let Christ be our Master.
Throughout the verses leading up to those the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul describes Christ-like “clothing.” He insists God’s adopted sons and daughters hate what is evil and hold on to what is good because Christ hated what was evil and clung to what was good. Christians feed our hungry enemies and give them something to drink because that’s the way Christ treated those who mistreated him.
Teaching and preaching on texts like Romans 13 require a kind of balancing act. On the one hand, its proclaimers want to awaken our hearers (and ourselves!) from the kind of spiritual malaise that so often plagues those who at least suspect we have many years to prepare for Jesus’ return. On the other hand, we don’t want to unduly frighten those for whom Jesus is coming soon in order to take all his adopted brothers and sisters into the joy and glory of the new earth and heaven.
In his December 17, 2013 New York Times obituary for Harold Camping, T. Rees Shapiro wrote “That life on Earth continued after May 21, 2011 was a crushing disappointment to Mr. Camping, his legion of devout followers and millions of listeners on his Family Radio network …
“‘It is going to happen,’ Mr. Camping told NPR in early May 2011. He reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars to spread his doomsday message. His May 21 prediction was plastered on more than 5,000 billboards across the country. He had 100 million pamphlets printed in 61 languages, including some that read, ‘The End of the World is Almost Here!’
“His volunteers canvassed the country, including dozens who walked Washington’s Mall handing out fliers that reminded passersby to ‘Save the Date.’ Through the Internet and social-media platforms, Mr. Camping’s bold prognostication ‘was made all the more accessible to a wider demographic and more quickly,’ said Jay Johnson, a religion professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
“In his deep, gravelly voice, Mr. Camping told listeners that Judgment Day would begin with a tremendous earthquake. The true Christians, he said, would experience a rapture. In all, he predicted that 200 million saved souls would ascend to heaven. Awaiting their salvation, many of Mr. Camping’s followers sold their homes, quit their jobs and depleted their savings accounts to help finance his end-of-the-world campaign.
“After May 21 came and went, Mr. Camping emerged from his California home in the following days ‘flabbergasted.’ He called May 21 an ‘invisible Judgment Day’ and said his calculations had been off by six months. The real Armageddon, he said, would come on Oct. 21, 2011.
“Did his wrong prediction affect his reputation among followers? A moot point, he said. On ‘October 21 of this year, the whole world is going to be annihilated, and never be remembered. So what legacy am I going to leave to anybody?’ Mr. Camping told the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha in 2011. ‘The only thing is that I hope that there are people who are listening that will begin to plead with God and begin to cry out’.”
“When that prediction did not come true, Mr. Camping retired from his radio work.”