Scripture Readings: Romans 13.8-14.4
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today’s Bible readings mention, among other things, drunkenness and debauchery, flooding, burglary, and people who disappear unexpectedly. For it is Advent, and strange things happen in the Biblical texts we hear at this time of year.
As the Christmas party scene gets into its swing, I wonder how many people will heed the words of St Paul which we read this morning:
Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of the day- no orgies or drunkenness!
Yes, it’s hard work being a Christian on a night out! The run-up to Christmas is really now part of Christmas itself, for all the preparing for ‘the big day’ is part of the process- indeed, it is part of the fun, if you like shopping or baking Christmas cakes. Christmas may be commercialised, but Advent hardly registers on the consciousness of the general population. We have Advent calendars for the kids, which are hardly more than countdowns until Santa comes. But we preachers will witter on about Advent for the next four weeks, and I wonder if anyone is taking much notice? When Christmas starts in mid-November, what can Advent possibly mean?
The Church season of Advent season of Advent is a strange sort of time. It’s supposed to be about looking forward to Christmas, to the day when we will remember the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. But how can you look forward to something which has already happened?- how can we be expectant about a birth which happened 2,000 years ago?
Yet all this confusing of past, present and future shouldn’t be disconcerting for Christians. For we Christians know what we are living in an in-between time in history. In Jesus Christ, God has come among us, in the child of Bethlehem. But the risen and ascended Christ is, in a mysterious way, still to come. And that should make a difference to the way we live.
We see this in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans. In the first part of the reading, Paul is trying to encourage the Christians of Rome to lead good lives. He reminds them of Christ’s command to love, so that they fulfil the Law of God:
The commandments… are summed up in the one command, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. If you love someone, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.
And then towards the end of the passage, Paul speaks of a practical application of the command to love: how to deal with disagreements.
But between these two sections, in the midst of all this discussion about ethics (about how we are to live), we have some verses which tell us something about why we should love one another. It is because, he says, we are living in in-between times. At this point, Paul sounds like someone who feels that time is passing quicker than other people realise. He tells the Christians of Rome,
You must do this, because you know that the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep. For the moment when we will be saved is closer now than it was when we first believed. The night is nearly over, day is almost here.
There is an urgency here, and urgency which we also find in the preaching of Jesus. Consider this strange wee parable, which Jesus tells in our Gospel reading today:
If the owner of a house knew the time when the thief would come, you can be sure that he would stay awake and not let the thief break into his house. So then, you also must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him.
I’m sure you can think of many things the Bible says about Jesus- Prince of Peace, Son of God, Redeemer, the Word made flesh. But Jesus as a burglar- had that ever occurred to you before? But there it is, that’s what he apparently said. Not the most obvious thing to say about Jesus, but here he is, saying it about himself: I’m like a thief in the night!
Even odder is this strange passage- words which, again, are said to be the words of Jesus:
At that time two men will be working in a field: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind. Two women will be at a mill grinding meal: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind. Watch out, then, because you do not know what day your Lord will come.
Now, this is really strange stuff. Jesus seems to be saying that, at some point in the future, we’re suddenly going to find our neighbours and friends disappearing round about us, as if they’d suddenly been dematerialised and teleported on the starship Enterprise? What are we supposed to make of stuff like this?
It’s all about urgency, the sense that anything can happen at any time. And throughout, Jesus is urging us to watch out, keep alert, look for the signs that the unexpected it going to happen. Otherwise, we will be like the folks in Noah’s day, whom Jesus said didn’t know what has happening until they were swept away by the flood.
So St Paul tells the Christians of Rome that they’ve to wake up:
…the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep.
We humans spend about a third of each day asleep. But sometimes it is as if we are asleep the rest of the time, too. We can be jolted when something apparently unexpected happens because we were not alert enough to see it coming: a health problem that leads to hospitalisation, the seemingly happy marriage which- to everyone’s surprise- ends suddenly, the discovery that we have friend who’s deeply unhappy, and we never really noticed.
It happens on a world scale, too: everyone’s asleep, until something wakes us up. In summer 1914, European culture was seemingly at its peak, but within a few months the nations were slaughtering because a royal was shot in Sarajevo. 1989: Communism in Russia and Europe seems monolithic, but a few demonstrations and it all comes tumbling down. In 2007, bankers and investors, who treated the markets like as a casino where they would always win, did not expect their game to quite suddenly unravel, as the world was pitched into economic misery. Britain was, what one might describe as a stable country, until the EU referendum in 2016 pitched our politics and economy into chaos.
Often, there are those who can see what is coming. They are more awake than the rest of us, see the danger signs that all is not as it should be. But the rest of fail to be awake enough, for we have not been alert. And we are taken by surprise when the unexpected- ‘the wake-up call’- finally happens, and we sleepwalk into disaster.
As Paul writes to the Romans about how to love, he reminds them to remain alert. In their waiting, they are not to be lulled by the false security of the darkness. Love your neighbour, he says; avoid the darkness- because the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep. Night is nearly over, dawn is breaking, and soon all will be light.
And so, says Paul, we are to live in the light which is dawning: live by Christ’s law of love. He’s reminding us that it is as if any day now God will bring to completion the work he began in Jesus. We are to love one another, and not to have orgies or get drunk or fight or be jealous- because thief in the night is about to surprise us!
Christianity is an historical faith. We look backwards to the story of God’s dealings with Israel, which come to a climax in the history of Jesus Christ. Yet our historical faith points us towards the future. Christianity isn’t nostalgia- it’s about looking forward with hope.
In the life of Jesus, God has intervened once more in the history of the Jewish people, but now this old story takes on universal significance. For with Christ’s resurrection, we are pointed to the day when death everywhere will be defeated. And no longer is this history just about one nation: now it is about us all, about the whole of creation, which God wills to bring into a loving relationship once more with him.
Looking back to the biblical story of God’s dealings with this people, we are given hope for the future: the history which is past is leading to the end of history. And we are caught up in that process, in God’s great plan for the future of creation. This is our Christian sense that we live between the times when God has done great things in the past and the day when God brings it all to completion. We live between those times, looking back, yes, but also looking forward with hope. This is what Advent reminds us about.
Christians are folk who have learned from the Bible what God did in Jesus Christ. Responding to God’s love with faith, we now have hope, because God, we know, is taking things further. Not everything is quite complete. In Jesus’ and Paul’s day, many people had a sense that the end of the age was nigh. They looked forward to a day when, all at once, God’s reign of peace and justice was established on earth.
But early on, Christians, such as Paul, saw that the end of the world was, in a way, already underway. From them we get this sense of living in an in-between time. We know that evil has ultimately been defeated already the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Darkness still lingers, but, like people waiting for the sunrise, Christians can see the light on the horizon. We know the sun will soon appear, but the end is not quite yet.
And so we wait. And as Paul acknowledges, the waiting can be hard. We might get drowsy, and even fall asleep. We might allow the darkness, rather than the light, to lull us, so that our selfish appetites and desires get in the way of loving as Christ calls us. The vices Paul lists- orgies, drunkenness, immorality, indecency, fighting, jealously- even if we manage to avoid these things ourselves, they are still around us, for many still live in the dark! And these vices can seem attractive, acceptable, desirable, so that we are tempted to leave the light and spend some time in the darkness ourselves. In the light, you love your neighbour. In the dark, you become selfish.
In Jesus Christ, the light of the world has come to us. And his light is still dawning, especially in the lives of those who choose to live in his way, his light. He taught us to love, not just by tell us, but by showing us how to do it. In Advent, we are reminded that God’s Kingdom is it hand, already appearing among us. ‘The night is nearly over, the day is almost here’, says Paul, which for me, conjures up an image of a sunrise: the dawn light beginning to banish the darkness. Dawn is coming, and so we have hope! So let’s live in the light, this Advent, and always.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo