11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires. (CEB)
Well, the time is upon us. I don’t mean the end of time. I mean the time that I dread each year when WIKY and at least two other radio stations begin playing 24/7 Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving has even arrived. While I enjoy seeing the Christmas lights and other decorations go up all over town in every neighborhood, a few people are already greeting other people with the phrase Merry Christmas. That’s a little too soon for me.
The broader culture and the influence of commerce would have us believe that the Christmas season is in full swing. But it’s not. Today is only the first Sunday Advent. And, if you were at the Sunday School Lecture Series on November 24, you heard me say then that Christmas will have to wait.
Yet, because our culture has done its level best to turn the Christmas season around and celebrate it backwards—all in the name of commerce, increased sales, and greater profit margins—even for Christians, the Advent season can feel somewhat out of place as we approach what actually is Christmas Day and the Christmas season that follows it.
Right now, we’re clamoring for the manger. But Advent takes us beyond the birth of Jesus. Advent takes us beyond his earthly life, his death, his resurrection, even beyond the ascension of Jesus. Advent orients us firmly toward the future that will yet be. Advent forces us to look ahead toward the wide-open future when Jesus comes again and inaugurates God’s dominion in all its promise, when the hope of a groaning creation, itself, is fulfilled.
The lectionary begins this section with Paul stating, “…you know what time it is” (Romans 13:11b CEB). To me, it feels a little ironic because, in the modern church, we don’t seem to know what time it is. We’ve all but lost any sense of anticipation about God’s coming rule and reign. It’s not difficult to see why, really. Nearly two-thousand years have come and gone since Christ walked this earth. Any sense of excitement or anticipation begins to nosedive when the waiting is extended to the point of indefinite.
Do you remember the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25? Five of them took extra oil along while five didn’t. The groom’s arrival was delayed so long that all ten of the bridesmaids became drowsy and fell asleep. All of ten of them fell asleep: the wise and the foolish alike! The longer I wait for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the older I get; and the older I get, the more I realize that if I have to wait too long for anything, I’m probably going to end up taking a nap.
I’m willing to bet that most of us have a lot in common with those bridesmaids. It’s difficult to keep up a sense of anticipation for too long. After a while, we start to get frustrated. We get tired. We can try to force our sense of anticipation but, when we do that, we’re only faking it. Fake excitement or anticipation feels false, disingenuous, and dishonest because we’re not being true to ourselves. It’s really difficult to pretend to feel excited about something. Have you ever seen someone try it? Depending on their acting skills, or lack thereof, it can be pretty hilarious.
You know what time it is, Paul said. But did Paul know what time it was? It’s clear from Paul’s earliest writings, like First Thessalonians, that Paul believed Jesus would return almost immediately. But, as Paul continued to write and Jesus still hadn’t returned, he began to understand that his assumed timeline was off. Instead of an immanent return, the early church would have to be prepared for a delay and figure out how to live in the world a while longer.
This was one of the first major adjustments that the early church had to make. They needed a strategy for long-term survival. They started to get organized with bishops and priests and deacons who were set apart to care for, lead, and guide the people of the church. The apostles were all dying, so the church developed a succession strategy. The early church had to face the reality that they would need to persist indefinitely in this world.
Yet, theologically, Paul was right to believe that every moment in time is bursting at the seams with possibility. That’s why he urges us to wake up from sleep, because eternity is breaking into our world even now. We are living on the cusp between the former age and the new age that Jesus has brought, is bringing, and will bring in full. We live in the between times where the world is transitioning from old to new, from the reign of Satan to the reign of God, where all that is wrong will be set right.
We live in a time when God’s love has already conquered. Jesus Christ, himself, was the turning point in the grand march of time. Heaven has been wedded to earth in the Person of Jesus the Son. The past way of things still persists, but the new has come and the past will not stand no matter how much it claws and scratches to grapple more time for itself. We are called to imagine a new heaven and a new earth, a new way of living with our fellow human beings, and even a new way of being human! In Christ Jesus, we are reshaped into the image of God that we were supposed to be in the beginning, the image that was distorted by sin.
In the early days of the church, Christians lived with a real sense of anticipation. The promises of the Old Testament seemed almost within reach, barely beyond our grasp but stretching toward our hands. The cosmic regime change was almost here!
But our sense of anticipation has, understandably, diminished over two-thousand years. That’s why the season of Advent is incredibly important for us. If we lose our sense of anticipation completely, then we’re all the poorer. For Paul and for the early church, the anticipation of the advent—the arrival—of Jesus Christ wasn’t about circling a date on the calendar. It was about hope.
History has a final goal. God has broken into our world and made reconciliation, redemption, and salvation real. God is constantly pushing us, nudging us, urging us, leading us, drawing us toward this promised dominion in which the old is made new. In light of what is coming, of what is promised, Paul urges the church to wake up from our sleep. Salvation is nearer now than when we first came to have faith. The night is almost over. The day is near. So live like it’s already day.
Why would anyone want to cling to the old ways now that a new day has come, and we know how the story ends? Paul encourages us to get rid of behaviors that belong to the darkness and put on the instruments of light. It matters how we live today! Knowing what time it is—that every moment is bursting with divine possibility—compels Christian people to live in the light. It’s when we forget the time that we not only fail to live and love as we ought, but the very foundation of our hope in God’s promises crumbles.
Do we know what time it is? Time, in this text, is not chronological time. It’s not tied to the clock or calendar. In Greek, Paul uses a completely different word from anything related to chronological moments that you can mark on a clock or calendar. Time, in this sense, means a time that is fit for something: a time that is ripe, right, and proper. It’s a critical moment for action. Time, in the chronological sense, has a beginning and an end. But time, as Paul uses it here, points to something else. Now is the proper time, the right moment, for us to live like God’s reign is upon us.
This is the time to look forward to when our hope is fulfilled, and to live like it already has been. We’re already citizens of God’s future. This is the time when we make the moral decision to live in hope instead of despair. This is the time when we stay awake because we know that God’s salvation could bathe our hurting world with healing and grace any day now!
This is the time to trust in God’s future, yet those who hold such trust are never complacent about the present. Our hope in this future ought to make us restless for what will be. Instead of putting up with how things are, we’re invited—even compelled by our sense of unrest—to make things better so that the world as it is begins to reflect the world as it ought to be: as it will be. Hopeful people are disturbers of the status quo. We’re troublemakers in the world. The hope and restlessness we have for God’s future are to be a source of energy and courage for us, as Isaiah says, to beat our swords into plows and our spears into pruning tools (c.f. Isaiah 2:4).
Our hope leads us to work for the very reconciliation and peace that we foresee in God’s realm when it comes. And, for Paul, the way we are to live and strive for God’s reign in the present has to do with community. This isn’t about individual Christians going it alone. This is about how we live, work, and love together.
It’s with community in mind that Paul wrote, “Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires” (Romans 13:13-14 CEB). And note, this isn’t only about Christian community, this is about human community. The two aren’t supposed to be separate things. Christian community is supposed to be a reflection of what human community ought to be. Paul exhorts us to stop doing the things that tear human community apart and live in such a way that human community is built up. Put away our selfish desires—we all have them—and live honorably. Behave appropriately.
This is why Advent is a season critical for the church. We know what time it is but, like those bridesmaids, we sometimes fall asleep to the world. “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith” (Romans 13:11 CEB). God’s future is near, and every moment is bursting with possibility. Now is the critical time for us to put on Christ and live into the future God has planned. We already know the way the story ends, and it’s worth remembering and rekindling our anticipation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay