It is two o’clock in the morning, and the phone rings. The incessant ringing finally awakens you, but you are still in a sleep-induced fog. Slowly it dawns on you that the reason you woke up was that the phone was ringing. Before even answering the phone, you ask aloud, “What time is it?” Then you knock the phone off the nightstand as you try to answer it. You search on the floor in the darkness, and finally pick up the receiver, only to discover it’s a wrong number.
When the phone rings during the daylight, you never ask yourself, “What time is it?” But in the middle of the night, you can’t help but wonder what time it is and why anybody would be calling you at that time of night.
In our text for today, we use the words of Paul to prepare us for the Advent season. Paul says, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
How do you wake up in the morning? In the children’s moment, we talked about waking up rituals. Some people just open their eyes and they are fully awake. Others of us moan and groan, and slowly bring all the physical systems back on-line, and even more slowly bring the mind, the software, into functioning order.
Someone once asked my wife if she woke up grumpy in the morning. She replied, “No, I usually just let him sleep.”
Paul says, “The night is far gone, and the day is near.”
I find it interesting that our text for Advent deals with light and darkness during the darkest season of the year. I believe the equinox is December 21 which means that there are more hours of darkness then than any other day of the year.
Many of us have been complaining about the darkness since the time change came into effect at the end of October. Here we are at the end of November, and it seems like the darkness is oppressive already.
One of our members told me he goes to work while it is still dark and when he comes home it is dark already. Isn’t that depressing? In fact, some of us get the disease called “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or SAD for short. It simply means we get depressed this time of year because there is so much darkness and so little light.
Paul’s intended reference is to the Second Coming of Christ. He was convinced that Jesus would return during his lifetime. So his message of urgency relates primarily to the Second Coming, but we can apply it equally well to his coming again in our hearts at Christmas. Jesus is always coming. And he comes into our hearts especially at Christmas, if our hearts welcome him.
Paul uses the image of night and day to speak of the coming of the Lord, but also to contrast ways of being and behavior. Paul takes that darkness and light issue and makes a symbolic spiritual lesson. We should put off the works of darkness and take on the works of light. It’s time to throw off the winter doldrums, the fears and the blues we usually associate with darkness and walk in the light of the Lord.
What a way to begin our trip to the manger! What a way to usher in the season of Advent and Christmas. What a way to experience the promise that salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. This is the right time to do something. What does Paul say we should do?
First, he calls us to wake up and get dressed. Advent calls us to get up and get dressed, to shed ourselves of our night-time garments which Paul refers to as the “works of darkness” and put on new clothing, the “armor of light.” Paul begins by listing the negative behaviors that we should put off.
I remember reading a controversial devotional written, as I recall it, by Frederick Buechner. He said the first thing most of us do when we wake up in the morning is go to the bathroom. And he made a spiritual lesson of that saying that the first task we have each day is to get rid of the wastes of yesterday.
There are some things we need to remove from our lives. It’s like taking the trash out on a regular basis. If we don’t do it, the house begins to stink.
If we don’t remove some things from our spiritual lives, they begin to stink too.
Paul urges the people not to engage in immorality when he says, “not in reveling and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and lustful acts, and not in strife and jealousy.” (Romans 13:13)
About two weeks ago, I received a phone call asking me if I ever preached on drinking alcoholic beverages. And I realized I hadn’t preached about drinking since I have been here. But then I usually preach from a text and try to stick very close to what the Bible says, and the Bible doesn’t say much about drinking. But here, Paul brings the subject up as a negative behavior, “not in reveling and drunkenness.”
One commentator wisely observed that these two words, reveling and drunkenness, reflect personal discipline and a worldly lifestyle. The Bible is clearly against drunkenness and addictions. For some of us, avoiding alcoholic beverages altogether is the wisest practice, but the Bible only condemns “drunkenness.”
Paul’s second pairing of negative behaviors is “sexual promiscuity and lustful acts.” This has to do with our personal morality. Bob Allred, Pastor of First Methodist Church in Atlanta, once said, “Some folks recklessly live their lives as if they have a spare in the trunk.” (1) We are not to throw our lives away in reckless living.
The third pair is “strife and jealousy.” Here Paul gets much closer to home. It is easy for us to condemn people who are public sinners. We can turn up our nose at President Clinton’s indiscretions, we can bash those whose lifestyle is different from ours, but Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We like to forget those verses that say that all of us are sinners. We may not struggle with “reveling and drunkenness.” We may not even have problems with “sexual promiscuity and lustful acts.” But almost all of us have problems with “strife and jealousy.”
Paul lets none of us off the hook. We all have sin that we need to take off like putting off old clothes. But Paul doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to say what we should put on!
I suspect that most of us only hear what we want to hear. Wives sometimes accuse their hard-of-hearing husbands of only hearing what he wants to hear. But I suspect that is true of most of us when it comes to the message of the Bible. We just hear what we want to.
Paul was not interested in preserving a negative kind of purity in which people simply did nothing wrong… and did nothing much that was useful either.
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One person, in our What’s So Amazing About Grace book study, described many Christians when she called them “the Do Not People.” We want to measure our Christian lives by what we do not.
It may be easy to think of the Christian life this way because many of the commandments are put in the negative case. “Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not bear false witness.” And some of us have concluded that the Christian life is simply a list of “thou shalt nots.” We are tempted to define our entire Christian life by the Do Nots.
Back in college, I heard a little ditty at BSU that went like this:
“We don’t drink and we don’t chew,
And we don’t go with the girls who do.”
Is that the true measure of our Christian lives? What we Do Not? The problem with this approach to Christianity is that it sets the standards so low. By this measure, a rock could be a perfect Christian. A rock never commits reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, or even quarreling and jealousy.”
Just think of the sins that a rock does not commit. It never commits adultery, murder, lust, envy, jealousy. It never tells a lie. It never covets. It is not addicted to crack, cocaine, methamphetamines or alcohol. It never gossips, and never gets angry. It never has an abortion. A rock can be a perfect Christian by most of our popular ways of measuring goodness.
But as you know, a rock never does any good deeds either. In this passage, Paul uses the images of waking up from sleep, coming from death to life, turning from darkness to light, and changing one’s clothes. These images express major change, re-orientation, and repentance. There is a strong sense of turning to something which is far better than what is left behind. The real message is to take love seriously.
The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote:
“You’d think the one good thing
about merging church and state
would be that politics would be suffused
with glistening Christian sentiments
like ‘love thy neighbor,’
‘turn the other cheek,’
‘good will toward men,’
‘blessed be the peacemakers’
and ‘judge not lest you be judged.’
Yet somehow I’m not getting
a peace, charity, tolerance and forgiveness vibe
from the conservatives and evangelicals
who claim to have put their prodigal son back in office.
I’m getting more the feel of a vengeful mob —
revved up by rectitude —
running around with torches and hatchets
after heathens and pagans and infidels.” (1)
I think her criticism of the current evangelicals often fits all Christians. We measure ourselves by what we are against and not what we are for. But Paul will not let us measure our success simply by what we do not do.
Paul focuses on relationships and caring, not just on a kind of passive goodness or the absence of the bad. He goes on to say, “Put on the armor of light,” “Let us walk properly, as in the day” and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” These are positive actions, not just negative ones.
What does it mean to walk in the light and put on the Lord Jesus? It means to walk as Christ must have walked in the world.
When Paul says it’s time to wake from our sleep, he is suggesting that getting up in the morning suggests some purpose in our lives. We have things to do. We have plans to make. We have priorities to set. Our life begins to take on direction. Our faith should affect the way people live together.
A poem I heard long ago says:
“Only this life ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
During Advent and Christmas we have many opportunities to do loving deeds as we reach out in concern to others in our family or community.
Augustine lived in the fourth and fifth centuries and was what some would call a “live wire” and others would call a “swinger” before becoming a Christian in 386. There is no doubt he lived a life of carousing and hung-out with a wild bunch. He tried every new philosophy of his time. He describes being with a friend and sorrowfully decrying his inability to change. In his despair he suddenly heard what he thought was the voice of a child saying, “Take up and read, take up and read.” He didn’t remember any children’s games with words like that, but the words stood out. He went back to the bench where he had been sitting and found lying on it a copy of Paul’s Roman letter. He opened it, and immediately read the words that are a part of our scripture this morning:
“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime,
not in orgies, and drunkenness,
not in sexual immorality and debauchery,
not in dissension and jealousy.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Saint Augustine said that at that moment he opened his life to Christ. He had known about him, debated about him, but he had never surrendered and given his life to him. He opened his life to Christ and felt the loving and cleansing touch of the Savior. Augustine was never the same again. He said it this way,
“No further would I read; nor needed I;
for instantly at the end of this sentence,
by a light, as it were of serenity infused in my heart,
all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (3)
Augustine did exactly what Paul suggests in our text, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”