Epistle: Romans 13: (8-10)11-14 (Advent 1: Series A)

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For Christians, Advent is the time when the Church patiently prepares for the coming of the Great King, Jesus the Christ.

Advent is the season that begins the liturgical year that ties the rhythm of earthly life with the rhythm of heavenly life. The word “advent: is derived from the Latin adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” In the Roman Empire, the word adventus referred to the arrival of a person of dignity or great power – a king, emperor, or even one of the gods. For Christians, Advent is the time when the Church patiently prepares for the coming of the Great King, Jesus the Christ. Quite appropriately, then, Advent follows Christ the King Sunday.

Advent is the first part of a larger liturgical season that includes Christmas and Epiphany and continues until the beginning of Lent. Even though Advent occurs in December and is often considered as a prelude to Christmas, it is not simply about waiting for the birth of Christ. The preparatory and penitential aspects of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming as Judge of the world on the last day, the “Day of the Lord.” Despite the penitential tone, Advent is a time for holy joy and preparation that emphasizes four advents or comings: (1) The prophetic coming that points to Christ’s birth; (2) The incarnate coming of Christ in Bethlehem; (3) The sacramental coming in the waters of Holy Baptism and, supremely, in Holy Communion; and (4) Christ’s coming on the “Day of the Lord,” to which we say, “Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.”

The appointed epistle text for the First Sunday in Advent is about preparation for the Incarnation of our God and King and the implications of the dawn of the new creation. Romans 13:8-14 was not intended to be a Christmas sermon per se. So don’t preach it that way.

Two points of preparation for this text — employ contextualizing verses 8-10 and be sure to include verse 14, since it is the climax of the pericope.

The thrust of the pericope expands what Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2. Here it is unpacked by juxtaposing the old world with the new, the dawning of light with the stultifying darkness. The old world bears the designation “this present age.” The “present age” plods along like business as usual. And the present age’s business perpetuates darkness and unregenerate humanity habituates and celebrates this darkness. However, the new world has dawned — it has shown in the darkness, dispelling darkness wherever its rays venture. This new creation expands and marches on, undaunted, to its fulfillment, a fulfillment that will come shortly but without precise specification in terms of when exactly. The upshot, according to the Apostle, means that those disciples of King Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection inaugurated the new age, the age of light and life, are commanded to live already according to the reality and rules of the new world. In other words, because they, too, have come to participate in resurrection life through holy baptism, they, too, ought to be governed by the power of the resurrection — the Holy Spirit of Love and Truth. This day has begun, has broken into a world otherwise wallowing in darkness, the citizens of which are fast asleep to the truth that God’s kingdom has come and is passing them by.

Paul, therefore, posits the ethical expectations and standards of Christ’s kingdom, which is the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Put simply, Paul gives instructions for what resurrection life looks like now in the Church, the domain in which Christ Jesus rules and reigns by grace, mercy, truth, peace, and love. Such behavior is daytime behavior (living in the light) that contrasts nighttime behavior (living in darkness). Under the cover of darkness, all kinds of unseemly things happen — drunkenness, orgies, shameless sexual immorality, the kind of stuff not done in broad daylight. The light/dark contrast proves quite useful. The preacher should exploit the metaphor. It is not that ungodly behavior always takes place in the dark, but that these are the works of darkness, of those who have not been enlightened — a term used in Hebrews 6:4 associated with holy baptism. Enlightened, to be of the Light (that is, of Christ and in Christ, who is “the light of the world” (8:12)), necessarily entails resurrection life, the resurrection of a once-dead, now re-created human spirit (Ephesians 2:1-6).

The things of darkness, of course, move into attitudes and dispositions: bad temper and jealousy, anger, and bitterness. These things, likewise, are not of the enlightened soul, not of the Spirit of God. They, too, are on par with drunkenness and sexual immorality — they are not of the children of light; they are not the works of God.

Significantly, Paul doesn’t just tell the baptized Romans what to “put off” but also how to avoid it. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). As you preach this great climax, your auditors will want to know, How is this done?

N. T. Wright, provides a succinct explanation:

Putting on: comes from the night/day contrast once more. Here we are, getting up while the rest of the world still thinks it’s night-time; we must put our clothes on. The Christian’s “clothing” — which two verses earlier he has referred to as “armour”, the “armour of light,” the clothing we need when the light has begun to shine — consists of Jesus himself, Jesus the Lord, Jesus the king.[1]

What Paul aims at here and what Wright has set forth isn’t about conjuring up an attitude to merely “clothe one’s self” with the character of Jesus. “Putting on” isn’t a mere consideration, a conjuring up an attitude to be more like Jesus. Instead, it concerns conforming one’s self to the reality of the new creation, to the new age, to resurrection life that is the objective reality into which you have been plunged through holy baptism. Your life is, in fact, hidden in Christ in God. Unpack that reality by way of a devotion to Christ the Lord, Christ the Word, Christ the Sacrament. It’s about a regular and daily remembrance of your baptism — the very act of God that translated you from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light and life. This is what Romans 6:1-7 declares. Martin Luther admonished all disciples of the Lord to this very remembrance, this conforming of their subjective minds to the objectivity of baptism — the event during which God declared you forgiven, adopted, redeemed, justified, and resurrected in spirit. Luther said, “In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross …”, meaning remember your baptism and so conform your pattern of thinking to living in the light, to embracing resurrection life here and now.

Here Luther follows Paul contrasting the world asleep in the darkness and the children of light wide awake to the life of Christ now in them. That life is full of love and so the fulfillment of the law, not for our justification, but as a post-facto implication of having been renewed, recreated on account of Christ’s righteousness. This is the reality to come as a result of the great Christic event — Advent, the Incarnation of our God and Savior.

A final word on verses 11 and 12: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” When is the final day of salvation? Speculation is futile — and always has been so. The point of these verses stresses that the day of grace and enlightenment has come and the final day could come at any time. Onus can be put on the fact that the resurrection of Christ has prepared the way for the final day of salvation. A further witness to it and to their belonging to it and having a share in it was, of course, their baptism. Consequently, the sun was rising high and it was time to live like those wide awake in the light and life of the resurrection. How many hours are left in the day before the whole world is flooded with light really doesn’t matter other than to say that for those still in the dark, there’s an urgency for them to awake and leave the darkness behind.

[1] N T Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2: Chapters 9-16 (London: SPCK, 2004), 90.