Read Romans 13:8-14 here.
Read Isaiah 2: 1-5 here.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. As I’m sure most of you know, Advent is the season leading up to Christmas, marked by the four Sundays but encompassing the entire time frame. There are a lot of themes that arise out of Advent, but primarily it is a remembrance of Jesus’ first coming (that is, Christmas) which points to and looks forward to His second coming. Therefore, Advent encompasses both the past and the future.
So it is probably obvious that Advent has a strong connection with a biblical theological theme that we talk about quite frequently – that is, realized eschatology. Frequently, we describe this with the term “already but not yet.”
By this, we are talking about the notion that with Christ’s coming, with His death and resurrection, the kingdom of God has already come, salvation has been accomplished for those who trust Jesus and call Him ‘Lord.’ However, we also know that sin continues to be a reality in this world, in this life. We can see that the kingdoms of this world continue to be in operation, and even thrive – and also within us. And this will continue to be the case until Jesus’ second coming. It is at His second coming (although Christians disagree on what this will look like) that sin will fully and finally be done away with, that the kingdom of God will be all in all (that is, the kingdoms of this world will be no more), and that salvation and all of God’s purposes for creation will be fully realized.
Which is all well and good – it’s all a part of Christian theology. The problem is that we live in the in-between. The problem is that we don’t know when the end is coming. The problem is, how do we live in the waiting?
Our passage today is taken from the Lectionary readings for the Advent season. Specifically, we are reading Romans 13:8-14.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.Romans 13: 8-14
Now Romans is obviously a very important book in the Pauline corpus (though we have to be careful about statements like that when talking about scripture – i.e. all scripture is equally God-given). We can’t go into the kind of depth we normally would when we do a book study. But it’s worth noting that this section of the book of Romans (chapters 12-15) have to do, broadly speaking, with how Christians are called to live in light of the salvation of God which is found in Jesus Christ.
Properly speaking, the lectionary prescribes vv. 11-14 as the reading for today, but I chose to include vv. 8-10 in order to highlight the connection between the larger section (How Christians are called to live) and vv. 11-14.
So verses 8-10 say:
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.Romans 13: 8-10
Now in this larger section (again, 12-15) Paul has a lot more to say about how Christians are called to live. But here, Paul sort of sums up at least one aspect of that especially with the words, “…[the commandments] are summed up in this one command, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (also, “whoever loves others has fulfilled the law,” and “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”). Now we should immediately recognize that Jesus said the exact same thing in Matthew 22 (though here, it is expanded):
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”Matthew 22: 37-40
It is with this in mind that Paul says,
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.Romans 13: 11-14
In other words, understanding the present time, “love one another.” And what is Paul talking about when he says, “the present time”? In short, and without too much fanfare, he’s talking about the fulfillment of the eschatological promise. Or more precisely, he’s talking about “the present time” as that time which is at the precipice of the fulfillment. He’s pointing to the second coming of Jesus, the full realization of the Kingdom of God. Now to be fair, Paul likely doesn’t have in mind “the second coming” in the same way that some of us might. To put it simply, Paul is likely more concerned with the idea consummation. That is, Paul is concerned with the fact that Jesus is coming to fulfill the kingdom rather than the how or the when. And the backdrop that Paul has in mind (at least in part) has to do with the fulfillment of the Messianic promise rather than “getting to heaven when we die.” But what Paul has in mind is that Christ has completed the work of redemption on the cross and the full realization of His work is at hand. Therefore, we (and the people to whom Paul is specifically writing) are in the in-between time. We are in the already, not yet.
And so, says Paul, as demonstrated especially by fulfilling the commandment to love one another, “12 … put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
If I can take a degree of liberty by over-simplifying, Paul says, because the fulfillment is at hand, live as people of the light, live as people of the kingdom – and not as people of the world – live the kind of life now that we will truly live at His coming, because Christ is at hand. In his commentary on Romans, Leon Morris, in speaking about our passage, quotes Emil Brunner, in saying that “Faith is indeed nothing but living with the light of what is to come.”
Now we may ask the question, if Jesus is coming soon, if our salvation is assured because of the work He has already done, then why is it so important that we live well now? To put it another way, since we all keep sinning (even Paul admits this) until we are perfected in the final day, and if that final day is at hand, why not just run out the clock until Jesus gets here? Of course, no one is suggesting that we should sin as much as we can until then. But why make such a big deal out of it? In other words, what’s the point?
Advent is about waiting. Nobody, I think, likes to wait. But more and more our current culture prioritizes instant gratification. And that can make it seem like waiting is without value, without purpose. For example, all other things being equal, it’s “better” to go to a store and have a product now rather than order it online and have to wait days or weeks for delivery. Or, it’s “better” to be able to take a pill and lose weight right away rather than having to diet and exercise for weeks or months. And of course, there are a thousand different examples I’m sure you could come up with.
But there’s a difference between “waiting until” and “waiting for.” The one attitude (“just run out the clock;” do whatever until Jesus comes) is simply a “waiting until.” It says that the in-between time doesn’t matter. But what Paul is calling us to is a “waiting for.” We are not just waiting until a future point in time, but we are waiting for the fulfillment of something. The question is, is that something what we are actually waiting for?
Perhaps we can think about it this way. Apart from the pandemic, as you know, I make regular trips to Thailand. My purpose for going there is to train muay thai, a Thai martial art. So what this looks like is training for 1-2 hours each session, often twice a day. As you can imagine, this takes a tremendous amount of energy, and it helps to have a good level of fitness (which I don’t have).
Now I could just wait until that trip. I could keep doing whatever it is I’m doing and run out the clock until the time of my trip arrives. But what I try to do is get my fitness up to a reasonable level so that when I arrive in Thailand, I can get the most out of my training. If I didn’t do that, when I arrived and started to train for hours on end, I would soon be exhausted, likely be injured, and would lose out on the point of the entire trip altogether. Therefore, if I am actually serious, I need to prepare.
Now obviously, this is an imperfect analogy. But my point is, if what I really want is to go to Thailand and train, if what I really want is to immerse myself in that experience and to get the most out of it, then what I do in the waiting, what I do in the in-between matters. And if I’m not willing to do the necessary work of preparation, it has to call in to question whether that is what I really want. I may want something else – I can even say that I want to go to Thailand, or I want to go on vacation – but what I can’t say is that I really want to train. What I can’t say is that, while in Thailand, I want to live a certain kind of life.
Now I want to be careful here because – and again, analogies are imperfect – what Paul is saying is actually pretty straightforward. I think what he’s saying essentially boils down to, “live the eschatological life now.” Because we are an eschatological people, we are called to live in the fulfillment now. And it’s not about proving yourself, it’s not about making yourself worthy – but if what we truly want, distinct from what we claim to want, is to take hold of the promise of God, the in-between time isn’t just time to kill. It is a time full of promise, full of opportunity, and full of hope.
Our Isaiah reading today was Isaiah 2:1-5. I don’t want to read the passage again or examine it in any kind of detail, but in short it tells us that the Kingdom of God is coming. And that the appropriate response is to say (more correctly, that people will say), “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord/to the temple of the God of Jacob./ He will teach us his ways/so that we may walk in his ways.”
Now it’s worth noting that the immediately following verses (2:6-22) describe a people who would rather hold on to the ways of the world and the things of the world – and that they would be judged on the Day of the Lord.
And at the risk of over-simplifying (and perhaps reading into) the Isaiah passage, I would say that we are called to be prepared for that day. Let us go to up to the mountain of the Lord. He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his ways.
Advent is the season of waiting. As all of the in-between time is waiting. But the waiting isn’t an emptiness. It’s not simply a void that exists between two greater realities. Advent waiting is about anticipation. And anticipation points to preparation. We are not just waiting until the end of all of this. We are waiting for the final fulfillment of all of the promises of God. So as we wait, in this season of anticipation, let us ask ourselves, what are we actually waiting for? And does the way we’re living now reflect what we are truly waiting for?
This is the time we prepare ourselves. As we enter this Advent season, I invite you all to think about how we prepare. And to think about how we prepare points to the hope that we find in Christ.