Wake from Sleep
Wake from Sleep
For the better part of a decade before moving here to Courtenay I was accustomed to getting up at 4:15 in the morning. Work was about forty miles away and to get there I had to go into and then back out of Downtown Portland and through some of the worst traffic spots in the city. Since my schedule was flexible I decided to start work at about 6:30 so that I could get to work and then get home before rush hour. But it meant getting up early. I was pretty much on my own in my habit of being an early-riser. The rest of the family was still sound asleep when I headed out the door, but that was okay. During the week they could get up when they wanted, because I was already out the door. But on the weekends… I slept in. I did. Often until 5:00. And then I was up and ready to have breakfast and get started on the day, especially in the summer. Why waste all that daylight? I’d be ready to get going and get working around the house or ready to go out and do something with the family—at 6:00. The sun was up, the day was beautiful—let’s go! But everyone else just wanted to sleep.
This is what I think of when I read St. Paul’s exhortation in our Epistle today. He writes to the Christians in Rome, “You know what time it is. The hour has come. It’s time to wake from your sleep!” Paul uses this idea quite a few times and he seems to have got it from a hymn that the early Christians sang. In Ephesians 5:14 he quotes a verse:
Awake, O sleeper
And arise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.
“The night is far gone, the day is at hand,” Paul writes here in Romans. And his point is that the present age is going on. Most people haven’t noticed that anything has changed. The people around Paul—and often many of the people in the churches he was writing to—were still worshipping Caesar and Aphrodite and Mammon and Mars. A lot of people are still doing the same thing today even if we aren’t so crude as to do it by worshipping idols carved of stone in temples. People today still worship and look for satisfaction or security or worth in the State and in sex and in power and in violence. And Paul shouts, “Wake up!” Brothers and Sisters, the new day has already dawned. The darkness is fading away. God’s new age is breaking in and driving away the darkness. It may just be the first few rays of light that are peeking over the horizon, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has inaugurated something new and, Paul says, that means that the people of Jesus need to wake up and live in the new day. The people around might still be sleeping, but we need to be up and about the business of Jesus and of his kingdom.
Look at Romans 13. I actually want to start in the middle of our Epistle, at verse 11 and then go back to the beginning in a bit. In verses 11-12 Paul writes:
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. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
The darkness of night is a good metaphor for the old age as it passes away. It’s during the night, under the cover darkness that people get away with all sorts of wickedness and evil. It’s at night that people go to wild parties, they do drugs, they get drunk, they indulge themselves in all sorts of sexual immorality. There are all sorts of things they’d be ashamed to do in broad daylight, but under the cover of darkness they can get away with it all. Paul writes in verse 13:
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality…
And yet the present age isn’t just about the sorts of wickedness that happen under the cover of darkness. Paul also adds quarelling and jealousyto the list. It’s easy for Christians, when we think of sins, to focus on the things that most of us avoid. I don’t know many Christians who participate in drunken orgies. Most of us are pretty good about sexual immorality—although that can often be something we get away with under the cover of darkness or—in the modern world—via the privacy and secrecy of the Internet. But Paul reminds us that there are other things too that should never characterise people who live in the light of Jesus’ kingdom—things that we see all too often in the Church and in our own lives.
A few years ago Jerry Bridges wrote a book titled Respectable Sins. (Some of you will remember that I used it as the basis for a series of sermons on Sunday evenings just after I came here.) And the focus of that book was on just these sorts of sins that Scripture condemns, but that are often ignored or, sometimes, even justified by Christians: things like anger and bitterness, jealousy and strife, unthankfulness and gossip and lack of self-control. It’s easy to point our fingers at homosexuals or heterosexuals involved in sexual sin or at drunks and drug-users and to feel smug and self-righteous. And yet St. Paul lists many of these other sins like gossip and anger and enmity right along with those others when he writes about sinful behaviour and character that should never characterise Jesus’ people. All of it, he says, needs to be put aside. All of these things are characteristic of the age that’s passing away. All of these things are rooted in humanity’s rebellion against God and against the vocation he gave us when he created us—all of them are centred on a love of self and an indulgence of self and that’s not what Jesus’ people are about. By his death and resurrection we’ve been liberated from the slavery of the old age and we’ve been given the life of the age to come, the life that God originally intended for us. Again, “Sleeper, awake!”
“But, Paul,” we think, “that’s all well and good, but how do we do that?” It’s one thing for Paul to tell us not to do these things, but we’ve all tried and I don’t know anyone who’s been successful, at least not long-term, when they’ve tried it on their own. But, thankfully, Paul doesn’t leave us with a bunch of impossible rules. He goes in verse 14:
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
This is another principle that Paul writes about a lot. Over and over he tells us to put off the old and to put on the new. This is what Paul is saying when he says to cast off the works of darkness and instead to put on the armour of light. This is what we mean we use the word “repentance”—it means to cast aside, to turn away, and to put off everything that belongs to the age that’s passing away, everything that belongs to our old selves, everything associated with our rebellion against God, and instead to turn to the light, to turn to Jesus and to let him fill us or clothe us with the life of God.
Brothers and Sisters, this is what Baptism is about. Just a few minutes ago we gathered around as Frances was baptised. Think of the words at the core of the baptismal vows. The person about to be baptised is asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all his works, the empty display and false values of the world, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that you will not follow nor be led by them?” And the candidate answers, “I renounce them all.”
But it’s not just renunciation. There’s no neutral position between the present age and the age to come. There’s no fence-sitting between rebellion and faithfulness. And so, having renounced the things and values of the present age, the candidate is asked the next question, “Do you believe…?” And we go on to recite the Apostles’ Creed. It’s one of the Church’s oldest summaries of the faith that embraces God and his goodness and faithfulness, it embraces Jesus as the one he sent into the world to die and rise again to forgives us, to free us, and to restore us—not just us, but all of Creation—to the life of God. In Baptism we put off the old, we come out of the darkness, and we put on Jesus and step into the light.
And the prayers reflect this: “Merciful God, grant that the old nature in this person may be so buried that the new nature may be raised up in her.” “Grant that all sinful desires may die in her, and that all things belonging to the Spirit may live and grow in her.” “Grant that she who is here dedicated to you…may also be equipped with spiritual virtues, and receive the eternal crown of life, through your mercy, blessed Lord God.”
Martin Luther wrote that when he was tempted by sin, when he was tempted to question God’s forgiveness, or question the life of Jesus in him he would grab his forehead, the place where the water had been poured on him as a baby, and he would simply remind himself, “You are baptised!” The water of Baptism embodies the grace of God to forgive sinners and to clothe us with the life of Jesus, to make us new. If we have passed through these waters in faith there is nothing short of our own wilful rejection of God’s promise that can separate us from the love of God, from his grace, from his forgiveness, or from his life. This is where we put off the old and put on Jesus.
Jesus also reminds us and assures us when we come to his Table. His body was broken and his blood was shed to make us holy again. All who have passed through the waters of Baptism are invited to his Table to be reminded again that his life is our life, that in our Baptism we have put on Jesus and that each day he sustains us, renews us, and transforms us. If you’ve been tempted during the week to put the old back on, you have a reminder here at the Lord’s Table of what God has done for you in Jesus, of his love for sinners, and invitation to once again put off the old and to put on the new. Here at the Table Jesus gives us a foretaste of the age to come and of his kingdom. Here he reminds us of his goodness and faithfulness. Here he reminds us that God’s new creation is breaking in and if we’re going to be part of it we need to live by its standards. When we go from the Table it should be in faith knowing that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not Mammon, not Aphrodite, not any other false god we’re prone to worship or look to for security—Jesus is Lord and Jesus alone.
God gives us these means of grace because he understands the struggle we face. And the Sacraments certainly aren’t the only means of grace. He’s given us his Word and we would struggle a great deal less if we truly steeped ourselves in it and grasped better what it tells us and shows us of God’s love and God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness. We’d struggle less if we meditated on and memorized God’s Word, internalizing it and letting it shape and mould our desires and our thinking. And God gives us each other, his Church. Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has poured the Holy Spirit into each of us and he’s put us in fellowship with one another. Together we teach and exhort each other, we love each other, we mourn and are joyful with each other, we’re accountable to each other, we stand with each other. Again, God knows that we struggle to put off the old and to keep off the old. He knows that we struggle to put on the new and keep on the new. And so he gives us means of grace. We need to avail ourselves of them. That’s part of what it means to wake up and to walk in the light.
This is how we live in this in-between time. Paul tells us to live in the present age as citizens of the age that is slowly breaking in and we do that by faith—faith in God’s faithfulness, faith that as he has always been faithful to his promises. He will be faithful to his promise to make all things new, to restore his Creation, and to set everything to rights. Paul looks forward to that day. And in the meantime, in this in-between time, we’re called to live as if that day were already here. And now we can go back in our Epistle to verses 8-10. This is what that looks like. This is what it looks like to wake up and to live in the daytime. Paul writes:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Here’s what kingdom living looks like. In fact, it looks just like what Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t owe anyone anything. Just at face value that’s good and biblical advice, but where we’re prone to reading this as Paul talking about the financial debt that’s so common in our world—and that’s often a symptom of our idolatry and our love of “things” and “stuff”— what Paul was really getting at was the system of patronage that governed almost every aspect of life in the ancient world. Their societies were strictly hierarchical and the way you found security and the way you advanced and the way you got rich was through patronage and debts. Few people did anything for anyone without expecting something in return. Think of the Mafia. The boss does you a favour, he looks out for you, he protects you, but he always expects something in return—and it’s like with everyone all the way down the hierarchy. It’s a modern vestige of the old Roman system of patronage and their entire world ran that way.
But Jesus’ kingdom is the opposite. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. Jesus tells us to go the extra mile and to turn the other cheek. Jesus turns the values of the old age upside-down. In fact, what he’s really doing is turning the world right-side up. We’re the ones who turned it upside-down in the first place. And so this is why Paul urges us: Don’t try to find your place in the present age, don’t try to advance yourself in the present age by seeking to put others in your debt or by putting yourself in debt to the world’s system, just love each other. Think of yourself as being in debt to everyone, but not in debt to them the way the world thinks. Deal with everyone you know and everyone you meet as if you owe them a debt of love. If you live like that you won’t be thinking of other people as lower than yourself or as undeserving of your love. If you love them the thought of killing them or hating them or stealing from them or being envious of them won’t even cross your mind. If you love them and see they have a nice house or nice clothes you’ll be happy for them. If you see they’re in need, you’ll find a way to help.
If you love your neighbour, Paul says, you won’t commit adultery with his wife or with her husband. This is where the English language gets us into trouble. Love is a great word, but we’ve given it far too many things to do in English. Love covers the selfless and sacrificial and giving love that Jesus talks about and that Paul talks about here. It covers the sort of love that desires and seeks to do the best thing it can for a friend or a neighbour—or even an enemy. But our English word for love also does duty for the selfish pursuit of our own lusts and desires that uses the people around us and that often destroys them. We do have words for that sort of selfishness. “Lust” is one of them. And yet when someone—as it’s so often put—falls head-over-heels in love with someone else’s husband or wife or when a young unmarried couple decides to have sex we avoid the word “lust”. They’re so attractive or beautiful and our feelings are so exciting and warm—well—then it must be “love”. And then we justify it: God does say that love is really all that matters, doesn’t he?
But, Brothers and Sisters, that’s not love. I’ve counselled people or even had people who know that as a Christian or as a pastor I must disapprove of what they’re doing try to justify themselves with this sort of talk. “Yes, she’s married to someone else, but we love each other.” “Yes, we’re both men, but we love each other.” “No, we’re not married, but we love each other.” And I should add, it’s not just about sex. I’ve heard gossips tearing down someone else justify it with just this sort of twisted language: “Oh, I wasn’t gossiping, I care about So-and-so and I was telling my friends so that they could pray for her.” Dear Friends, Paul makes short work of these kinds of arguments. The point of love, the kind of love that reflects the love of God, the kind of love embodied in that Greek word agape that Paul uses here, is the sort of love that reflects the love of God in Jesus. It’s the sort of selfless love that seeks not our own satisfaction, but the good and well-being and wholeness of others. This is the love embodied in the Incarnation and the Cross—the love of the one who, though God, did not see that as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and humbly took on our flesh and who died the humiliating and excruciating death of the Cross—and not for friends, but for his enemies; for the very people who put him there. Brothers and Sisters, that’s love. As Paul writes, love does not wrong a neighbour. Love does no hurt to a neighbour. Instead, love seeks what is best for him—even if it means we come up short ourselves. And in that, Paul says, the law is fulfilled. In that we love not only our neighbours as ourselves, but in that we also show our love for God. It’s through love that we live the life of God’s kingdom and of his new creation, not waiting for some future day, but right here and right now. It’s through love that we declare to the world that Jesus is Lord. It’s through love that we rouse the world from its dark slumber to live in God’s new day.
Let us pray: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.