Romans 13: 8-14
Good morning, grace and peace—and I would say as well, “Happy New Year!” Advent Sunday. The great story, the year of the Church and the pattern of our Christian lives now again to be renewed and refreshed. Lots happening in the patterns of our worship to mark the New Year, as we hear new themes and language in the collects and prayers, the hymns, anthems, and readings.
I tend to think of Advent as in some ways the richest time of the year, because it is centered in this sense of deep Christian hope. We prepare ourselves to hear again the story of Jesus, his incarnation, his birth in Bethlehem on Christmas, his teaching, his works of power, and then his death, resurrection and ascension—all about to unfold between now and Easter, the journey again from the Manger to the Cross. And at the same time Advent explores what God is about to do, in our lives and over all creation. When Christ will come again. Someone has described this as a season of “already, but not yet.” A season of assurance and anticipation. Catching us leaning forward for the fulfillment of the victory that has already been accomplished. The four candles on the wreath not intended mainly as a countdown to Christmas, but as a reminder of what are sometimes called “the Four Last Things.” To cut through the superficialities of life and to turn to the concerns that we need to deal with now, before the Great Day of his coming. So, four candles, the four weeks traditionally: Death and Judgment, Hell and Heaven. The world around us in this season in so many ways seems to say, “let’s just have our party now, eat, drink, and be merry--and we can worry about the collateral damage and the credit card bills some other time.” But Advent says, “pay attention.” He will come when we least expect him. Sleepers, wake up!
As I approach Advent every year I like to find different ways to explore it, to tease out different perspectives, images, vocabularies, new layers of meaning. This year I’ve found myself drawn in our Sunday lectionary to the four Epistle lessons for the four Sundays, three from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one from the Letter of St. James. These readings in Year A of our lectionary seem very rich as ways to frame our spiritual reflection. I’ve printed up a set of the readings together. What I thought I would be doing personally would be taking the handout and simply keeping it by the chair where I do my devotional praying and reading in the morning and evening, and during the next four weeks reading the Epistle for the week over from time to time and to allow it to have some space to influence how I approach my day to day life. Kind of a self-guided mini-retreat. Anyway, there are copies out in the narthex and over in Brooks Hall if you’d like to join me in this. (And as aside, I’d encourage you also to put the morning of Saturday, December 10th, on your calendar, as a time to come together for what in the past few years we’ve called “A Quiet Morning in Advent.” Carving out two or three hours in what sometimes is such an over-programmed and busy season for a time of reflection—and I’m very pleased that Susy Robison has agreed to lead the Quiet Morning this year. )
So to turn to Romans 13. Paul is writing to the Christians of Rome before he comes to visit them for the first time. When he writes to Corinth or Galatia or Thessalonica or Ephesus he is writing to congregations that he founded or helped to found or at least has visited on his missionary journeys. They know him well, and he has an established pastoral authority. But as Paul prepares a mission to Rome he writes to introduce himself to the Roman Christians. We might say that he presents his resume. He offers an expansive overview of the great themes of his preaching and teaching of the gospel and of his understanding of the implication of that gospel in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the Christian community as a body. He writes to assure the Roman Church that even though they haven’t met him yet, and perhaps have only heard of him by reputation, the gospel he will preach when he arrives and the pastoral direction he will offer will be in accord with what they have already heard and known in the preaching and teaching of the other apostles.
Our passage from Chapter 13 comes toward the end of the Letter, and it has been since 1549 the appointed Epistle reading for Advent Sunday in Anglican Prayer Books. So if we do spend some time with the passage during this week we’ll be connecting with some pretty deep roots in our tradition. The critical point of the reading in verse 12, which includes the phrase that Archbishop Cranmer uses in his Collect for this first Advent Sunday. Paul says, “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The armor: Paul uses similar imagery in Ephesians 6 when he encourages the Christians of Ephesus to “take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The image of the Roman soldier dressing in preparation for battle. Stripping away whatever would be unhelpful or even dangerous, then strapping on his battle gear. A particular take on the phrase, “dress for success.” The Advent Sunday Collect recasts the same language as prayer: “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life when thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” And something deep in our imagination about turning to this image as a metaphor in our lives as we approach the dark season and the longest nights of the year. Contrasting the works of darkness with the coming of the bright morning star, the one in whom there is no darkness at all.
So what we might call an ethical Advent. Not simply ideas and images, but an invitation to a certain practical discipline. A way to live our lives: what we take off and lay aside, and what we put on. Works of darkness, on one hand, armor of light on the other. Paul gives us some examples to think about in terms of what we might call our practices of this season and of our Christian lives. Reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, which all seem to go with the sins of the dark, sins of the night—but then also quarreling and jealousy. That’s something to think about. Even as we may find it fairly easy to differentiate ourselves from the first set of sins, this is harder, especially with Facebook and Twitter and all the rest. Sins of the flesh and of the spirit. What we now set aside to prepare the way for his advent. And the “armor of light” on the other hand. A little more conceptual here, just offered by implication—though I would connect to a passage from Paul in Colossians 5 to get a sense of what he is thinking about when he speaks about the right wardrobe for the season and the battle ahead—the armor of light. “Put on then,” he says, “put on then as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Which we might say is about dressing like Jesus. The armor of light.
So the question, the topic for reflection, this Advent morning, and the first week ahead, for our little self-guided Epistles of Advent mini-retreat, is about our wardrobe. Making sure we are dressed for the occasion that is about to be upon us. Of course each one of us in the end needing to sort out what this means in terms of application in our own lives. Our seasonal attire: reindeer sweaters and Santa Claus ties, and armor of light.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.