Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2016

Romans 13:11-14 Commentary

As with any number of Lectionary readings, we have a “this” in Romans 13:11 whose antecedent you cannot know unless you back up to the first ten verses of this passage.  The immediate context of the “this” (as in “And do THIS . . .”) is the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  The slightly wider context is living as an obedient citizen of what was an immoral Roman Empire and respecting the governing authorities as God’s “deacons” even so.  And if this all seemed strange in the context of Paul’s writing to Christians living under the thumb of the Caesar, the bottom line of Romans 13 makes it clear why this is all necessary: we are to clothe ourselves with Christ.  We live as people of the daylight even in a world that still has its fair share of dark nighttime passages.

Yes, you can get hung up in this lection by Paul’s seemingly immanent sense of the parousia.   Reading these words 2,000 years later, we cannot help but feel that whatever urgency Paul felt has long since been blunted by the passage of the centuries and millennia.  But we err if we make that our focus.

The fact is that Paul had an overwhelming sense for the presence of Christ no matter how relatively near or far off Christ’s return may be.  His letters are peppered with references to living in Christ-like ways on account of our being able to see the kingdom and sense the nearness of our Lord at all times.  You should not need some tidbit of knowledge that Christ is coming back next week to finally straighten up and fly right as a disciple.  Indeed, if your only reason to behave as a child of the light is because you think the master is coming back to check up on you and declare a final verdict on you next month or something, then you are missing a huge piece of what it means to live as a temple of the Holy Spirit already now—to live “in Christ,” to invoke Paul’s favorite two-word summary of Christian existence now.

As Paul makes it plain in these lyric few verses at the end of Romans 13, our lives are already bathed in a holy light.   We cannot pretend we are ever operating under the cover of darkness.   The whole “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality will never do to excuse sinful behavior.   The “Nobody will ever know if I do this bad thing anyway” line of thought doesn’t cut it for people who live in the light of Christ and under the watchful, loving gaze of our great God.  Children of the light are not about trying to get away with something, trying to explain something away, trying to cheat on this or that corner of life.  The whole world lives that way, Paul essentially says here.   Surely people living in the heart of Roman darkness knew that much 2,000 years ago even as we know it now.

“Nothing good happens after midnight” many a parent has said to a teenaged child when setting some 11:30pm curfew for coming back home.  And it is striking how much crime, how many rapes, how many out-of-control drinking parties, how many tawdry sexual deeds, orgies, and rendezvous happen only after darkness has fallen.  There does seem to be this weird, illogical yet pervasive mentality that thinks you can get away with more stuff after the sun has set than you’d ever even try to do under the blaze of the noonday sun.

But when Christ is your very sun and when you clothe yourself with this Christ and with his armor of light, then you cannot indulge the fantasy that says you can do and say whatever you want when no one can see you or hear you.  Somebody can always see you and hear you.   But it’s not finally about living under a threat or in fear, either.  This is all meant very positively and is presented by Paul very positively.   This is the Gospel.  This is Good News.  This is a new life lived in glorious freedom in front of a gloriously gracious God.

This Epistle text comes on the First Sunday of Advent as the Year A Lectionary launches.  It’s paired in the Gospels with Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Matthew 24 and his urging that people “watch” because as “in the days of Noah” you don’t know when what’s coming will actually show up.  But even in Matthew 24 Jesus seems to be commending our leading pretty ordinary lives but that we lead them in extraordinary ways because we just know the truth of the universe: that God is love, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that the whole cosmos really has turned the corner from darkness into light.  Despite all appearances, the morning star really has dawned in our hearts and shines for all to see.

When my friend Frederick Dale Bruner teachers John 1, he makes a point to emphasize the present tense of verse 5.  When he recites the passage, he says “The light shinesssssssssssssssss in the darkness.”    It has shone, it IS shining, it will ALWAYS shine and the darkness cannot do a thing about it.  Yes, there is still a surrounding darkness.  No doubt about that.  But while believers and unbelievers alike can agree on the darkness, it is only the followers of Christ who see a superior light that shinessssssssssssss even so.

Advent prepares us for the birth of Christ.  According to Luke, that birth, too, took place under the cover of darkness.   While all the leaders of Roman listed at the head of Luke 2 and again at the head of Luke 3 were doing their deeds of darkness in a crooked and corrupt empire, God tiptoed down the back staircase of history and deposited the Light of the World into a manger (Buttrick).  We live in his light, not just at Advent and not just in the twinkly glow of a Christmas tree but always.

We all act differently when we know other people can see us.   God sees us and we see each other always because we live in the light of Christ.  What remains is to act and to live in ways that tell the world we know this to be true and are exceedingly excited about this wonderful knowledge.

Note: Our Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.

Illustration Idea

Most of us have heard the humorous old story about the 19th century farmer whose wife went into labor in the dead of night.  The doctor was fetched and delivered a child while the farmer held a lantern aloft to help the doctor see.   But then the doctor said, “Hold on—there’s another one.  We’ve got twins here!”  And the doctor delivered a second child.  The farmer was shaken by this unexpected development but then, “Hold on!  We’ve got triplets—another one is coming.”  At this the farmer began to back out of the room.   “Come back here with that lantern,” the doctor shouted.  To which the farmer replied, “No, no—it’s the light that attracts ‘em!”

Well, we are perhaps all of us attracted to the light all things being equal.  Until or unless we contemplate some nefarious or underhanded deed.   Then it’s the darkness that beckons.  Although there are any number of bank robberies committed in broad daylight, most crimes are of the cat burglar variety.  Most mafia hits take place after the sun has set.

If people prefer darkness to light, there’s usually a reason and it’s rarely good (astronomers get a pass).  But if we are people of the light, then that’s where we want to stay because we have nothing to hide but everything to display to the glory of the God in Christ whose light we radiate for also others to see and be seen by.

“I believe in God for the same reason I believe in the sun that shines in the sky” C.S. Lewis once said.   “Not just because I can see the sun but because BY it I can see everything else.”

That’s right.


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