Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 1, 2019

Romans 13:11-14 Commentary

While few people have labeled procrastination a “deadly sin,” our text at least suggests that one form of it may be the deadliest sin of all.  That’s a sobering assertion for someone like me who is naturally one of the worst procrastinators that I know.

At least some of us are tempted to procrastinate in the face of looming deadlines.  So what about the most important deadline of all?  Can any of us claim that our lives would be markedly different if we were absolutely certain that Christ was going to return on, for example, December 2, 2019?

Those who proclaim Romans 13 might ask our hearers and ourselves how our lives might assume a different shape and flavor if we knew Christ were returning tomorrow.  Would we, for instance, feel any urgency to rearrange our priorities? Would we treat people any differently if we knew exactly when Christ was going to come back?

If they knew the world was going to end on December 2, some people might try to squeeze all of the life they could into the preceding week.  Others might simply spend their last days indulging all of their desires and fantasies.

Of course, even Jesus’ followers can’t know when Christ will return.  Even Jesus didn’t even know when he’d return while he lived among us.  Not even heaven’s angels share God’s knowledge of when our world as we know it will end.

Such a lack of precise knowledge has sometimes led to spiritual indifference, even among some Christians.  In combination with Paul’s emphasis on God’s amazing grace, such uncertainty about Jesus’ return apparently led some of the Roman Christians to largely ignore God’s law for their lives.  So Paul tries to inject some ethical and spiritual urgency into the believers in Rome with words about the nearness of the Lord’s return.

Some Christians seem preoccupied with the details of the return of Christ.  On this first Sunday in Advent, at this “beginning of the church year,” however, Paul invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to live in faithful ways, to live in the constant expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

In the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday Paul insists that the Spirit wants to shape our lifestyles according to the reality of the nearness of Christ’s return.  He calls Jesus’ followers to “wake up” from what he calls our “slumber.”  After all, he reminds his readers that Christ’ return is nearer now than when we first believed.

With the passage of the time, God’s adopted sons and daughters should grow in our relationship with God in Christ.  Paul seems to imply, however, that his Roman readers’ lives don’t reflect God’s work in Christ for them.  Some of the Romans Christians are less than fully spiritually alert.

Paul, however, warns that his readers don’t have time for such spiritual lethargy because it’s getting late in the day.  That was certainly true for Paul’s Roman audience.  While Christ didn’t return within their lifetimes, they were living on “borrowed” time anyway.  After all, shortly after Paul probably wrote this letter, the Roman Emperor Nero threw all of the Christians out of Rome.  Those he didn’t kill in that persecution went literally underground.

While some who preach, teach and hear Romans 13 don’t live under the threat of immediate persecution like the Romans did, we too live on borrowed time.  After all, Christ may come for any of us at any moment.   Not one of us can be completely certain that we will even live to see this afternoon, for instance.

I recently learned that my good friend Brian died of a heart attack.  He, like me, was “only” 61.  He was in apparent good health.  He had received God’s salvation with his faith.  But it turned out that Brian’s “salvation” that was his entrance into God’s eternal presence was far “nearer” than any of us would have imagined.

So how, then, do Christians who live on borrowed time actually live?  How do our lives, perhaps especially our relationships, reflect our status as those whose time on this earth as we know it is short?  Essentially Paul tells us that those who know that Christ’s return is near obey God’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul reminds us that those who know that our time is short let love inspire and shape our relationships with not just our fellow Christians, but also with unbelievers and enemies.  In fact, he suggests that while we have various obligations to people, our highest obligation toward each other is to love each other.  That, after all, may be the force of his words, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing to debt to love one another . . .”

However, while we often think of love as an emotion that people who, for instance, plan to marry or are dating have, biblical love is primarily an action and an attitude.  To love is to treat our neighbors as God in Christ treats and would have us treat them.  Those who love our neighbors view them as God views them and want only God’s very best for them.

Such love, Paul points out in verse 8, fulfills God’s law.  So when Christians fulfill our highest obligation to love, we also fulfill our other obligations as God’s Word describes them.  For love for God and love for our neighbors lies at the very heart of God’s commandments.

Those who know our time is short, then, show our love by leading what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “decent and chaste lives.”  Those who know Jesus could return at any time also show our love for our neighbors by never “belittling, insulting, hating or killing” them.  In these and nearly countless other ways, those who know our time is short fulfill God’s purposes for us.

Of course, no matter how hard we try to love the people around us, all of sometimes get sidetracked.  We become so busy leading our lives that we don’t think much about how to love the people around us in concrete ways.  Further, God’s beloved children encounter people who don’t always deserve or couldn’t care less about our love.

However, those who know that our time is short and loving can be hard remember how naturally unattractive we are to God.  God’s adopted sons and daughters certainly did nothing to deserve God’s love.  Yet while we were still rebellious sinners, God sent God’s only Son into our world to live and die for us.

Paul goes on to tell us how love shapes the lives of those who know our time is short.  Those who know our time is short “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”  We let the Spirit “cover” us in virtues that imitate Jesus’.  That means that the children God has adopted into God’s family seek to act in ways consistent with the way God treats us.  In baptism, after all, Christians have been buried with Christ and raised to new life.  God has put to death the stranglehold sin had on us and freed us to let Christ be our Master.

Throughout the verses leading up to those the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul describes Christ-like “clothing.”  He insists God’s adopted sons and daughters hate what is evil and hold on to what is good because Christ hated what was evil and clung to what was good.  Christians feed our hungry enemies and give them something to drink because that’s the way Christ treated those who mistreated him.

Teaching and preaching on texts like Romans 13 require a kind of balancing act.  On the one hand, its proclaimers want to awaken our hearers (and ourselves!) from the kind of spiritual malaise that so often plagues those who at least suspect we have many years to prepare for Jesus’ return.  On the other hand, we don’t want to unduly frighten those for whom Jesus is coming soon in order to take all his adopted brothers and sisters into the joy and glory of the new earth and heaven.

Illustration Idea

In his December 17, 2013 New York Times obituary for Harold Camping, T. Rees Shapiro wrote “That life on Earth continued after May 21, 2011 was a crushing disappointment to Mr. Camping, his legion of devout followers and millions of listeners on his Family Radio network …

“‘It is going to happen,’ Mr. Camping told NPR in early May 2011.  He reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars to spread his doomsday message.  His May 21 prediction was plastered on more than 5,000 billboards across the country.  He had 100 million pamphlets printed in 61 languages, including some that read, ‘The End of the World is Almost Here!’

“His volunteers canvassed the country, including dozens who walked Washington’s Mall handing out fliers that reminded passersby to ‘Save the Date.’  Through the Internet and social-media platforms, Mr. Camping’s bold prognostication ‘was made all the more accessible to a wider demographic and more quickly,’ said Jay Johnson, a religion professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

“In his deep, gravelly voice, Mr. Camping told listeners that Judgment Day would begin with a tremendous earthquake.  The true Christians, he said, would experience a rapture.  In all, he predicted that 200 million saved souls would ascend to heaven.  Awaiting their salvation, many of Mr. Camping’s followers sold their homes, quit their jobs and depleted their savings accounts to help finance his end-of-the-world campaign.

“After May 21 came and went, Mr. Camping emerged from his California home in the following days ‘flabbergasted.’  He called May 21 an ‘invisible Judgment Day’ and said his calculations had been off by six months. The real Armageddon, he said, would come on Oct. 21, 2011.

“Did his wrong prediction affect his reputation among followers? A moot point, he said.  On ‘October 21 of this year, the whole world is going to be annihilated, and never be remembered. So what legacy am I going to leave to anybody?’ Mr. Camping told the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha in 2011. ‘The only thing is that I hope that there are people who are listening that will begin to plead with God and begin to cry out’.”

“When that prediction did not come true, Mr. Camping retired from his radio work.”


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