Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2022
Romans 13:11-14 Commentary
Doesn’t it almost seem as if the Revised Common Lectionary’s editors must have been citizens of the northern hemisphere? Of course, this Sunday’s first in the season of Advent makes their choice of Romans 13’s reflections on Christ’s return appropriate. But Paul sure spends a lot of its time talking about darkness in it.
Citizens of the northern hemisphere are watching our days’ length shrink like cotton clothing in a washing machine’s hot water. In the American state of Maryland where I live, for example, there will be eleven minutes less daylight on this Sunday than there were just last Sunday.
That shrinkage helps fuel the American controversy about Daylight Savings Time. After all, it seems as though some people assume that we’d gain more daylight if we just had Daylight Savings Time year-round. But, of course, Daylight Savings Time doesn’t actually lengthen the number of daylight hours. It simply shifts them a bit, as it were.
Paul, in fact, seems to suggest that no matter whether God’s dearly beloved people gather during Standard or Daylight Savings Time for worship this Sunday, it will be nighttime. In fact, even Christians who worship in bright sunlight will be in a kind of darkness.
Yet when Paul insists that “The night is nearly over. The day is almost here” (12), he appears to offer some light in that darkness. It’s, after all, a kind of invitation to preachers to help Jesus’ friends get ready for the daybreak that is Christ’s second coming.
Romans 13’s tone suggests that Paul worries that at least some of Rome’s Christians aren’t yet ready for that day to come. The apostle speaks, after all, of their need to awaken from their “slumber” (11). He also challenges the Roman Christians to “put aside the deeds of darkness” (12b).
In addition to the imagery of darkness that Paul employs in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, he also uses quite a bit of clothing imagery. He, in fact, combines the imagery of nighttime and clothing to both characterize and speak out against certain sinful behaviors and attitudes that characterize spiritual drowsiness.
A friend told me about a Spirit Week at the high school at which she taught. Hers was among the schools that tried to encourage school spirit by inviting students to wear the kind of clothing to school that they don’t ordinarily wear. That school sponsored a “Pajama Day” on which it allowed students to wear their pajamas to school. But, my friend, lamented, some of her students assumed that that gave them permission to wear negligées and other inappropriate nighttime clothing to school.
Paul suggests that for Christians to “wear” things like what the Message paraphrases as “frivolity and indulgence” (13) is like wearing a slinky nightgown to school. That wearing things like what the Message calls “sleeping around and dissipation” is like wearing nighttime clothing that has holes in revealing places to work. That wearing behaviors like what the Message paraphrases as “bickering and grabbing everything in sight” is like wearing a torn t-shirt and cut-off jeans to a black tie formal.
Paul implies that such destructive behaviors are signs that their “wearers” are still spiritually dozing. He suggests that they show that Jesus’ friends who “wear” them aren’t yet ready for daylight to arrive. The Roman Christians’ “clothing” themselves in those actions suggests that they still have plenty of time to take off their “nighttime” clothing that is things like drunkenness, debauchery, and dissension (13) and put on Christ Jesus (14).
Romans 13’s preachers might choose to explain the specific inappropriate articles of clothing to which the apostle refers there. Or they might choose to simply note how all of those different pieces of clothing are destructive to the Christian community because they are divisive. Those who choose the latter approach might make fruitful use of their preaching time by citing specific examples of how the clothing that is sexual immorality and dissension has harmed the body of Christ that is the Church.
Paul, of course, doesn’t actually identify the “day” (12) to which he refers. Yet we infer from his reference to our “salvation” as being “nearer now than when we first believed” (11) that he’s speaking of Christ’s return at the end of measured time. But the Greek word for our “salvation” (soteria) that he uses here refers simply to some kind of rescue, and is often used to describe God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.
However, might Paul be deliberately ambiguous in his use of the word “day” here? That, after all, would help his readers understand its variety of meanings. After all, the “daybreak” that is Christ’s return may come for the whole creation at the same time. Or it may, as it has for centuries, first come simply for individuals or small groups of Christians.
As I age, I find that increasing numbers of my contemporaries are dying. The “night” has ended for my friends Brian, Tim, Rog, Diane and others. They have, by God’s amazing grace, seen the sunrise that is Christ’s coming for them as individuals. Yet while I sense that daybreak is getting closer for other contemporaries as well as myself, we have not yet seen the dawn of Christ’s coming for us.
So I too need Paul’s reminder to “wake up from” my spiritual “slumber.” I’ve, after all, gotten fairly comfortable in my spiritual sleepwear. So my brothers and sisters in Christ and I need to “take off” our “deeds” of darkness. I’m part of the Church of Jesus Christ that must “clothe” itself what’s appropriate for the light of day in which we live and the coming daybreak of Christ’s return.
Yet much like Paul doesn’t explicitly identify the day about which he speaks in verse 12, he also doesn’t explain the nature of the piece of clothing with which he invites his readers to clothe (enduo) ourselves in that same verse. So even some commentators are uncertain about the meaning of this phrase the “armor of light” (hopla tou photos) in which he calls us to dress ourselves.
The biblical scholar Susan Eastman suggests that Paul’s imagery evokes soldiers waking in a military encampment just before daybreak. They rouse themselves as they prepare for imminent battle by putting on their armor and arming themselves with weaponry.
Eastman goes on to suggest that verse 12’s military imagery reminds its readers that we’re in the middle of a conflict, not with other Christians, but with a common enemy. Jesus’ friends’ true enemy is that which Paul describes in Ephesians 6:12 as “the rulers … the authorities … the powers of this dark world and … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Christians’ enemies against whom we must put on armor aren’t other people. They’re the powers and dominions that divide and enslave people.
Paul’s use of clothing imagery in verse 14 is a bit clearer. There, after all, the apostle calls his readers to clothe themselves “with the Lord Jesus Christ.” In Galatians 3 he describes baptism into Christ as clothing ourselves with Christ. Among other things, the New Testament scholars Jennifer Vija Pietz suggests that means that those who clothe ourselves with Christ recognize that our enemies are the principalities and powers that threaten us. So those who are clothed with Christ identify not just with Christ, but also our fellow Christians who have also clothed themselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.
This implicitly links this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to the passages that immediately precede and follow it. Those passages, after all, describe the article of Christian “clothing” that is love. In Romans 12:8-10 Paul challenges Rome’s Christians to wake up from their spiritual slumber by letting “no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another … the commandments … are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does not harm to its neighbor.” In Romans 14:1 the apostle also summons his readers to greet the breaking day by accepting the Christian “whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.”
On this first Sunday of Advent, the Lectionary’s Epistolary Lesson reminds the Church of Jesus Christ that the night of our long wait for Jesus’ return is nearly over. The daylight that is Christ’s second coming is breaking. Preachers have the immense privilege of inviting our hearers to wake from spiritual slumber, take off the nightclothes that are sinful actions, words and thoughts, and put on love, not just for our elder brother Jesus whose coming we await, but also for all our adopted brothers and sisters in Christ alongside whom we wait.
The Ungrateful Refugee’s (Catapult, 2019) author Dina Nayeri spent part of her childhood as an Iranian refugee. In it she writes: “People think of the refugee camp as a purgatory, a liminal shape without shape or color … Journalists and aid workers who visit camps often comment … on this aspect of the psyche … ‘How can they endure the limbo?’
Nayeri continues, “Since Hotel Barba [where she was a refugee in Italy], all waiting has been agony for me, and I’ve been obsessed with the idea of it. Why does it feel like an insult to wait for anything? Why does patience seem like one of those manipulative, sinister virtues invented to debase and subdue like chastity … Who waits least in the world? In A Lover’s Discourse … Roland Barthes says that waiting robs you of your sense of proportion.”
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