Tuesday, December 03, 2013


Rom 13:11-14[1]
  Somewhere on the way from the seeming simplicity of the way life used to be to the overwhelming complexity of the way life is now, a lot of us decided it was all too much to take in.  So we pulled the covers over our heads to avoid the really difficult issues of life that have been thrust right under our noses on the evening news.  We have all kinds of ways of avoiding the hard truths that beg for our attention.  We lose ourselves in the images that play out on our television screens or in the world of social media.  We distract ourselves by overusing alcohol and overusing caffeine.  We become workaholics, keeping busy every waking minute.  Or we just go shopping.  Somehow spending money on something, on anything, seems to make us feel like everything’s really just fine.
  But the reality is that we’re sleepwalking.[2]  We use these and many other distractions to keep from having to face the painful truths of our world.  Children are abused, and their lives are put in danger.  People live on the edge of literally losing everything, clinging to jobs that have little or no future.  Families are coming apart at the seams.  Morality seems to be a quaint relic of a by-gone era.  The only moral code these days seems to be “if it feels good do it.”  And when we widen our gaze, we find that there are wars raging all over the world, wars that spread violence like an epidemic and leave in its wake thousands of victims, mostly innocent.[3]  And yet we can find that violence in our own cities plagued by gang wars.  But rather than taking a hard look at all this, we’d much rather pull the covers over our heads and sleep through it all until the nightmares some people are living have gone away. 
  St. Paul says, however, that we can’t live like that anymore if we choose to follow Christ.  He says that the light of day has dawned, and we have to pull the covers off our heads and get up to face the sunrise.  In the light of day, we can no longer ignore the harsh realities of the world in which we live.  When we neglect to live out the faith we profess, we’re living like we’re still in the darkness.  We’re sleepwalking through life. Part of the problem is that when we close our eyes to the hard things around us, the pain and suffering, the fear and hatred, we also close our eyes to the good things.  Yes, the light of Christ makes it clear that we cannot sit idly by while others suffer.  But it also brings with it “peace on earth” (Lk. 2:14) and “the tender mercy of God” (Lk 1:78).  The light that shines through Christ brings with it the joy and hope and love that our faith in him brings to life in us.  That light makes it clear that, even now in spite of all the suffering and tragedy in this world, Christ is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).[4] 
  Advent challenges us to wake up from our slumbers.  We can no longer afford to linger in the various distractions that keep us stumbling in the dark.  We cannot continue to blame those who are different from us simply because it’s easy.  We cannot continue to ignore the suffering around us because it is too painful to watch.  We cannot continue to indulge our selfishness just because it feels good to do so.  The message of Advent is that with the coming of Christ the day has dawned. [5]  And that means we have to throw the covers off our heads, and get out of bed and walk out into this hurting world, bearing the light that Christ wants to bring into it through us.[6] 
  I realize that there are a lot of people who try to do that all year long.  And I realize that the immensity of the task can be overwhelming.  There are just so many people who need our help.  I can’t go to the Philippines to help people rebuild their homes.  I can’t go to Syria to help the refugee children.  I can’t even help all the people in Houston, TX who are living on the edge of tragedy every day.  And those thoughts can lead us right back to the cycle of feeling overwhelmed, pulling the covers over our heads, and simply sleepwalking through life. 
  But the light of Christ that shines at Advent won’t let us do that.[7]  It calls us to act “as people who live in the light of day” (Rom. 13:13, TEV).  I think at least part of what that means is that we live our lives in such a way as to bring the light to those around us.  And if we have a hard time figuring out how to do that, maybe the first step is to decide we’re going to treat the people around us, all the people around us, regardless of creed or color or economic status or educational background, with respect, and kindness, and compassion.[8]  That might not seem like much, but in our world that feels like it’s tearing itself apart at the seams from hostility and anger and even hatred, perhaps there’s no better way for us to shine the light of Christ on the lives of the real people we come in contact with every day.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/1/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Michael J. Gorman, “Romans 13:8-14,” Interpretation 62 (Ap 2008): 171. He says our task in reflecting on this passage is “to refocus the church on the need to embrace Christ daily, even moment by moment. Otherwise, the powers of darkness and evil either look more and more appealing or become less and less obvious, so that we are seduced by them as if we were half-asleep (v. 11).”
[3] Cf. ‘Syria war ‘damaging a generation of children’, UN warns,” BBC News, 29 Nov 2013.  It quotes a recent United Nations report about the human cost of the war in Syria estimating that half of the 2.2 million refugees are children.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102: “For Paul too, the approaching sunrise of the day of God makes it possible and necessary to lay aside ‘the works of darkness’ and to put on ‘the armour of light’ (Rom. 13:12ff.). The inviting proximity of the coming kingdom of God makes possible what was impossible before, and what is impossible without it. Conversion implements these new potentialities which God throws open. True life begins here and now, the true life which will come for the whole of creation with the kingdom of God. ‘Conversion’ is itself an anticipation of that new life under the conditions of this world.”
[5] While it is true that St. Paul is speaking to Christians about their conduct in view of the (second) coming of Christ, I would argue that the language is applicable to Advent in that it was the coming of Christ in the first place that brought the light St. Paul speaks about.  In a very real sense, therefore, we can say that the future light of Christ’s coming has already dawned in the present time, as Jurgen Moltmann argues in many of his works.  On the future orientation of the text, cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 211-13; and N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:728.
[6] Cf. Charles B. Cousar, “Disruptive Hope: New Testament Texts for Advent,” Journal for Preachers 25 (Advent 2001) 27.  He says, “It is time to get up and shake off the effects of the night. But the dawn for believers also brings with it the sounds of warfare. We dress for battle, but with unusual gear, called ‘the armor of light’ (13:12). In fact, Jesus himself is the armor we wear.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:255: “We cannot ... define Christians simply as those who are awake while the rest sleep, .... They are, in fact, those who constantly stand in need of reawakening.”  Cf. also Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 53, where he says, “the main question becomes: How to set our hearts on the kingdom first when our hearts are preoccupied with so many things?  Somehow a radical change of heart is required ...”  Cf. ibid., 68-69, where he says that is the “discipline of prayer” that helps us to come back again and again to “the active presence of God at the center of [our] living.”  Cf. similarly, Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 43: “Spiritual wakefulness demands only the habitual awareness of him which surrounds all our actions in a spiritual atmosphere ....” See also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 10, 15, 40-42, 226-28.
[8] Cf. Nicholas D. Kristof, "Where Is the Love?" The New York Times, November 27, 2013.  Kristof reflects on the general lack of empathy for the poor among those who have responded to his columns about social welfare programs, saying that while those of us who are successful tend to think we are the products of our own “level of virtue or self-discipline,” the reality is that “one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor.”  He concludes that “compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.” More than that, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that compassion for those who are in poverty is a mark of authentic faith.  On this, cf. especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 80: “Conversion includes soul and body, the individual as well as his community, his own way of life as well as the system in which he lives.”  Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 104: “Before Constantine, the Christian congregations were communities with a social commitment. Strangers were accepted, and new work was found for them. The poor in the congregations were fed, and even the city’s own poor as well. Sick people who had been abandoned were taken in and cared for. The Christian congregations felt in duty bound to undertake the care of others. Until these independent congregations were absorbed into the parishes of the imperial church, many of them continued the struggle against real, practical poverty, hunger and sickness, acting in the name of Jesus, and following what he himself did. It was only with the Constantinian imperial church that there came to be an increasing tendency to spiritualize poverty, because the church had to leave ‘welfare’ to the emperor, and was forced to confine itself to the salvation of souls.”

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