(A sermon preached at Grace Anglican Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on November 27, 2022, the First Sunday of Advent. Access the original sermon audio, with slight differences, here.)
Scripture: Romans 13:11-14 (ESV)
Besides this, you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
I must begin with a confession: I’m not a morning person. Anyone who asks me to rise before 7:30 a.m. is required to provide my first cup of coffee. The fact that our church services are an hour earlier than most I’ve attended is a significant test of my calling as clergy. I say, let the Baptists beat us to lunch. We have cookies.
My loathing for early mornings notwithstanding, having spent seven years as the night clerk of a hotel, I have an intimate acquaintance with sunrise. In my many years of waiting for the new day, I observed that the chirp of the birds is the first signal of dawn. Eventually, the inky navy of the night sky shifts through several shades of indigo before pink patches on the clouds reveal the first rays of sunlight. But the birds know before. They sense the first rays of light and know that day is upon us. It has invaded and conquered the night. You see, that’s the thing about light. The moment it arrives, darkness has met its end. As St. John tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it” (John 1:5 REB). The birds understand this and are prepared. They know the day comes and sing the song of its arrival.
Therein is the meaning of Advent, a season the Church has observed since at least the late 5th century, possibly earlier. Advent begins in darkness as we watch for the light. Advent, which means coming, is a season of expectation—of seeing the first signs of Christ’s arrival in the world. The hallmark of this season is preparation. The colors of Advent even signify this. Purple—used for most of Advent—is a color of penitence, preparation, and royalty; thus, we use it as we prepare our hearts in the weeks before the two biggest feasts of the Christian year: Christmas and Easter, the first commemorating Christ’s coming, the second his victory over Satan, sin, and death. Some Anglicans and Lutherans, drawing on other ancient traditions, substitute blue for Advent, a color often used to represent hope, which is also quite fitting. Meanwhile, the third of the four Sundays of Advent has, also since the 5th century, been named Gaudete, or “Rejoice,” and marked by rose pink to signify joy amid the waiting.
Of course, while we often think of Israel’s anticipation of the messiah’s first coming during Advent, this season is just as much about awaiting his return. The readings for the first week of Advent consistently, as they do today, focus on this aspect—preparation for his second coming. Advent encourages us to be ready, for “every heart [to] prepare him room,” as Isaac Watts hymned, and to echo the Psalmist, “I wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” (Ps. 130:6).
Salvation is Near
St. Paul wants us to feel the immediacy of the time: “The hour has come for you to wake.”
One of the things that would happen to me in my night shift is a gradual tiring and, with it, the gradual loss of productivity. As many of you know, when we are tired, it becomes easy for sin to slip in. Our defenses are down, and we default to our fleshly weakness. This complacency works as a picture of our lives overall. We effortlessly adopt patterns of what works in the world and lose sight of God’s movement. We fall into the humanistic spirit of our Western world, keeping God remote from our everyday lives.
We find Paul encouraging the Roman Christians not to get to such a spot: do not tire or get complacent. Fourth-century bishop St. John Chrysostom comments here, “Paul is not trying to frighten his hearers but to encourage them, so as to detach them from their love of the things of this world. It was not unlikely that, at the beginning of their endeavors, they would be more dedicated and slacken off as time went on. But Paul wants them to do the opposite—not to slacken as time goes on but to become even more dedicated. For the nearer the King is, the more they ought to be ready to receive him.”
Paul assures us that salvation is nearer than when we first believed. There is an echo of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) here in Paul’s wake-up call. When Jesus appears as an adult, he begins by preaching the simple Gospel “The kingdom of God (or Heaven) is at hand” (Mark 1:15; Matt. 4:17). Another translation reads, “The kingdom of God is upon you” (REB). The kingdom is permeating the present world. It is already breaching the enemy’s castle walls, though it has yet to arrive in all its fullness. It is part of what theologians call the already-not-yet tension: what began at Christ’s first coming in ongoing and will be consummated at his return.
There are many ways we encounter this tension. It is, above all, in the preaching of the gospel and the making of disciples. It is in the tangible foretaste of the kingdom feast that he gives us each week at the Lord’s table. It is in every work of beauty that reflects his glory. It is in each act of charity that helps the poor, the hungry, the sojourning, and the sick, working against the curse of the fall. It is in our love for one another.
Cast off the Works of Darkness
You see, Paul calls us to a particular life in preparation for Christ’s coming, casting off “the works of darkness.” The first things he tells us not to do are often associated with night: “orgies and drunkenness… sexual immorality and sensuality.” These are the ones we like to hide in the dark and that feed upon the desires of the flesh. They are sins that are bodily and tangible. However, Paul then follows these with “quarreling and jealousy.” If there is a fleshly behavior that has possessed our age most, I think it is here. Television and the internet have given these vices an amplifier like never before. Our fears and insecurities have lashed out in a spectacular display of self-promotion, mockery, and bullying. They have poured fuel on smoldering disagreements deep within the Church, sparking an outbreak of infighting that has spread through many denominations, even our own, with each incendiary post, podcast, or blog. Yet, these vices are not new, just magnified. I lament alongside 16th Century Anglican priest and theologian Richard Hooker when he says, “There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive more blessed reward than a thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.” And Hooker had never seen Twitter!
For Christians, acts of anger and bitterness should be just as unthinkable as drunkenness and illicit sex. 19th-century Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle even writes, “An unforgiving and quarrelsome spirit is the surest mark of an unregenerate heart.” Christ calls us to love one another actively, and as Paul says in the verse before today’s passage, “Love cannot wrong a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10 REB). The cannibalistic behavior of our age must not be ours.
Put on the Armor of Light
This brings us to how we cast off the works of darkness and resist complacency: we put on the armor of light. Light, after all, reveals reality—reveals the truth, and nothing can hide any longer. Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes, “Fear always works in the darkness, not in the light. Fear appeals not to the light of truth that we can see in the present but the darkness and uncertainty that we cannot see in the future.”
But how can we don this armor of light? After all, we are still prone to sin. Such an action requires a different Advent, a different dawning—not the Advent in the manger or the Advent or the promised consummation, but an Advent within us. To put on holiness, we must receive holiness. Advent teaches us that our help cannot come from ourselves. The self-help philosophies of the past century are bankrupt. As with the first and second comings of Christ, the action must be purely divine. As German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while imprisoned by the Nazis, “a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”
Christ is the key. Paul tells us we must put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot forget that it is Christ who has accomplished all righteousness. We cannot forget that we were trapped in the darkness, doomed to it, enslaved to our flesh until Christ died for us and rose again. It is through what Christ accomplished that we are made children of God, and we can only live for him when we find our identity clothed in him. We do so by the gift of the Spirit Christ sent to dwell in us and through the Scripture the Spirit inspired. Therefore, through the work of Christ, the very kingdom itself dawns in our hearts.
As this Advent commences, let us think on what it looks like to be a glimmer of the kingdom in the current dark world. We shall do so imperfectly. The darkness is still intense and still seeks to strangle us. But here, also, is our reality: Christ has come. As the ancient liturgies proclaim: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” The shadows stretching their desperate fingers toward us have been overcome and will soon be banished evermore. The eastern sky already warms: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.”
Lord, make the light of your truth dawn in our hearts, and let our lives sing the morning song of your kingdom.
(Cover image: Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872. Courtesy of WikiArt.)