First Sunday of Advent — December 1, 2013

No Mention of a Manger

By Mark Shannon, Guest Preacher

Romans 13:8-14
8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.            

            On this first Sunday in Advent can you tell that Christmas time is here?  We’ve just survived Black Friday, the carols are playing on lots of radio stations, and some Christmas specials have already aired on TV.    Everywhere you look you can see that we’re in the midst of a culture that’s in full Christmas mode.  Everywhere that is except in our Scripture reading for today.
            Our passages today don’t say anything about angels on high or a star in the sky.  Bethlehem’s baby is not the subject of our text.  There’s no mention of a manger, or myrrh, or Magi.  All we get in today’s readings is talk of judgment and a list of things we’re not supposed to do.  Christmas is all around us!
            Why can’t the Bible get in step with the rest of the world?
            When we turn our attention to the passage from Romans, we are hard-pressed to find any hint of the Christmas story.   Even though it’s a much more straightforward message we can be forgiven if the birth of our Savior does not spring to mind after we read the text.
            When Pastor Susan was putting the bulletin together, she wanted to know which of the texts for today I would be preaching from.  When I told her the one from Romans she remarked that she loves this epistle but she said it can be a challenge to preach about it.  Well, you know what they say about fools rushing in don’t you?  I’m trusting that the angels of Christmas are gathered round, so here goes.
            After reading the text I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Philippians when he says:  “Rejoice…and again I say rejoice!”  Upon first glance this passage contains a list of things not to do and to be careful how you live.  But consider this.  When God’s Word tells us these rules and restrictions the Author is writing them out of a deep love for His people.  We are loved and prized by the Lord and He wants us to know these things because He is concerned for our well-being.  When you see a child playing close to traffic, there’s an almost natural inclination to warn the child to stay away from there and to be careful—even if you’ve never seen that child before.  How much more magnified is God’s love for us, whom He sees as His children in a dangerous world full of temptations and pitfalls?
            When we read verses that tell us to behave decently, not in orgies or drunkenness, not in sexual immorality or debauchery, not in dissension or jealousy, can we honestly say that we’d rather live our lives steeped in those sins?  Although there is an attraction and a fascination with these lifestyles we need to remember that sin tastes good—for a season.  Then come the consequences.  Some people might say:  “Well, God loves me so He’ll bail me out after I have some fun.”  But we are not to put God to the test.  The results of our actions and how God uses them in our lives may not be to our liking.  It is better to have a healthy fear and reverence for God’s commands and to order our lives accordingly.
            When we read the passage from Romans we get a glimpse of life in the kingdom that is already among us and that is still to come.  I pause when I read Paul’s message that we should let no debt remain outstanding.  I’d be embarrassed if the apostle could read my credit score!  But as I consider his message further I realize that our concerns about money in this life probably have little in common with the affairs of the life to come.  I seriously doubt that the heavenly banquet Jesus is preparing for us comes complete with a check with a gratuity factored in for the angel waiting the table.  Currency has little value, if any, in the coming kingdom.   We are told to store up our treasures in heaven, but those are not treasures counted in dollars and cents.  Rather they refer to the investments we make in this life in the lives and well-being of others and in the work of God’s people.  This is not to say that our salvation depends on the work we do.  But if we dedicate our time and talents to the service of others and of God’s kingdom, we will see the benefit of our labors in the life to come. 
            Paul is also telling us that we should settle our debts here on earth because those kinds of obligations have no place or value in heaven.  So we are to settle our affairs here so we can start fresh in heaven.  When we go on vacation we make sure the utilities are paid up and the mail and newspaper delivery are taken care of, because we have no need of those things when we are away.
            Paul tells us to settle our debts and to love our neighbors not just for heaven’s sake but with an eye for the present time.  We need to have our wits about us in this world.  There are all manner of people and things that can trip us up and divert us from the path God wants us to take.  We don’t have the luxury of excuses like:  “The devil made me do it,” or “it was just the one time,” when we slip up.  We are the people God chose to reveal His plan of salvation to.  We have been chosen by Him to take on the Christian life, knowing full well the cost Jesus paid to make it possible for us to follow Him.  Paul is telling us that we can’t be lulled by old habits and the persuasions of other people who, knowingly or not, would like us to join them in sin.  It’s time for us to wake up!  The alarm has rung and it’s still ringing for those of us who need to hear it and join in the work of God’s people.  We don’t have as much time left to fulfill God’s plan for us as we did when we first gave our lives to Christ.  The clock is ticking, the sand in the hourglass is falling, and no matter how much time we have left, it is short.  The apostle is telling us to use the time we have left in doing the things that matter most.
            But you know, this world is like a swamp that sucks us in deeper with every step we take.  We are in pain, whether physical, emotional, or even spiritual pain.  We grieve for loved ones who’ve gone before us, everywhere we look we are surrounded by misery, violence and suffering.  How is a Christian to live, and thrive, in such a harsh environment?
          I recently read a book by Max Lucado called “You’ll Get through This.”  In it, Lucado paints this picture for us.  Imagine, he says, that you were told that you could spend an entire day in a tropical paradise surrounded by your closest friends and relatives.  All your favorite food would be on hand and there’d be time enough for you to do and to say those things with the people you loved  with plenty of other good things left over.  Then imagine that you were told that in order to take part in this celebration you would have to endure a millisecond of intense pain just before the party was to start.  The author concludes that most people would gladly accept the bargain, knowing that no matter the extent of the pain, it would only last a millisecond and then the best party ever would commence.
            Then Lucado delivers the zinger.  All of us, he says, are living in that millisecond of pain right now.  The party is being planned for us even now, and one by one everything is being made ready for our arrival.  Our task is to trust the One who is throwing the party for us and to accomplish those things He has for us to do before we can join the celebration.
            We can persevere in this life, knowing as we do that there is a life to come that will make it all more than worthwhile.  We can cling to this promise in Advent because the One who made the promise is trustworthy and will make sure it comes to pass.
            Paul also tells us to awake from slumber.  This is not mere rest in the conventional sense.  The slumber here refers to a state of being that allows us to be susceptible to the pervasiveness of sin and its potential to take our attention away from the things of God.  We fall into the slumber of sin when we become distracted by things that seem attractive, but that can do us harm if we allow ourselves to linger with them.  We all have areas in our lives that we indulge in to the exclusion of other people and even God.  It is good to be awake and aware of these personal pitfalls and to ask the Lord to keep us from straying into them.
            Paul tells us how to avoid this lapse into sin.  He says to put on the armor of light.  In his letter to the Ephesians he talks about the spiritual armor that is available to us in greater detail.  Here his use of the phrase “the armor of light” is amplified when he says to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.  If we consciously choose to seek the Lord’s help in times of temptation we will be better equipped to withstand the test.  We do have the option to focus our minds and attention on the things of this world or on the things of God.    It is no accident that the apostle warns against drunkenness in this passage because the stupor that comes with being drunk can blind the drinker and cause him to fall into all kinds of trouble.  Therefore we are to keep morally as well as physically sober and turn our lives more and more into an intentional focus on Jesus and the things that matter to Him.
            When I read Paul’s injunctions against sexual immorality, it’s easy to say that I don’t find myself in the grip of this particular sin.  You know what the Bible says about pride going before a fall.  So when I substitute the word “lust” for sexual immorality, suddenly I find myself a full-fledged victim and just as guilty as any other offender.  All I have to do is consider my bookcases, yes that word is plural, and the volumes I have stacked there to be read at a later date, and suddenly  a picture of lust in my life becomes  all too clear.
            Now’s the time for confession.  My mom was right.  I will not be able to read all of the books in my possession—because there’s always some other book I want.  It’s not enough to clear out my collection and give it to Half Price Books either, because you know that in the back of my mind I can hear myself saying:  “Now you can buy a Kindle Fire”!  And so we see again how the things we own turn out to possess us instead
            Putting on the armor of light and clothing ourselves with Christ means that we make a conscious decision to let Him come and shine a light into the dark corners of our neighborhoods and of our lives.  It’s not an easy thing for us to do.  It doesn’t come naturally to us.  Only with the prompting of the Holy Spirit can we summon the strength necessary to turn our minds and our actions in the direction He wants us to go.
            A text from Romans seems to have little to do with a birth in Bethlehem.  But how can Paul’s words help us in this season of Advent?  These days leading up to our celebration of Christ’s birth are meant to be spent preparing our hearts and minds to receive the king of all creation.  If you knew He would arrive on December 25, what changes would you make in your life?  What behaviors or attitudes would you change?  What would you tell people you loved?  What would you say to your enemies?  How would you use your money?  How would you spend your time?
            All these things and more would need to be considered if Jesus was cosmically scheduled to return on December 25.
            But we don’t know when that day will be.  There have been predictions  and warning over the years from people that said they knew what Jesus Himself said He did not know.  He said only the Father knew when the Son would return.   Early Christians assumed and hoped that He would return in their lifetimes.  They responded by pooling their resources and sharing their possessions with other believers.  They also behaved as though they didn’t need to work since the Lord was coming soon to rescue them from the world. 
            But He has not returned yet.  That day is still to come.  He may come in our lifetimes or He may not appear in the lifetimes of our grandchildren. 
            But Paul has laid out some instructions for how we are to live now, in preparation for that day.  The apostle has clearly stated what behaviors to refrain from to make us fit for that kingdom that is to come.  If we pattern our lives according to the format written down in the Bible we will find ourselves in more familiar surroundings when the Lord calls us to join Him in heaven.
            It’s time to decide.  Will God’s people get in step with the way He wants us to live?  Only we can answer that question.  May the Lord help us to choose wisely.