A Thanksgiving tradition in my family is the exchanging of Christmas lists. Once the abundance of food on the dining room table has been acceptably reduced to dividable leftovers, out come the Christmas lists. The reason for this, of course, is that the end is near; there isn’t much time left, and all of the big sales take place on what we have come to know and love as “Black Friday”. And then of course, there’s “Cyber Monday.” I’m not so smart on that one: I think that’s the day your computer sells you stuff. A few years back, I saw a cartoon that featured a couple of ladies rushing out of the door on their way to take advantage of Black Friday sales, and the caption was, “There was a time when Thanksgiving celebrated the end of the harvest season. Now it signals the beginning of the harvest season.”
I suppose that in our modern world, that’s pretty much the truth. While I can’t prove it, I strongly suspect that some of my extended family members were up before the crack of dawn this past Friday doing some harvesting of their own. Shopping is serious business with some of them.
This is the first Sunday in Advent, and Advent also celebrates and signals an important beginning. It is the beginning of the Christian year. Early Christians, who suffered much persecution under the oppressive reign of the Roman government, could not quite bring themselves to get very excited about the Roman new year. They did not find much joy in, or reason to celebrate the Roman new year, which begins on January first, and so they stepped outside of the prevailing culture and created a new year of their own. Besides, the Roman new year was frequently celebrated with much reveling and drunkenness, along with some debauchery and licentiousness, and that didn’t seem to be quite the way to celebrate the coming of salvation into the world. Sadly, the Roman new year is still celebrated in the same fashion. Salvation through Jesus Christ delivered believers from engaging in revelry and drunkenness and debauchery and licentiousness. And so a quieter, more reflective, more spiritual beginning was in order, and what better time to celebrate that beginning than a few weeks leading up to the celebration of the birth of our Lord? And so happy new year to you all, and may this new year bring you all of the joy and the peace and the comfort that salvation provides.
As we celebrate our Lord’s coming into this world as a helpless, tiny child, we are also reminded of his promise to return, one day, to this earth as the reigning and ruling King of the universe. Once again, the Lord Jesus Christ will step out of the glories of his eternal Kingdom, this time, not to live among us, but rather to gather us up so that we can live with him forever in the place that he has prepared for us.
And so during Advent, we celebrate two very important beginnings. We celebrate our Lord’s birth and we celebrate and anticipate our Lord’s return. The time and manner of our Lord’s return is the subject of much needless speculation. Everyone wants to know when its going to happen, but the truth of the matter is that it is a divine secret. We aren’t supposed to know anything about when its going to happen, except that it can happen anytime.
Curiously, every generation of Christians, including the first generation, has believed that Christ would return during their lifetimes. It was the sure and certain belief of the Apostle Paul that he would witness Jesus’ return, and so here in the Book of Romans, he encourages his readers to wake up to that reality and to live as if the moment of Christ’s return was absolutely just around the bend.
Paul reminds them about what they have already been taught. He says, “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; the night is far gone, the day is near.” And Paul certainly means the day of the Lord when he says that.
Now…the Apostle Paul wrote those word’s nearly 2,000 years ago. That’s a pretty long time. If we were to apply our twenty-first century scientific and rational standards to what Paul has written here, we would have to conclude that he was wrong. Or, maybe if we want to cut him some slack, we might say that he was just really confused. But do either of those conclusions work? Of course not.
When I was younger, I liked the rock band “Chicago.” I suppose they’re all dead now, but I liked them because in addition to drums and guitars, they also used band instruments. And they had a song called, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” And truer words have never been spoken. We don’t have a clue what time it is. We don’t even know what year this is. The calendar says that it is 2016, but that’s wrong. It is just a guess. I’d say that it is probably some time between 2020 and 2022…but nobody knows for sure.
But this we do know, and this is what the Apostle Paul reminded his readers: it is always time for Christians to take the responsibilities of their faith very seriously. It is always right for Christians to realize that the
day of the Lord is closer now than when we first believed. It is always right for Christians to wake from sleep. Christians were nodding off in the first century, they were nodding off in the fifteenth century and they are now nodding off in the twenty-first century. Christians have always nodded off because it is hard for us to live out our faith with a sense of urgency. We’ve always got it in the back of our minds that there is still plenty of time to take our faith seriously; that there is no immediate crisis at hand.
In the first century, Christians were nodding off because they were getting discouraged that Jesus hadn’t returned yet. Many were even beginning to wonder if they hadn’t fallen prey to a hoax. Where was this Jesus who promised to return? Why hadn’t he shown up yet? Was he ever going to show up? Times were tough for Christians in the first century. They longed for the joys and pleasures of heaven. They wanted out of their broken world. And yet they were experiencing what seemed to them to be an incredibly long delay.
That should sound very familiar to us. It replicates some of our own feelings. We’d love to have Jesus show up during our lifetimes. We’d love to be out of this broken world. But it looks like we’re going to have to wait, because we can’t comprehend God’s timing. We don’t know what time it is on God’s cosmic clock.
And so we must live as the Apostle Paul has encouraged us to live. We must know that it is always time for us to wake from sleep. It is always time for us to live honorably and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ; to bear the name of Jesus as we wend our way through the maze of this world. For this we know, and must hold fast to: salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. It is not the end that we seek. It is the beginning. The beginning is nearer. Let us live in hopeful anticipation of that day.