The Beginning Is Nearer


Romans 13:11-14

First Sunday in Advent

This year, as we gathered around the Thanksgiving table it was very obvious to us that the passing of time had taken its toll. Around that table was a brand new generation. It was not the kind of brand new generation that is represented by small children, or even by new born babies; no, this brand new generation was something else entirely. With the death of my Aunt Marion this past August, the last surviving member of my parent’s generation, Meg and I, and my brothers and cousins became the oldest living generation in our family. And with that, for me at least, came a fair amount of reckoning. And while I can barely remember my great grandparents, I have very vivid memories of my grand parents; on both sides of my family. And I remember my parents, when all of my grand parents were dead, discussing how strange it felt to be members of this brand new generation. What did it mean to be the oldest generation, and was this experience more of a beginning or more of an ending? New, it certainly was, but does new necessarily imply that there is a beginning, or does it more aptly imply that the end is nearer than it has ever been? At the time, I did not understand the significance of their conversation. But now, I think I’m learning. It is both. It is a beginning, and it is an ending.

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and Advent celebrates and signals a very important beginning. This is New Year’s Day. It is the first Sunday of the church year. Early followers of Jesus, 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 which is always a great thing for the followers of Jesus to do, and created a brand new new year’s of 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. Salvation through Jesus Christ delivered believers from engaging in revelry and drunkenness and debauchery and licentiousness. And so 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 it is going to happen, and how it is 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 it is going to happen, except that it can happen at anytime.

Curiously, every generation of believers, including the first generation, has believed that Christ would return during their life times. 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 that it is the Day of the Lord that is near.

Now, the Apostle Paul wrote those words nearly 2,000 years ago. That’s a pretty long time: longer than most of us here this morning have been alive. 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, perhaps, 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.

Whenever matters of eschatology arise, I always think of the rock band Chicago. I suppose that they are all dead now, or at least the oldest generation in their families, but I liked them because in addition to the usual drums and guitars, they also used band instruments. And they had a song called, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Now that is a truly profound question, because none of us has a clue what time it is. We don’t even know what year this is. The calendar that we use says that it’s 2022, but it is wrong. That’s only a guess. And what does 2022 mean, anyway?

But this we do know, and this is what the Apostle Paul wanted his readers to know: it is always time for the followers of Jesus to take the responsibilities of their faith very seriously. It is always right and proper for us to understand that the Day of the Lord is closer now than when we first became believers. It is always the right time for believers to wake from sleep. Followers of Jesus 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. In fact, we have always been a bit drowsy. And we are drowsy because it is hard for us to live out our faith with a sense of urgency. We’ve 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, believers 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 the followers of Jesus in the first century. They longed for the joys and pleasures of a place where they could live in freedom for all of eternity. They wanted out of their broken world. And waiting for Jesus to return was becoming a wearisome burden on top of their already wearisome lives. What was the reason for this very long delay?

That should sound very familiar to all of us. It replicates some of our own feelings. We’d love to have Jesus show up during our life-times. We’d love to be out of this broken world. But it looks like we are going to have to wait, because we have no control over God’s timing. We never have. 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 understand 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. It is time to bear the name of Jesus as we wend our way through the maze of this world. For this we know, and to this we must hold fast: 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 hopeful anticipation of that day.

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