Route Step, March!
When marching troops over a bridge, it's mandatory to take them out of step with each other by giving the command, "Route step, march!" This is so resonance doesn't build up from the pattern of footfalls and cause the bridge to collapse. My goal this Advent it to get you out of step with the world's holiday that began with Thanksgiving and ends Christmas day.
The real season, not the holiday season has been revealed to you. Paul says literally, "You forever know by revelation from God the season." And the season your Lord has revealed to you isn't, "Ho, ho, ho." The season isn't, "food, fun, and family." The season in here isn't one of nostalgia, of good will among men, of celebrating.
No, in here its "time to wake up, sleepy-head" season. You've been in bed with the world long enough. You stay in bed with her and you'll be swept away with her. I'm thinking of the 1959 song, "Wake up, little Susie." The teenagers had said she'd be home by ten, but the movie wasn't that hot; it didn't have much of plot. They fell asleep and didn't wake up till 4 AM. Now their reputation is shot.
You have a lot more to lose than reputation, so "Awake, awake," this watchman cries. You've been lulled to sleep by the world. It may be by the dulling sameness of day to day life. Or with the disciples in Gethsemane it may be sorrow that has caused you to sleep. Then again it could be you're like the disciples at the Transfiguration. You've been lulled to sleep by spiritual things. Whatever the case the hour has come now. You sleepwalk out of here and it's more dangerous than falling asleep in a moving car.
Why? Because "our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." The "night is nearly over; the day is almost here." Paul pictures that brief time before sunrise when it's both night and day (Middendorf, 1344). Asleep in a car you can be hurtling toward a car, toward a ditch, toward a tree. Sleepwalk out of here and you're hurtling toward judgment because where salvation is there is judgement. See how close they were at Calvary; see how close they are in the Gospel reading: two people in one place; one is saved and the other is lost.
God has revealed to you the season, the hour, and the day. It's time to break ranks with the world marching to destruction all around you. A world that scoffs at the concept of a God let alone a God who returns to judge the living and the dead. It's time to break step with Dame Reason of Proverbs whose steps says Solomon lead straight to hell and are anchored there. It's time to break step now and wake up or wake up screaming when you find that you've been in bed so long with the world you're married to the triple headed monster of Sin, Death, and Devil.
The military has a uniform for every formation, every function, every event, and the soldier doesn't choose it. He's told what to wear. What should we wear as we walk into the daylight? Well before you put something on, you almost always have something to take off first. Two things: notice that Paul speaks of we, all of us, and he is speaking in the subjunctive not the imperative. He speaks of what we should do. Subjunctives tell you what the speaker dearly wants done, but they don't rise to the level of the imperative. They aren't a must.
Paul uses 3 first person plural subjunctives including himself here. We should "put off" the works of darkness. You can't be dressed in the works of darkness and enter the realm of light. The works of darkness Paul warns of are 3: orgies, sexual immortality, and dissension. The word paired with each is the basic sin that gets the thing going. Here our translation is not good in one aspect. The root sins are drunkenness, jealously, and not debauchery but sensuality. Sensuality is finding your treasure, pleasure, and joy in the realm of the world. You can dress that way in the world and even more so in the holiday season and you'll be dressed for success in the world, you'll be right in step with the world, but out of step with the world without end.
"You're not going anywhere dressed like that." If you haven't said that to a teenager, you will. Some clothes are not fitting for certain situations. Works of darkness are not fitting for our season, this hour of judgment, this day of salvation, and you know that. But neither is nakedness, so we should put something on. Paul says, "We should put on the armor of light." The works of darkness were all ours. We must own them because we do own them. They are out dirt, our stain, our shame.
But where do we get armor of light? Where do we get anything but darkness? From God the Son who walked this world crying out, "I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life." The light we should put on is not our own. It is foreign to us. You can wake up and walk out of here doing your best, putting off, at least outwardly, your drunkenness, your sensuality, your jealously, but you don't own a suit of light to put on. Only the Lord Jesus, the Light of the world does.
The last thing Paul tells us we should do is not "behave decently." That's mixing a metaphor when Paul doesn't. O he has the word "walk" and that's where the insert gets behave.' But coupled with the word decently' you think the issue is behavior. No Paul is building to something radical. He's still in the realm of clothing. He says we should walk as one properly attired. The word has to do with clothing.
When I grew up I had school clothes, play clothes, and church clothes. If I did play things in school clothes or worse in church clothes, I was in trouble. There is only certain clothing proper for the season of salvation, the day of judgement. Why is this so hard for you to understand? You know it in the world. You know that you don't wear Halloween colors to a Christmas Party; you don't wear shorts to a formal; you don't wear formal wear for sports. And yet you think there is no proper attire for that day that is almost here? There is and it isn't in your closet.
See how I switched from us to you, from we to you, from including myself to only speaking of you? I did that because Paul does. He says literally in the last verse: Rather than being clothed in works of darkness, "you must put on the Lord Jesus Christ and the provision of the flesh you must not continue to make into lust." This is what must happen if you are going to walk out of here awake and properly attired to meet that Day of Judgment-Salvation.
Earlier Paul said what "we should do." We should put off works of darkness and we should put on the armor of light. These two shoulds were not to lead you to conclude what you could do, but what you can't. And then Paul in the last sentence gets you to what's imperative. But hear them all the way through.
Yes, you must put on the Lord Jesus Christ. There's no way you will survive that day; there's no way you can meet that day without being clothed in His holiness and righteousness. Have you ever put on a garment you thought clean and then found just a spot after you wore it on the back shoulder or worse on the seat? Well, you have nothing to put on that isn't stained somewhere. Your good intentions, your sincere desires, your very best works are stained, soiled, spotted. Wake up today and put those on and you walk into a daylight of judgment.
And there is no way you will wake up today or any day on your own; you'll sleep till the last trumpet blasts you awake if you continue to make provision for the lust of the flesh. You must stop that today; you must repent today. Notice Paul doesn't say you must not have the lusts of the flesh. Luther said that you could avoid lusts as little as you could stop the birds of the air from flying over your head. Paul doesn't say you must stop lusting but you must stop making provisions to satisfy them. You don't stop that and you're forging thicker and thicker Jacob Marley-like chains.
However, you can no more stop making provisions than you can wake yourself up, decide to put on Christ, or get out of step with the world. The Good News is that this imperative command is based on a statement that indicates what God in Christ has first done for you. In Galatians 3:27 Paul promises, "As many of you who have been baptized into Christ, Christ you have put on." "Been baptized" is passive. You don't baptize yourself. It happens to you, and "Christ you have put on" is a promise not a command.
Baptized into Christ's holy life and innocent death, your sinful flesh has been put to death and you've been risen in a new life clothed in Christ's holiness. You don't belong any longer in the lockstep formation of the world that is marching to certain judgment and hell. Christ Jesus took on human flesh and blood in the Virgin's womb to come rescue you from this present darkness. He took all the Laws of God that had you hemmed in exposing your sins every which way you turned and kept them in your place. And He took all the debt you owed for your sins and paid it off one bloody drop at a time on the cross. Then He delivered to you what He did for you on the cross in your Baptism. All the kept laws, all the paid off debt was given to you in Baptism where Christ was first put on you.
Can't you see? You don't belong in the formation marching toward doom? Can't you see the baptized are out of step with what the world things important, valuable, or even needed? Can't you see that Christ went to the cross to redeem you for better things than these? Can't you see that the world's holiday at best can make you forget the pain and your stains, but along with them you forget the fact that this night of falleness and sadness is nearly over and the day of salvation all but dawned?
A mother is watching her first military parade. As her son's platoon passes the stands, she says, "O look my son is the only one in step." May that be us in the world this Advent season. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (20161127); Romans 13: 11-14