Happy New Year?
Today, the First Sunday in Advent, is the Church's New Year's Day. Today the Church resets her calendar to Christian Standard Time. What can we say on this day when the old year gives way to the new?
We can say that the piercing light of the Last Day is one year closer. You know how it is on New Year's Day. All of a sudden you realize that another year has swept by without you having done many of the things you had said or thought you would. The New Year is like a cold splash of water in the face. It wakes you up. It startles you. The Church has historically used our text as the Epistle reading because it too does that. Paul says, in a rather excited voice, "The hour has come for you out of sleep to wake!" It's like we've overslept. We were suppose to be someplace 15 minutes ago, and St. Paul is shaking us saying, "You're late! Get up!"
Have you ever overslept, and the person waking you up can't get that through your groggy head? So they get specific. They tell you your first meeting is almost over; your next one is about to start. That will get you awake in a hurry! And so Paul uses graphic language saying, "The night is nearly over, and the last day is all but here." That ought to make us sit up and take notice. We've been lulled to sleep by the rhythms of day to day life: the eating, the drinking, the buying, the selling, family and friends, school and work. The Last Day is just about to dawn. It's piercing light will light up all that we have thought, did, and said.
Folks have you ever fallen asleep on the job? Ever fallen asleep before you got what you were suppose to do done? Do you remember the panic? The fear? The rush to try to make things right? When St. Paul shakes us awake on this First Sunday in Advent with the news that the Last Day is just about to dawn, we're tempted to rush about fearfully trying to make things right. But did you catch how Paul does the waking? Not with fear but joy. He says, "The hour has come out of sleep to wake, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." Paul doesn't wake Christian people with hell fire and brimstone making them fearful, rushed, and unsure. He doesn't do like most people preach this text, wake us to a day of judgment. He wakes the Church like we wake a child who has slept to late on Christmas morning, "It's Christmas," we say, and the child smiles and jumps out of bed. The Church's New Year begins not with the news that judgment is almost here but salvation is.
Yes, having just completed another year, we are one more year closer to the glorious day of salvation when the sin, sickness suffering and sighing we know so well now will be erased by joy indescribable. Then all that Jesus has promised, all that we have held in faith, will be seen by us in the light of an eternal day. We will see in this bright light just how alive baptized Christians are; just how forgiven absolved sinners are; we will see just what it means to be in communion with the Body and Blood of the cosmic Christ.
Dear friends, how incompatible the works of darkness are to the bright light of that eternal day of our salvation. It's like the stand-up comic who had a raunchy, insulting routine, and was hauled into court for it. He defended it on the basis that people laughed at it. The judge sentenced him to do his routine not in a dimly lit bar where he couldn't clearly see the people he was insulting and offending but in a brightly lit room. The comic tried, but people didn't laugh at the same material in the bright room, and eventually he walked out in shame. What seems okay, seems not that bad in the dark, just isn't proper in the light of day.
Paul lists 3 pairs of things that aren't fit for the light: orgies and drunkenness; sexual immorality and debauchery; dissension and jealousy. The first in each pair is the sinful activity; the second is the basic sin that gets it going. Drunkenness leads to orgies (literally carousing); debauchery (actually sensuality) leads to sexual excess; and jealously leads to dissension. In this dark world, these are normal. In this dark world, you're weird if you're offended at these just as you would be weird if you didn't laugh at that comic in a dark nightclub. But how incompatible these things are with the daylight of Christ!
But make no mistakes about it, Christians are plagued by these things. St. Paul himself was. Did you catch that? While Paul began telling us that OUR salvation was nearer now, he includes himself when he speaks of the deeds of darkness saying, "Let us put aside the deeds of darkness...Let us behave decently as in the daytime." Being a Christian doesn't mean we're immune to the urges of our fallen nature. Indeed as long as we are in this life, the temptation to carousing and drunkenness, sexual immorality and sensuality, dissension and jealously will be as close to us as our skin.
How can we overcome them? The temptation is to use laws. Do this; don't do that; go here; don't go there; watch this; don't watch that. The problem is that earlier in Romans Paul tells us that the Law only activates sinning. The law increases sinning not decreases it. When we try to use the Law to deal with the burning lusts of the fallen nature, we are in effect putting logs on the fire. The more you are told don't do something; the more your fallen nature wants to. You've all experienced this. When the doctor says nothing to eat or drink after midnight how torturous that seems though you don't usually eat or drink anything after midnight anyway.
Another popular way to deal with the deeds of darkness is excuses. I'm really not that bad; others are worse than me. That's true in the dark, isn't it? But in the bright light of day there is no such thing as a little sin, is there?
I know what you're thinking. The answer must be repentance. This certainly seems like the Christian answer. But we can't overcome these deeds of darkness that plague us by just repentance. If we try, we become like a character in a Shakespear play always walking about confessing our guilt. When Peter preached to the Pentecost crowd bringing their sins down upon their heads, he did indeed say they must repent for them, but that was no answer to them. No, the answer is what Peter said next. He said, "Repent and be baptized everyone of you for the forgiveness of your sins." It wasn't repentance that brought the answer to their sins; it was Baptism. Baptism is the answer to the deeds of darkness that plague us and threaten to rob us of the day of salvation that grows ever nearer.
But people often miss the connection between Christian living and living in their Baptism. When they read Paul's admonitions to Christian living they skip over the references to Baptism. In I Corinthians 6 when Paul warns about fornication, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, stealing, greed, and drunkenness, he goes right to Baptism saying, "Such were some of you, but you were washed." See Baptism is the answer. In Ephesians 5 when Paul treats the difficult subject of Christian living in marriage, he again brings up Baptism saying that Christ cleansed His Church, "by the washing of water with the Word." When Paul tells Pastor Titus to remind his people to live as Christians, he goes right to Baptism saying Christ saved them "by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit."
As we wake up and see the day of salvation growing ever closer, we are confronted with the absolute incompatibility of the deeds of darkness that plague us. We are tempted to resort to what we can do to be prepared, but Paul points us to Baptism. In Baptism is the putting aside of the deeds of darkness that Paul in the text says we are to do. Earlier in Romans 6 Paul tells us we died to sin. Where? In our Baptism because there we were buried with Christ. Our old self, those deeds of darkness, were "crucified with Him that our body of sin might be done away with." Friends, when you were carried to the font and those waters ran over you the Word of God did what you could never do. It drowned that sinful flesh. Put it in the grave. Every time we remember our Baptism our flesh is again put in the grave with Christ.
But that's not enough. In the text Paul tells us to put off the deeds of darkness, and put on the armor of light. This is not something you do by will power or by Christian living, but by Baptism. In Romans 6, Paul says not only were we united to the death of Christ, we were untied with His life. Baptism not only put aside the deeds of darkness; it clothed us in light by clothing us with Christ. That's what Galatians 3:27 says, "As many of you who were baptized, you have put on Christ." So when Paul closes our text saying, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," He is sending you back to your Baptism. He is sending you back to what God has done for you in Baptism not to your determination, not to your effort, not to your changing yourself, but to Christ having radically changed you in Baptism.
But friend, it is not the putting off or the putting on, that I really want to call your attention to; it's the walk. The word "walk" is a key word when Paul talks about Baptism. But you didn't hear it in our text because the NIV doesn't translate it. You heard, "Let us behave decently," and so were thrown back on the fact that you better shape up. What Paul says is, "Let us walk becomingly as one properly clothed." Romans 6 is where Paul first talks about walking in Baptism saying that we've been buried with Christ in Baptism "that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk about in a new life." In our Baptism, clothed in Christ, we can walk about as Christ did on Easter Sunday: Did He walk about carrying our sins? No, they were paid for. Did He walk about fearful of the devil? Nope, He had defeated him on the cross. Did He walk about fearful of dying? Nope, Jesus rose never to die again.
In your Baptism that is how you can walk about too. You are now clothed with Christ's holiness, Christ's victory, Christ's life. What sin is not covered by Him? What can Satan do to you in Christ? What can death do to you in Christ? Walking about properly attired in your Baptism you are already in the daylight of salvation. You can no more go on living in the deeds of darkness than the comic could go on telling his jokes in a lit room.
So our New Year begins today, not by waking sinners who have overslept to a day of wrath and judgment, but by waking sinners who have fallen asleep in their Christmas or baptismal clothes to the fact that Christmas Day is about to dawn. O we do tell them just like their moms used to, that their Christmas clothes aren't meant for playing in the mud. But when you're mom told you that, were you afraid that at any moment she was going to rip those clothes off your back? So little is Paul trying to make you afraid that Christ will rip His baptismal garments off you. He wants you to walk about securely in them even as Christ walked about on Easter Sunday secure in His victory over sin, death and the devil.
Paul reminds you that you're in Baptismal clothes for the same reason your mom reminded you of your Christmas ones, because you behave differently in your Christmas clothes. But no one thinks they earn them by behaving differently. Christmas behavior flows from Christmas clothes, but the clothes themselves are a gift. So it is with baptized behavior. It flows from the gift of Baptism. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent I (12-2-01) Romans 13: 11-14