Sunday, October 7, 2018

Nearer and Nearer: Sermon on Romans 13:11-14

It was a fairly typical night in the midst of first-century Rome. In one of the crowded tenement districts, the local popina – the wine bar – was doing thoroughly good business. A bustling place, customers were drinking freely their cares away after a long day's thankless work. Not a few were utterly inebriated, now that the night was so far gone. The sounds of dice cracked through the establishment; gamblers yelled and wept and raged. Drunks cursed each other out, threw punches, staggered into the streets. One led a barmaid out back as her shift ended; others were similarly enticed by the lures of the brothel down the street, which certainly sent its representatives to solicit in the bar. Over there, a couple men scrawled obscene graffiti, leaving reviews of the salacious services they'd received. Back in the popina, those less occupied with lust let greed or anger rule the roost. Even the emperor in disguise slipped in and out of the popina that night, stirring up a fight for his amusement and moving on to some petty burglary elsewhere. Like I said: a typical night in ancient Rome. Gambling, drinking, fighting, cursing, adultery, lewdness, crime – nightlife.

Across the city, in one of the more upscale districts, slaves, clients, and friends gathered at a larger estate to attend a banquet in honor of their patron's birthday. The friends reclined in the triclinium, the room of three couches, while the clients ate in the atrium and the slaves served. Entertainment abounded: flute-girls, dancers, hired women. After the dessert course, the tables had been taken away; the wine that had been consumed all through supper now became the central focus. Guests traded barbed jests as they drank themselves more and more toward oblivion; they played drinking games, like flinging the dregs of a cup of wine toward a target in the middle of the room; they talked, they laughed, they sang, they squabbled; they enlisted the services of the entertainers and slaves, grown women and younger boys, in assorted lewd ways best left undescribed. Such was a not untypical convivium, the drinking-party that ended any good banquet – nightlife in the comforts of home for the Roman upper-class.

All that, in the poorer districts and the wealthier districts, was normal nightlife, accepted practice, in ancient Rome during the night. As the dozens of small Roman churches met to read Paul's letter during their Sunday evening communion and fellowship meals, not a few of the believers attending were newer converts whose nights had, until quite recently, included just such things. Some had frequented the bars and brothels. Others, the richer sort, had perhaps thrown banquets and drinking parties in their own home. Still others, clients of pagan patrons, were obligated to attend such parties; and still others, Christian slaves, may have not only had to work at such parties, but were expected to make themselves available for certain kinds of services. For those in any of these situations, all this sort of nightlife was normal; it was what they were used to; it continued to be a temptation, and maybe some sought to replicate it as they gathered with other believers for bread and wine.

So it isn't much surprise that the various things characteristic of Roman nightlife are the very things Paul takes pains to list. He gives three pairs of habits to break free from: literally, “carousings and drunkennesses; beddings and debaucheries; strife and zealotry” (Romans 13:13). Paul names the drinking habits, the sexual habits, the honor-seeking and rivalry and abusive habits endemic to Roman nightlife for rich and poor alike. He calls them out as examples of “the deeds of darkness” (Romans 13:12) – behavior typical of the night. Paul says in another one of his letters, “Those who sleep, sleep at night; and those who get drunk, are drunk at night” (1 Thessalonians 5:7).

Night has always, throughout history, been a time of mystery and danger when people did the things they'd never dare do in the light of day. I read a social history of night in pre-industrial Europe once, and not only was the night filled with tragedy as people struck their heads on signs and fell into holes, but the same sorts of drinking and adultery and fighting ran rampant; vandals and thieves and rioters and burglars were commonplace, sometimes disguising themselves as ghosts or demons, invoking dark magic to aid their wicked quests; and plenty more. “Deeds of darkness” – if you were here last week, you remember the story of a pair of serial arsonists in Virginia just a few years ago – and those fires were always set at night, under cover of darkness, because they were “deeds of darkness.” Perhaps most of us aren't tempted by drunkenness or debauchery, burglary or arson. But even in 2018, even in the church, there may be things we'd do under cover of night when we think no one's watching that we'd never dare do in the light of day and if we thought ourselves to be in plain view. Such are “the deeds of darkness.” What behaviors do we reserve for the times when darkness gives us cover from public scrutiny?

Whatever it is, Paul tells his churches, cast it aside, like you throw aside your blankets when you get up in the morning: “Let us cast aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Not only should we not let it infect our gatherings as a church, our fellowship, our communion, but we should throw off all the typical nightlife behaviors entirely. Why? Because, Paul says, just look at God's clock! The alarm is sounding; it's well past time to wake up; so throw off those sheets and get dressed! “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

In Paul's world, people typically went to bed earlier and then awoke with the first rays of light, before the sun had truly dawned over the horizon. People still in bed, wrapped up under the covers, when the sun fully rose were considered lazy layabouts. And Paul is saying, “Hey, look at God's clock! Glance out the window! The first rays are already shining – have been since that first Easter morning. The full dawn is approaching, nearer and nearer. Night is a fading and obsolete thing, succumbing to the daylight. So it's time to put away night-time things and begin acting appropriately for the day.” Like Paul says, “You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. … The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So, then, let us cast aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime...” (Romans 13:11-13).

The inaugural rays are already beaming, brightening the sky, shedding light on the world. Night is coming to an end, and to keep clinging to the night is a fool's errand. Which means all those nightlife behaviors – their time is over and done. The time for drunkenness – over and done. The time for abusive jokes and mockery – over and done. The time for adultery and promiscuity and lewdness and all sexual immorality – over and done. The time for gambling and brawling – over and done. The time for rivalry and competition, for self-serving and fight-picking – over and done. The time for anything you wouldn't want to be caught doing – over and done. It no longer finds a place, because the darkness is succumbing to daylight. No more nightlife. There's no longer any time to “make … provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). That's the sort of thing nightlife has always been about – to claim the carnal satisfactions we restrain when people are watching. But no more. “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” Paul says.

Instead, “let us walk properly as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13). Walk properly, walk appropriately, walk decently, walk respectably, live in the ways you aren't ashamed to live when you're in broad daylight and public view. All those things that belong under cover of darkness – toss them aside, and get up and get dressed. Get dressed up like an actor assigned to portray Jesus – “put on,” or 'clothe yourself with,' “the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes (Romans 13:14). It's time to get into your role. Which you can't play in your pajamas. Or curled up in bed, trying to push snooze and cling to the things of night.

No more trying to push snooze. No more nightlife. That time is past. God's clock never stopped. That's what Paul wants these Roman believers to know. God's clock didn't stop the moment in the middle of the darkness, to let the night of the world go on forever. God's clock didn't stop right after Easter, so that the first rays of light say nothing of a coming dawn and its day. God's clock didn't stop. Time keeps ticking on. The dawn grows nearer and nearer. So nightlife gets more irrelevant by the moment. Drunkenness gets more inappropriate by the moment; sexual immorality of every stripe gets more inappropriate by the moment; abusive jokes get more inappropriate by the moment; fights and squabbles and quarrels get more inappropriate by the moment; so does rivalry and competition and partisanship and all the other “deeds of darkness.” The closer dawn gets, the more they stop making sense for us to cling to. You have to “know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).

When we first believed, the light was still dimmer. But God's clock keeps ticking. When we first believed, midnight was still more recent. But God's clock keeps ticking. When we first believed, dawn was still a more distant hope. But God's clock keeps ticking. Dawn keeps getting nearer and nearer. There's a day coming, and it'll bring a new creation. There's a day coming, and it'll end all pain and all tears. There's a day coming, and on it Jesus will return, and we'll see him face-to-face and know him just like he knows us, and will see him for just who he is (1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 John 3:2). There's a day coming, and fruit from the tree of life is on the lunch menu (Revelation 22:2). There's a day coming, and the wolf and the lamb will lie down together, and even little children will lead them around (Isaiah 11:6). There's a day coming with the dawn, and everything belonging to the night will finally be swept away, for “night will be no more,” and “the Lord God will be [our] light, and [we] will reign forever and ever” in the bright daylight of the Almighty (Revelation 22:5)!

There's such a day coming with the dawn – and so Paul calls the dawn 'our salvation.' And he tells us that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). That dawn, which rescues us from all the night, is closer than ever before – because God's clock keeps ticking. The beams of Easter are a promise that dawn is coming, no matter how long it may seem to take before we see the sun pop over the horizon. And so it really is “the hour … to wake from sleep,” the time to “cast aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11-12). That's just what time it is: time to ready ourselves for the day that's at hand, time to act like daylight people who've made a clean break with nightlife and all its shaded secrets that feed the flesh. For you are not in darkness … you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). Those who don't know what time it is will keep clinging to nightlife; but “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). We should know what time it is, and act accordingly.

There's a day coming, and its dawn is nearer and nearer. So we have to soberly get up and keep awake to God. We may not want to wake up. We may want to cling to the night and all its bad dreams. We may want to cling to the deeds of darkness that cover us like a blanket. We may wish we could push snooze and enjoy the nightlife a while longer. But we've already overslept. The hour has long since come to get up and get dressed. Don't sleep until the last minute and let the productive early hours slip away. Don't lounge around in pajamas of unrighteousness when there are places to go and things to do. Don't keep acting like it's still night-time. Don't miss breakfast.

See, after the dawn, after the day is well on its way, the tree of life will yield our lunch. But if we want to be productive now, in the early moments as full daylight draws near, we need to wake up, cast aside the covers, get dressed, and eat breakfast. And spread out before us this morning is the breakfast of the kingdom of God. We call it by many names. Eucharist. Communion. Medicine of Immortality. The Lord's Table. Today, I call it Breakfast of the Kingdom. It's the meal we need as we wait the dawn. And in this breakfast, we announce the good news 'til the dawn comes – “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

In a few moments, we'll gather for breakfast. I urge you not to slip back into bed to sleep the early morning away after you've eaten. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. The dawn of our salvation grows nearer and nearer – nearer now already than when we first believed (Romans 13:11). So don't slip back into nightlife. Don't aim to snooze your life away when there's work to be done. Don't wrap yourselves again under deeds of darkness after you've tasted the breakfast. It's not the hour for such things any longer. Instead, get up, get dressed, and come to the table. By this we tell the world what time it is. Full daylight is coming nearer and nearer. So breakfast is now served. Hallelujah!

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