Reflections on the text for “It’s Time to Wake Up”
A sermon on Romans 13:8-14
First Sunday in Advent, 3 December 2017
“Advent” means “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event,” according to the New Oxford English Dictionary. Advent is also the first season of the new liturgical Church Year. Our readings, songs and sermons center around the hopeful expectation associated with the imminent arrival of Jesus. The perspective of Advent includes a comprehensive awareness of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ throughout the past, during the present and into the future.
Last year I preached on the appointed Gospel reading. This year I’m working with the Epistle text from Romans 13:8-14. The temporal focus seems to center on our moment Now in Christ, with a view toward the imminent arrival of Jesus’ triumphant return. Then He “will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” (Nicene Creed)
Paul writes in the first part of Romans 13 about giving the government its due honor. Not because of the government’s own perfection or purity do we honor those in authority. Rather we honor them for the sake of God, who establishes them and still reigns over all authorities as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The verse just before our reading speaks of paying everyone whatever debts are owed them:
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:7)
So verse 8 deals with the one debt remaining, the obligation of love we owe our neighbors. It’s an outstanding debt, one that will endure throughout our life in this world. This debt of love involves more than sentimental affection, inward intentions or tender feelings. Biblical love is a full bodied love, a Love made flesh to dwell and serve among us. It’s a divine Love, originating in the heart of God. The duty to love your neighbor God etched into the stony hearts of worldwide humanity. His Law of love is well known, as Paul already said in Romans 2:14-15
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…”
The “Golden Rule” makes sense to pretty much everyone,“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (v.9) Most every religion in the world waves that flag. However, many seem to want this Golden Rule to be the First and Greatest Commandment, perhaps the only necessary Commandment. Love your neighbor is not the first and greatest. Jesus teaches that even this precious command is made to stand in second place to the First and Greatest Commandment:
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)
The secondary command to “love your neighbor” inevitably becomes misshapen, grotesque and idolatrous, without the governing first and greatest Commandment to Love the Lord your God. Such godless love makes a false god of one’s neighbors near and far. Many are the sacrifices, efforts to appease false gods with no power to save. Sometimes I wonder whether many of the internal conflicts in the church, whether with regard to worship styles, fellowship and communion practice, or even controverted issues of human sexuality don’t somehow stem from that disordered elevation of the love of neighbor over and above the love of our neighbor’s Creator and Redeemer–and our own Lord, Jesus Christ. The neighbor is to be loved with a love that flows from God, not loved in the place or at the expense of the reverence due to God.
Love is the fulfilling of the Law.” (v.10) But love can be misguided, too. Like all good gifts, even love can be misused, misdirected and abused. So the Apostle goes on to warn of the dark deeds masquerading as love of neighbor in the cover of night. The wild parties, the drunkenness, the trysts and twisted plotting with some neighbors against others–these sometimes look and feel like love in the moment. There is an informal fellowship, a comfortable camaraderie that appears enduring and real. Our misery loves the company of others. But the morning after, in the light of day, one better assesses the true damage that gets done.
Worried, one wonders, “What did I say? What did I do? Who was I with? Was there a fight? When did I text that or call them? Dude, where’s my car?!” The mess can be disastrous sometimes, when one keeps trying to love people apart from God’s own love. The conscience echos over the mess with the plea, “Cleanup in aisle Me!” Hungover, embarrassed, angry or despairing, in the end no neighbor can help or save us except Jesus.
This is Advent, all about the arrival of that Savior promised of old. Advent is about living awake in our faith and aware of the Lord’s continuing arrival and presence in our lives even now. With His Word, the Lord wakes us up to His eternal love for real sinners, people who sometimes make an ugly and unnecessary mess out of their own lives and others.
We all know we ought to love our neighbors, but we don’t often love them like we should. Somehow love gets disordered, disconnected from God, and becomes idolatrous, toxic and consequently harmful to neighbors. Maybe we never really learned to love someone spiritually, with a faith well anchored in Christ and a love extending out from Him unto our neighbor. Maybe you yourself were never loved with a spiritual love like that, or failed to recognize it for what it was at the time. That happens when we’re spiritually fatigued, spiritually asleep, spiritually dead:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—(Ephesians 2:1-5)
We need a Jesus who still makes house calls, bringing life and healing to hearts through His Word and Sacrament means. His Advent is fulfilled as He bids us “take and eat,” telling us constantly “this is My body given for you.” Here it is, the Lord’s full bodied love given, the cup poured out for you to drink of the “new Testament in My blood, shed for you.” As St. John says,
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)
That Supper is where He loves us. That communion is when and how He loves us. The Lord’s Supper is where God sends His Son to give that propitiation, that forgiveness, Christ won for you on the cross.
Likewise Paul makes reference to Baptism, as he encourages us to be clothed with Christ. Embrace the gracious garb of Christ’s own righteousness, given and put upon you in Baptism, as Paul writes in Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
That Baptism is where and how the Lord gives us what we need to be wearing. So clothed in Christ, we love neighbors spiritually as we ourselves have been loved in Christ. Whatever sin we see in them, Christ has bled for its propitiation. Whether or not we feel love is deserved, love is still owed for Christ’s sake, and given freely as God grants us time, place and wherewithal so to love.
You’ve got better things to wear than day after drunk clothes. You’ve got better love to give neighbors than disordered, godless or idolatrous love. Far better clothes, a far better love, because Christ himself gives such love to you without measures or cost. You can pick yours up in Church along with the rest of us unlovely sinners. His gracious Word reaches your ears. His loving, sacramental touch awakens our eyes and makes our hearts bold to embrace His forgiveness and righteousness as our own. Freed from sin, we learn to “love not in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
Romans 13:8-14 (ESV)
8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.