When I was a teenager, people would sometimes tell me that these were the best days of my life. I was skeptical. The point they were trying to make, I think, is that my physical needs were provided for without my having to pay the bills. Thoughtful, attentive adults tried their best to make sure I learned history and math and music and manners. I had a great metabolism, and a part-time job that was pretty fun and gave me a small income that I could spend on milkshakes and CD’s and cheap jewelry that turned my skin green. Now that I think about it, there were some pretty good things about being a teenager. But still, I think that anyone who says to a child or a teenager, “these are the best days of your life” has forgotten what it’s like. Specifically, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to have adults control every aspect of your time.
I’ve been remembering recently, as my three-year-old starts to learn the rudiments of time: the days of the week, the months of the year, the order of the holidays. He’s learned that he is allowed to watch tv when the number on the clock starts with 6, and that we leave for school when the time starts with 8. He has started to make sense of time, but only as a force to which he is subject. Grownups tell him when he must go to sleep and when he is allowed to get up. Grownups tell him when he can eat and when he can watch tv. Grownups tell him when to use the restroom and when to put on his coat and when he has to leave the playground. When you are a child, your time is not your own; it can be immensely frustrating, and it can be hard to remember how frustrating that was.
But in Advent, we remember. We remember that our time is not our own – that it rests in the hands of God. We wait and watch for God’s time, as we wait for Jesus. We wait and watch in two senses, in a strange kind of double vision. We wait for the coming of the Christ child, remembering the story of Jesus’ birth, the prophecies that foretold it, the creation that longed for it. And at the same time, we look toward the future, remembering the as-yet-unfulfilled promises that God will set the world right, that Christ will return in glory, that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So we look with hope toward the birth of the Christ-child, and we look with hope toward that day when God’s promises are fulfilled. We remember that we cannot choose the hour, we can only wait for it: wait for God’s time, not our time.
But Paul has something to say to us today about how we wait. In the passages leading up to today’s passage from Romans, Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, advising them about living ethically and faithfully in community under a hostile imperial regime. He concludes that the whole law is summed up in the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He then continues, with some words about waiting in hope: “Besides this, 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. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” This passage amplifies and reinforces his words about living lives of love: he urges the Roman Christians to live faithfully not only because it’s what Christians do, but also because salvation is drawing near.
Paul uses the imagery of getting up and preparing for the day: “you know what time it is,” it is, he writes, using the Greek word Kairos. There are in Greek two words for time. Chronos is the word you use to talk about sequences and chronology, schedules and routines, the orderly procession of morning to evening, Sunday to Monday to Tuesday. Kairos, though, refers to something else: the moment of significance. It isn’t a moment, it’s the moment; it’s the carriage paused at the top of the roller coaster as you peer over the edge and brace yourself; it’s the phone ringing the morning after an exciting, long-shot job interview; it’s the parents and doctors and nurses in the delivery room, frozen until the newly born baby draws a breath and lets out her first cry. “You know what kairos it is,” Paul writes. It is the moment to wake from sleep; it is the sunlight streaming through the window, ushering in the most important day. So, Paul writes, it is time to rise and get dressed — not in any old clothes, but in the armor of light — the garments of faithfulness, righteousness, compassion, justice, and mercy. Paul often uses image of getting dressed to symbolize Christian life, which I think is a reminder that, while grace is free and unearned, a gift from God simply because God made us and loves us, faithful Christian living is something different: a daily choice, something we must commit afresh to each day; over time, we might become accustomed to it like we break in a pair of shoes, but we can never take it for granted; we must work at it and practice it, day after day, year after year.
Although time rests in God’s hands, Paul is telling us, our waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises is not a passive waiting, but an active waiting. Paul believed that Jesus was returning imminently to usher in the Reign of God. Indeed, he suggested several times in his various letters that many Christians in those communities would see Jesus return in glory in their own lifetimes. Clearly, that did not happen, at least not in the way that he was imagining. Two thousand years later, we Christians still live in a world weighted down by injustice, hatred, pain, sorrow, and loss.
And so Paul’s words are as relevant to us as they were to the Romans: we, too, are called to wait actively, to live with our hearts and lives straining toward God’s promised reign. Although time and history rest in God’s hands, we are not relegated to the sidelines. Paul bids us to be prepared, to be active, to be co-creators with God bringing forth new life and hope into a hurting world.
Perhaps for many of us this Advent time of waiting and longing for Jesus feels especially poignant this year. We are freshly aware of the brokenness of the world, as neonazis spray paint swastikas in Brooklyn playgrounds and white supremacists are elevated to the highest positions of authority. We are freshly aware of how little we can control, how far the world is from God’s vision, how hellbent we seem to be on destruction, division, and death.
The discipline of Advent is to wait in hope, knowing that God promises not to leave us alone. But we are not called to wait in passivity. As we wait and hope and cry out to God to tear open the heavens, to bring life out of death and redemption out of destruction, we are called to be at work in the world.
If you will forgive me — and I’d like to note that this is the very first time I’ve done this, despite having preached my first sermon here almost eight years ago — I’m going to talk a little bit about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is now a little dated, having gone off the air in 2003; but it’s an old favorite tv show of mine, one that I’ve returned to regularly throughout my life. Buffy is a teenager with supernatural powers to fight against vampires, demons, and other evil creatures. Every evening, she puts on the armor of light, so to speak, and fights the forces of darkness. It’s not that she’s satisfied with, or complacent about, a world where vampires exist; she longs for a world that is safe and free from evil. But her reality is that she lives in a world where there is evil, and where she has the power to resist, and so episode after episode, she perseveres in the work of beating back the forces of darkness, one vampire at a time. She lives in the chronos time of her daily work, while longing for the kairos moment when light will once and for all conquer darkness.
We live, as far as I know, in a vampire-free world. But that’s how it is for us as well, and for the Romans to whom Paul wrote. We are called to wait for God’s inbreaking, while working with all our might to bring some modicum of justice and beauty and love and truth to this world. We wait in hope, and we work in hope. We are called, in a broken and hurting world, not to despair, but to wake up each morning and put on the armor of light. We are called to do what we can — no more, and no less — as we trust that the One who created the world, the One made flesh in Jesus Christ, has more wild and wonderful things to come for us.
I recently came across this bit of commentary on a bible verse that is much beloved in this congregation: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
In this season of waiting, may we remember that. May we wake up each morning and put on the armor of light, trusting that we do not wait in vain. God is drawing near.
Thanks be to God.