Day Is Dawning—A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1A (Romans 13)
Romans 13:11-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 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; 12 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; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
NOTE to Readers: Having reflected upon the first readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, which largely covers the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and having completed reflections on the Gospels, I will now turn for the next three years to the second readings, which normally come from the Epistles. You can find the earlier reflections by searching the text on this blog.
It is the first Sunday of Advent, which means that Christmas is near at hand. The tree and the lights and the decorations are probably up, and shopping has begun. With all the buzz around the holidays, attending to the message of Advent, which tends to be darker than the celebratory mood of the Christmas season, might be difficult. Hearing a word from Paul, especially one that has eschatological overtones (as is true of many Advent texts) might be even more difficult, but here is the word: It’s time to wake up, because salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” The day of salvation is near at hand, so get ready. Yes, now is the Kairos moment. Something transformative is at hand, so be ready. Be awake to the possibilities of the moment.
Advent is intended to be a season of preparation. It even has penitential elements, much like Lent. Even the Advent hymns, though not all, tend to be in a minor key, which is why so many churches skip them and jump to carols. When it comes to the penitential side of things, it doesn’t sit well when everyone is in a mood to party (myself included). Nevertheless, it would be wise to heed the message of the moment, to watch what is happening around us. What might God be up to in this Kairos moment?
One of the primary messages of the first twelve chapters of Romans is that grace is the foundation for our salvation, and now with that foundation, we hear a call to live lives that demonstrate gratitude for that grace. So, in the verses leading into our reading, Paul tells the Roman church to “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Yes, love fulfills the law. This message isn’t unique to Paul or Jesus. It’s rooted in Leviticus, which calls upon the people of God to love their neighbor as themselves, and Rabbi Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul, suggested that love of neighbor was the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Reuven Hammer takes notes of Rabbi Akiva’s view of the love of others being the essence of the Torah: “It is not enough to insist that we treat others as we want to be treated since some people disdain themselves. It is not sufficient to say that all people are created equal. Love is the basic requirement” [Hammer, A Year with the Sages, p. 157]. Having made his declaration concerning love, Paul declares that now is the time of salvation. So, let us live accordingly.
When Paul speaks of the day of salvation, which is dawning, and in fact, is at hand, he does so in dualistic terms. The night is almost over, and day is at hand, so “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It is commonplace to think of evil acts occurring under the cover of darkness. Think of rats and roaches and other things that go bump in the night. When the light comes on the forces of darkness quickly flee. So be ready, the light is going to be turned on.
When we think of Paul’s message in eschatological terms, which fits Advent, darkness also represents the old age that is passing away. When dawn breaks, so will the new age. The old age is one in which sin dominates, and the new age offers freedom from the bondage to sin. Paul understands that we’re not completely free from the old age. Darkness still has some hold over the world, but we are to move toward the new age. The image here involves putting on the armor of light. Jin Young Choi comments on this call by Paul to put on the armor of light: “However, putting on the armor of light does not entail merely engaging ethical behaviors that the believers should choose; it also describes believers’ ontological status as those who put on Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27–28). In the new age, humanity is renewed into Christlike people.” [Connections, (Westminster John Knox Press). Kindle Edition. Loc. 565]. Thus, as we enter this new age of light, the age of salvation, we are to put on Jesus Christ.
Paul writes this letter with a great deal of urgency. He believes that the Kairos moment is at hand. The new age of light is about to break into the world. He believes something is about to happen that will turn everything upside down and that he is going to see it happen. By the end of his life, he might have begun to envision this inbreaking of the new realm taking a bit longer than he expected, but here in Romans 13 he’s still expecting something dramatic to occur that turn everything upside down. We’ve been on this journey now for nearly two millennia, so the anticipation may have worn off a bit. Thus, the value of Advent, for it calls us back to that moment of expectation. With that expectation comes the call to live in the light by putting on Jesus, which means living together in harmony and love.
It’s unfortunate that what many think of when they hear the word eschatology are the end times scenarios of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. What this vision promises is a future of violence and trauma, where Jesus returns as a Marvel hero triumphing over his enemies with a terrible swift sword. I’m not sure that is what Paul has in mind; at least it’s not part of the message we read in Romans. Paul wouldn’t deny that at the turn of the ages there wouldn’t be suffering, for there likely will be resistance, but he doesn’t glory in it, nor should we. He may lay things out in terms of darkness and light, but what is key here is the reminder that having been redeemed in Christ, we have a future that promises peace and justice for all creation.
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale offers this word of encouragement in relation to our text. She speaks of two things that strike her concerning the season’s vision of social transformation:
The first is that what is often needed for Christians today is a wake-up call regarding the social evils of our day and our ethical injunction as Christians to respond to them. Often people are not so much intentionally evil as they are complacent and slumbering. Paul’s call to us to move out of the darkness of our sleeplike state and to move into the light of Christ’s work in the world is a needed one. Secondly, this text (given its locus in the book of Romans) reminds us that we do not do good works to earn our salvation. Rather, we do them out of gratitude to God and as a way of living into our baptismal callings in Christ. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 4].
So, let us put on Christ and “let us live honorably as in the day.” With that we begin the Advent journey, singing:
All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
Albert Taulé (1972), tr. Gertrude C. Suppe, (1987)