11Besides 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; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
I remember when Sonya and I were living in Columbus, Ohio and my mother driving two hours to join us to meet a friend of hers who was driving through on her way from Iowa. We met my mother and we still had about an hour to drive to meet her friend at the rendezvous point. But since her friend, Chris, was driving, we called her to see how far away she was from the place that we had agreed to meet. She was driving through Indiana at the time and she estimated that it would take her about an hour and a half to drive the rest of the way.
So after we hung up the phone we tried to calculate her time of arrival. She was an hour and a half away and she was still in Indiana. Then we remembered that Indiana is the next time zone over; that Indiana was an hour behind Ohio. So we added another hour to her travel time, which meant we had two and a half hours until she arrived at our meeting point. So we figured that we would have plenty of time to go out to eat and then drive the hour to the meeting place. The problem is that time zones don’t work like that. An hour and a half away is still an hour and a half away, regardless of how many time zones you cross.
So Chris had to wait on us. She had to wait for about an hour, all because of our miscalculation. The good news is that she was not traveling empty handed. She was working at the time as a social worker. And if you know anything about social work, you know that only a fraction of the time that you are working are you spending with people. The rest of your time is spent doing paperwork. And Chris had brought her paperwork along with her. She did not just sit around and do nothing as she awaited our arrival. No, she did the best that she could to utilize the time that she had been given. Sure, she wanted us to be there, to arrive so that the fun could begin. But since there was nothing that she could do to speed up our arrival, she decided to work.
Our scripture for today from Romans seems to be Paul’s encouragement of the church in Rome to keep working in the absence of Christ. The book of Romans was most likely written between the years 55 and 58 AD. So it had been 25-30 years since Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. And ever since Jesus was taken up into heaven his followers have been waiting for his return. They have been waiting for the day when Jesus comes back to set things right. They have been waiting for the day when Jesus would fulfill the promises that he had made during his time here on earth. They have been waiting for Jesus to establish his kingdom here on earth, a kingdom that would last for all of eternity where there will be no more sorrow, hatred, or pain. And we are still waiting for that day to come. So we wait.
Sometimes those of us that like to sound smarter than we really is (sic) will use a Greek word to refer to the day when Jesus returns to set the world right. That word is parousia. Parousia literally means arrival, coming, or presence. It is used 24 times in the New Testament, and more often than not it refers to the day when Jesus comes back. Four of those occurrences are found in Matthew 24. Matthew 24:3 says, “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”
The disciples, even though they maybe didn’t understand that Jesus was going to be crucified, did understand that he would be leaving them for awhile and then would return. In John chapter 14 Jesus says that if he goes away from the disciples that he will come back again. This is something that they expected to happen and they expected that it would happen sometime in their life. But it didn’t. And it hasn’t. So we wait.
A quick reading through Christian history shows that there have always been Christians that believed that Christ would return soon. Many people have believed that they were living in the last days and that Jesus would come back before they died. People have predicted, wrongly, that the world would come to an end in such and such a year. Now I personally don’t get caught up in end time predictions and I don’t think that it is a healthy obsession. Jesus tells us that even he doesn’t know when he will be coming back, so I think that it is a little conceited to think that we might know more than Jesus. So while we don’t know when Jesus will be returning, the important thing to remember is that Jesus will return. And I don’t think that it is a bad thing to be ready for that day and time.
When Paul writes his letter to the Romans, he is encouraging them to keep on working. Keep observing the teachings that Jesus gave. Feed the poor and the hungry; don’t fall into the traps of the pleasures of the flesh; be pure in heart and in mind. Paul is telling the Romans that just because Jesus hasn’t come back yet doesn’t mean that he won’t be coming back soon. And just because Jesus hadn’t come back yet doesn’t mean that he won’t be coming back at all. He tells them that their salvation is closer now than when they first became believers. They are moving toward something, not further away. So since they are getting closer, they should be ready.
I am not a big fan of scaring people into following Jesus. If someone is frightened into following Jesus, I guess it does the trick. I would rather someone follow Christ because they are afraid of what would happen if they didn’t follow Christ than to not follow Christ at all. But I would rather that they become his disciple because they believe it is the right thing to do. I would rather that people become a disciple of Christ out of love for God and neighbor than out of fear of Jesus coming back and catching them doing something that he would disapprove of.
On Thanksgiving evening I watched a program on television called NBC’s People of the Year. It was on CBS. On this episode Matt Lauer interviewed people like LeBron James, Kim Kardashian, and a man who helped save the Chilean miners. Lauer also interviewed a man named James Jones.
James Jones is the father of a thirteen-year-old girl with mild cerebral palsy. And because of her disability, she was bullied on the school bus. In a year filled with news of teens and young adults driven to commit suicide because of bullying, the story of James Jones got special attention. A video camera on Jones’ daughter’s school bus shows Mr. Jones going onto the school bus one morning with his daughter and going on a verbal assault of the children who had been bullying his daughter. He used expletive after expletive and asked his daughter to point out the people that had bullied his daughter. He threatened to hurt the other children that had been giving his daughter a hard time. He even threatened to f*** up the bus driver. He was later arrested and released on bail.
Many people have been sending Mr. Jones cards and letters expressing their appreciation for him standing up to his daughter’s bullies. And I agree that something needed to be done. But to me, this situation seems like the father was bullying the other children that were bullying his daughter. She just goes out and finds someone bigger and stronger to bully them back. And sure, this might work for awhile. Fear can make someone act a certain way. But what happens when they get bigger and stronger, or maybe their parents approach Mr. Jones and threaten him? It is an unending cycle.
Yes, fear is a good motivator. Fear could motivate the 1st century Christians to obey the teachings of Christ and it can motivate us today as well. Who hasn’t heard a caring grandmother ask her misbehaving grandchild, “What if Jesus comes back and catches you picking on your sister?” Fear works, for awhile. But when the fear wears off, the misbehaving starts up again.
Almost 2,000 years have passed since Jesus gave the promise to his disciples that he would be returning again to set all things right. And surely there have been people along the way that believed that he would come back in their lifetime. But the longer and longer we wait, I believe less and less people will be motivated by the fear to follow Jesus. We need a different motivator. We need to be motivated by the very same thing that brought Jesus to this earth in the first place. We need to be motivated by love.
We are here to do the work that Jesus called us to do. As his disciples we continue the ministry that he began. And we do so not out of a fear of an angry God who might catch us being lazy. We follow Jesus daily because of a love for God and a love for our neighbor. And I don’t think it is wrong to think that we follow Jesus daily out of a love for ourselves. We love God so we seek to glorify him with our lives. We love our neighbor so we serve and love them. We live as an example of the kingdom that is yet to come. We live a life distinctly different from the rest of the world, manifesting God’s kingdom. We live a life of sacrifice, sacrificing monetarily, sacrificing the finer things of this life, sacrificing socially, and if called upon, sacrificing even our own lives. And in living the life of discipleship we will find true joy.
So as we wait for the promise of Jesus that one day he will return to set all things right, to establish his kingdom forever, we do not sit and wait lazily. We wait workfully. We bring our paperwork and make the most of the time between now and the second coming of Jesus Christ. And we work, not out of fear, but out of love. God is not the ultimate bully, seeking to scare us straight. God is the source of love, seeking to draw us closer to him.
As a child I recognized that Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Christmas season. Christmas was only one month away. We often made rings of paper and tore off one ring every day as we anticipated the coming of Christmas day, or more specifically, we anticipated the opening of presents. But Advent is more than the anticipation of Christmas morning and the presents that often come with it. Advent is the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, the savior of the world. Just as Mary and Joseph anticipated the coming of a baby two thousand years ago, we anticipate his second coming. Not as a child, but as a king. A king that will set all things right. A king that will rule on high forever. So we wait, and we work.