Matthew T. Phillips

Sleepers Awake (Romans 13:11-14)

The First Sunday of Advent (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

Prayer for Illumination

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer

Scripture Reading

11And this you have known, that this already is the moment for you to be raised up out of sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we began to believe. 12The night progressed and the day has begun to approach. Let us throw off then the work of darkness so that we can equip ourselves with the tools of light. 13As in the bright day let us walk around decently, not in feasting and drunkenness, not in the bedroom and in sensuality, not in competition and jealousy. 14But clothe yourselves with Lord Jesus Christ and put no attention into desire of the flesh.

Romans 13:11-14, new translation

Way too early
One of the things Heather and I have enjoyed doing together since we’ve been dating is riding in the car. I heard that snicker—I said “riding,” not “parking.” As our senior year of college was about to end, she invited me to spend the week with her aunt and uncle in Maryland. I was a little concerned that five and a half hours from Raleigh, where we started, was a long time to sit in the car, but I didn’t want to appear weak, so I enthusiastically accepted. Their house has since become one of my favorite places to be, and now we travel there once every few months. We both sit on the campus ministry board of directors in Winston-Salem and have lots of friends there, so we drive over for meetings once a month or so, and every now and then I visit my parents in Charlotte for the day. We are professional travelers. We compact trips well, because we make an unspoken competition out of who can go the longest without stopping. Getting gas is always an adventure: you could take Heather to the middle of nowhere, blindfold her, spin her around three times, and she could then point to the cheapest gas station within 10 miles, so we have established stops on every route we take. Thanksgiving conversation actually includes who found the cheapest gas on the way.
We took on our most significant journey together this Thanksgiving when our venue changed from Maryland to Michigan, a twelve hour drive. This is no big deal to Heather, because like I said, our marriage will graft me onto a great tradition of professional travelers, but I am still in the minor leagues, relatively speaking. Daunted by the thought of driving 800 miles in one day, I came up with what I thought was a wonderful idea. Rather than getting there late at night and just falling asleep, not doing anything but holding a steering wheel and a warm Dr. Pepper bottle for the entire day, I thought we should leave a little earlier, get up there in late afternoon, and relax a little while, enjoying the company of family before going to bed. I told Heather I was going to pick her up at 4:30 in the morning. I was smart enough to know that I was not just committing to drive to her apartment and greet her, but actually to pick her up out of the bed, carry her to the car, and close the door to go. We actually did it—we even got on the highway ten minutes ahead of schedule. The first hint of sun appeared around Pilot Mountain (north of Winston-Salem), Heather woke up just before we went through the tunnel into West Virginia, and we eventually arrived nearly an hour ahead of schedule, having eaten our lunch in the car and combined bathroom and gas stops.

The Bad News

I know you come to church to hear the good news, but you get some bad news today, except for those of you who are nurses or farmers and think it’s ridiculous that I was proud of waking up at 3:50. The bad news is that you have to get up that early to understand what Paul means in today’s scripture. You’ve got to see night turn into day, not just the last few seconds before the sun comes up: you’ve got to see the earth be born into a new day. What’s more, you’ve got to be up and moving around before it looks like it’s time. This text is about looking alive and anticipating what’s coming next. It’s not enough to be up early in Paul’s metaphor, or even to know that morning is coming soon. You’ve got to be dressed for the day to come.

The long wait for the sun

Rich told us last week that we were celebrating the last Sunday of the year: Christ the King Sunday. Today we begin Advent; it is the wee early morning of the year, contrary to the calendar we use outside church. It is still dark outside, but there is a glimmer of brightness at the horizon.
I told you when we were traveling the first hint of the sun appeared at Pilot Mountain. When that happened, I started thinking how wonderful it would be if the sun rose as I was driving through Fancy Gap, Virginia. It is a stretch of Interstate 77 some of you may be familiar with. If you look out, which is not actually a good idea to do while you’re driving, and the day is particularly clear, you can see for a hundred miles. From Virginia you can see way back down into North Carolina. So after that first hint of sun appeared, I kept craning my neck to look up at the sky, hoping the sun would wait just a little while longer, but actually quite sure it would come out too soon. I drove for another forty minutes, got to Fancy Gap, and while there was more light, still no sun. Heather had finally woken up and we were in West Virginia before it came out for good. Advent is like that, or should be like that, anyway. You can look at your calendar and see when December 25th is with no problem; I know—I’ve gotten to be an expert at counting down to a certain day in December myself. I wish deeply that Christmas was more like the sun rising—you can feel it coming, but it still manages to surprise you.

Getting dressed

If it were so, Paul’s words would make a little more sense for us. We know the day is coming, but we’re not sure exactly when. We’ve got to get dressed, or all of the sudden we might find ourselves exposed. That party dress you had on the night before won’t work. The Hawaiian shirt you were sporting at a bar in town? You don’t want the Son to see you in that. Even, Paul says, the basketball jersey you put on to go root for your favorite team will disappoint the Son. Even if it was a Duke jersey.
Of course, Paul is not really worried about the actual clothes, and Jesus wouldn’t love you any less if he was born into the world and looked up to find you wearing anything from fig leaves to Ann Taylor. Maybe Paul has noticed, though, that often clothes are related to activities, and often activities are related to the state of your heart and soul.
It is easy, especially for us now in a world that can cure such an incredible range of diseases and an increased life expectancy, for us to figure that we’ve got plenty of time until our reckoning comes, so we can live like we want, and get ourselves in order later. The thing about our God, though, is that God does not wait at the end of this long journey for us to arrive at our destination. God sends his son to run the race with us. And in Advent, we know that the Son is coming soon—there is even the beginnings of an unusual star in the sky that wasn’t there before—but it’s not clear exactly when that will happen.

Sleepers Awake

So now already is the moment for us to wake, for day is fast approaching. We need to be ready to sing the words of the old German hymn,

Zion hears the watchmen singing,
and in her heart new joy is springing.
She wakes, she rises from her gloom.
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
the strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her star’s arising light has come!
“Now come, O blessed one,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son.”

Philip Nicolai, tr. Catherine Winkworth, “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying”

Even if we do know exactly when Christmas is coming, we do not know the date when Christ will come again, and that is part of the mystery of faith which we celebrate at the table today. We come as a people clothed for the night, but we know that the Son is coming, and we want to waken into his Spirit, clothing ourselves in righteousness, so that when we comes, he will find us walking about in the right way.
So then,

Let us throw off then the work of darkness so that we can equip ourselves with the tools of light.

Romans 13:12b, new translation

Now is the time. Here, on this table and indeed in the life of this church, are the tools.