One of my least favourite, but most necessary, possessions is the alarm clock. Without it, someone like me, who is constitutionally a night owl, would oversleep every morning. I cannot say I appreciate the insistent beeping that says, “Listen to me, I am so annoying. Just get up and switch me off.” While other people bounce out of bed, energised to meet the new day, I wish the god of sleep had not been dethroned for yet another day.
The apostle Paul wouldn’t have known about alarm clocks, but he describes Advent in a manner that is like seeing it as God’s alarm clock. It urgently tells us God’s time. It tells us that
our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (verse 11)
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here (verse 12).
Advent is the season that tells us God’s time. It tells us not simply that Christ is coming in terms of his birth at Christmas, it tells us that he will one day appear again, this time not in obscurity but in glory.
In these terms, we might get nervous about Advent as an alarm clock. The thought that ‘our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed’ makes us think of those Christians who are forever predicting that Jesus will come again very soon. Their predictions always fail, and we are left with the Christian faith being discredited by what is either well-meaning error or cynical emotional blackmail. We want none of that. We know that Jesus said no-one knew when he was coming again.
But the basic truth which Paul elucidates here must be true: our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The fullness of God’s kingdom is closer. There is less time until the general resurrection of the dead, and God brings in his new heavens and new earth.
God wants to tell us his time. He will not tell us when Jesus is returning, but the fact that he is has an effect upon the way that we live the Christian life. With an alarm clock, there is no room for complacency. It rings or beeps incessantly, until we do something about it. And that is what God is doing at Advent. He is saying to us, this is no time to be lax about being a Christian. Rather, this is a time to be active, deliberate and full of intent as a follower of Jesus. Like the t-shirt slogan says, ‘Jesus is coming: better look busy!’
Telling the Advent time, then, is about living with a sense of urgency. Not frantic, not haunted or hunted, but urgent.
That’s all very well, but what does that mean? Paul calls us to two actions that we need to do when the alarm clock goes off. The first is to wake up:
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber (verse 11).
In a service where we have already baptised Leo, ‘wake up’ may be a theme that provokes certain thoughts and emotions from Kim and Mark! While I hope that at two years old, Leo has long since established a sleep pattern, there are doubtless still plenty of occasions when his parents don’t need an alarm clock, because they are woken by his calling.
What does it mean to wake up when we discover the urgency of God’s time? Partly, it is about the urgency of which I spoke a moment ago. When we know that the grains of sand are trickling down through God’s timer, then we know we need to wake up and get on with things. The alarm clock says, if you don’t get on with things now, you’ll be late for work. And you don’t want that. The crying baby says, I have an urgent need. Come to me!
What kind of person is ‘awake’, according to Paul? It is one who is prepared for the end of the night and the breaking of the dawn. For Paul, the ‘night’ is the present evil age, the age of sin, which Christ came to conquer and redeem in the Cross. The ‘day’ that is ‘close at hand’ (verse 12) is the kingdom of God, where God reigns in love, justice and grace. If we have heard God’s Advent alarm clock, we want to be living as if it is daylight, not as if it is night.
So if I am to be ‘awake’ in the sight of God, I will be a person who embraces the kingdom of God. I will be someone who lives according to the values and principles of God’s coming age, even when they conflict with the darkness of the contemporary ‘night’ in which we find ourselves living.
Therefore, to live awake as if in God’s daytime is to live by love for God and for neighbour. To be awake in Christ is to live in a spirit that forswears revenge in favour of forgiveness. To live in the day means to show God’s special concern for the poor and the obscure, instead of the popular fantasies that prefer the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrities. To be awake in the kingdom of God is to live a life based on the fact that the most precious thing in all the world is to know that I am ‘loved with an everlasting love’ by Almighty God in Jesus Christ. I do not then take my significance or status from my job or my social standing: to do so is a vanity, compared with God’s love for me in Christ. To live as awake in the light of Christ is to know that God’s words are a light to my path, not to let the loud but passing fads of our culture steer our lives.
Advent, then, is a call to wake up to God’s time: that Jesus who came will come again. It means we need to wake up and live in God’s daylight. I’ve just suggested a few examples of what that will mean for us.
But to do so requires a determined attitude. When we wake up, there are various things we need to do in order to face what life has for us. One such thing is to get dressed, and that is the other thing Paul calls us to do here: get dressed. In fact, he says it twice, in slightly different language each time:
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. (Verse 12)
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 14).
‘Put on’; ‘clothe yourselves’. Get dressed. Wear on the one hand ‘the armour of light’ or on the other hand ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. What are we to take from these images? I believe it’s something to do with the fact that to live according to the daylight of God’s kingdom rather than the night-time of the present age is going to take an effort. We need to be intentional about it – that is, it won’t just happen to us. The old slogan ‘let go and let God’ may be valuable in teaching us to trust God, but if we think we don’t have a responsibility for our actions, we’re tragically mistaken. We need to co-operate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We shall live by his power, but we need to say ‘yes’ to walking in his ways.
We have all the resources of Jesus Christ, but we still need to ‘put him on’ – to be ‘clothed in Christ’. God shines his light, but we still need to ‘put on the armour of light’.
And perhaps ‘armour’ is a telling image for the clothing we wear. To wake up and live in God’s daytime is to accept not merely that we will live differently from the world. It is to accept that to do so will mean we need the protection of divine armour, because we shall find ourselves in a conflict, and sometimes under attack for doing so. The trouble with living by daylight is that light starts to shine into darkened places, and the darkness no more welcomes that than a dictatorship embraces dissidents. If we put on the armour of light, we are the dissidents of the world.
Think about it in relation to the examples I mentioned a minute or two ago: loving God and loving neighbour sounds attractive – after all Girl Guides promise to love God and do good – but while society will accept this up to a point, what our culture really wants to believe is that charity begins at home. In other words, we put ourselves first. Forgiving those who wrong us may get some admiring coverage for a while, but ultimately it’s a challenge to those who always need to find a scapegoat to blame for everything. Finding our status in the love of God rather than in our job or our social standing turns our society’s way of putting people in their place upside down. Favouring the poor and the marginalised may win you certain plaudits, but in the long run our economy can’t run that way, because it’s structured to thrive as much by our purchasing the things we don’t need as anything else.
It requires determination, then, to wake up and get dressed in the light of God’s time. Right now, Paul places us at the end of the night, as dawn is coming. Night is fleeing, the day is on its way. But his image breaks down, because he is imagining not a sequence where day follows night but a clash between night and day. If we live in God’s coming daylight, we shall be drawn into that conflict until the time of God’s final and ultimate triumph over the night. Sometimes, the forces of the night will inflict suffering on the armies of the day. That is to be expected for a community that was formed around the sinless Son of God who was crucified on false charges.
But … we are not merely the community of the Cross, but of the Empty Cross. We are the people of the Empty Tomb. We who are called to wake up and live in the light of God’s coming day are those who do so, knowing what the future holds. The final chapter of Revelation, the final book in the Bible, contains an image of God’s people in God’s new Jerusalem that is pertinent to our theme this morning. Revelation 22:5 says this:
There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Friends, as the Advent alarm clock rings and we wake up, determined to get dressed and live in the light of God’s coming day regardless of the temporary presence of the remaining night, we do so knowing the future God has for us. Whatever the darkness does to us now, the Advent hope is not merely that the light of Christ comes into the world. It is that it will prevail.
Whatever the evidence looks like at times, when we commit our lives to following Jesus, we sign up with the winning side.
That’s the Advent hope.