Brethren, knowing it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on us the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and we hear St. Paul’s rousing words as he draws near to the close of his epistle to the Romans. The Church is now located in the time between the first coming of Christ in great humility as a suffering servant, and his second and final coming in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. It is therefore time to awake out of sleep for the night is passed and the day is at hand. The faithful must cast off the works of darkness and put upon them the armour of light, walking honesty as in the day. They must not live in rioting and drunkenness, in chambering and impurities, in contentions and envyings, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Christ who has already come to be our saviour in time and history and will come again at the end of the age to be our judge. The faithful must keep watch for now their salvation is nearer than when they first believed.
But how did the first Christians, and St. Paul in particular become so assured of this message of hope in a world of sin and death? Before he saw the light on the Damascus Road, St. Paul shared the hope of his own people, the Jewish nation. This was that God had created all things and placed man in a position of stewardship over the rest of the creation. But that man had fallen into sin and misused the purpose for which he had been created. God had therefore chosen one people, the people of Israel, and had promised that in their seed, the seed of Abraham, all the nation of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12). He had given them the Law through Moses on Mount Sinai to guide his people in the right way. But the Israelities had not been faithful to that covenant. God had therefore sent to them prophets who had sought to recall them to faithfulness to the covenant. But the nation had rejected the message of the prophets. The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians and later the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. Despite this catastrophe a faithful remnant had survived and, though increasingly scattered among the nations, cherished the hope that eventually God’s purposes for Israel and the world would finally be realised. God’s kingdom would finally come and his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. The seemingly insoluble tension in this world between what is and what ought to be would finally be resolved. Jerusalem would finally dwell in safety and the pagan nations would abandon their idols and come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel (Isaiah 2). The wolf would finally dwell with the Lamb (Isaiah 11). A new covenant would be written on the hearts of men (Jeremiah 31). The dead would be raised and the righteous would be finally vindicated and the wicked condemned. Nation would no longer take up sword against nation, nor would they train for war any more, for peace would finally reign on earth.
How then could Jesus be the fulfilment of this hope? He did not cause the nations to come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel, there were still wars and rumours of wars and God’s kingdom had certainly not yet finally come. Instead, Jesus had been put to death and his message had seemingly ended in failure. How could Jesus be the Messiah, the agent of God’s final deliverance of his people when the prophecies were still unfulfilled? St. Paul therefore concluded that the first followers of Jesus were leading the nation astray by following a false Messiah and a false prophet. He therefore sought to persecute the first followers of Jesus, convinced that in doing so he was being faithful to God’s will.
On one journey to persecute the Church in Damascus, St. Paul’s life dramatically changed. He himself saw the Risen Christ, the one whom he had been persecuting (Acts 9). He now became convinced that he needed to radically reconsider his course of action. If Jesus was truly raised from the dead it meant that what Paul had hoped would happen at the end of history, the resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous, had now already happened to one man in the middle of history. Though the old order of sin of death was still in existence, it had been decisively defeated when Jesus had been raised from the dead. Since Christ had now been raised from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept he had in principle delivered the human race from the ancient curse of sin and death. What had happened to Jesus in the middle of time would happen to the human race as a whole at the end of time. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15). The crucifixion had not been a sign that Jesus was a false Messiah, as St. Paul had originally believed, but was in fact the divinely ordained way of bringing salvation to the human race. Jesus was the suffering servant of Isaiah, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, who was wounded for our transgressions and chastised for our iniquities, and by whose striped we are healed (Isaiah 53). The reason why all the prophecies were not fulfilled at his first coming in time and history was that there was now to be an opportunity for the gospel, God’s message of salvation, to be preached to the nations. St. Paul himself was to be the apostle to the Gentiles and he devoted the rest of his life to preaching this message of hope to a world that still seemed to lie in darkness and the shadow of death. That is what he was doing in writing to the Church at Rome, explaining the gospel which he had found to be the power of God unto salvation, first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. The sufferings of this present age were not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us, for Christ’s and those who are Christ’s, who suffer with him that they may be glorified together (Romans 8).
Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, we must still hold fast to this same gospel today. The world is still filled with wars and rumours of wars, with plagues, pestilences and famines, and men’s hearts are still fainting with fear for what shall come upon the earth. But, we believe that none of these things can ultimately separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It has been aptly said that for St. Paul, life was not a weary, dull waiting, but a throbbing, vivid expectation. We must strive to make this attitude our own today, as we still live in the time between the first coming of Christ in great humility and his second coming at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead. He has already come to be our saviour and he will come again to be our judge. Even now our final salvation is nearer than when we believed. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, walking honestly as in the day.
Stir up thy power, we beseech thee, O Lord and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins, by thy protection we may deserve to be rescued, and be saved by thy deliverance: who livest and reignest with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen