(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.
And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this sermon on September 10, 2017.)
Let’s talk for a moment about light and darkness. On earth, we have a natural cycle of light and darkness which can be tracked and figured way ahead of time for each day in each location on the planet. Our human bodies adapt with a circadian rhythm, which compels us to sleep during the nighttime hours, when for most of human history it was too dark to accomplish anything well, and spending the daytime hours awake, with plenty of light to work, study, and play. If you’ve ever had to work the graveyard shift, which required your body to do the opposite, you may know the feeling of struggling to adjust to a different rhythm. We are in the annual season where the days are becoming shorter and the nights are becoming longer. Some of us long for more light and the long days of summer, while others of us are excited and settling in for cooler weather, shorter days, and pumpkin flavored food and drinks.
In the passage from Romans, Paul notes the difference between light and darkness and continues a theme in scripture that takes the concepts of light and darkness into the spiritual realm. The first words spoken by God, after all, in scripture are “Let there be light!” To his followers gathered on a hillside, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
For the apostle Paul, light symbolizes the new life all Christians are called to live. We are called to be people of light, who live uprightly and in a way that glorifies God, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbors, too. As we think about light and darkness, we have to acknowledge that darkness is available to us. Nothing good happens after 1 am, I’ve heard parents and grandparents instruct their kids–and depending on how strict your own moms or grandpas might have been, that time is a bit arbitrary. But there’s a sense that the darker the night, the more trouble there is to be had. We live in a time where darkness doesn’t require nighttime anymore, however. We live in a time where the anonymity of the internet provides its own cover of darkness for those who want to anonymously seek what Paul would probably call out as debauchery and licentiousness, or for those who would want to gather to wish or perpetrate hate or harm, enmity or strife on their neighbors. It’s a place where racists or sex traffikers or pedophiles or pornographers can connect to each other–actually there’s a whole internet only accessible to those who know how to get there that allows for this complete anonymity and the most vile of words and actions–and it’s actually called the Dark Web.
We live in a world where the darkest darkness is only a click or two away, and so Paul’s words to his church at Rome, which was plunged into a first century darkness, are needed among us as we seek to heed our calling to be people of the light.
The first instruction Paul has for us who want to live in the light is that We Love our neighbors like it is the Law….because it is!
Paul writes that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Now the Law he’s talking about is the Law. The 10 commandments. The Torah. The 613 expectations provided in the first five books of Scripture. 613 rules for the faithful people of God to remember.
I am going to guess that many of you have been the YMCA in Henderson. I’ve become a frequent visitor to our local Y in the past few years, and we have a great Y facility. The creative folks there, probably both employees and board members, have made a lot of great updates and upgrades to the facility, and there are so many activities to choose from at the Y. But here’s what I always think when I’m walking in and around our YMCA: They certainly don’t need to buy any decorations for the walls here. Why not? Because they cover just about every available square inch of our YMCA with signs informing readers of all kinds of rules, like they should not wear perfume in the fitness center, that they have to sign their kids out at the front desk, that they should clean machines this way and wash hands because of flu season, and that they should use that weird scrubby brush thing outside the door to get dirt of their shoes–has anyone ever done that?
There are so many reminders of the rules, guidelines, and expectations of the Y on the walls, it can be a bit dizzying. You know the guy who wrote the book about how he followed all of the commandments in the Bible for a year? His name is AJ Jacobs and I kind of want to invite him down to Henderson to see if he can spend a week following all the rules at our YMCA.
Rules matter to us. We have rules we follow in our offices, in our homes, as citizens of our city or state or nation. Our After School ministry has a list of rules. Every year, we write an after school covenant that the kids and adults who participate in our twice a week program sign. Here is this year’s covenant. (Read a little of it)
Here’s the thing: What I really want to write each year on this covenant is “Love God. Love Others. Don’t Bleed.” To me, that should sum it up.
I think that’s probably how God might have preferred to present the Law all along. Well, probably just the first two things–Love God, Love Others. It’s not like God didn’t think of it. Deuteronomy 6:4 contains the words of the Shema–Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” and Leviticus 19:18 reminds “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” In the gospels, you’re likely most familiar of Jesus’ words about loving neighbor in connection to the story of the Good Samaritan, and Jesus’ reminder that our definition of “neighbor” cannot be limited to geography or religion or skin color or socioeconomic status.
The Law was never about a list of do’s and don’ts. Why do we need 10 commandments? Or why does the Torah have 613 separate rules or laws? Because humanity is fallen. We forget how to love God and how to love our neighbor. Things that should be common sense or common courtesy aren’t always commonly understood. It has to be broken down and spelled out line by line for us sometimes…but the problem is that the list of rules makes us feel like we’re just if we simply do not break any of the rules. And yet, throughout history, priests, kings, prophets, and finally God incarnate remind us that the point of the Law isn’t following the rules…it’s love.
Last week, in preaching the passage before this one in Romans 12, Eric gave us a list of what real love looks like. Real love is sincere, pure, devoted, passionate, enduring, generous, merciful, compassionate, humble, peaceable, and missional. This is the love Paul wants his church in Rome, and us by extension, to understand and demonstrate.
When we love our neighbors, Paul says, we won’t harm them or steal from them or be unfaithful or covetous toward them. Love, by definition, means we want the very best lives possible for our neighbors, and we do not purposely cause them or wish them harm for any reason.
When we love our neighbors, we fulfill the Law. That’s the first way we live in God’s light.
This passage also reminds us is that we live in the light when we wake up and stay awake.
There’s an urgency, Paul reminds his church in Rome. There’s a timeline with a definite ending. It’s interesting to me how we understand this concept in our modern society. I had a group of kids at Camp Loucon last fall for our Presbytery’s Fall Retreat. We climbed up, up, up through the woods to the top of the zipline, like we do every year, and as kids one by one put on harnesses and attached to the line and jumped off the cliff to ride to the bottom, just about every other one of them would yell YOLO! As they jumped. Y-O-L-O stands for “you only live once!” It’s intended to convey the idea of urgency–that there’s a timeline here and the timeline has a definite end. But it’s interesting because the idea behind YOLO is that you only live once, so you may as well live however you want and do whatever will make you the happiest. This mindset is honored in our society, right? Find your passion, live life to the fullest, obey your thirst, just do it…YOLO. YOLO is very self-seeking and self-gratifying.
Paul’s version of YOLO has to do with waking up fully and being aware of God’s calling and God’s timing. Instead of living like we think we have all the time in the world to straighten up and honor God, we live each day like it might truly be the last day. Because we are reminded all the time, that it very well might be.
But here’s the thing: we aren’t called to keep awake simply because we might meet our maker sooner rather than later, and we want to be ready ourselves…as Christians, we know an urgency beyond that. The task of living in the light is big! It is nothing less than partnering with the Creator of the universe to bring about the transformation of the world! The world is full of darkness and we know the One who overcomes that darkness, and so we stay awake for the sake of our neighbors, the ones we are loving to fulfill the Law.
We stay awake and we continue to hold out the hope we have–hope in a Kingdom coming where all that is broken will be made new, where all that is wrong will be made right, where all pain and sickness and death will pass away. Wake up and keep awake, beloved church, and use the one life you’ve been given to shine light in dark places.
Finally, living in the light requires that we clothe ourselves with Jesus at all times. Paul writes “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; 13let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Clothe ourselves with Jesus? What does that look like? How can we tell?
Well, Paul says, go to your closet and make a choice.
We’re familiar with choosing what to wear. Most of us have to do it on a pretty regular basis. It is a chore for some, a joy for others, simple for some of us and whole lot more complicated for others. Some of us have uniforms we wear regularly, whether they are actual uniforms we are required to wear in our workplace, or a limited selection, color, or style we’ve decided is our look. Some of us have to make a choice every single day and try on multiple articles of clothing before settling on the thing that will be just perfect for the day ahead.
If we Christians want to live in the light, we have choose to wear the right things, says Paul. And the things we need to choose are the things of Christ, not the things of the world around us.
Paul gives us a list that is not exhaustive, but it gets the heart of what his instructions are. I looked up the Greek for the words Paul uses, because even if his list doesn’t intend to cover everything that could possibly be of the flesh or of darkness, I thought it was certainly a good place to start. Plus, why send someone to seminary if you aren’t going to get to learn or hear some words from ancient dead languages once in awhile? Verse 13 says, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in κώμοις (feasting) and μέθαις (drunkenness), not in κοίταις (that’s actually the word for bed, which is rather to the point, but to clarify, Paul is talking about immoral sexual behavior) and ἀσελγείαις (indecent conduct), not in ἔριδι (which means contention or strife) and ζήλῳ (which is the word for zeal, but it seems when Paul uses this word, he is usually using it to talk about zeal for self and a rivalry with others–so jealousy is overwhelmingly the preferred translation.)
Basically Paul gives three types of sin–gluttonous eating and drinking, immoral sexual behavior, and strife in relationships. Three categories of sins that show lack of regard for our neighbors and their well-being, and sins that demonstrate the darkness of Paul’s day…and ours.
In v. 12, Paul instructs laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Paul telling us to put on armor…does that sound familiar at all? Before starting Romans, we finished a series on Ephesians, also credited to Paul, which ended with a sermon about the Armor of God.
The belt of truth,
the breastplate of righteousness,
The shoes of the gospel of peace,
The shield of faith,
The helmet of salvation,
The sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God…
The armor of God. The armor of light.
But here’s a crucial thing. Paul is saying that the armor of God is none other than Jesus Christ.
Put on Christ’s truth.
Put on Christ’s righteousness.
Put on Christ’s faith.
Put on Christ’s salvation.
Put on Christ’s spirit–the very Word of God.
We are not the source of the light. We wear the light that John 1 says has already come into the world. We wear the light that has already conquered the darkness.
None of this is easy. It requires loving people who do not love us back, or loving people who aren’t very loveable. It requires setting aside our own desires and requires putting the well-being of others ahead of our own. It requires choosing to live so much like Christ that we are wearing him and allowing his light to shine through us. None of this happens by accident–we have to lay down our own clothes and our own selves and put those things on.
May we live as those who love our neighbors, stay awake, and love and reflect the light of God. Glory be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.