Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent 1: Putting on Armour of Light

The First Sunday in Advent
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 21:1-13
     Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour 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 again to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
     The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. In the next four weeks we anticipate and prepare for the Christmas festival. Please remember that Advent is the season of preparation; Christmas is the season of celebration.
     Indeed, earlier in church history, Advent was observed as a lesser lent—a time of fasting and repentance. As Lent prepares us for Easter, so Advent is meant to prepare us for Christmas. Try not to let the world squeeze you into its expectations of frantic shopping and overindulgence. The Christian mood of advent is joyful, but somber, anticipation. “Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” This is the mood of advent. Sober, reflective, waiting.
     Then after those 4 weeks of waiting, the liturgical calendar gives us 12 days of Christmas celebration. I wish the school and business calendar could be more in synch with the church’s calendar. But I think we can find ways to incorporate more of the rhythm of the church in our lives.
     I am struck by the opening sentence of today’s collect, which calls us to pray that we may “cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light.”
     Let’s think about what this might mean. Why do we need armour? How can light serve as armour? How do we put it on?
     The phrase is taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 13th chapter, which we read for the epistle lesson this morning. There Paul admonishes the Christians in Rome: “the night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armour of light.”
     To get the point that Paul is making here in Romans 13, we need to consider the surrounding context. We need to go all the way back to the beginning of chapter 12. Remember Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, the most powerful, humanly glorious, and one of the most corrupt, cities of the day. It was the seat of the Roman Empire, and in many ways Rome represented all that was opposed to the truth of the gospel. Paul says in Romans 12:1-2

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

     Paul realized there would be a tendency, a temptation, for Christians to allow themselves to be conformed to the world around them. He knew that to be a Christian in Rome would be difficult. It would be costly. It might mean giving up influence, wealth, even one’s life. He says we must not be conformed to the world, but transformed, in order to prove, or live out, the will of God. Almost all of the rest of this letter consists of Paul teaching and encouraging the church to live out the truth of the gospel: that Jesus Christ has transformed and is transforming our lives.
     Paul calls the church to a radical, transforming witness in the world. Think about what he says here. Are we doing this?
Romans 12:9-21 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; 11not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; 13distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. 17Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord.
20Therefore"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head."
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul continues in chapter 13:

Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 10Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
     To do these things, I think, is to put on the armor of light. We live our lives in a way that is dramatically and noticeably different from those outside of Christ. We are the light of the world.
And then comes this note of expectancy. Paul seems to anticipate an eschatological, or end-times event.  Romans 13:11-12
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. 12The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.
     Paul was anticipating the return of Christ, and tells the Church that we must all be ready. This is the message of the season of Advent. Christ is coming. He has promised to return. He commanded us to be ready, watching, and waiting.
So much of Jesus’ teaching speaks of being prepared for his return. Do you remember the parable of the wise and foolish maidens: It is Matthew 25:
Matthew 25:1-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
     Paul tells us to put on armor of light. Jesus also speaks of light: those waiting for his coming should have light with them: they should be waiting with the light, in the light.
     These reminders of the need for light tell us that around us there is going to be darkness. The bridegroom comes at night. Jesus said he would come as a thief in the night--suddenly, unexpectedly, perhaps when the world seems very dark. The darkness is coming, More and more I see and feel the certainty of its coming.
 Some of you may know that I was previously a minister in the mainline Presbyterian Church, the PCUSA. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was pastor of a PCUSA church in Shreveport, Louisiana. Sometime ago I came across an article concerning one of the Presbyterian churches in the Shreveport area.
     Bossier City is just across the Red River from Shreveport, and is the home of one of our largest U S Air Force bases, Barksdale AFB. When I lived there, there were two Presbyterian congregations in Bossier City, but recently these two have merged into one. That left them with an extra church building to dispose of.
According to this article, the church turned down two offers from Christian organizations, and sold the property to the Shreveport/Bossier Islamic Association. What was once a place of Christian worship is now to be a house of prayer for Muslims.
 Included with the article was a photograph showing the front of the large brick building, classic Presbyterian architecture, but now with its steeple topped not with a cross, but with the star and crescent moon, the symbol of the religion of Islam.
When I saw this I was at first outraged. But in a few moments my emotion turned to deep sadness. My heart was heavy. I wept. This event and this photograph are deeply symbolic, I believe, of the impending darkness in which we dwell.
The light of 1st Presbyterian Church of Bossier City has gone out, as it has in church after church of the mainline denominations of our nation. And the star and crescent is raised in triumph, as Christians capitulate to the spirit of the age.
Scripture directs us to put on armor of light. Armor suggests the one who wears it is in danger. It suggests that there is a life and death conflict going on.
There are two other places Paul uses the analogy of armor. Here is one of them:
1 Thes. 5:5-8
. 5You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. 6Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. 8But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.
And the other passage, perhaps more familiar is in Ephesians:

Ephes. 6:10-13
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. 11Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

     So here Paul makes it plain that we are in a battle: we war against principalities and powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. There is an evil day coming, perhaps it is now at hand, and we must be prepared to take our stand against it.
The lines from T S Eliot describing his day, seem appropriate in ours as well:      
“The Church disowned, the tower overthrown,
                  the bells upturned, what have we to do,
                 but stand with empty hands and palms upturned
                 in an age which advances progressively backwards?”
Eliot is considered a modernist poet, but he was one who was ill at ease in the modern age. I’m not sure how he meant these lines to be taken, to “stand with empty hands and palms upturned.” Is this an expression of futility?
Perhaps we can read them this way. Realizing the modern age’s view of progress is actually backwards from the direction we should be moving, we turn our backs to that, let go of the things that hinder faith, and turn our empty hands up to God in worship. The response to the coming of the night is to worship God.
      How do we stand against the coming of the night? What are we to do?
     We simply must be the people of God. We must be dressed in light. We must put on Christ and his works. The light of Jesus Christ must adorn us, surround us, and define everything that we do. He is our hope, and for him we wait in patient expectation. Let us be about the business he has given us to do. Do your jobs. Love God, worship Him alone, teach your children, love your neighbor. It’s the simple things. Even against the coming of the night, we are called to live in hope.
     The darkness falls, but Christ is coming. Even so, come lord Jesus. Amen.