Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
On April 4th, 1742, Charles Wesley came up for appointment as university preacher in St. Mary’s in London. Charles preached from Ephesians 5.14 which reads, “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
Now, just for context sake, Charles Wesley was the younger brother of John Wesley, the primary founder of the Methodist renewal movement that eventually led to the formation of the United Methodist Church. Both brothers believed that, at the time, the Church of England was losing a sense of purpose and needed to be renewed. They were strongly rooted within their church structure, but they considered their ministries to be caught up in spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land. While John was known for his organization and preaching, Charles was known for his ability to write hymns; some of his more celebrated hymns are sung on a regular basis in many churches: Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, to name a few.
So, Charles found himself invited to preach in front of a university audience that he largely believed had lost sight of what it meant to be Christian in the world. Those in attendance that day were far more consumed with the “academic pursuits” of Christianity rather than a deep and inward sense of what it meant to be forgiven and loved.
Like many young and naive pastors, Charles preached a sermon filled with a barrage of frightening assumptions and left many in attendance frustrated, angry, and ignorant.
Here are a few of his lines, adapted for our contemporary period: Wake up! Everyone of you, wake up out of your dreams of worldly happiness. What is the state of your soul? If God required you to die right now while I am preaching, are you ready to meet death and judgement? Have you fought the good fight and kept the faith? Have you secured the one thing needful? Have you recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Are you clothed in Christ? Do you know that God dwells in you by his Spirit that he has given to you? Have you received the Holy Spirit? Or do you even know if there is a Holy Spirit at all? If any of these questions offend you, be assured that you are not a Christian nor do you desire to be one. Indeed, your very prayers have been turned into sin; and you have definitively mocked God this very day by praying for the inspiration of his Holy Spirit when you did not even believe that such a thing existed!
Needless to say, this was Charles’ first, and very last, occasion for preaching there.
Though Charles chose to preach from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul also wrote in a similar vein to the church in Rome: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!” What is the “this” that he is talking about? Love is the fulfillment of the Law. So, besides knowing that love is the fulfillment of the law, it is now time for us to wake up! For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Coming off of a major holiday weekend where we have all gratified our desires with mountains of mashed potatoes, rivers of gravy, quarries of cranberries, and seas of stuffing, where many of us were filled with debauchery and quarreling as we competed for the best holiday shopping prices on Black Friday, where we are now more focused on Santa Claus than Jesus Christ… it is very difficult for a young foolish pastor like myself to preach this text without ruffling some feathers. I used to laugh when I read Charles Wesley’s sermon “Awake, thou that sleepest” but now I’m beginning to understand how important it was for him to preach those words.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. Just as we came to a conclusion with Christ the King Sunday last week, today we begin by looking forward, with expectation, to the birth and arrival of our King. But here’s the great paradox, even though we are looking forward to Christmas, it feels like we’re stuck looking to the past. In many areas of church life this is a plague that has permeated throughout a multitude of ministries, relationships, and conversations. We talk about where we are as a church, what we want to do, but far too many of our imaginations are trapped by the past.
If, as Paul argues, love is the fulfillment of the law in he past, then love is most assuredly also the appropriate mode of action in the present.
Being Christian is all about love in action; not just a reflection on the past, but also a waking up to the present and the future.
For disciples of Jesus Christ, one of the hardest things to wrap our heads around is “time.” We are a people who regularly remember the past, in order to live into the present, while also looking forward to God’s promises. We are a people rooted in time, removed from time, and unaware of God’s time. Our past is constantly invading the present, and the future has already met with the present in the presence of the Holy Spirit within the faithful community.
If your head is spinning, don’t worry. It should be.
God’s future casts a light into the present and provides the illumination of the reality by which we are all called to live. Because God has promised to come again and make all things new, a new heaven and a new earth where death will be no more, death will die, then we are called to live into God’s future reality in the present. We are called to love in order to fulfill the Law.
What makes us unique as a people is precisely the fact that God has invaded our present with the Spirit, with his Son who walked among us, with his Word, with his sacraments, that we are a distinctive people with expectations of how the world needs to be.
For us, the time is now! Wake up!
As Christians we are not to be content with passively accepting injustices and evils in the world. Our faith demands that we reach out in love to combat the sinfulness of the world. How often do we think about our obligations to love outside of our families and our church community? What could this world look like if we seriously considered loving all, and all means ALL, of God’s creatures?
We are creatures of the present, though we are so consumed with our pasts. Our text today encourages us to look to the future in order to know how to act. As Paul wrote elsewhere in Romans, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Discover newness in your lives which the future will bring.
Wake up! We are no longer burdened by living for ourselves, but we are privileged to live for God, we are a people who obey his will for our lives. That is what Paul means when he says we are to clothe ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ. Its what he means by putting off the darkness and putting on the armor of light!
Because of Christ’s redemptive act on a cross in a place called The Skull we have all been liberated from the burdens of a sinful past. We strive forth with confident steps into a future that is always bringing us closer and closer to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for the entirety of creation. We are here as a people of anticipation, here the first Sunday of advent, remembering while anticipating Christ’s in breaking in the world in order to bring about God’s kingdom on Earth.
Wake up! This moment is the eternal moment – the now – when the past and the future stand still, when the past ceases its going, and the future its coming. This moment is not a time that comes and goes, it is God’s eternal moment, a spot of clarity amidst the ridiculous chaos of our lives.
This passage from Paul, read for us this first Sunday of Advent, deepens our understanding of the future whose coming we celebrate both in the birth and in the return of Jesus Christ.
So, how can we wake up from the sleep that we are caught up in? How can we love in such a degree so as to fulfill the law?
Love is always the essentially revolutionary action.
We love the way that Christ loved, and still loves us…
We can reach out to the lonely in our community, those who do not have a family to share this holiday season with. We can gather together in the front of the church selling Christmas trees while demonstrating Christ’s love in the world through the way we reach out to those who stop by. We can participate in quilt for a cause, letting our fingers and needles and thread create a tangible sense of love for individuals in our community. We can donate money for the Children from Social Services who we have adopted for Christmas presents this year, reminding them that nothing will ever separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
We can open our eyes to the injustices within our local community, and abroad, and be willing to speak out against the disparity present. We can love the unlovable, reconcile with friends and family from whom we have been separated, and we can provide a little warmth this coldest time of the year.
Our love for others, creation, and God is never just a concrete act, something that once began and continues on a course. Our love is the Beginning, the Miracle, the Creation in every moment of time, it sets our hearts aflame for Christ Jesus and allows us to be his body for the world.
And so, though paradoxical, what we are doing, the ways that we embody love, can be no more than point to the victory which has occurred, does occur, and will occur in Jesus Christ. Love directs us to the one whose very birth we now await and anticipate. Love awaits the ends of darkness which is the Beginning of the light of the world.
Wake up! You all know what time it is, and it is time for us to wake from our sleep. This is the beginning, another chance to start again. Whatever baggage you are carrying, whatever sin you believe is too harsh to be forgiven, whatever frustration you are dealing with in your life, today is a new beginning. We have gathered together as a community to rid ourselves of the darkness in our lives. We are here to care for one another. You are not alone. You are part of a community of faith that loves you because God loves us. Put on the armor of light. Prepare yourselves to be surprised by God’s grace in the world.
Wake up! Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not be consumed by your past, but with excited expectation live in the present and anticipate God’s future for you.
This table is our Beginning. For it is here that we gather to confess our faults, receive forgiveness, reconcile with our community, and feast at Christ’s table. This place is where past, present, and future all wind themselves together. Christ’s table is the matrix of time; it is where we remember God’s mighty acts, anticipate his birth and coming again, and live into the new reality of love, mercy and forgiveness.
Wake up! God is waiting for you.