And do this, understanding the present time. Do what? And what present time?
The church in Rome in the late 60s of the first century were a mixed lot. The gospel had been brought by Jews who had found faith in Jesus, but all the Jews were expelled from the city by the emperor Claudius. When they were eventually allowed back they found that there was a thriving community of gentiles who had also begun to follow Jesus. There must have been difficulties with different understandings of how the faith worked, differences in songs and prayers, and just suspicion between people who came from very different backgrounds. You might be reminded of the Windrush generation arriving from the West Indies in 1948, or more recent examples of different communities moving in.
Paul has never visited Rome, but he sends this letter to introduce himself and to explain methodically all that he believes. He starts in Genesis with God as creator, and relates the fall, and how all of humanity is in need of a saviour. He goes into Exodus and explains how if we do not obey God, we find ourselves like the Egyptians worshipping strange deities that we ourselves concoct, and end up like Pharaoh, doomed to fail in the fight we have picked with God.
God delights to rescue us, however, and if we trust him and obey him, we were welcomed into his family. This is what Abraham and King David found, that if we have faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for us, we will be saved.
This salvation is about a life of glory with God in a new heaven and a new earth after this present life is over.
It is also about a life of glory here and now, as we encounter various trials and tribulations in this world. We rejoice that we are fully part of God’s plan right now to ensure that his kingdom comes and that his will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.
This life is not about keeping a set of rules. To be a Christian is not to be ethically good. This is not because God does not care about goodness, but because we lack the ability, any ability, to do anything of a sufficiently high or pure standard to be counted as truly good. Everything that we do is tainted.
But the blood of Jesus brings us complete and full forgiveness. When we accept that and start to rely on it, when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe it in our hearts, then he sends his Holy Spirit to take up residence within us, giving us the ability to live his way.
How does this work in everyday life? The church is a community of individuals who are linked to God by his love and the work of his Spirit. We are united at a deeper level than any apparent differences of age, race, class, doctrine. What matters is that we love God with all of our hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves.
Loving God and our neighbour means that we will continually be offering ourselves to God in a way that reminds us of the sacrifices in the Old Testament temple. We will work hard at conducting ourselves with love and grace amongst each other within the Christian community and outside of it. We will pay our taxes and be obedient to the civil authorities. It is this love that defines us and is to guide us in every decision that we take and every person that we meet.
This all sounds so wonderful. It is very likely that you agree with this to a large degree. It is likely that most of the folk Paul was writing to in Rome also agreed with this. So why are our lives not more different? Because we do not understand the present time.
Paul says we need to Wise up! Wake up! Dress up!
Wise up! We need to realise the occasion! We need to urgently work at understanding what is going on. (We do not want a parking ticket because we did not know the rules had changed.) This world is in a terrible mess, and we are part of God’s master plan to put it right. The way that we live out the love of Jesus today, in Camberley and wherever else he sends us to live and work has a real impact. It is important. We need to really care that people encounter Jesus and surrender their lives to him. This is more than just a game. You could argue that for Spurs not to lose 6-1 or the Brits to lose the Ashes means they have to function as if they are not merely playing a game: victory is all. It matters that we pray, often and for all sorts of people. It matters that we unfailing respond with love and kindness even when we are wronged. It matters that we feel able to speak of our faith when we encounter someone who is searching.
There may have been things we were unaware of. But now we are adjusting our shopping habits to take account of what we know about the way that workers overseas or farmers in our own country are treated. There may be aspects of bible truth that seem strange or difficult to us, but now we are reading the bible for ourselves and exploring what is there. Paul is saying: get a grip; this stuff matters.
Wake up! The world has been in darkness but now that Jesus has come the dawn is breaking. There are things that are appropriate for night time – sleeping, not doing much. When the daylight comes, though, we want to be up and moving and active. Paul writes to us all, saying that we should get the right gear for daytime activity. Strap on the weapons, the equipment, that you need to make a difference, bringing in the kingdom, helping his will to be done.
Dress up! We clothe ourselves in Christ. Elsewhere the metaphor is that we are filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, that we are “in” him. That belief in Jesus that Paul spoke about earlier in the letter comes out as positive, conscious act of union with him. When I put on an Air Training Corps sweatshirt, I am saying that I am fully part of what they are doing. When I wear a Streetangels coat, I am every moment representing all that Streetangels is. When I walked as the Roving Rev I was conscious of eyes watching me, and that influenced who I was and how I behaved. The outward clothing reflects an inner shift in thought and attitude. This is more than asking in a theoretical sense What Would Jesus Do? It is walking through each moment with him and in him.
I look at the antics of the people out on the small hours in Camberley and try to imagine the way that the behave in the office on Monday morning. But then I remember the surveys that show that the lifestyle of most Christians is almost the same as their non-Christian friend or neighbour. There is sexual immorality and drunkenness, bickering and jealousy within the church as well as outside of it.
This season of Advent is like a little Lent. We take time to focus on the coming of Christ. We rejoice in the memory of his first coming as a baby, and all the joy of the season. We also think about his second coming, the end of wars and bloodshed, inequality and cruelty, and we allow they spotlight of his Spirit to shine on us. Some people “spring-clean” for Christmas; we can all do with a spiritual makeover.
This Advent tide Wise up! Wake up! Dress up! Consciously seek to open not one door into your heart, but 25 doors, so that light floods your whole soul!