Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
Romans 13:8-14, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, September 10, 2017
How are we to live in this world? The lectionary points us this Sunday to two little paragraphs in Romans which give two critical answers: First, live with love as your one obligation; second, live as a person at the burning edge of dawn. First, we are oriented toward our neighbors; second, we are oriented toward God’s future for the world. We live in love and we live in hope. What could be more important for a Christian to understand than that?
What does the world owe you? Nothing, as Rocky’s coach had to remind him. What do you owe the world? Love, Paul says. N. T. Wright comments, “Love is a debt, owed to everyone, that can never be discharged.” We can pay our taxes, as Paul has just urged in this chapter; we can pay our bills; but we can never pay back the love we owe. Who do we love? Usually when the New Testament uses the phrase “love one another” it refers to Christians loving other Christians, love within the fellowship of the church. But here Paul ties that phrase clearly to loving your neighbor.
Paul says that the whole Torah can be summed up in this one saying: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” James (2:8) says the same thing, and refers to it as “the law of the King,” the commandment Jesus gave us.
In our culture, we’ve just about ruined that word “love.” Love is something you fall into, something that happens to you, something that is beyond your control. You either feel it or you don’t. That is the romantic understanding of the word, the Valentine’s Day version, but it has almost nothing to do with the Christian ethic of love. That kind of love the New Testament might call “desire,” and psychologists might call “fixation.” That kind of love that is the product of hormones and physical attraction—or even the sense that you have found a soulmate or the future parent of your children—is not what Christians mean by love.
Love, as Paul makes clear, is a moral obligation, not a feeling. It is a way of acting, not a way of feeling. Love acts from the will, not the emotions; for people in Paul’s day, the heart was the center of will and decision, and that was where loving action came from. You don’t have to like your neighbor at all in order to love him. Jesus certainly expects that you won’t like your enemy, but you nevertheless have an obligation to act in love toward your enemy—to act with your enemy’s best interests in mind. What would be in the best interest of the person who hates you? What would be in the best interest of the North Korean people? That is the question love asks. If you insist on thinking like a modern person, do it this way: act as if the emotion of love were already in place even if it is not. As they say in AA, “Fake it till you make it.” Do what is right even if you don’t feel like it. And of course, our feelings often follow our behavior. Right doing can lead to right being.
Paul makes love the ethical principle. But in recent decades, people who talk that way make love an excuse for breaking the moral law. “How can love be wrong when it feels so right?” “I can’t help myself if I don’t love my wife anymore and love this other woman instead.” Give me a break. As I said, that’s not love, that’s desire, eros not agape. Paul says that the love command fulfills the commandments like “Do not commit adultery” and “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Love can never be an excuse for adultery or murder or stealing or envy. Love is putting the other person’s well-being ahead of your own, and that is the Christian’s moral obligation.
Love is a debt we owe our neighbors. We are asking ourselves this morning, “What do we owe to the victims of the hurricane?” I think the scripture also prompts us to ask, “What is it that love calls us to do for other nations?” and “What does love call us to do for the stranger in our own nation?” Those are questions we deal with on a personal level, on a community level, and on a national level. Paul never says, “Seek justice for yourself,” but rather tells us to put the other person’s rights and honor ahead of your own. We can seek justice for our neighbors, but we must not demand it for ourselves, because our love models itself after Jesus.
The most minimal interpretation of love, which Paul gives in verse 10, following other rabbis before him, is “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” First, do no harm. Don’t cut down the neighbor’s tree. Don’t take his land by adverse possession. Those are Block Island examples. But we can think more broadly. What are we as a society or nation doing that harms our neighbors? Does our economic policy harm people of other nations? Are we putting things in the air and water that harm others? Are we putting weapons in circulation around the world that are likely to harm others? Are we selling images of sex and objectified women that harm women in other countries? Are we creating terrorists by failing to seek justice in Israel and Palestine? Are we creating refugees by drone attacks in Yemen or by an unwise choice of partners in Syria? We can’t realistically expect a nation-state to act in a Christian manner, but we can expect Christian citizens to advocate for policies that do not harm our neighbors in other nations.
In verse 11, Paul moves to the reason for urgency about love. “You know what time it is,” he says. What time is that? As the Chicago song asked, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” I’ll tell you what time it is, Paul says: it’s time to wake up! When we were kids and my Dad was home, he took it as his job to wake us up. Being a World War II veteran, be always did it with a song we never learned to love: “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning!” This paragraph in Romans is Paul’s Reveille.
It’s time to wake up because it is almost dawn; the great change that we are waiting for is just beyond the horizon and about to rise. Our salvation—the salvation of the world, the coming of the kingdom, the restoration of all things—is nearer than when we first believed. If we are Christians who believe in the Messiah, we are future-oriented, looking to the horizon.
How are we to think of time? On the island, it’s natural to think of time as cyclical. The seasons go round and round, as Joni Mitchell sang, in the circle game. For us, time is off-season, shoulder, high season, shoulder, then a kind of death until the season comes around again. Another way to think of time is as linear, a line composed of minutes which goes forward forever but disappears behind us. Who knows where the time goes? Everything is passing away, and death is a matter of running out of time.
In the New Testament, time is goal-oriented. All time moves toward the goal of the completion of God’s plan, when we are changed and everything is made new. Someday there will be eternal life and peace and justice, and death will be no more. That is what Paul calls “the day”—the day of Christ when he establishes his reign in its fullness and everything is set right.
What time do we live as if we are in? Are we living at the end of another season, moving toward quiet and solitude? Do we find ourselves late on this line called life, near retirement or the end of the line? Or do we live at the edge of dawn? That is the Christian way of imagining ourselves, wherever we are in terms of age. We are always in that moment just before dawn.
Next Sunday Becca and I will go to Hilton Head Island. The place where we always stay is just off a very long, wide beach that faces east, so one of my rituals there—one I never make time for when I’m working here—is to get up at least half an hour before sunrise to walk the beach, to enjoy the moments before dawn and to watch the sun rise. That walk is a metaphor for the Christian life.
I came across an old black-and-white postcard from the Mohawk Valley in western Massachusetts, and on the back of it was printed this description:
In the moment before dawn, gloomy shadows fill the valley, then comes the lighting of the sky; numerous beams of light gleam forth from behind distant mountain ranges, and in a few minutes chase the shadows and fill the valley with sunshine.
We are living our lives in that valley, in that moment, in that quiet when we know that gloom is temporary and that the light of Christ is coming into the world.
If that is our posture in life, Paul says, let us not live as creatures of the night. I don’t know what nights are like at your house, but if you live right here between Ballard’s and the Spring House, you know the sounds the creatures of the night make during the tourist season. You hear all three of the dishonorable behaviors Paul names in pairs: revelry and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, not to mention quarrelling and jealousy. Well, maybe we don’t hear jealousy, but we hear quarrelling. Revelry and drunkenness are the very reason many people come to Block Island, and we are not above profiting from it. Some debauchery follows from drunkenness, and some is just part of our culture’s sex-obsession which has corrupted locals as much as tourists. In the field of quarrelling, locals do quite well during the winter when there are no tourists at all. It might be our top skill set.
All of that, Paul says, it the stuff of darkness that is inappropriate when the light comes. Lay all of that aside like old and dirty clothes, he says, and clothe yourself with light like armor to protect you from evil. He goes beyond saying that we should put on light to saying explicitly that we should put on Jesus Christ. Put on the very nature and attitude of the Lord who is about to arrive and transform the world. Knowing that the day is coming, live as if the day were already here, by living like Jesus. Above all, live like Jesus by loving your neighbor, doing good for the one in need, loving by seeking not your own pleasure but your neighbor’s welfare. Love means feeding him when he is hungry, giving her drink when she is hungry, housing the one who is homeless because there is too little rental housing on a gentrified island.
Focus on real love—acting for the good of your neighbor—rather than on your own appetites. “Make no provision,” he says, “for the flesh—that old untransformed and self-centered nature—to gratify its desires.” I think Paul understands that some of the Christians in Rome are living as Christians in most areas of their lives, but they have some secret areas in which they are making provisions for the old nature—giving themselves over to those old ways of drunkenness or sleeping around or getting in fights. Many of us have a junk closet in our homes, like Fibber McGee had on the radio, and we really wouldn’t want anybody to look in there. And many of us have a junk closet in our Christian lives as well, which we know isn’t consistent with our core values or our appearances, and we wouldn’t want anyone, even Jesus, to see. Make no provision, Paul says. Don’t set aside time or money or space in your brain for those things, but be renewed by the transforming of your mind.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Saint Augustine. He started sleeping around when he was 17, and to hear him tell it in his Confessions, he became a sex addict. He wasn’t a Christian then, although his mother was. At age 29, he moved from his home in North Africa to Milan, in the year 386, to become a professor of rhetoric. He was taken by the preaching of the bishop there named Ambrose, and a seed was taking root, but the sex problem remained. Then he heard about two people who were converted after reading the story of St. Anthony, the desert mystic, who was converted by hearing a gospel passage speak directly to him. Augustine was in turmoil inside, and one day he was sitting in a back yard with a friend and started weeping, asking God why he couldn’t put an end to his uncleanness.
Just then, he heard the voice of a little child beyond the wall in the street singing a children’s song, “Tolle lege,” “Take and read, take and read.” Augustine picked up the only thing he saw to read, a scroll of the book of Romans, and the first words he read were these: “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.” “I did not need to read any further,” he said. “As soon as I finished that sentence, my doubt vanished and a light shined into my heart.” He knew God was speaking to him, and he knew that he could in fact become a Christian, putting on the very nature of Jesus. May that light shine on you. Amen.