The First Sunday in Advent| November 27, 2011| Rev. Rolf Preus| Romans 13:11‑14
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. The 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. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lewdness, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. Romans 13:11‑14
Back in the sixties when tired and failed political creeds were being offered by the now generation as the greatest thing since sliced bread the prophets of the age made a big deal about the times we were in. Bob Dylan sang: “The times they are a changing.” Chicago asked the question, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” A generation set loose from the nominally Christian moorings of its parents thought that its time had arrived and now things would be different!
And as we know, it just led to the same old same old. As Solomon wrote nearly three thousand years ago, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” What did the now generation pass on to the generation that came after? The Age of Aquarius didn’t dawn. It was a sham. Celebrating yourself leaves you empty in the end. The time had come for what? Year after year of feeding the appetites leaves a people bloated and hung over and pointing the finger at everybody but themselves for their misery.
But the pretentious prophets had one thing right. There was a time when time was fulfilled. They just had the time set wrong. It wasn’t in the middle of the Twentieth Century. It was at the beginning of the First Century. That was the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith lives on God’s promises. Therefore, faith lives in that time, the time when God joined the human race, was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
Ever since God joined the human race we have been living in the last times. The birth, life, obedience, ministry, miracles, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus took place two thousand years ago. Ever since Jesus’ first coming, in fulfillment of the promise God gave through the prophets, the second coming of Jesus has been imminent. We are living at the edge of eternity.
We are living in the fullness of time. The day of our salvation is at hand. There is no unfinished business that needs to be taken care of before Christ’s return. There is nothing to delay Christ’s return. We confess that from his session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty he will return to judge the living and the dead. He will. That day is coming. It could be today. “Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”
So wake up! Don’t think that being a Christian is going to become easier as the end approaches. Listen to Jesus. Speaking of the days just before his second advent Jesus says, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” Living a Christian life is a battle. Luther identifies the unholy trinity against which we battle as the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. Today we consider the enemy within: our fallen, unregenerate, sinful flesh.
Anybody who has any sense of decency and virtue and goodness understands a bit about the sinful flesh. You don’t need to be a Christian to understand that there is vice and there is virtue. The vice against which the apostle warns us in our text for today includes such things as gluttony, drunkenness, sexual sins, bickering, quarrelling, envying, and the like. These are sins that share a common theme, the theme being a self-serving, self-centered selfishness that elevates one’s own desires and appetites above every other consideration. Anyone who can appreciate true loveliness knows what is ugly. Just so, anyone who admires selfless generosity, kindness, and compassion can see for himself how the works of the flesh debase those who engage in them.
But only the Christian knows the cure. This is the joy of Christ’s First Advent and the confidence we have facing his Second Advent. This is our salvation, nearer now than when we first believed. We know the cure of the works of the flesh. We know what quenches the desires of the flesh and what kills its appetites. We know how to do battle against the works of darkness, wearing the armor of light.
Only Christians know how to combat the works of the flesh because only Christians know in what true goodness consists. True goodness is not self-discipline. Self-discipline is a good thing! To stop drinking before you’re drunk; to stop eating before you’re stuffed; to keep your hands to yourself when alone with someone to whom you’re not married; to exercise self-control, bridling the tongue, curbing the appetite, following a rule of moderation: these are good things.
But the works of the flesh exist as sin before they erupt into outward works of sin. Sin lies inside. There’s a fancy word for it. It’s called concupiscence. Jesus talks about sin as sin really is. We read in Mark 7:20-23,
And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”
Self-discipline, exercising self-control, ruling over the outward expressions of these sinful thoughts may keep the flesh in line. But the sinful flesh will find a way to give expression to what he wants. He’ll push and connive and fight his way out until his appetites are satisfied. Self-discipline is not enough.
We need more than what we can provide for ourselves by appealing to our own will and strength. We need Christ. He is the cure. The apostle encourages us to wake up out of sleep, put on the armor of light, and then put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Waking up out of sleep means to take a serious reckoning of who and what we are. We are Christians. We belong to the One who has bought us by his blood. We are filled with the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. The One who lives in us is greater than the one who rules this world. The truth is superior to deception. That’s why the truth walks in the pure light of day. He doesn’t sneak around at night, hiding in the darkness, covering up his true intentions. The armor of light is the advantage that honesty and truth have over dishonesty and falsehood.
Where do we get this honesty and truth? Jesus. We put him on. We wear him. He covers us. This is what identifies us Christians. In today’s Old Testament Lesson God gives the Church the name: “The LORD, our righteousness.” Christ is the Lord. His obedience and suffering are our righteousness. Putting on Jesus is trusting in his gospel, believing that God washes away our sins in Jesus’ blood and renders us holy and righteous in his sight. Is this true? Are we righteous? Is Jesus really our Redeemer? Did he really assume our human nature? Is he God in the flesh, both our Creator God and our brother? Did he come into this world to save sinners? Did he save us? Has he really borne our sins away by his substitutionary suffering and death for us? Has he really sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts to confirm to us the truth that for his sake we are reckoned by God to be righteous?
Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ is laying claim to him as our true Redeemer and Savior. It is claiming his righteousness as our own. It is laying claim to our true identity and rights as Christians. This is how to do battle against the desires and works of the flesh.
We fight the flesh with the gospel, not the law. And only a Christian knows how because only a Christian knows the gospel. Most people have at least a dim understanding of the law. Not perfect, of course, but adequate to discern right from wrong in general. People know in their heart that getting drunk, sleeping around, getting into bitter arguments and fights, getting high on drugs, overeating, and generally living a life in service to our own appetites is a rotten life to live and is morally indefensible. Everyone but a sociopath has a conscience. The conscience testifies that a life of pleasure seeking is ultimately empty. But telling people to behave doesn’t take away their sinful desires. The law cannot defeat the flesh. It generally only incites him to want what he wants when he wants it.
But the gospel tells the flesh that he has no claim on who and what we are. We are Christians. God himself has pronounced us to be innocent, bathed in the baptismal water joined to the blood by which the Lamb of God took away our sins. The sinful flesh is not who we are. The sinful desires don’t define us. Even when the flesh wins and the Holy Spirit’s voice and urging and counsel is silenced and we do what is wrong and destructive – what we know to be sin – the flesh has not defined us or claimed us or destroyed our identity as Christians. Our baptism is a washing of life that continues to cleanse us of all our sins. When the flesh prevails and lays claim to us, we confess our sins and claim our baptism, putting on Christ, holding on to our elevated status as children of God.
The fight against the flesh is a battle in which we must engage until the day we die. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. In a sense we are already saved. We have already been rescued from the sin that condemned us, from the death that was our punishment for sin, and from the devil who controlled us. But in another sense, we will not be saved until Christ returns. His First Advent was in humility to be born of the Virgin Mary and to become our Savior from sin. His Second Advent will be in glory to judge the living and the dead. But that judgment is our salvation. That ought to encourage us to do battle against the flesh. When we give in to temptation and let our sinful appetites have their way we don’t look at this failure as defining our future. No, instead we lay our sins on Jesus, put him on, claim him as our righteousness before God, and rest secure and safe in the forgiveness of sins. That’s how we do battle against sin, and by God’s grace, we will win. Amen