Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Romans 13.10-11)
Dad awoke my brother and me every Sunday, the one morning we could sleep till 8:30. He’d open our bedroom doors and call to each of us, “Time to get up, sweet boy!” More often than not, the kitchen clatter and gospel music on the radio already had awakened us, and we were just drifting back off when the call came. A series of follow-ups grew sterner, until we dragged ourselves out of bed. Mom handled wake-up calls the remainder of the week. They came much earlier and though they should have been harder to pull off, her method was close to failsafe. She stole into the room and sharply whispered our names: “Tim! Tim!” and “Steve! Steve!” The hushed urgency sliced through our slumber. Before we could protest, dreams floated away like stray balloons and our waking senses lurched to high alert. We’d ask, “What? What is it?” Still whispering—as if rousing us for a top-secret mission—she’d answer, “You need to wake up.” Not, “It’s time to get up,” or “Get out of bed,” or “You’ll be late.” Always, it was, “You need to wake up.” By the time we realized the reason we needed to wake up was no different than any other day, we were wide-awake. Next we realized we didn’t have time to go back to sleep.
Today’s inaugural Advent readings (Revised Common Lectionary; Year A) intrigue me by juxtaposing grandiose Old Testament allusions to a promised Savior with the New Testament’s hushed urgency to realize we have no time to sleep. Isaiah 2.4 prophesies, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Meanwhile, Psalm 122.6-7 instructs: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.’” They seat us front and center, telling us what to expect, so we’ll know what’s happening when their predictions unfold. In contrast, the New Testament passages—both of which point to Christ’s second coming—caution us to stay alert, lest their prophecies happen before we know it. Jesus says, “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24.42) And, in Romans 13.11, Paul writes, “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” The Old and New stun us with apparently opposed messages. Isaiah and David loudly declare, “Hold to the dream.” Jesus and Paul sharply whisper, “You need to wake up.”
The Very Same Promise
It’s obvious why the messages seem contradictory. One anticipates Christ as judicious Peacemaker; the other foresees Christ as ultimate Judge. One springs from our longing for Christ’s physical manifestation; the other reveals Christ’s desire for our spiritual transformation. The first is a dream born in darkness, before Light enters the world; the second shines Light on a world to come. Yet, in dissecting differences in Old and New Testament prophecies, we detect many similarities—so many we conclude we’re looking at one message from two angles.
Both promised events defy comprehension. We will never fully appreciate the compassion and commitment that drive God to dwell among us as one of us. Nor will we ever completely understand why, after Christ’s mission is accomplished, we’re promised another appearance that puzzles us as much as the first promise perplexed generations awaiting Christ’s birth. Until the angel explained God’s plan to Mary, no one had any idea how it would work. Scholars and theologians devoted their lives to unraveling the prophecies. They crafted timelines, scenarios, and all sorts of theories forecasting when, where, and how Christ would appear and what would come of it. Nobody got it right. That should have taught us to focus on the prophecy’s meaning, not its mechanics. Why then, since Jesus foretold Christ’s return, have we obsessed with a future occurrence beyond our grasp? The wild fields of apocalyptic speculation yield the same questions that vexed those struggling to absorb Messianic prophecy. Is it literal or metaphorical? Is it defined in human, historical, or heavenly terms? What’s really going to happen? Why hasn’t it already happened? Myopic scrutiny of enigmas we’re not equipped to solve obscures the very message the Old Testament prophets proclaimed—the very same promise. Christ is coming.
Jesus says we will never decipher the Second Coming’s specifics before He predicts it. “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” He says. (Matthew 24.36) He does this so we’ll not do what so many have done, i.e., forget what’s most important. Now that Light has come to the world, the promise of Christ is no longer a dream. The command, “Be ready,” institutes perpetual Advent, an endless season of hope that Christ’s presence will one day overpower evil governing our world. And we’re charged with making that hope a reality. That’s why Paul prefaces his wake-up call by invoking unconditional love. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law,” he says. (Romans 13.8) He reinforces this in verse 10: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Then we hear his sharp whisper. “You need to wake up!”
If we reduce Advent to an amazing tale of Messianic dreams come true, we’re no more alive to its message than current prophecy fanatics are to the Second Coming’s meaning. Advent’s promise didn’t end at the manger. If anything, it began there. As Paul says, the hour has already come to end our slumber. Our salvation is nearer than it’s ever been. If Christ comes today, if Christ comes 10,000 years from now, if Christ never comes in a manner we expect, sleeping through opportunities to love others—to turn the promise of Christ into reality—is unacceptable. Time given to slumber is time lost forever. Advent calls us. Christ is coming. People are seeking Christ's love. We need to wake up.
Now that Light has come to the world, the promise of Christ is no longer a dream. We need to wake up to our responsibility to make hope a reality.
Postscript: Advent at Straight-Friendly
Straight-Friendly will return to daily posts during Advent, even though it would be overly ambitious, if not altogether unrealistic, to promise fresh entries every day. So we’ll pass the season with a blend of new reflections and old favorites. I trust you’ll continue to drop by and add your thoughts to the day’s topic. Have a blessed, hope-filled Advent, everyone!