READ : Romans 13:11-14
Excuse me, do you know what time it is? Let me tell you: It’s time to wake up!
One of the most important Christian thinkers of all time was Augustine of Hippo, who was converted at the age of 32, just over 1600 years ago, in the year 386. As a young man he studied Christianity, at first comparing it unfavorably with his own philosophy, but gradually being drawn to its teaching. After a dozen years of study, he had come to be convinced, more or less, of the truth of the Christian faith, but he was not yet ready to become a Christian. He accepted Christian teaching; he just couldn’t commit himself to living a Christian life. Like so many, his hesitancy in taking the final step of conversion was not due to intellectual problems with Christianity, but to moral problems in his own life. Augustine’s struggle was with his own sinful habits. He loved to do things that he knew could not be part of a Christian way of life; he hated the thought of giving them up. He used to pray, “God, change me, make me pure – but not yet.” So he was miserable. He knew the truth, but he refused to commit himself to it because he didn’t want to give up what he conceived to be his pleasures.
The story of how Augustine came to break decisively with his sin and embrace the gospel is one of the most famous in Christian history. One day while walking in a garden with a friend, he felt the torment of his indecision. Here is what happened, told in his own words:
. . . in my misery I kept crying `How long shall I go on saying “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?’
I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house . . . again and again it repeated the refrain `Take it and read, take it and read.’ . . . I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. . . .
So I hurried back to the place where . . . I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell. . . . I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.
– St. Augustine, Confessions, book VIII
And what was the passage Augustine “chanced” to read that day, the one that changed his life forever? It was this one from Romans 13:11-14:
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality . . . not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
WHAT TIME IS IT?
These words invite us first of all to consider what time it is. Imagine this scene: a mother bursts into the room of her child who has overslept. As she flips the switch, flooding the room with light, the child groans, rolls over, and pulls the blanket over his head. “Get up!” cries the mother, “Don’t you realize what time it is?” That is precisely the question asked of us here in Romans 13 – “Don’t you realize what time it is?”
All right then, what time is it? The answer: It is late: “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” It is time to get up: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber.” What time is it? It’s a time of crisis, a decisive time in your life and mine. The Greeks had two different words for time. One of them meant ordinary time, sun time, clock time, time as it ticks away, 60 seconds to every minute, 60 minutes to every hour, 24 hours to every day. In this sense, time is always the same, and everyone’s time is equal – nobody has any more hours in the week than anyone else. But the other Greek word for time referred to its quality, not quantity. It meant time in the sense of the crucial moment, the decisive hour, “high time,” time to be seized, time not to be lost. This second word is the one Paul uses when he urges us to “understand the present time” (v. 11). Today, right now, is the crisis time for us. A crisis is a time when everything builds to a decision, a moment of resolution. In an illness, the crisis is the hour when the issue of the final outcome is resolved, and the patient either dies or passes through it to recovery. In our lives the crisis is the moment when we face a decision that will make everything after forever different. The supreme crisis for each of us is the choice of whether or not to follow Jesus Christ. How you choose there will determine your future for all eternity.
When Paul speaks of the lateness of the hour, he is thinking on a cosmic scale. The clock he looks at is the clock of the universe, and time is running out. Astronomers and physicists are engaged in a debate about the age of the universe, both past and future. How many billions of years old is it, they wonder. How long will it continue? Will it collapse some day and fall back into itself, or will it simply go on expanding forever? But there is a critical assumption behind all their calculations, namely, that everything exists on its own, all by itself, and that the universe will always continue as it is now. The scientists’ estimates are only valid if nothing else happens, if there’s no outside interference. It’s like calculating how far an automobile will travel at its present rate of speed before it runs out of fuel. But what if there’s a driver who decides to apply the brakes? That’s how things really stand in our world. The world we live in doesn’t just exist all by itself, nor will it run on and on till its energy is all used up. It was made by God; he rules it. He began it, he will end it, and the end is drawing near. There is no infinite supply of time; time is passing, time is running out. We’re in the last hours of the world’s night, and the dawn of the age to come is close at hand. Salvation, in the sense of our final and total deliverance from sin and suffering and death, is nearer now than it was yesterday, or when we first believed in Christ. Salvation is on God’s time-table, not ours; we do not have control of the schedule, nor do we know exactly when the end will be, but we do know this – it’s getting closer and closer.
Exactly the same thing is true for us personally. Our own individual clocks are running out as surely as the world’s is. Whatever God’s schedule for cosmic time may be, and whether the world ends tomorrow or in a thousand years, it is certain that for each of us the night is far spent, and the day is at hand. We live on the threshold of eternity. A few more days, or decades, and we will be summoned from this world into the presence of the living God. That makes every moment a moment of crisis, a time for decision.
WHAT MUST WE DO?
So what must we do? The first and most obvious thing to do is to wake up! The call to “wake up” in a figurative sense is an urgent summons to awareness. Sometimes we’ll say it to a friend, someone we love who is ruining his or her life through self-indulgence or addiction or carelessness: “Wake up!” we cry, “Can’t you see what you’re doing to yourself?” We’re trying to get them to realize their predicament. If things go on as they are, if there’s no change, no turning, then they face destruction. The cry to awaken is a call of love, meant to arouse, to open a person’s eyes, so that they see and understand and act. It’s what you would shout if you saw your child sleepwalking toward a cliff. It’s what God calls to us: “Sleepers, awake! See where you are!” We are creatures made for God, but living in time. Just a little while and we will stand before him. All the confusing smoke and shadows of what we think of as reality will have evaporated, and we will be faced only with him. All the things that now we hold to be so important will have disappeared, and we will be left only with what we have done for him. Are we alert to this truth?
But there’s more; we must not only wake up to eternal reality, we must take immediate action. “Let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light . . . clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s a beautiful image. Paul is talking about our behavior; we need to change our behavior the way we change our clothes. Tear away all that belongs to the night, all the deeds of darkness, everything that is shameful and shrinks from the light of day: every sort of vice and excess, immorality, sexual impurity, quarreling and meanness of spirit. These things don’t belong in our wardrobe; we need to strip them off and get rid of them. And in their place, put on Jesus Christ like a beautiful garment, or better yet, like a shining suit of armor that can protect from all evil and uncleanness. Let us adopt his words and deeds, let us live as he lived, let us abide in him and imitate him in the strength of his Spirit.
Many teachers and authorities can tell you what you ought to do. Indeed, most of us already know that. We know what’s vile and shameful in our lives – all the things we should put off – and we know what we should be doing instead. What we don’t know is how; how can I find the strength to do what is right? Jesus Christ offers the only answer I know of to that question. He offers us himself. By trusting him, giving ourselves to him, we can clothe ourselves in him, put on his armor for strength. That doesn’t make the new life easy, but it does make it possible.
But we must wake up and act. The time for that is right now, today (not tomorrow). We all have a tendency to resist change, to procrastinate, to stay in our old ways. When we hear Jesus Christ calling us to come to him, it’s easy to put him off. We tell ourselves that we will decide another time, a little later, that it’s not convenient just now. And we go back to sleep. Don’t let this be you. Now, while you hear his voice, wake up! The hour is late, the night is far gone, God’s new morning is about to dawn. Put on Jesus Christ today!
Prayer: God, I turn to you in faith right now, with my eyes open and my mind awake. Help me to put off all the dark things in my life. Help me to put on Jesus Christ like a garment, to live in him, and he in me. Amen.