“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12)
One of the more important processes that every single one of us experiences every single day is this: We wake up.
It is one of the great equalizers, isn’t it? No matter one’s income, personality, age, gender, or political affiliation, one’s experience of a new day is dependent upon his or her accommodation this regular process—the process of waking up from sleep.
It should be acknowledged that all of us wake up in different ways, depending, of course, on one’s particular routine and temperament. Some people wake up to a blaring alarm clock, others to the gentle sounds of soft music. Some people wake up to an internal alarm, a mysterious mechanism within their biological network that brings them to consciousness without any external assistance whatsoever.
Some people wake up easily and quickly. As soon as their eyes open, they hop out of bed with a palpable eagerness, excited about beginning their day. “Bring me the newspaper, bring me my coffee, bring me my fruit loops, I’m ready to go.” Other people wake up slowly and rather reluctantly, pulling a distorted face out of the congealed drool that has bonded head to pillow for the last eight hours; stumbling and grumbling all the way to the bathroom; tripping over the dog on route to shutting off the alarm that is placed intentionally on the other side of the room because of the physical movement that such a placement demands.
We all have different routines, you see. But at the heart of each routine is the simple practice of waking up. All of us have to do it. In fact, you are reading this post only because, at some point today, you saw fit to wake up.
One of the key components in the process of waking up is the task of what might be described as laying aside the darkness. Darkness, after all, is an important part of sleeping. Even if it is light outside, the closing of one’s eyes in sleep produces a condition of darkness, and it is a darkness to which one grows quickly accustomed. Part of waking up is accepting the illumination that will bring us out of the darkness of sleep and into the light of an awakened condition.
But that is not always a comfortable thing, especially if it is still dark outside when the waking occurs. We turn on that light that for some reason seems ten times brighter than it normally does. We shield ourselves from it as though we are being confronted by a radioactive bombardment. Sometimes we even curse the light because it is so painful to our eyes. But we know that we must have it. We know that the light coming on is portion of waking up. Because only then can we lay aside the darkness. Only then can we be certain that we are stepping where we need to be stepping and seeing what we need to be seeing.
I bring all of these realities to mind because they are at the heart of the scripture upon which I meditated this morning (Romans 13:11-14). It is a scripture in which the Apostle Paul essentially says to the Roman church and to us, “Hey, church, wake up! Wake up, and lay aside the darkness!”
The people to whom Paul was writing in the Roman Church would not have had alarm clocks. They would not have had light switches. But they would have been confronted with the same daily process that confronts us: the process of waking up and laying aside the darkness. Therefore, the Paul’s words would have called to mind an everyday reality that would have been as familiar to the Roman Christians as it is to us.
“You know what time it is,” Paul writes in the scripture. (Interestingly, the “time” to which Paul refers here is “kairos” time, not “chronos” time. It is not measurable and chronological time that Paul is describing. Rather, it is freighted time—time pregnant with mystical urgency and messianic significance.)
“You know what time it is,” Paul writes, “it is kairos time! It is a moment in which you are to pay attention, a moment in which you are to wake from sleep.” Why? “Because,” Paul continues, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.”
Paul’s description of the nearness of salvation here is no doubt a reference to Christ’s triumphant return, which, with every passing day, is indeed nearer to us than it was the day before. Paul’s language also calls to mind the fragility of the human condition and, more specifically, the perpetual nearness of a physical death that will one day bring us face to face with the One who saves us.
“You know what time it is. It is time to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
In this stark and unsettling moment of Scripture, Paul utilizes the everyday reality of waking from sleep as a metaphor for an attentive and vibrant discipleship. “Do you really want to be a follower of Jesus,” Paul essentially asks in this scripture. “Do you really want to live a life that is subordinated to his Lordship? Well then, spiritually speaking, wake up! Stop living like a spiritual somnambulist—sleepwalking from worship service to worship service, church meeting to church meeting, while giving little or no attention to the transforming presence of the living Christ in our midst.”
“Wake up,” Paul writes. “Live a life of alertness and spiritual attentiveness. Sense the urgency of the moment. Respect the fleeting nature of time. Live in such a way that you are completely awake for the kingdom of God and the ministry of that kingdom in the world.”
“Wake up,” Paul writes, “and lay aside any sinful works of darkness that are engendering a condition of sluggish indifference toward the things of God, because time is short.”
I had a conversation recently with a woman who told me that, each week, before she walks into her church building for worship, she sits in her car in the parking lot for a few minutes, and she prays a prayer that goes something like this: “Lord God, take away my pettiness; take away my mean-spiritedness; take away my self-centeredness; and take away any small-mindedness that would cause me to believe that worship is more about spiritual self-gratification than it is about offering the entirety of myself to you.”
What is that woman doing when she prays that prayer each week? The scripture from Romans provides a new vocabulary with which to answer that question. Each week in her automobile, that woman is spending a few minutes laying aside her personal works of darkness that she might be awakened to the living presence of the God she is about to worship. Each week in her automobile, in other words, that woman is waking up.
A man I know recently began to volunteer at Washington City Mission. In fact, his entire family is joining him in that volunteer ministry. “We had to do it,” he said to me. “We had to get ourselves into some hands on, face to face ministry for the sake of Jesus Christ. As a family, we had become drowsy in the comfortableness of our lifestyle. We all needed to be shaken up by some kind of new ministry that would take us beyond the stifling normalcy of what our lives had become.”
What are those family members doing when they spend hours each weekend working with the homeless? Some might say that they are simply appeasing their suburban guilt. But I say something different. I say that they are laying aside their personal works of darkness that they might be awakened to the living presence of the One who is the light of the world and whose light shines with particular brightness in the faces and lives of the poor and marginalized. That family, in other words, is waking up.
I don’t know how you look upon the season of Advent. I look upon it as a season in which to wake up. Therein, I suppose, lies the significance of the mystical rhythms of the liturgical calendar. A season like Advent brings to the church’s people a unique opportunity to open their spiritual eyes and to come out of their drowsiness, so that, by the time Christmas arrives, their hearts are receptive to Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes to us afresh.
I want to be available to him this Advent. I want to lay aside in repentance whatever works of darkness are preventing him from having complete access to my life. In short, I want to wake up.