Scripture: Romans 13:11-14
What happens when you mix the happiest place on earth with the most wonderful time of the year? You get Mickey’s Merry Christmas Party which is Christmas magic on Disney steroids. The festivities start early as this special event at the Magic Kingdom happens twenty three times between November 8th and December 22nd. Disney goes all in on bringing the Yuletide to Central Florida, as more than 600 decorated Christmas trees decorate the Disney World complex. What is remarkable is how fast this happens. You see, just before this all starts Disney World brings its special brand of experience to Halloween with Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. The last of those events wraps up on October 31st, and by rope drop the next morning, the park is transformed. It goes down something like this:
The time lapse of all the work that gets done in the span of a few hours is amazing enough. What that video does not show is the mind boggling amount of logistics that go into making that happen. Coordinating the workers alone would be a large feat, but the planning and groundwork required to pull it off takes months. While none of us take Christmas decorating and celebrating to Disney level of extremes, it does point out that this time of the year really is a time of planning and preparation. We do not need boom trucks to put up our Christmas decorations, but to get ready for this season we all go through our own series of preparations. It requires advanced planning and logistical wrangling to make that holiday family get together perfect. That is the reality of our modern life, and honestly there is something strangely liturgical about that.
By decorating by November 1st, Disney is right in line with the cultural push to make the “Christmas season” last two full months. However, in the most traditional sense Christmas does not begin until December 25th. In the church calendar, the period leading up to Christmas is the season of advent. When it comes to our cultural holiday celebrations we are in a season of preparation and planning. In the same way, Advent is meant to be a time where we spiritually prepare. This morning’s scripture from Romans reminds us why we are preparing and what we are preparing for.
This morning’s scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Romans is a wonderful piece of scripture that is full of deep theology. What is great about Romans is that it ties the theory with the practice. It contains explanations of beliefs and also how to live those beliefs out. This morning’s scripture really helps illustrate this. This morning’s scripture is actually the conclusion of a thought that starts back in chapter 12. This whole section of the letter is about how we as followers of Jesus live that out in our day to day lives. In this section Paul writes about how we are to serve in the body of Christ, how love should be our primary motivator, and how to live at peace with those around us. After going through how we are to live a disciples, he then continues in this morning’s scripture why we are to live that way. In verse 12 of this morning’s scripture Paul wrote, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
Paul is referring to a fundamental Christian belief. It is in our creeds, it is in our communion liturgy, but it honestly is something that sometimes gets lost in the noise. It is a truth that may not always be on the forefront of our mind like perhaps it should be. This truth is that Jesus is coming back. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. There will be a second coming. That is what Paul is writing about in this morning’s scripture. He was urging the Romans to wait expectantly and be prepared for that glorious day. Jesus himself said that only the Father knows the time and the place when the second coming will occur. It obviously has not happened yet, so that means we too are to prepare and wait expectantly. That is what Advent is all about. At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, we celebrate the first time that Jesus invaded the world he helped create in order to redeem us. As we begin to move closer to that celebration, it is worth reminding ourselves that while Christmas was the first time Jesus came into this world it will not be the last. Just like people of the first century were awaiting the coming of the Messiah in the long expected Jesus, we too should be expecting him to come again.
I think the natural question this brings up is how do we do that? After all, we need to do more than just come to church and look to the sky for Jesus to come back. I think the way we prepare for holiday celebrations serves as a good example. Growing up, Christmas Eve was an emotionally complicated day. I was clearly excited because I knew that it meant the time to open presents was close, and that was exciting. However, at a young age I learned that Christmas Eve also meant cleaning. Because we had the youngest kids, it meant that relatives usually came to our house to get together. That meant the day of Christmas Eve tended to be a stressful day of (what felt like non-stop) chores. In order to be ready to celebrate Christmas we had to do the preparations of cleaning up the mess.
Paul is advocating that we prepare for the coming of Christ in a very similar way. That is why he writes “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.” One of the sayings of wisdom my grandfather taught me is that “nothing good happens after midnight.” Paul was expressing that sentiment as well, the behaviors that we naturally know are not right we tend to try and hide away. Instead of dealing with the mess, we try to hide it in the dark or where people are not going to see it. Expecting Jesus’ return does not require us to just wait for him, it requires us to be ready for him.
If you knew that Jesus was coming to visit your house next week you would absolutely make preparations. You would absolutely do some cleaning and tidying up of your floors and counters, but you would probably also tidy up your life. Perhaps you would make sure your recently watched queue would not have anything that would make Jesus raise an eyebrow. Perhaps you would make sure you spent some more time reading the bible or volunteering to help others just in case it came up in conversation. If we knew Jesus was coming to visit us, we know exactly what messy areas in our house need to be cleaned up to prepare for company. In the same way, if we are being really honest with ourselves, we probably also know what messy areas in our lives and hearts need to be cleaned up. We know what deeds of darkness we try to keep hidden. The way that we prepare ourselves for when Jesus comes back as we make sure that our lives are already clean and in order.
This is what discipleship is. Discipleship is how well we follow Jesus when no one else is watching. Eugene Petersen, author of the Message paraphrase, defines discipleship as being apprenticed to our master. On this subject, in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Petersen writes “We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a school room, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.”
There are three major sets of skills that we should develop as a disciple. A disciple of Jesus Christ is one who fully loves God with the whole being, who fully loves their neighbors, and who does not willfully sin. This is the life that Jesus modeled for us, and this is the life we should seek to emulate. It is a life of Christian perfection, and one of the aspects that I appreciate about our Wesleyan heritage in the United Methodist Church is that we believe this is a goal we can actually work on and make progress towards.
In this morning’s scripture Paul writes in the most straightforward way how we do that. In verse 14 he wrote, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” In trying to understand what it means to clothe myself in Christ, I am once again reminded of Christmas decorating, especially Disney’s Christmas decorating. The Magic Kingdom is in the middle of Florida. The average temperature is 75F in December. It is not exactly an environment that lends itself to a traditional Christmas feel, yet they are renowned for their Christmas parties. This is because even though it is warm and sunshiny, they go to great lengths to decorate the park, to clothe the park, to communicate holiday cheer.
In the same way, we clothe ourselves in Christ when we live our lives in a way that clearly communicates that we are disciples, and our Master is Jesus-the savior who was, who is, and who is to come. It is our actions, the ways that we love God, love others, and do not indulge in the desire of the flesh that makes evident our faith. People know we are clothed with our Lord Jesus Christ, when they experience Jesus through us. This is not something that happens by accident. Did you see how much work it takes to clothe Disney World in Christmas? It is a herculean task that requires real coordination, planning and effort. Discipleship is much the same way. No one accidently becomes more like Jesus, we do so through intentional choices and effort. We do so by preparing ourselves. As Paul writes, we do so by putting aside the deeds of darkness and putting on the armor of light.
We do this so that when Jesus comes back we are prepared, with open, ready, and clean hearts to receive him. How we prepare our hearts is much like how we prepare our house and clean it up when we have company. When it comes to tidying up we have two approaches. We can neglect the mess and clutter, we can let it build until the last second and then try to clean it all in a frenzy, or we can spend a little bit of time everyday picking up a few things so that when we have to do last minute preparations it is not a stressful, frantic ordeal. As someone who is too guilty of letting the mess build for too long, I can tell you from experience which is the smarter approach.
It is the same with our lives. Likely none of us have reached the state of Christian perfection yet, we are still works in progress. Rather, we can be works in progress if we daily progress on the work of being a disciple of Jesus. As Paul wrote in this morning’s scripture, “our salvation is nearer now then we first believed.” That is still true today, Jesus is still coming.
We all know how messy our heart truly is. We know what darkness clutters our minds. We know what dirt we have swept under the rug instead of truly taking care of it. Even if your conscious is already pretty tidy, may we all consider doing some advent cleaning this year. May we wake up from our slumber and not keep fooling ourselves into doing what we know is wrong. May we be willing to confess and repent our wrongdoings. May we put aside the deeds of darkness and may we act decently. May we stop thinking about to gratify the desires of the flesh, and may we instead clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. May we earnestly seek to love God, love others, and avoid willfully sinning. May we live lives marked by humble discipleship being prepared because the day is coming. There will be a day when our Lord and Savior comes back in triumph. There will be a day when the king returns and reigns forever and ever and ever. And on that brightest day, may we be ready. With joy may we look forward to that day and with great anticipation may we truly proclaim, “come thou long expectant Jesus, come.”