“Light in the Darkness” (Romans 13:8-14)
Advent is a season of light. In fact, you could say that Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany–the whole three-month sequence centered around Christmas–each of these seasons could be called a season of light. Think of it: You’ve got the Advent wreath, with its candles for the four Sundays in Advent. You’ve got the Christmas tree, of course, with its tradition of being adorned with lights. And at Epiphany we think of the star that led the Wise Men to the Christ Child, and so we put an Epiphany star on top of the Christmas tree.
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany–each season has its own tradition involving the use of light. And you can see why these customs of light would be welcome in the lands where the Christian church developed over the centuries. In the northern latitudes of Europe, as well as here in North America, the months of December, January, and February are the darkest three months of the year. So traditions of light, in the midst of this long stretch of darkness, would be a natural fit for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
But dear friends, there’s more at work here than mere customs of candles and Christmas decorations. Let’s not put the cart before the horse. The traditions of light associated with these seasons–these customs developed because they illustrate the reality that has happened with the coming of Christ. Advent is the season when we anticipate the coming of Christ–at Christmas, and again at his second coming, which we still await. Christmas is the great event of the Son of God coming into our world, in the flesh, to accomplish our salvation. Epiphany–the good news of Christ’s coming now shines forth into our sin-darkened world. These are the great realities of the coming of Christ, and the light traditions we have simply illustrate these facts through the visual means of Advent wreaths, Christmas candles, and Epiphany stars.
And so, likewise, the Bible employs the language of light–particularly the contrast between light and darkness–to communicate this truth to us. Our text today from Romans 13 is a good example: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Thus our theme for this first of three messages based on this year’s Advent readings from Romans–today’s theme: “Light in the Darkness.”
Quite often, when the Bible speaks of “light,” it usually is in contrast to “darkness.” The darkness makes the light stand out, or, to put it the other way around, the light causes the darkness to flee. “Light,” biblically, is associated with God’s kingdom, his goodness, his glory, and his righteousness. “Darkness,” conversely, is associated with man’s fallen reason, our sin-darkened minds and souls; with death enshrouding the world; with the devil’s domain and the lost state of this world; and with the deeds of darkness–again, all in contrast to the light. This light and darkness imagery is common throughout the Bible.
And so, now to use that imagery, darkness is where we were before the coming of Christ. We were lost, trapped, unable to find our way to the light. Darkness clouds our minds by nature, so that we cannot see God as we should. We cannot see our lost condition. We can’t see how much we hurt our neighbor and ourselves by our lack of love. And if we do start to see that, we cannot see how to fix the problem. We don’t see the depths of our sinfulness and deadness as God sees them. That is darkness–real, spiritual darkness.
Where is the light going to come from? Well, not from inside ourselves, that’s for sure. Philosophers and false prophets of all ages have claimed to see the light, but the light within them is darkness, and it leads nowhere. They have no answers to overcome the big problems of sin and death.
This is why the seasons of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany are so wonderful for us to celebrate. For this is a time when we focus on the light–the one true light, coming into the world, coming to light up our darkness: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Yes, Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” Friends, we are that people, and Jesus Christ is that light. He has come into our darkness and shined the light of life and truth on us. Christ Jesus bore all our sins on the cross, in those hours when darkness literally covered the land. And in so doing he dispelled the darkness of death that hung over us. For at dawn on Easter Day, this same Jesus burst forth from the tomb, shining forth with the glory of life and light victorious. Now, through the church’s preaching of the gospel, the light of Christ has spread, and is spreading, throughout the world. And in the life of every Christian, the Holy Spirit has enlightened each one of us with the gift of faith, in the waters of Holy Baptism.
Light is winning out, believe it or not. Check that: Believe it. There’s no “not” here, even though it looks like it at times. The light of Christ does win out in the end, for the darkness cannot overcome it. Christ our Lord will come again, at the last day, the day of final victory when the last enemy to be destroyed–that is, death–when death is defeated for good, and the righteous are raised up bodily unto everlasting life. That is the day we’re looking forward to.
And that’s what Paul is referring to when he writes in our text: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” In other words, the day of Christ’s return is just over the horizon. Let’s wake up, then! It’s time to stop snoozing, it’s time to be ready, for the dawn of a new day is just about here. “So then,” Paul writes, “let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Which is to say: We are children of the light, children of the day, so let us act accordingly, as befits our faith and our hope in Christ.
You know, it’s got to be puzzling when we Christians want to slink back again into the darkness. It just doesn’t fit. It’s like we get fooled, over and over again, into retreating back into the darkness. Paul therefore has to remind the Romans, and us, of the new life that we’ve been called to. He says: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
The desires of the flesh and the debauchery of the world–those are things that belong to the old life, a so-called “life” that only leads to death. Drunkenness, sexual immorality, yelling and fighting–those are examples of the deeds of darkness. But, dear Christian, that is not the new you, the new person you are, in Christ. You and I have been brought into the light. So let’s live like people who walk in the light, who know where we’re going, who can see the path that leads in the right direction.
This is what it means to walk in the light. It means not being enticed to take those detours, those dead ends, that God has clearly mapped out as out of bounds in his law, in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and so on. And the flip side of not taking those detours, then, is staying on the right path that God has laid out for us in his word. In this word, especially: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Dear friends, this is where God’s path will lead you: to your neighbor, to serve him or her in love. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” of God’s will for your life. Love is the new life in action, giving real help to real people, at the point of their need. This is how God would have his people live, and he has enabled us baptized Christians to live in this way.
Oh, the world around us may be fumbling around in the dark–and they are. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be. God has brought us out of darkness into the light. We Christians walk in the light of Christ, our Savior. God has made us children of the light and of the day, and he shines the light of his word on the path in front of us. As the psalm says: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Come, then, children of the light. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, with whom you were clothed in your baptism. “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It’s Advent, after all, a season of light. May our God teach us his ways, that we may walk in his paths. “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”