“INTO THE LIGHT”
SERMON ON ROMANS 13:11-14 AT EPISCOPALIAN FELLOWSHIP,
HARVARD DIVINITY SCHOOL, DECEMBER 2, 2013
Living a Dream
31 years ago, a 33-year-old LA truck-driver named Larry Walters made world headlines by sitting in his lawn chair. Larry had grown bored of spending summer afternoons in his backyard. So he decided to pursue a long-held dream to go up into the clear blue sky in a balloon.
Larry had limited resources. So he chose to improvise. Instead of one giant hot-air contraption, he got hold of no fewer than 45 weather balloons and filled them with helium. Then he procured a parachute for safety, a BB gun to regulate his height, if necessary, some gallon jugs of water for ballast, a CB radio and some supplies of food and drink.
On the afternoon of July 2, 1982, Larry had friends over to strap him into the chair and to help him with take-off. His initial thought was apparently that he might fly a few hundred feet over his neighbourhood and get a bird’s-eye view. But he actually got much more than he was expecting.
According to a report in the New York Times, such was the lift from all that helium that Larry was projected, like a missile, high into the air. And I quote: “A regional safety inspector, Neal Savoy, said the flying lawn chair was spotted by Trans World Airlines and Delta Airlines pilots at 16,000 feet above sea level.”
Not surprisingly, Larry himself was somewhat panicked by the results of his aeronautical experiment. So he desperately called for help on his radio and started shooting out the balloons with his BB gun. Depending on which report you read, it took anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours after take-off, before Larry finally drifted back down to earth and landed on a power line.
When he finally got free, he became a national celebrity. And how did he explain himself? “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve dreamed of going up into the clear blue sky in a weather balloon,” he told the Times, “By the grace of God, I fulfilled my dream. But I wouldn’t do this again for anything.” When asked by a TV reporter, “what in the world made you do it?” his explanation was a little more prosaic. “Well, you can’t just sit there,” he said.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not always very good at “just sitting there.” I’m happy to leave the lawn-chairs in the shed at this time of year. But I don’t particularly enjoy waiting in uncertainty. Sometimes I’d prefer a clearer outlook, so that I know what’s coming my way.
Yet over the years, I’ve also learned that this can be pretty impractical. It’s part of the very fabric of our human existence that only God knows the future and we’re not often granted much of a preview.
The season of Advent reminds us of this, because it is essentially a time of waiting and expectation. It is a period in the Church year which not only marks its beginning, and our preparations for Christmas. It is also a traditional opportunity to look forward to the promise of Christ’s return and to all that may involve.
So Advent inevitably highlights the transitional nature of our Christian experience, as we struggle to come to terms with the limitations as well as the opportunities of life on earth. And as we do so, our epistle reading from Romans 13 offers some timeless words of guidance.
Leaving the Darkness
Nearing the end of his long letter to the Church in Rome, the apostle Paul has just been stressing the importance of respecting authority and loving our neighbours. But now, in verse 11, he takes an even more global perspective by examining his readers’ place in salvation history.
“Besides this,” and by “this” I think he means the profound idea that “love is the fulfilling of the law” in the previous verse, “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.”
When Paul says “you know what time it is,” he does so with some urgency. And he’s reminding his readers that it’s time to wake up because God’s saving work never stops.
But how can “salvation” be “nearer to us now than when we became believers?” I don’t find any suggestion here that the apostle or his readers have not yet found redemption. He consistently tells members of his churches that that they have.
Yet verse 11 makes a lot of sense if Paul is talking about what theologian Michael Green once identified as the “future” tense of salvation. If he is referring to a state of complete freedom from evil and all its consequences that will only come when we die or Christ returns, then to say that that event is now closer than it was surely rings true.
As long as we conceive salvation history in linear terms, this pretty much has to be the case. However we define the nature or timing of coming to faith, time keeps moving forward. We have no way of knowing when we will meet God at the last. But we are bound to be closer to that today than we were yesterday or 10 years ago or whenever we see the start of our faith journey.
Preachers have often used the thought of impending death or judgement to cudgel congregations into submission, of course. And many still do. But if the essence of our faith lies in a living, loving relationship with God in Christ, I’ve never seen the value of trying to scare people into it.
I don’t remember many other love stories starting out in fear – maybe a few nerves, perhaps a little anxiety, but hardly cold, hard fear. It just doesn’t seem to work that way.
But we’re all troubled by thoughts of mortality and few relish the possibility of being called to account for our lives. And as soon as we start to think in such terms, Romans 13:11 reminds us that time is a factor. In fact, Paul says, the clock is ticking. So we’re smart to get ready.
And how do we do that? I see two main strategies in our Epistle – “putting aside” what the apostle calls “the works of darkness,” and putting on the “armour of light.”
Paul gives us quite an interesting list of what “putting aside the works of darkness” might involve in verse 13, where he talks about avoiding “revelling and drunkenness….debauchery and licentiousness….quarreling and jealousy.” But however colourful, these are surely examples, not a complete reckoning.
We need only bring to mind anything that we’d rather keep dark or quiet personally. You may or may not be relieved to know that I don’t intend to offer a detailed public confession today. But I could probably keep you here for a while if I did. So, I suspect, could others.
The reality is that darkness can hide a multitude of sins. But Paul’s response is very simple. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness….Let us live honorably as in the day,” he writes in verses 12 and 13. In other words, we’re called to live our lives in such a way that we can come freely and openly into the light.
This call to transparency is an important part of the traditional character of Advent as a season not only of waiting and expectation, but of preparation and penitence. And it’s accompanied, in our Epistle, by a very natural, even logical corollary, which is to “put on the armour of light” and seek Christ’s protection.
Light for Today
The apostle doesn’t specify exactly what he means when he urges his readers to “put on the armour of light” in verse 12, or ” put on” [or literally, in the original Greek, “clothe [them]selves with”] the Lord Jesus Christ” in verse 14. But there are strong indications elsewhere.
A key parallel for me is found in Ephesians 6:11 following, where Paul graphically portrays the “armour of God” (6:11) like that of a Roman soldier. Evangelicals don’t have so many issues with this passage. When I was a rather earnest seminary student, I treated the patient congregation of the parish where I was intern to two consecutive 30-minute sermons on it when the Rector was away on leave for a couple of weeks. I guess they recovered eventually!
Perhaps because we shun more militaristic discourse, there has been a tendency to steer away from this type of biblical imagery in other Anglican circles. But that can be a pity if it leads us to neglect what is ultimately very practical advice about an essentially spiritual process of drawing on God’s strength to protect us.
So how do we “put on” this “armour of light? How do we “clothe [ourselves] with the Lord Jesus Christ,” which really amounts to the same thing? We basically take advantage of the generous spiritual resources that we already have.
We meet together for worship, Eucharist and fellowship to strengthen faith and community. We study the Scriptures and we pray. We share the good news of Jesus Christ.
In other words, we practise basic spiritual disciplines and in the process, we draw on God’s strength. That’s what it means in real terms, I think, to “put on the armor of light,” as we seek to “lay aside the works of darkness.” And it can be so important, if we are to have the strength that we need during Advent or any other time to honour Christ and answer the apostle’s call to “live honorably.”
We began today with the rather extreme behavior of lawn-chair pilot Larry Walters and his brief journey into history. But we didn’t tell his whole story, and sadly, there was no happy ending.
Living his dream and flying into fame didn’t turn out to be all that Larry expected. According to a 1993 report in The Los Angeles Times, and again I quote:
The stunt earned Walters a $1,500 fine from the FAA, the top prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas [whatever that is!], the altitude record for gas-filled clustered balloons…and international admiration. He appeared on The Tonight Show and was flown to New York to be on Late Night with David Letterman, which he later described as “the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Larry was eventually able to give up truck-driving and make a decent living as a motivational speaker. What else? No-one knows exactly why, but in 1993, just 11 years after his record-breaking flight, another newspaper report revealed his death from suicide, at the age of just 44.
We don’t need Larry’s death to remind us that fame and fortune are no guarantee of happiness; nor is fulfilling our dreams. There are much bigger, more important realities and some of them can be very dark. And as our Epistle reminds us, how we live is ultimately much more important than what we achieve.
So during this Advent season, when we prepare for Christmas and look to the future, we could surely do a lot worse than listen to the apostle Paul in Romans 13. As we seek to draw nearer to Christ, whenever and however he chooses to meet us, we can and should step out of the darkness and walk in the light. We will always have to live with waiting and uncertainty. But the good news of the gospel is that we can do so in safety and confidence, as we rest in the assurance of God’s never-ending, unconditional love.
 AP, “Armchair Airman Says Flight Fulfilled His Lifelong Dream,” New York Times, July 4, 1982: http://www.nytimes.com/1982/07/04/us/armchair-airman-says-flight-fulfilled-his-lifelong-dream.html.
 Michael Green, The Meaning of Salvation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000), e.g., 102, 117, 152.
 Myrna Oliver, “Larry Walters; Soared to Fame on Lawn Chair,” Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1993: http://articles.latimes.com/1993-11-24/news/mn-60236_1_larry-walters.