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What time is it? Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

One, single word may not seem to matter very much, but it can make all the difference. This may seem a trivial matter but it is an example of what I mean. I have conducted countless marriages over my years in ministry and most couples like to produce their own order of service. It helps to make their ceremony personal and special. I ask to proof-read the text so as to make sure the service is correct. Sometimes they choose “Give me oil in my lamp” as one of their hymns. In some instances the last line of the chorus comes out as, “keep me singing till the end of day!” This is not how the original author penned it. “keep me singing till the break of day!” is the correct version. That one swap: “end” for “break” speaks volumes to me because it all depends on your perspective. I’m sure it is not intended, but it betrays the basic orientation of the person who types it as “end” rather than “break”. I am a perfectionist, but it is more than just accuracy!

Break of day
At this point you may be thinking that the preacher has lost it before he has hardly started his sermon! So what do I mean? My point is that the song I’m referring to uses the idea of night and day that was originally used in the letter to the Romans. Vs. 12: “the night is far gone, the day is near.” In other words, the song prays that God will grant us the grace of his Spirit to keep us going through the last stages of night and until the break of day. Why is this important? It is because the view of the NT writers and the Christian communities to which they belonged was that our present life is being lived in the dark, in the night-time. The sufferings that they endured gave them a certain way of looking at life: they were in the night. The breaking of dawn was just round the corner, and that would be when Christ appeared again as he had promised. In other words, the first Christians reversed a normal understanding of life. They were all living in night-time mode: awake at night. Many around them were awake because they were revelling, drunk, living debauched, quarrelsome and jealous lives. Christians may have been kept “awake” because of what was going on around them and trying not to get dragged into such ways of life. For them it was a question of staying vigilant because the dawn would soon come.

Is it still that time?
In our own day we are aware of the problems of city-centre revelry that spills over into drunken disturbance and violence that uses up so much police time and resources. But it is only a minority of our population that behave in such ways, even though things like binge-drinking may be a major health concern. So are we still living in a cultural night-time when Christians are a minority that have to batten down the hatches and hang on until our saviour comes again? It is not that dramatic. But something else, I think, is significant about the times in which we are living. It may seem a great deal more innocent, but it is as significant as the difference one word can make to our outlook on life.

You may be aware that many people these days say that when it comes to matters of faith they are not religious but they are spiritual. According to some estimates, that may be true of up to 60% of our population. Certainly the census in 2001 showed that about 70% counted themselves as Christian, whatever that may mean. Many of you will know that I have begun an MA course this autumn. We have been studying religion in the modern world and one of the questions we have asked is about religion and spirituality. What do people mean when they say that they are spiritual but not religious? A simple answer is that they do not participate in any organised religious activity apart from, say, the occasional public ceremony, but they do believe it is important to value and cultivate the human spirit. There is more to life than simply material things and being spiritual may mean anything from simply holding some kind of belief, such as environmentalism, to practising a way of life that involves more than just living, earning and being materialistic, for instance meditating or being vegetarian. It is not necessary to believe in God, but it is important to value life.

Night and day time
What are we to make of this as Christians? Does the Bible address this widespread attitude towards matters of belief in our society? I believe it does. The way we may understand this goes back to your perspective on life and time. Are we living in the day or the night-time? Matthew’s account of Jesus’ perspective on the life and times of their society includes a discussion about the end-times. Just as people were living quite normal lives in the days of Noah, says Jesus, so it is these days. Only Noah expected the flood and when it came, it took all those people of his day by surprise. So it will be when the Son of Man returns – people will not be expecting it.

People these days do expect a catastrophe. There seem to be weekly scientific accounts of the threats to our environment through global warming and geo-scientists are pre-occupied with ways of trying to stop what may be a not-too-distant calamity of global proportions. People are prepared for disaster in some senses. What is distinct about Christianity is the belief of which we are reminded this Advent Sunday. We believe that Christ will come again and with this will be a complete transformation of our universe. In other words, we are living in the night, and dawn will come bringing a completely different order of things. I suspect that most peoples’ spirituality is to do with this life, believing that there is more to life than simply the material, but confining their beliefs to making life in the here and now of a better quality. For them it is day now and spirituality will keep them going until the end of day. For Christians, however, whilst it is important to do all we can in the here and now to make life more than simply about the material, we value the spirit because there is also a hereafter: really it is night-time now and when Christ comes again day will break. Believing in God changes your whole perspective and the fuel we need for our spirituality comes from God.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Almighty God,
as your kingdom dawns,
turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness,
that we may be ready to meet you
in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.