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!
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
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.
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.
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.
© Rev Paul Smith