This passage comes in the latter sections of Romans that primary contains various practices of the Christian life. Paul assumes that his audience has heard his epistle in its entirety, not piecemeal as we do in worship. Romans largely contains Paul’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. where he has set forth his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scholar N.T. Wright states in his commentary on Romans that the main theme of the epistle is “God’s gospel unveils God’s righteousness.” He also points to Romans 1:16-17 as the summary that the rest of Romans unpacks. In short, the concern of Paul and other Jews of his day is wrestling with how God is faithful to the covenants God has made with Israel through Abraham and Moses. Essential to understanding our passage at hand is that Paul sees the advent of Jesus Christ as apocalyptic. That is, Jesus Christ is the unveiling of God’s plan that Goad has had all along for Israel and all of creation. Romans 12-16 is primarily about how the Church as the community of Jesus Christ lives in light of and in witness to God’s plan unveiled in Jesus Christ.
Since this is the first Sunday in Advent, this passage affords a great opportunity to preach about how we live in between Christ’s first advent (or appearing) and Christ’s second in final glory. Advent is a season of preparation not just for Christmas but for Christ’s return in judgment. In the number of ways people in our congregations think about Jesus, is Jesus as God’s revelation of God’s plan for all of the cosmos one of them? Of as John Howard Yoder put it: those who carry the cross of Jesus Christ are working with the grain of the universe. Romans 13:11-14 provides us with how our congregations can walk daily with the grain of the universe. I see three potential avenues for sermons from this passage: 1) telling time theologically; 2) waking to a life in Christ; and 3) putting on Christ.
A sermon could focus on how Paul invites us to see time in a particular way. As stated above, we live between Christ’s first and second coming, but how much does this sense of the season (in Greek, kairos, which is the word used by Paul in this passage) we are in shape our daily Christian living? I imagine most of us think of time based on political commitments, such as whether we live in a time of progress or regress. We see time based on the season of life we are in: young adults, new families, midlife, nearing retirement, or other life events like divorce, loss of parents, etc. How we see time shapes how we live. Is Christ’s return shaping how we live? Are we waking to the dawn already begun in Christ’s resurrection or do we pursue the practices of night? Paul has a particular sense of time, that we live in an overlap of ages, the old one marred by sin and death and the new one inaugurated by Christ. But which age are we attuned to?
A sermon could also play with Paul’s imagery of waking verses sleep. While presented in a dichotomy by Paul, we also know there’s a range of being in deep sleep versus fully awake. Again, with the theme of Advent, being fully awake facing the coming of Christ with hope and joy is an appropriate sermon. Such a sermon could invite sober self-assessment by the congregation. Is it time to put away certain aspects of one’s life, such as what Paul lists in this passage? With such a sermon, also make sure you are providing people with practices they should take up as fully awake people looking to Christ. Prayer and repentance are particularly good ones for this passage. After all, we should pray for God to rouse us to a wide-awake Christian life. We are not, after all, going to wake ourselves us. Karl Barth makes such an observation: “As [Christians] awake they look up, and rise, thus making the counter-movement to the downward drag of their sinfully slothful being. They are those who waken up, however, because they are awakened. They do not waken of themselves and get up. They are roused, and they are thus caused to get up and set in this counter-movement.”
Finally, a sermon could also focus on Paul’s exhortation to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Roman 13:14). While Paul does not fully explore what exactly “putting on Christ” means here, we can look to other passages from his letters such as Galatians 3:27 and 5:22. In those passages we that it is a reference to baptism. Advent was once a season to prepare converts for baptism on Epiphany. A sermon could offer the congregation concrete ways of living into their baptisms. Particularly Galatians 5:22 shows that it is about embodying certain virtues that we see exemplified in Christ. The summons is not just to try harder at these virtues, per se. Rather, we pursue the means of grace that transform us and look to take up the right practices that become habits that then become the virtues of Christ.
Whichever avenue your pursue in your preaching, keep it apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a startling revelation. A revelation is not something we can achieve but only received from God with gratitude. In all three of these themes, make sure that God is the actor who makes our life in Christ possible. Make sure it is God who shows us this life, because following a crucified Messiah is not common sense. We do not want to turn Christianity into a self-help project. God has unveiled the divine plan in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has overthrown sin and death. God is turning the ages from the night of sin and death toward the glorious dawn of our liberation in Christ. God is the one who rouses us from our slothful slumber. God is the one who has come to us in Jesus Christ and commanded us to follow him. God is the one who works in our baptisms so that we can put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation is nearer to us now that when we began, not because we’ve achieved something, but because of God’s graciousness and faithfulness to us. Thanks be to God.