In the mid-90s, a movie came out that has a scene that sometimes comes to me when thinking about Romans 13. It’s The Basketball Diaries, with Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie is based on the life of punk rock / new wave artist Jim Carroll, when he was a student at a Catholic high school in Manhattan.
DiCaprio plays Carroll, who becomes addicted to heroin. The scene I’m thinking of is one in which he falls asleep in class and has a drug-induced dream. In the dream, he’s shooting his classmates, when all of a sudden, “Whack!” Their teacher, a priest named Father McNulty, slams his cane against his desk and shouts, “Wake up, Mr. Carroll, it’s later than you think!”
He could have been quoting verse 11, where St. Paul says that “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
At this point, I feel compelled to interject some comments. I like to sleep. I count it among my hobbies! Sure it’s true that if I don’t get enough sleep, I’m more likely to have one of my seizures. But aside from that, sleeping is a good thing. It can even be fun!
Having said that, I don’t think Paul’s saying to wake up is meant to suggest insomnia. He wants to underline the urgency of the moment. That’s not the urgency that says, “Oh no! We’re about to die!” Instead, it’s an urgency that says “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (vv. 11-12).
I like the way the Revised English Bible puts verse 11. It has a tiny note of urgency! “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis: it is high time for you to wake out of sleep.” This is the hour of crisis.
In the early church, it was commonly expected that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. I think it’s safe to say that we can sense that tension, as Paul writes to the Romans.
Stepping back somewhat, it seems that over and over in human history, people have felt it necessary to say, “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis.” The time with the most importance… the time with the most danger… the time with the most promise… It always seems to be the present generation, the ones who are currently drawing breath. I guess that’s understandable, since the present moment is the only one we can control.
Our English word “crisis” comes directly from the Greek κρισις (krisis), literally, “decision” or “judgment.” That word is not in our scripture reading. I guess those translators used the word “crisis” to underline Paul’s point: the time is at hand. Wake up!
So what’s the story? Are we dealing with too much drama?
Paul speaks of two ways of living. On the one hand, there is living “honorably as in the day.” On the other hand, there is “reveling and drunkenness,” “debauchery and licentiousness,” “quarreling and jealousy” (v. 13). Those things don’t have to be expressed outwardly. They begin in the heart. It’s the difference between being wide awake spiritually—and sleepwalking through life.
Returning to the example I mentioned at the beginning, we can drug ourselves without using mind-altering chemicals. There is a multitude of ways in which we lull ourselves to sleep.
One way we do this is through our almost manic determination to buy stuff, just for the sake of buying stuff. This is especially appropriate, since we just “celebrated” Black Friday. We can look like we’re in a trance, the message of commercials burned into our neurons. “I am a consumer…I am a consumer.” People even resort to acts of violence, just so they can be the first to get the latest cell phone.
(By the way, before we leave the thought of this long holiday weekend, let me say that Thanksgiving here was very special. Plenty of good food and good conversation. And also, deep apologies to those cheering against the Cowboys in the late afternoon game.)
Another way we sleepwalk involves being overly engrossed in television, in what my dear departed dad occasionally would call “the idiot box.” (He would now need to modify his comment to include some internet sites.) What TV shows would warrant such a label? How about Dancing with the Stars? (Okay, I know that it’s easy to criticize something I don’t like! It’s also possible to drug ourselves with shows like The Big Bang Theory!)
Here’s another way in which we need to rouse ourselves from slumber. It’s by living in a bubble. Maybe you know what I’m talking about—only listening to people with whom we already agree. I’ve had friends who seriously disagree with me on politics, religion, food!
We can rely solely on Fox News Channel or MSNBC. We can assume that the “others” (whoever that may be) have some nefarious agenda, and they’re trying to deceive us. We can assume the worst about them, or that they’re simply deluded. They have nothing worth saying that we need to hear. We don’t listen.
And guess what? We miss out on so much.
That’s the very opposite of what Paul says about clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ wakes us up to experience real life!
Getting back to Paul’s sense of urgency, he doesn’t just drop this out of the blue. He begins verse 11, “Besides this.” Besides what? To know what he’s talking about, we need to look at what he’s already said.
He starts chapter 13 by telling the church in Rome that they should be good citizens—and that includes paying taxes. Yes, I know. Paul, you should probably keep that to yourself! It’s when we get to verse 8 that he speaks the language of love.
He tells the church that they are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” After all, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Here’s a question. How does love fit within the context of crisis? As we just saw, Paul is linking love with his sense of urgency. He wants people to wake up. So what’s the connection?
A good way to approach this is to recall that this is a scripture for Advent. It’s all about preparation. What are we preparing? Are we preparing our homes? Are we festooning them with festive frills? Are we preparing special meals? Are we basting birds with broth? Perhaps.
But that’s not what Advent is about. It’s about preparing ourselves. This is a preparation that involves waiting, waiting for the One who comes. This isn’t the type of waiting we do in the doctor’s office, or at the airport, or in line at the DMV.
Waiting for the Lord isn’t helpless lingering, in which we’re trying to figure out ways to kill time. Waiting for the Lord requires awareness, and awareness is impossible if we’re sleepwalking through life. We have to be awake in order to show love and faithfulness.
Henri Nouwen elaborates on this. “If we do not wait patiently in expectation for God’s coming in glory, we start wandering around, going from one little sensation to another. Our lives get stuffed with newspaper items, television stories, and gossip. Then our minds lose the discipline of discerning between what leads us closer to God and what doesn’t, and our hearts gradually lose their spiritual sensitivity.
“Without waiting for the [Lord], we will stagnate quickly and become tempted to indulge in whatever gives us a moment of pleasure.” That’s what Paul’s talking about in the prohibitions he mentions. You know, reveling and drunkenness, quarreling and jealousy, and so on. This isn’t just about morality; it’s about keeping us awake. Nouwen continues, “When we have the Lord to look forward to, we can already experience him in the waiting.”
That is the urgency Paul expresses. That is the crisis—the decision, the judgment call—he presses upon us.
Banu and I sense the hope and expectation, and yes, the need to stay awake, as this new church year begins.
So, as we enter this season of Advent, what are you, what are we, awaiting? Even if it is later than we think, our gracious Lord knows the time and is willing to come to us.