In 1970, the group Chicago released a song entitled, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” The song was released during a tense political time in this county – the ongoing Vietnam War and the not-too-distant assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. While the nation was in turmoil, the songwriter notes that people were running around the city streets, pushing, shoving, trying to beat the clock. The song’s chorus repeatedly asks, “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?”
In 1975, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead, released the song, “Wake Up Everybody,” with the opening lyrics, “Wake up, everybody, no more sleeping in bed. No more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead.” Though written 47 years ago, the lyrics are relatable to us today. They also echo the words of the Apostle Paul back in A.D. 57.
Paul, away in Corinth, sends a lengthy letter to the new Christians in Rome who are spiritually sleepwalking through life. These Gentile and Jewish converts are trying to establish themselves as a community and a church amid a broken and fractured society. At the time of this letter, the Roman empire was dominated by the “haves,” who subjugated the “have nots” to lives of abject poverty and servitude. Under Nero, whose reign is often characterized as one of extravagance and terror, the Roman Empire was ruthless to the marginalized and anyone who did not bow down to Nero’s authority. Thus, being Christian and establishing a beloved community was a significant risk, and required total commitment to the good of the whole and unwavering faith in their new Christian identities. Because their very lives were at stake.
So, it makes sense for Paul to urge these Christians in Rome to keep a low profile, to stay out of trouble, and to not bring any undue attention to the church. He says they must obey the authorities, pay their taxes, respect customs, and “love one another.” Paul moves from tax returns to love, from fulfilling man’s law to living into God’s commandments.
We pick up the story with today’s lectionary text, which begins with the phrase, “besides this,” which lets us know that there is indeed more to come. You see, without jazzy horns, a thumping baseline, or smooth lead vocals, Paul asks the question - just like Chicago and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes - “What time is it?”
People can give time by monitoring the sun or looking at nearly any electronic device these days. However, the ability to tell time is more than numbers on a clock, a watch, or a calendar. Paul goes beyond the obvious and makes a profound statement about discernment and who owns time. Chronos time is how we measure and count our days quantitatively, while Kairos time is how we experience, live, and understand our existence qualitatively. Chronos is managed by humans, but Kairos is held in the abundance of God’s economy.
These new Christians know time according to their earthly taskmasters, and, as a result, their behaviors demonstrate that they are woefully out of sync with God’s time. For them, it’s still night, as they revel in nighttime activities, the sort of happenings they would rather not expose to the daylight or others, such as drunkenness, quarreling, and jealousy. So Paul says, “Yes. You must love your neighbor, but you must do even more. Believers, wake up, the night is over, it is time to wipe the sleep from your eyes, and put on Christ, because salvation is near.”
What time is it?
The big box stores and television networks tell you this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” full of shopping and holiday movies. I understand that your families and friends are telling you that this is the time, once again, to host the parties and trim the tree. But then, the Sunday School teachers want your input for this year’s pageant, and the choir needs you at the cantata rehearsal. However, my friends, on this first Sunday of Advent, in the year of our Lord 2022, there is an urgency for believers, new and old, to wake up, get out of bed, get dressed, and to put on the armor of light because there is still work to do.
There is still work to do in our communities as we work towards affordable housing and safe schools for all of God’s children. Work is needed as refugee families rebuild and make a home in a new land far from their familiar shores. We must come together to work for clean drinking water in our poorest cities and eradicate systemic evils of every kind. We must begin doing the work of addressing the mental health endemic that is taking the lives of our children, adolescents, and young adults. And finally, as much as it makes us uncomfortable to talk about, we still must work to address racism and sexism in our churches, from the pulpit to the pews. We must wake up because there is still work to do.
Paul’s clarion call to awaken from our complacency and malaise is the call of Advent. Advent is the season of waiting, but not navel-gazing. This is the season of preparing and making room for God’s “will to be done on earth.” Advent is the perfect time for a spiritual wardrobe change, taking off the weights of selfish ambition, capitalism, ageism, and homophobia, and putting on truth, justice, mercy, and compassion in exchange.
When we light the Advent wreath, we light each candle grounded in words to encourage and propel us forward to be co-creators with God – faith, hope, love, and joy – not in the past, not just for today, but for tomorrow, the future.
Advent is the epitome of Kairos, God’s timing. That amidst struggle, political oppression, and violence, even while living under the thumb of a ruthless empire in the body of a young woman, God who is timeless shows up in Chronos, our time, as an infant who is Alpha and Omega, but who is born to save us even before we know ourselves. This infant re-narrates the story and reorients us believers to keep working in and towards the beloved community, which is present and still yet to come.
And yet, I believe that Paul’s urgency is grounded in joy. Oh, look around at the infinite possibilities before us. This is the season of celebration, joy, and wonder, not just in what was but in what could be.
My friends, now is the time! Imagine what we could do together if only we knew how to tell time. Imagine how we could be instruments of grace, kindness, peace, and hope in a battered and discouraged, exhausted, and torn world. If only we knew what time it is.
My friends, God is good, and life is generous. The Universe and the Ancestors are conspiring for our greatest good as we hold tight to hope, demand freedom, pursue joy, welcome grace, and be overwhelmed by the extravagant love of Jesus Christ. May we enter this season of Advent with the wonder and awe of a child, and may we make the world so for their sake of God’s kingdom. Amen.