I want to tell you about a guy I know of. I don’t know him personally; I know of him. But, it’s a true story.
This man was from a good, respectable middle-class family. His mother was a Christian, his father was not; this seems to be a fairly common pattern in our time. Often one or the other parent is part of the Church, while their kids grow up with little attachment to it. Now this particular father wanted his son to be successful, so he made sure to save up enough money to send him to law school. That happened, and the man became a lawyer and then a teacher.
Now, this man grew up not attached to the Church, but instead attached to the typical modern culture around him, a culture that largely rejected God and effectively worshipped God’s creation instead. And, the things that Paul speaks about in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 13:8-14) applied to this man; orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling, and jealousy. He made a prosperous life for himself, but engaged in all these things that ought nought to be done. He had no particular attachment to the Church, but often struggled throughout his life with what he believed.
Then, he moved to a new town and became friends with a local pastor. He wasn’t a Christian, but appreciated the fact that the Church really believed what it confesses. He had been involved in various eastern religions and found that they ultimately amounted to a bunch of theories with no basis in fact, and that the people tried to explain things in strange, convoluted ways, while the Church held that some things must simply be taken on faith and that we can’t explain what God has not first explained to us; some things are not for us to know or speculate about.
So, he started attending Church, mainly in an effort to refute what was taught and preached by his friend. He wanted to find a reason not to believe what was taught and to try to counter it with his own arguments. Eventually, though, he began to wonder if the things the Church taught were true. He began to be tormented by God’s Word. He couldn’t escape God.
So, he wrestled for a while with this budding faith that was beginning to grow inside him due to the watering of God’s Word. He kept going to Church, hoping that this little faith would be extinguished, because he didn’t want to be changed by God. And yet, his faith was not extinguished, but rather grew.
One day, in the midst of all this internal struggle, he was at a friend’s house. He was outside in the garden area with another friend of his who was also undergoing a similar struggle. They were torn between the darkness of the lives they had been living up to this point and the new life in the light of Christ to which they were feeling called.
Eventually, this man picked up a Bible that was there and randomly opened it and read the first passage that he saw. And that passage was the same one I referenced earlier – Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”
Everything changed for this man when he read this. This little verse changed him, because he saw Paul’s letter as speaking God’s Word to him personally. God’s Word acted upon him. So, he resolved to live a new life in Christ from that point on. He was baptized and eventually became a pastor himself.
We know this man as St. Augustine. He was born on November 13, 354 in Numidia in North Africa. Everything I said about him is true, and he himself wrote about these things in his book called “Confessions.” He lived the pagan life of the world around him until he was called by God’s Word into faith and then everything changed for him. He was brought out of the darkness of night and into the light of day. He lived a new life because he was united with Christ and his people in faith. His pastor friend that helped him during all this was St. Ambrose, whom he met while living in Milan, Italy.
The point is that God’s Word does things to us. Paul uses the image of darkness and light a lot in his epistles, and this is one of the main themes of John’s Gospel as well. We were once in darkness, in sleep, dead in sin. We could not rouse ourselves from this slumber. Yet, God in his mercy has woken us for salvation and brought us into the day; He has raised us and brought us to Him. He has revealed Himself to us through Christ. So, we have been redeemed from darkness, death, and sin. Everything else follows from this. Therefore, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” We have been made Christ’s people, so we are called to live as his people, as his very body even.
St. Augustine’s path is similar to the path that many follow, I think. Many people struggle throughout their lives with what they really believe. Many people sit in church pews and wonder if it’s all really true, as God’s Word continues to act upon them to water their budding faith. Many people struggle with their faith, as did Augustine, and wrestle with God’s Word. Augustine’s own pagan father was baptized on his death bed and believed before he died.
Looking back on it later, many people often see that God was claiming them as His own the whole time; like Jacob, they were wrestling against God, all the while God’s Word was subduing them. A person’s doubts often reveal his faith, since we don’t doubt something we don’t believe in. We often wrestle with all sorts of beliefs, and our faith in God is one of them.
Yet, God’s Word is constantly acting upon us, calling us to faith. And we, as the Church, are called to continually proclaim God’s Word, no matter the reception it believes. If people believe, we rejoice; if they do not, we proclaim the Word so much the more. We are walking in the light and shine this light of Christ onto the world around us so that they too may know Him, for he is returning some day to bring judgement to those who reject him and salvation to those who are his.
Christ is returning to complete all things. That means removing from the world all sin, decay, evil, and death so that God and his people may dwell in peace forever. And we don’t know the day that Christ is returning. Christ himself says in the Gospels that no one knows when that day will be, except for the Father. Christ came the first time to deal with sin and is coming again to restore all things and complete what he started. We live in the age between his first and final advents, between his coming in the manger and his coming in power and glory. We live in the days of his hidden advent where he is with us in Word and Sacrament, awaiting the dawn of his return.
Christ likens the days just prior to his return to the days of Noah. In Noah’s time, everyone was living life as they had always lived it. They were going about their normal, modern lives, engaging in orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality and sensuality, quarreling and jealousy.
They had no eye towards God, no eager expectation for Him to act on behalf of His people and His creation. All the while, Noah and his family were preparing for God to act. They were the Church, gathered by God himself around the promise of salvation. And so they were spared, brought across the waters in the ark, while the rest of the world was destroyed. And God saved his creation through them as well, for they bore with them the animals of the world.
And the Lord compares those days of Noah to these days. People think that things will go on forever, as they believe that they always have. Without Christ, they have no eye for the past, not knowing what has happened before their time, and therefore they have no eye for the future, not knowing what is to happen. Thus, they have no eye for the present, not knowing how to live in the light, knowing only the darkness of sin and death, asleep to the truth.
All the while, we – the Church – are preparing for God to act. We have been given eyes to see the past and the future, and are awake, living now in the light of Christ. We have Christ with us in his current advent in the world, where he comes to us through Word and Sacrament. And we await his final advent when he will return to complete all things. We are his people, gathered by him around himself.
Now, we are not perfect; there are always shadows, even in the daytime. We are not perfect, because we live in the world, and the world is not yet perfected. So, our Christian community that we live in is not ideal, instead it is real. And “realness” in this world means that there will be flaws. Realness brings with it warts and scars and bruises and imperfections. Realness is like a truck with 150,000 miles on it and scratches in its paint, some dings on its door panels, and a slight hesitation when it starts up. Yet, it’s still a good truck, because it’s real. We could wait all eternity for the unicorns and leprechauns to bring us something ideal, and yet the only one who will bring this is Christ when he returns. He will make the real into the ideal, the imperfect into the perfect. He will complete all things.
And yet, even now, even with our imperfections, we are still in the light, even if the shadows overtake us at times and we fall into them. We are in the light, because God has placed us here and brought us together to live in this light with Christ. We long for the perfection and ideal that Christ will bring with his return and recognize that in this current life we will not have these things, just the first glimmers of what Christ is shining upon us.
And so, we are looking for Christ’s return with eager expectation, gathered by God around the promise of salvation in Christ. We are waiting for the day when God’s promise in Isaiah will be fulfilled completely, when the world is at peace and God rules over all of it in person (Isaiah 2:1-5). We are waiting for Christ’s return to bring his salvation and perfection and ideal.
And we will be – and already are – saved, because we have been brought onto the ark of the Church, across the waters of Baptism; and we will be – and already are – spared because God has saved us, and is redeeming His creation for our sake so that we may live in it with Him in peace forever. And so we look for his return not in fear, but in eager anticipation, proclaiming with John in Revelation, “Amen, come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Amen.
(Image is of sunrise over the Rock of Gibraltar, taken from the Mediterranean Sea)