11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
When I woke up the other day, I didn’t feel like getting up. Rather than falling asleep again, I let my mind wander. As it wandered back in time, it was as though I was a child in Northern Germany again, during the chilly days of Advent.
You know what it’s like to wake up on a wintry morning: the only place you want to be is in bed. It might surprise you, then, that all those mornings in the Advent season I loved getting up. It wasn’t because I was an especially good boy (my mother would laugh!), or that I loved my oatmeal (my siblings would be quite amused!), or that I loved school (my teachers would firmly deny that!)—and, yet, I cherished the mornings of Advent. Why?
There was something my mother had hung in front of the window, attractive enough to get four children out of bed, even on weekends: our advent calendar. One of those big calendars made from cardboard and transparent paper, with doors in it, as many as there are days in December, and a double door for Christmas Eve. That calendar was quite old-fashioned; my father and his siblings had opened doors in it when they were young, and later, when he was grown, he received it as a gift from his father.
When the calendar was first hung, it was still all dark, with all the doors closed; then, as December “got older” and we opened the doors, one each day, little by little it became lighter. Behind each door, we discovered a picture and a quote from Scripture (most of them from the prophets).
With four of us, every fourth day was my day to open a door. When it was my turn, I tried to wake early so I could open my door before one of my siblings could spoil the surprise (“I peeked behind your door, and I know what it is”). Day after day the calendar became lighter, shining its own special light into the room.
Some of the Scripture quotes were hard to understand and our parents had to explain them, but that made it even better. As we grew older, one year my mother introduced a new-fangled Advent Calendar that had pieces of chocolate behind each door; but even though the chocolate was delicious, somehow that calendar didn’t “do the trick”—the mystery was gone. I remember saying to my mother, “Next year, please let’s go back to Dad’s calendar”.
On those extra gloomy days (for example when I had another test in math), the comfort and light of the advent calendar provided me with a reason to get up, calmed me down and even put “a spring in my step”. The doom and gloom of November and December lost power with each door we opened, as the light of God was shining into our room.
And what about you and I as Advent 2016 approaches? Weary and exhausted from a tumultuous and turbulent presidential election and all that led up to it, we certainly could use some comfort. The lection from Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides comfort, but that comfort comes with work to do:
Besides this, you know what time [kairos] it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Wake up, says Paul. And, once you are up, get dressed, for the time is near—the kairos.
Unlike the word chronos, which describes everyday clock time, kairos, the term used here and in many other Advent texts, is a powerful word that can describe a change or critical juncture, but also a divine appointment or intervention. The word kairos provokes a radical response, an urgent choice, a fundamental re-orientation. “The time (kairos) is fulfilled” says Jesus in Mark 1, “and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news (euangelion)”.
The word kairos turned heads back then, and it should turn heads today as well. That urgent choice we are supposed to make is to declare our allegiance, to speak and live the first Christian creed that is at the foundation of the apocalyptic readings of the first Sunday of Advent: “Jesus is Lord”.
In the same way the Romans celebrated the euangelion of the advent of Caesar’s rule, the early Christians began to celebrate another Advent for the coming of the reign of King Jesus. Saying “Jesus is Lord” was the same as making this political statement: “Caesar is not Lord”. It was treason to confess Jesus as Lord, because that confession meant a denial of the authority (or divinity) of the Emperor.
Jochen Klepper, a theologian of Germany’s Confessing Church, struggled with how to confess Jesus as Lord amidst the political realities of Germany in 1938, as he wrote these verses on our epistle reading:
The night is quickly paling and dawn is not too far.
Our praises should be hailing the radiant morning star!
Those who in tears were spending the night, come, join with cheer.
The morning star is lending light to your pain and fear.
Whom angels are assisting, a child and serf has turned.
God is himself insisting that he our redress earned.
If guilt’s your tribulation, do not your head conceal.
To find your liberation, believe the child and kneel.
The night is disappearing, the manger to behold
go now! Find those revering salvation, from of old
with eagerness expected since your own fall took place.
Now one whom God elected bonds with the human race.
Though many nights will hover o’er human guilt and pain,
now, all our steps to cover, God’s star declares love’s reign.
Alight in brilliant splendor you leave gloom’s tyranny.
God’s own face did engender the plan to set you free.
In darkness God is living and yet he makes it glow.
As though rewards he’s giving, he is to judging slow.
Who for himself completed the globe, does sinners save.
Who here the Son entreated will there the judgment brave.
(Original text, “Die Nacht Ist Vorgedrungen”, by Jochen Klepper, 1903-1942. English translation by Fritz Wendt, 1957-)
Jochen Klepper, after a short stint in seminary, worked for Protestant print and radio media in Silesia. He understood the evil Hitler represented earlier than most in German society did. Because Klepper was married to a Jewish woman and had been a member of the Social Democratic Party, his career in the state-run media became impossible when the National Socialists took over the national government in January 1933. But losing his job was not his greatest concern: soon the family had to face the very real possibility that his wife and daughter could be taken to a German concentration camp.
When his meetings about the fate of his wife and daughter with Adolf Eichmann of the SS did not go as hoped, the whole family committed suicide. This is the last entry in Klepper’s diary: “We now die—alas, this too is in God’s hands—tonight we go together into death. Over us stands in the last hours the image of the Blessing Christ, who struggles for us. In his sight, our life ends.”
In the poem above, taken from “Kyrie”, a small collection of spiritual poems he presented to the public in 1938, Klepper describes the “night” Christians in Germany experienced, and his longing for the “Morning Star” that would bring about the “dawn” and “declare loves’ reign”.
As we return to 2016, it is clear that Advent politics must begin with this affirmation: Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then my favorite political party, or ideology, or cause, or economic system, is not. You see that this was not just a radical political claim during the days of the Roman Caesar. This is our political claim, our confession, today as well: Jesus is Lord. Advent challenges us with the issue of power and of our speaking truth to it.
Once Hugh Latimer, the reforming bishop of Worcester, was preaching to Henry VIII. He knew that the King wouldn’t like what he was about to say. And so, in the pulpit he soliloquized. He said, “Latimer, Latimer, Latimer, be careful what you say. Henry the King is here!” And then he paused, and went on, “Latimer, Latimer, Latimer, be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here!”
Get up and get dressed.
The kairos is upon us. The King of Kings is here.
God’s star declares love’s reign. Jesus is Lord.
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.