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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Romans 13:8-14

The Hour Has Come


This week we witnessed one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the US. On Monday, morning Hurricane Katrina came ashore as a category 4 storm with 145 mph winds and a 20 foot storm surge. The pictures that we have seen are frightening. Windows blown out of buildings were minor compared to the homes blown off their foundations. The strength of that storm is almost beyond our comprehension. The power of the winds to move oil platforms, uproot trees and topple buildings was nearly indescribable.

Hurricane Katrina's destructive fury did not come unexpectedly. Only a week before its annihilation of the southern coast, it moved over the Florida Peninsula with winds gusting to 92 mph. There was little structural damage and the Floridians breathed a sigh of relief as the massive weather system moved into the Gulf of Mexico. However, once in the warm waters of the gulf, the weakened storm strengthened into a mighty system and that's when everyone who lived along the coast from Texas to Florida began to prepare in earnest.

During a four day period its wind's speed rose from a modest 90 mph to a terrifying 150 mph. Each day the storms magnitude increased and so did everyone’s preparation. All along the coast residents bought plywood for their windows, stocked up on food and water and filled their cars with gas. Some headed north away from the coast to flee from the coming storm. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Katrina, everyone has discovered that all their hard work and all the money they spent was to no avail. The “storm they all feared” had arrived with a fury that was beyond their capability to prepare. Even the mighty Superdome could not withstand winds exceeding 145 mph forever.

Meteorologists, urban planners, and environmentalists have been warning for the politicians of New Orleans for years of the potential disaster but everyone was reluctant to take the necessary steps. In its, July 10, 2000 issue on Life on the Mississippi,  Joe Suhayda, a water resources expert at Louisiana State University told a reporter from Time Magazine:

If a flood of Biblical proportions were to lay waste to New Orleans, ... has a good idea how it would happen. A Category 5 hurricane would come barreling out of the Gulf of Mexico. It would cause Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, to overflow, pouring down millions of gallons of water on the city. Then things would really get ugly. Evacuation routes would be blocked. Buildings would collapse. Chemicals and hazardous waste would dissolve, turning the floodwaters into a lethal soup. In the end, what was left of the city might not be worth saving. "There's concern it would essentially destroy New Orleans," says Suhayda. .

The article went on to say, “While the grimmest of the doomsayers warned that New Orleans could be the next Atlantis, some laid-back residents were saying that it could just as easily become the next Venice and that after the deluge, the good times won't roll--they'll float.”

The Day of the Lord

The tragedy in New Orleans is an allegory of our culture toward matters of faith. Throughout Scripture we are warned on numerous occasions to be ready for the coming day of judgment.

The Lord Almighty has a day in store
          for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted
          (and they will be humbled), Isaiah 2:12

Be silent before the Sovereign Lord,
          for the day of the Lord is near.  Zephaniah 1:7

Jesus reiterated this message with his announcement that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. He warned that its arrival would come unexpectedly.

33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. (Mark 13:33)

He also warned that its coming would bring terrible consequences.

17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. (Mark 13:17-19)

But instead of taking heed of these warnings, we do several things. We either ignore them by pretending that they are only figurative or we recreate a domesticated version. We assume that since  God is such a nice guy that we have nothing to fear. Jesus will come descending from the clouds and bring peace and happiness to everyone.

This sanitized view of Judgment Day generates goose bumps and warm feelings. It has stripped away the negative consequences to our behavior. It does not  expect or demand anything of us, thereby allowing us to continue our comfortable lifestyle while the people of Africa die of AIDS, Asian children are sold into the sex trade, and the level of poverty in America continues to rise. However, Paul offers a much different message than we are accustom to hearing.

The Message of Romans

The apostle has spent much time explaining to the believers in the capital city the who, why, what, and how’s of salvation. He wants them to know that they were once separated from God and also subject to God's wrath. God does more than assign minor time outs. There are extreme consequences for our rebellion and disobedience. However, through Jesus Christ God has reconciled us to himself. In Romans 6, Paul explains that in our baptism, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection so that we may experience the power of God that liberates us from the enslaving grip of sin. We are no longer controlled by sin, we are now free to live for God's glory. While we cannot earn our salvation or rack up special favors from God for virtuous living, Paul informs the churches in Roman, that because of all that God has done for them, they should live for his glory. Paul uses the final three chapters to explain the three areas of their focus.

In Romans 12 and the first part of 13 he explains that because of the work of Christ we should live in harmony with other believers, governmental leaders and our neighbors. Believers must not think of themselves as autonomous beings. We are connected with others because of all that God has done for us. We have an obligation to live responsible, caring, other oriented lives. Paul then concludes this section in Romans 13 by explaining why we are to live an exemplary life.

Understanding the Present Time

We are to do these things because we understand the present time. Those of us who consider ourselves believers, know that this age is drawing to a conclusion. We are moving towards a rendezvous with destiny. Jesus used the phrase, the kingdom of heaven is near to highlight the urgency of the hour. Paul says, “your salvation is nearer now then when we first believed...the night is nearly over.”  Both emphasize the reality that time is not a meandering stream. God has a plan for history and it is on a collision course. It will end with a dramatic finale and it may not be grand. The time has come for us to wake up from our spiritual slumber.

Social scientists have noticed that human behavior before and after a disaster is fairly predictable. Before a cataclysmic event strikes, people spend a minimal amount of time preparing. They will create all sorts of reasons to object to the doomsday prophets. Then a news report is released announcing that the long feared catastrophe is really coming and they will go into overdrive to get ready. After the disaster, they will then criticize government officials during the clean up phase over the lack of advance  warning about the severity of the situation. After order is restored and their lives are almost back to normal, they will initially make plans for the next emergency while the memory of the last one is still fresh. However, once the memory fades; once the cost of preparing for the next crises becomes too costly, they will decrease the time and energy preparing for the next disaster. This is happening in Southeast Asia in those countries hit by the tsunami. It happens in CA after every earthquake and in Kansas after every tornado. Once the memories fade we are lulled into a psychological slumber.

Paul recognizes that the same phenomena happens in the spiritual life and he wants us to wake up, the hour is near. He urgently pleads with believers to put aside the deeds they know are contrary to righteous living and take on appropriate behavior. He is quite brief in his descriptions. There are at least two possibilities for this. First, he may be running out of room on his scroll. Authors had to deal with a limited supply of writing material. The scrolls had a set length and it would be quite burdensome to use another scroll if he new that he was near the end of his letter, so he may have limited his advise on how they should live. Another option is that Paul knew that he was speaking to a very mature and knowledgeable church. In the closing portion of the next chapter he lists many names of people he knew in the church. They were not recent converts to the faith. Many of them had traveled extensively and had undoubtedly had heard the stories and teachings about Jesus. Paul did not have to explain to them what they already knew. He did not have to pass on to them new information.

During an interview for my first position as solo pastor, I had a rather lengthy discussion with a member of the PNC. She had a deep conviction to see people in the church grow in the spiritual life. I asked her how she thought that would happen. She told me that this would occur if their next pastor would just teach them the importance of spiritual growth and how to grow in the faith. In my inexperience I believed her and had a rude awakening once I arrived. Since then I have discovered that spiritual growth and maturity is not a question of knowledge as much as it is a question of the will.

We know what we should be doing, we just are not doing it. It is a lot like physical fitness. We do not need a physical trainer to teach us basic exercises. It does not take a master's degree to walk three times a night. We do not need an expensive instructor telling us that we should be doing sit ups and push ups, every morning. We know how to do these things, we are just too lazy to do them.

The same is true in the spiritual life. We know what we should be doing. We do not need a Master of Divinity to understand the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. In many of his letters Paul takes a rather simple, straightforward approach in his instruction of living the Christian life. He does not use an advance form of encryption to disguise his message. We may claim that the Bible is too hard to understand but we still already know the basic message. The challenge is living what we already know. Just think how different your life would be if you applied just 10% of what you now know about the Christian life.

We cannot rewind the tape to December 23rd, to help the tsunami victims prepare for the onslaught of water. Nor can we go back to August 20th, so that the city of New Orleans can evacuate every citizen, rich and poor. But we can prepare for what is before because the hour is near. The darkness of this world is about to fade into the light of eternity. What better reason is there than to start living in the light now.


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