This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Romans 13:9-14. This week, we were also completing the National Church Life Survey, and as a result, the sermon is shorter than usual.
Paul wrote: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
This is familiar stuff. But it did strike me as an interesting choice for the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is a time when we look forward, think about the ultimate future: the end of the world as we know it, if you like, but only because it will be replaced by something unimaginably better. And what have Paul’s ramblings about law got to do with that?
We tend to think of the law – even religious law – as a bunch of rules which tell us what to do (and what not to do) but which can’t actually change our attitudes. But I think that that’s really underestimating how the law functions in the spiritual life of those who follow it.
Law was given to Israel not just as a bunch of rules, but as a sign; it was to be a constant reminder of the relationship with God which was above and beyond the rules. Circumcision, Sabbath, and the regulations for temple worship are all described as “signs” for the people which remind them of the deeper reality of God’s covenant with them.
The law was also the way by which people could participate in that relationship. It gave them a way in to claiming that covenant of God for themselves, for making it real in the fabric of their own lives. It was an instrument – or a cluster of instruments – which kept Jewish faith alive during all the historical circumstances which could have seen it ended.
And the law was meant to be a foretaste; the prophets in particular pointed out to Israel that what they had now was not the whole reality but that an even better future was coming; but for now, the law gave them a little taste of what that future – with its radical justice, peace, and joy – would be like.
And all of these things functions of the law – being a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the fullness of relationship with God – have their parallels in Christian experience as well. Paul wrote that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” and in the love we have for God, for God’s world, and for one another, the church should now be sign, instrument and foretaste of the fullness of relationship with God, to which all of creation looks forward with longing.
Our presence should be a constant reminder to the world around us of the relationship with God that is made possible for all. The communal life of the church should be a way for people to be drawn into and participate in that relationship. And in doing so they should find that what we have now is just the beginning of better things yet to be fulfilled.
So perhaps Paul’s comments on law are not so out of place for a time when we’re focussing on the future. If the ultimate future is the complete revelation of God, and the completion of God’s work, this reading points us towards how we ought to orient ourselves towards that.
This is only the first Sunday of Advent. We have between now and Christmas, a time to focus particularly on what we’re pointing to. It should be our aim to be sure that in every aspect of our life together, we are pointing to Christ.