Shortly after the Russian revolution, a group of journalists & social commentators paid a visit to the newly formed Soviet Union to see how the revolutionaries were getting along in establishing a new type of society. They were shown the model communities in which property had been pooled (or ‘collectivized’). Production was booming & everyone seemed happy in the new, classless society.
Among the journalists making the trip was an American named Lincoln Steffens. He wrote to a friend about it. “I have seen the future,” he said, “and it works.” Steffens had written the line before the trip even began, but it was obviously too good not to use; he had imagined the future, & then of course was eager to see that his prediction was true. He & the others were so impressed that they thought this was the way the whole world should go, &, what’s more, would go in time. They convinced many in Europe & America, not least those who were appalled by the devastating First World War & the casual way tyrannical leaders had (or so it seemed) sent millions to their deaths. Having glimpsed a future of a world, as they thought, run according to the dictates of communism, they believed that they should now work to make it a reality.
A century later, of course, the claim looks hollow. Between 1919 & 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the collapse of Eastern European communism, the totalitarian states of the East proved themselves just as capable of creating a future that did not work as any of the other systems that had been tried from time to time. The pendulum swung in the other direction. Thirty years after Steffens, the sharp-eyed George Orwell gave to one of his characters the following line: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face – forever.” Orwell’s bleak vision of the future had a different moral: if this is how things are going to be, you should either lie very low indeed or take care that you are on the winning side.
The apostle Paul’s appeal about how people should live is built firmly on his belief that the future has already appeared in the present, & that we are all summoned to act in accordance with it. This future-in-the-present has appeared, though, not in the form of a dramatic new social experiment, nor in the shape of another oppressive regime stomping on everyone in its path, but in the form of the birth, life, death & resurrection of Jesus. Paul doesn’t mention this explicitly, but it is obviously what he has in mind in verse 11 when he says: The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. The events of Jesus’ life, death & resurrection were, for him, the moment when, & the means by which, the generous & powerful love of God – that is what he means by grace – were unveiled for the benefit, not of one group of people only, but of all the human race. With those brief but earth-shattering events, the future had been unveiled, & everything looked different as a result.
Now that we have glimpsed in Jesus the way things are going to be – a new world created & nurtured by God’s generous, self-giving love & grace – we can see how we should live in the present. If the future is shaped by saving grace, then the present must anticipate that. The world is full of destructive ways of living, in which people turn their backs on God & act according to whatever passion is sweeping them along. That is no way to prepare for God’s grace-filled future. Rather, as verse 13 puts it, those who wait eagerly for Jesus to appear, the Jesus who is not only King & Savior but the living embodiment of God himself, must lead lives that can be summed up in 3 words.
First, sensibly. You are a real human being, so don’t diminish your humanness by drunkenness or other kinds of behavior that make you more like a nonsensical animal. You are a creature designed to find fulfillment in being generous & kind to others; drunkenness & similar behavior results first in your being selfish – the drunkard really isn’t interested in anybody else but his or her own self - & then in your being harmful to your own self in return.
Second, ethically. The Christian who understands what God’s grace is about – the powerful love which will turn the world the right way up & has begun to do so in Jesus – will not be able to stand idly by & watch injustice at work. The word ‘righteous,’ which is sometimes used as a translation here, captures one element of this – that justice must be a principle at work in one’s own life as well – but often sounds negative, as in ‘self-righteous.’ The word Paul uses is a profoundly positive one & designates a life that has been both put to rights itself & is devoted to working so that the world may be put to rights as well.
Third, godly. The last century of so in the Western world has seen a heavy reaction against the piety, & perhaps the pietism, of former generations. All you have to do is suggest the long faces, the closed eyes, the hushed tones of an imaginary Victorian church or home, & people at once think, “Oh! I don’t want to be like that.” But genuine piety, true devotion, needs none of those mannerisms. Of course, when people are learning to pray & to live in the light of God’s love for the first time, they will often feel strange in doing so, & that strangeness may show in their face, voice, & conduct. Like someone beginning to learn a musical instrument, they may quite unintentionally find themselves making odd faces as they do so. But someone who is devout in a mature way is someone who, at ease with themselves & able to put others equally at ease, regards it as natural & normal to be in God’s presence, to pray, & to live in such a way as to anticipate the future final appearing of Jesus.
At this point people may come up with another objection. It all sounds much too hard. The old habits of life are too strong. Paul is ready for this objection, & answers it in verse 14. Jesus is not telling us to live in an impossible way. He is welcoming us into a way of life for which he has set us free. His own death on our behalf has unlocked the door of ethical living, & we are now invited to go through into his new world, the world of genuine purity, the world where we can begin to contribute positively to people & society around us. That, by the way, is the normal meaning of good actions found in verse 14; we might understand the phrase simply as ‘behaving yourself’, but both here & in chapter 3 it refers to generous & helpful actions on behalf of the wider community.
It is not enough to celebrate Christ’s birth once a year but then walk away from the manger unchanged. We have a whole, great big, beautiful gospel story to tell the nations, & we tell it best when we live reasonable lives of self-control & love for others.
Despite what some people say, we really cannot “make Christmas last all year long.” Honestly, who would want to? But we can make Christ & his appearing last all year long. And we must. The grace of God has appeared to help us say no to all ungodliness & wild living so we can witness all the time to the one who we really do know is “the reason for the season.”