When it comes to artists depicting human nature, Norman Rockwell stands out for me as being one of the best, both in terms of poignancy and humour. Famously illustrating 321 front covers for the Saturday Evening Post over a period of 47 years, Rockwell endeared himself to the American public with his nostalgic portrayals of ordinary people in everyday situations. One of my favourite Rockwell paintings is called “The Maternity Waiting Room” (painted in 1946). You can view the picture at this link: https://www.wikiart.org/en/norman-rockwell/maternity-waiting-room-1946. Dating from the era when expectant fathers rarely attended the birth of their children, the painting depicts a group of men in a hospital waiting room awaiting news of the birth of their children.
The cross-section of men that Rockwell captures in his picture beautifully illustrates the different ways in which human beings handle waiting. A legend at the bottom of the painting humorously ascribes a title to each of the men, depending on how they are acting. To the far left of the picture, a terribly nervous young man sits biting nails from both hands while he stares wildly into space. He is the “Frightened Novice”. In front of him, an older man in a smart suit walks back and forth, looking down, wringing his hands in front of him. He is the “Distraught Executive.” Another nervous looking young man, dubbed the “Believer in the Worst” is being offered friendly advice by an older man, labelled as the “Hearty Salesman Type”. Next to them, another young man is avidly reading a book on parenting. He has been called the “Earnest Parent Type”. One man seems so overwhelmed by his circumstances that he sits with face turned to the wall, biting the nails on one hand while his other hand claws at the hair on his head. He is the “Tragedian”. And between them all, the oldest man in the collection has fallen asleep on a sofa, leaning against the shoulder of another man. He is called the “Father of Eight Type”!
When you consider your own approach to times of waiting, can you identify yourself among any of the characters in Rockwell’s painting? Does the thought of a new experience bring out a nervous disposition in you? Perhaps the anticipation of the unknown brings out a drive for the acquisition of knowledge. Do you tend to worry about all the worst-case scenarios that might unfold or are you more like the “Hearty Salesman Type”? Or maybe you handle expectation very nonchalantly, like the “Father of Eight Type”, with an almost blasé, seen-it-all-before mindset?
Whenever I look at this picture by Rockwell, I find myself drawn to thoughts about Advent, because this season of the year is all about expectation. The first Advent was of course a pregnancy, nine months of expectancy for the birth of the Messiah. Now that Jesus’ birth is a past historical event, we cannot approach Christmas like Mary and Joseph did, with all the wonder associated with a first child. But there is another Advent, which no one has yet witnessed, which the Bible encourages us to expect. On Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the season, it is tradition to focus our thoughts on Christ’s Second Coming. In other words, as we begin our preparation to celebrate the first coming of Christ, we also remember that He will come again.
It strikes me that the men in Rockwell’s painting, in the way they exemplify different approaches to waiting, also illustrate different attitudes we can have with regards to the Second Coming of Jesus. For some people, the thought of Christ’s return may fill them with fear, a sense of foreboding. Others may take a more jovial approach, thinking it will all work out for them. For others, there may be a strong drive to somehow prepare for it, the equivalent of the “Earnest Parent Type” father. This reminds me of the story of two young children who were observing their grandmother reading her Bible. One child says to the other, “What’s Grandma doing?” And the other replies, “She’s cramming for her finals!”
And there must be some people whose approach to the concept of Christ’s return resembles that of the “Father of Eight Type” – because otherwise why would the Apostle Paul have written these words: “Besides this, since you know the time, it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11, Christian Standard Bible version)? Clearly Paul was concerned that even Christians could be sleepily unprepared for Jesus’ return.
Scholar James Dunn tells us that sleep was utilised as a negative metaphor in Greek culture because the mind (highly prized by the Greeks) was not knowingly employed during times of sleep. (1) But sleep was also used as a negative metaphor in Jewish thought, as illustrated in the following Old Testament examples:
-Within a narrative genre, Samson succumbs to temptation and is overpowered while he is asleep (Judges 16:19-20).
-Within wisdom literature, sleep is linked with laziness leading to poverty (Proverbs 6:10).
-In the prophets, sleep is linked with the inability of people to hear God’s voice (Isaiah 29:10).
And the same idea is carried over into the New Testament:
-The Foolish Virgins in Jesus’ parable fall asleep and so are unprepared for the arrival of the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13).
-The risen Jesus twice challenges the Christian assembly at Sardis to “wake up” (Revelation 3:2-3).
Even in our current-day common language, we reach for sleep metaphors in negative ways. To be “caught napping” means to be at a disadvantage because of being unprepared or we might say, “Wakey, wakey!” to someone who we thought was daydreaming.
Paul’s words to the Roman Christians closely echo Jesus’ words to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when sleep robbed them of their ability to wait with Jesus: “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come” (Mark 14:41, compare with Matthew 25:45 and Luke 22:46). What particular points was Paul trying to convey through his words in Romans 13:11?
“Besides this, since you know the time . . .”
Here Paul uses a particular Greek word for “time”. He does not use the word chronos which means the time of day; instead he writes kairos which meant a moment of significance. Paul is urging his readers to recognise the significance of the age in which we live.
“. . . it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep . . .”
Two interesting words are used by Paul in this part of the verse. Paul’s choice of word for “sleep” is the Greek word hypnos from which we get our word hypnosis. It’s almost as if Paul likens some Christians to being under some kind of spell, not being in control of their thinking. The Greek verb he chooses for “wake up” is the same word that means “rise up” which is the word most commonly used in the New Testament for Jesus being raised from the dead. Simon Ponsonby suggests that this was a deliberate ploy on Paul’s part to emphasise the importance of Christians living a resurrection life in the power of the Holy Spirit. (2)
“. . . because now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”
Paul’s use of the “now” word draws attention to the kairos era mentioned above. The early Christians came to believe that God’s “age to come” had broken into the world in Jesus, but would not be fully consummated until His return. So the reason why we are in a kairos time is because we live in an “overlap of the ages” – both the current age and the age to come are running concurrently.
Paul makes this verse intensely personal by speaking of “our” salvation. In this context, the salvation he writes of is our future salvation when Jesus returns and He brings in the New Creation of a new heaven and earth. Paul urges Christians to be “awake” because, even though we cannot know the actual date for sure, this future salvation comes nearer with every day. Paul can certainly say Jesus’ return is nearer than when we first believed. Here Paul uses the past aorist tense to speak of belief, so he is referring to the past moment when we chose to place our trust in Jesus.
Given Paul’s command to be roused from sleep, how are we to live characterised by wakefulness as we await Christ’s return? Elsewhere in his writings, Paul says we should not be surprised about that final day, as if we were completely in the dark (1 Thessalonians 5:4). As I look across the New Testament, I see two complementary responses which both characterise wakefulness in different ways.
Eager expectation and peaceful readiness.
These responses are like opposite sides of the same coin. Eager expectation represents the excited anticipation and longing for that day. Peaceful readiness represents our sense of being prepared with an understanding of what it involves.
For me, the best verse in the New Testament which speaks about eager expectation is Romans 8:19. The NIV of this verse reads: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” The phrase “eager expectation” is translated from the Greek word apokaradokia. This is a compound word which conveys the sense of someone straining to look for something approaching from a distance. Imagine someone on tiptoe, neck straining forwards, looking to a far horizon for the first approach of someone they love. That’s the image this verse wants our minds to see. That’s why I love J.B. Philips’ translation of this verse, because I think it actually renders the meaning of the Greek better than all of the more mainstream translations: “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.” Let us, with the whole of creation, be on tiptoe as we long for that great day.
We turn to Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:35-40 to find a good example of the characteristic of peaceful readiness. In the parable, the servants of a household keep the lamps of the house lit and are ready for the return of their master. There is a sense of peace and order within the household. No servant is flapping around in nervous agitation. They are ready for their master and they know they are ready. Our peaceful readiness for Christ’s return comes from us continuing to live in ways that are faithful to God’s Word and keep in step with the Spirit.
We need both eager expectation and peaceful readiness as we await the return of Jesus. In Rockwell’s painting, none of the featured men display both characteristics. The Father of Eight Type is certainly peaceful, but hardly eager. He thinks he’s seen it all before! The Earnest Parent Type is definitely eager, but he doesn’t look peaceful. And some in the waiting room, like the Tragedian, are neither eager nor peaceful!
Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome that we are to wake from sleep, for it is a kairos time, when our salvation grows ever nearer, are just as important for us today as they were 2,000 years ago. Living in the kairos time is, in a way of speaking, like waiting in the maternity waiting room. All around us, creation is groaning with the pains of labour (Romans 8:22) for Christ’s return. Through eager expectation and peaceful readiness, we may greet that final day with joy, to be invited out of the waiting room to enjoy the birth of God’s New Creation.
1. Dunn J, Word Biblical Commentary Romans 9-16, Thomas Nelson, Dallas, 1986, p786.
2. Ponsonby S, God is for us, Monarch Books, Oxford, 2013, p371