Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).
Fleming Rutledge has once again given the church a great gift. Readers acquainted with her book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, named the 2017 Book of the Year by Christianity Today, will recognize Rutledge’s distinctive style in this new book. It features a familiar combination of robust scholarship and an appreciation for liturgical traditions, a preacher’s eye for meaning in the mundane and a poet’s pen. Like The Crucifixion, Rutledge’s Advent shines with rare beauty. But this is not a systematic theological treatise on the meaning of Advent in the same way that Crucifixion dealt with its theme. Rather, Rutledge’s Advent is a brilliant example of what I am tempted to call applied theology—a term that is not inaccurate but also not quite large enough to encompass just what it is Rutledge accomplishes in her work. Comprised primarily of Advent sermons preached by Rutledge over a period of forty years, Advent takes us into the magnitude, mystery, and meaning of the church’s call to be an Advent people with breathtaking, precise, and highly contextual pastoral and theological force.
“Fleming Rutledge’s Advent preaching,” writes Richard B. Hays, “bursts upon us with the same elemental force as the preaching of John the Baptist. Rutledge’s fine crafting of language may be subtler than John’s, but she carries forward his incisive, apocalyptic message of judgment and hope.”1 Hays’s words capture beautifully the ethos of Advent that Rutledge conveys in her work. While the commercialization of Christmas seems each year to reach staggeringly new proportions, swallowing up the last three months of our calendars in sweet holiday sentimentality, Rutledge implores: before Christmas, there is Advent.
And Rutledge emphasizes that Advent is not “a transitional season . . . a season of preparation for Christmas.” Rather, it is a season that “in and of itself communicates a message of immense, even ultimate, importance,” for “of all the seasons of the church year, Advent most closely mirrors the daily lives of Christians and of the church, asks the most important ethical questions, presents the most accurate picture of the human condition, and above all, orients us to the future of the God who will come again” (1–3).
As a pastor who has spent the last fifteen years of my life helping my little corner of the nondenominational church world recover the Christian calendar as a morally determinative and spiritually formative practice, a pastor who has been pleasantly surprised to watch more and more churches across the United States move in this direction, I want to state for the record that this insight alone is worth the price of the book. We do not celebrate Advent in order to prepare for Christmas. Rather, we are able to celebrate the incarnation of the Lord rightly only when we have taken with utter seriousness Advent’s thundering messages of judgment and hope. Let there be no Christmas creep here.
Unfortunately, many who are at work trying to reclaim the Christian calendar in their own church contexts miss this. I know that I did for years. We put out an Advent wreath and talk glibly about “hope, peace, love, and joy.” We try to focus a little bit more on the incarnation, sing a few extra choruses of “O Holy Night,” and believe we’ve done our job. While well-intentioned, the effect is that we have simply expanded Christmas. We have not celebrated Advent. We have not entered into its critical and peculiar liturgical ethos. We have not lifted up our eyes to the tempest of God’s coming kingdom. Rutledge quotes William H. Peterson, founder of the Advent Project, who admonishes us: “While there is scant hope of changing the culture around us, the Church need not be a fellow traveler. The call is for the Church to reclaim for the sake of its own life and mission Advent’s focus on the reign of God and, in so doing, to hone once again the counter-cultural edge of the Gospel at the very beginning of the liturgical year” (5, emphasis mine).
The now-and-coming reign of God—that is what Advent is all about. Rutledge points out that although the Advent season encompasses three advents of Jesus Christ—that is, his incarnation, the mystery of his ongoing presence in our midst in word and sacrament, and his return again in glory to judge the living and the dead—“the primary focus [is] on the second coming of Christ, who will arrive in glory on the last day to consummate the kingdom of God. That is the special note of Advent—its orientation to the promised future” (5).
Accordingly, preachers and teachers should note that the Gospel readings assigned for the season of Advent almost uniformly sound a message of cataclysm that will purge, purify, and usher in the age to come. From Jesus’s promises of signs in the sun, moon, and stars to Malachi’s foreboding that the day of the Lord will be like refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap or John the Baptist’s grave warnings that the ax is already laid at the root of the tree, Advent, Rutledge helps us see, situates us within the grim realities of the world we already live in. This is a world that everywhere stands under visible signs of judgment—war and strife, hatred and violence, famine and plague and pestilence; the tempest is everywhere, always and already around us. And yet at the same time, our world is shot through with the promise of hope, the promise that God even in his seeming absence (Deus absconditus) has not and will not abandon this world but will renew it in the dawning of his glorious presence at the end of all things.
This is the critical and peculiar liturgical ethos I spoke of earlier, the ethos that responsible preachers and teachers will not only be aware of but will preach with energy toward. It is an ethos that permits us in our preaching and worship to stare straight into the grim realities of our world and announce that they stand under the judgment and promise of God. Believers in Jesus do not need, Rutledge insists, another excuse to benumb ourselves to the pain and suffering of the world around us. The stakes are too high. And that is not what Advent is all about, at any rate. Advent, rather, is the church’s unflinching resolve to stare into the very heart of darkness and there to both proclaim and enact its hope in the promise of God. The church lives, Rutledge notes, “on the frontier of the turn of the ages . . . which collide in the cross of Christ” (13).
Understanding this Advent orientation helps the church ready itself for the conflict—and conflict there will be. Rutledge avers in one of her sermons that “we, the church, are the paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines. We, the church, are the resistance fighters in the territory occupied by the Enemy. We, the church, are the beleaguered guerrillas waging a war of liberation against ferocious odds” (213). The weapons we fight with, as Saint Paul notes, are not the weapons of this world (2 Cor. 10:4); we must wage war with truth, goodness, beauty, and self-sacrificing love against every malignant force of malice and evil in our world. When we deploy those tactics, coupled with a willingness to suffer that is, as she says, “the sign of life between the times” (213), we are nothing less than the embodiment in Christ Jesus of God’s active resistance to the evil of the present age.
In our time, we are desperate to see a resurgence of this sense of resistance identity from the church in the West. Too long have we ambled along in comfortable social and political alliances that have done little, if anything, to advance the mission of God and that have marred our witness. How will we recover that resistance identity? Rutledge shows us that serious, courageous Advent preaching is at least one crucial component of that recovery.
More particularly, Rutledge’s Advent sermons train us to see ourselves through appropriately apocalyptic lenses. One of the great surprises and delights of Advent is the prominence of the mysterious and pugnacious character of John the Baptist. Over and over again, Rutledge—as the lectionary demands it—returns to John the Baptist as the Advent figure par excellence. In a sermon delivered in 1996 at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, Connecticut, Rutledge comments, “I have preached about him [John the Baptist] during Advent for twenty-one years, yet I find him each year to be more uncanny and intractable than ever. After two thousand years, he still stands there, irreducibly strange, gaunt and unruly, lonely and refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age.” John, she notes, is “the sentinel” whose “function is to proclaim the coming reversal of the downward spiral of human history, to deliver the message of the invading Son of God . . . whose single-minded life and horrendous death at the hands of the powers and principalities are a preview of Jesus’s own death.” In this sense, John demonstrates that “it is in the suffering and death of God’s servants at the hands of despots and tyrants that God’s new rule is made manifest” (277–78). So may it be.
Rutledge’s Advent sermons also model for us (especially those of us who labor in the ministry of the word) responsible and rigorous cultural engagement. It has been said that Karl Barth, to whom Rutledge admits a great debt for her own theological imagination, once instructed his students to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and to then interpret the newspaper using the Bible. There are few who model this as well as Fleming Rutledge. Her sermons—every single one of them—draw their illustrations directly from contemporary and often highly local events. In fact, calling them illustrations does her engagements with contemporary life and events a grave injustice—these engagements are creative and prophetic theology done right in the middle of events that reek of the Deus absconditus (a favorite theme of hers). Whether she is talking about the brutal murder of a child in her parish, the calamity of 9/11, or events halfway around the world, Rutledge teaches us to see Advent written on the walls of our lives, our whole lives. She teaches us to see this writing all the time, even and especially in the gruesome, gritty, and macabre. For, she explains, it is into the darkness of our lives that Christ descended, and it is in the midst of the darkness that the church proclaims its message of light and hope—that Jesus will return again.
Finally, Rutledge’s Advent preaching helps us see that the agency to bring about the fulfillment of this hope is always—fully and finally—God’s own. We bear witness, in word and deed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the future. But God, and only God, brings it about. She writes that Advent’s emphasis is “on the agency of God, as contrasted with the ‘works’ of human beings,” which ties in to her repeated insistence that Advent is not a season of preparation. She goes on: “An exclusive emphasis on Advent as a season of preparation risks putting human endeavor in the spotlight for all four weeks of the season. All the Advent preparation in the world would not be enough unless God were favorably disposed to us in the first place” (5, emphasis mine). And fortunately for us, in Christ, we see that God is more than favorably disposed.
We cannot bring the kingdom, and we are utterly out of our depth in trying to do so. But in myriad ways, as Rutledge stresses throughout, we can enact and bear witness to the kingdom that is to come. Offering a cup of cold water in Jesus’s name, working for peace, blessing and advocating for the poor and the powerless, rebuking the powerful who misuse their power, sharing the gospel with our neighbors—these and many more works are signs of the church’s belief that even now it is a participant in the power and promise of God to renew created reality in God’s time, in God’s way, and by God’s means. Rutledge’s Advent is a powerful summons to the church to rise up anew in that identity.
These reflections are of immense importance to preachers, scholars, and laypersons, especially at this time in our history, and I hesitate to offer any critique, but it must be said that there is some redundancy to Advent. The central movements and specific language of the sermons can at times feel repetitive, and I worry through my gratitude that this may be an unnecessary barrier for the broader audience that surely needs to read this book. But in the end, I’m not altogether sure that redundancy such as I am describing is really a valid criticism of Christian preaching, for we have one message, and it is the drumbeat of our life together until the day when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15):
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
And so, in that spirit we make the Advent cry: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.