Some critical reflections on preaching online

This is an Advent sermon I preached last Sunday in Maynooth Community Church. If you wish you should be able to view the video by clicking on the link.

The text was Luke 1:1-25 and the theme was ‘An Unexpected Fulfilment’ based on the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah

Some Critical Reflections

A while back I did a post linking to some very helpful short videos about preaching / communicating to a screen. It’s a very different ‘genre’ to preaching in person. I’ve tried to keep those tips in mind, and here are some take-aways from this latest outing. It was encouraging to get some very positive feedback, but there were also things I didn’t do so well. All of life is a learning experience, so these are some learning points I took away.

If you have your own to add from your own experiences teaching or preaching online, you are welcome to add them here ….

1. When preaching online, try preaching to a specific person.

It’s so easy to become ‘flat’ and rather robotic when talking to a screen. It’s harder than teaching online with a group of students on Zoom. At least there, there is conversation, Q&A and breakout rooms etc. A screen doesn’t talk back or smile – or even show it’s losing concentration 🙂 I have a soft voice that doesn’t carry that well, so have to work at keeping sound and energy on the screen. Plenty of room for improvement in this sermon on that front.

One thing I tried this time was to imagine myself talking / preaching to a specific person (won’t name names here!). Keep their face in mind. Imagine responses and reactions – engage in a real dialogue. Keep it as warm and relational as possible. Vary voice pitch and speed. Ask questions. I might even put a photograph of a person up next time.

2. Keep it clear and simple

I kept this sermon to two points. All preaching should be clear and easy to follow, but I think this is especially necessary via a screen. This isn’t the same as being simplistic, but it is working hard to distill the key messages of the text into an accessible structure.

In this sermon the two points were

1. The Loving Kindness of God to individuals

There is a touching and beautiful moment in this story of how God (unecessarily) blesses Zechariah and especially Elizabeth with a child, and takes away her shame in the process.

‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’ 1:25

2. Christians are called into a much bigger story

On ‘either side’ of those two points, was an introduction about ‘Christmas Kitsch’ and how Luke (and the other Gospel writers) are anything but kitsch. And a conclusion in how all believers are called into the same story as Z & E – the story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Like Z & E waiting faithfully in darkness for the first Advent, believers are also called to faithful waiting in darkness for the second Advent.

3. Consider using visuals alongside video

I also decided to combine the video with a powerpoint. I used to use powerpoint a lot in preaching but these days rarely use it in person-to-person settings. It’s so often a distraction. Especially if visiting somewhere, the technology can fail to work. It is often used so much that people end up just watching a screen and not concentrating on the human communication between preacher and congregation. And you can also end up spending far too much time on a snazzy powerpoint and not enough on the harder work of exegesis of the text.

But with video preaching being a visual experience, I think it was helpful to have pictures and headings. (Images that help to illustrate, rather than lots of hard to read text.)

Rather than have to do lots of video editing afterwards to put in pictures and slides and Bible texts (which would be beyond me to be honest), I use Loom, a video programme. It allows you to record video and screen together. So you can have yourself on one side of the screen and a pre-prepared powerpoint on the other side. And then I just advance the powerpoint in ‘real time’ as the sermon progresses. The advantage is once finished, that’s it done.

4. Keep it concise

The sermon ended up at 23 minutes. While this is about average (for our church) when meeting together physically, I think it was too long for watching online. It needed to be shorter and snappier in places, and needed to get to the text a bit quicker. I think the conclusion could have made the link to Advent and our waiting today a bit more clearly. I didn’t have time to edit and re-record – the video had to go off asap. I also needed to check on my knowledge of the Matrix – Neo IS Mr Anderson – duh!

But then again maybe that’s not a bad thing. That’s what usually happens after all! You don’t get to have a second or third take in front of a live congregation ! (Many’s a time when I wish I did).

It would also have ended before a certain two daughters came in the front door laughing and cackling about something amusing @ c. 22 minutes. Not having great video editing skills meant I had to keep going without stopping!

The remaining three points are about preaching in general.

5. Pray the Spirit speaks

This applies to all preaching and Christian teaching, but any preacher needs constantly to bear in mind. Good communication skills matter – and that includes appropriate use of video technology as well as verbal communication. But such things are merely the scaffolding, not the building itself. If all the focus and energy goes constructing the scaffolding, we end up forgetting its purpose is to serve the good of the building.

In other words, preaching isn’t about the preacher or the tools he/she uses – they are not ends in themselves. They need to serve the purpose of communicating the meaning of the biblical text to the world of the listeners.

The process of preaching needs prayer – a sermon ‘evolves’ through study of the text, reflection, time and prayer. And once preached to the best of his/her ability, all the preacher can do is pray the Spirit takes his/her imperfect efforts and uses them to speak into peoples lives.

6. Be open to (constructive) critical feedback

It’s easy to be hyper-spiritual here. On the one hand, there is a tremendous freedom in knowing preaching is not just a human enterprise, the ‘success’ of which is how much it is enjoyed by the listeners. Only the Spirit can transform people. But, on the other hand, all preachers are limited. However experienced, there is always much to learn. So feedback from people IS important – both negative and positive.

But structured feedback does not happen by accident, it needs to be fostered.

In theological education there are all sorts of systems of student and peer review for teachers. I’m not saying they are perfect by any means – often they can be paper exercises. But good feedback from students and peer review from a trusted teacher who sits in on your class is invaluable (as well as a bit scary).

My sense is that most preachers / churches don’t have this sort of robust system of constructive critical review in place. It takes trust and transparency, but it speaks of a culture that is open to critique, a humility to say ‘We are all learners’, and a desire to keep growing each other’s gifts for the good of Christ’s church.

7. Deal seriously with the text and bring it to bear on the lives and hearts of listeners

I’ll nail my colours to the mast here and say that preaching that isn’t dealing seriously with the text isn’t really preaching. The text is all we have and it is the task of the preacher to do the exegesis that underpins contemporary application – to allow the text to speak.

That’s why I love expository preaching. Sure topical or thematic preaching can (and should) deal seriously with the text. But expository preaching builds on exegesis (historical background, language, grammar etc in order to understand its meaning), in order to ‘expose’ its meaning for contemporary listeners (exposition).

Doing exegesis isn’t preaching. I like the image of a chef preparing a meal. Just putting all the ingredients on the table wouldn’t make him/her very popular with the guests. The chef has to put those ingredients together in a creative way to produce a tasty meal. So expository preaching is a creative process that distils exegesis into a message that applies the living text into people’s lives.

Expository preaching is usually structured around preaching through the whole Bible in a planned way. In this way it takes the text seriously, and the whole of the Bible seriously. The danger of topical or thematic preaching dominating is that we get to choose in advance what we’re going to talk about so we avoid grappling with difficult texts or issues. We can also all too easily just reinforce our own preferences or end up using the text as a convenient ‘hanger’ for our topic in hand.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

First Sunday in Advent: A Reflection

This is a reflection I was asked to write for our local church on this first Sunday of Advent.

WAITING IN THE DARKNESS

Did you know that historically, within Church tradition, Advent is not primarily about the birth of Jesus at Christmas? Rather, for centuries it has been practiced more as a time of waiting in darkness for Jesus’ second coming, the final ‘day of the Lord’. In other words, if Jesus comes first as a saviour, Advent looks forward to his return as judge.

Mmural by Adam Kossowski of the heavenly new Jerusalem descending to earth (Rev. 21

Now, you might be saying ‘Hang on, judgment doesn’t sound like something to look forward to. I thought Advent was a time of joy and anticipation.’ 

Well, Advent is a time of joy and anticipation. But it begins, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, by gazing ‘into the heart of darkness’ – looking at our world as it truly is. This is why an authentically Christian Advent is a million miles away from the popular sentimentalism of modern Christmas with its soft-focus images of baby Jesus and his young mother, surrounded by cute animals.

Sentimentalism pretends all is right with the world. Advent tells the truth.

As we’re well aware, darkness is all around us. Destructive forces far bigger than us, do their worst. This year will be forever marked by the Coronavirus pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and cost millions more their livelihoods. Multiple wars continue to rage around the world, proponents often armed by Western nations like the USA, the UK, Germany and others. In Yemen over 24 million people are in dire need of aid, 3.6 million have fled their home and c. 200,000 killed. In Syria over 13 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, 6.7 million have been displaced and over 350,000 killed. These are just two conflicts of hundreds of smaller ones around the world. As 2020 comes to a close, globally there are 80 million people forcibly displaced people as a result of persecution, violence, human rights violations and war. Such people are extremely vulnerable to further injustices, Covid-19 and other diseases. Environmentally, wildlife globally has declined by over two-thirds since 1970. This catastrophic loss continues downward with implications for all life on earth. Global warming is already here – unprecedented fires in Australia, the Amazon and California show that the earth is literally burning.

And then there is the darkness in our own neighbourhoods and lives. Many of us will grieve the loss of family and friends this Christmas. Death is still an enemy. As we look back over 2020, we know that we have often chosen to go with darkness rather than light.

But Advent is not only about naming the darkness – that would indeed be hopeless. It looks forward to the good news of God’s judgment.

If you’re wondering how judgment can be good news, perhaps it’s because when we hear the word ‘judgment’ we tend to think of words like ‘condemnation’ and ‘judgmental’.

But there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Jesus’ future arrival as judge is best understood as ‘putting all things right’. It will be when all the powers of sin, evil and injustice that so disfigure God’s beloved world will be vanquished once and for all. Light will drive out the darkness. Creation itself will be remade. Death will be undone. Resurrection life will burst forth. Love will rule. God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28)

And so, this Advent, as we wait in the darkness, let’s pray in hope with the Apostle Paul: ‘Marana tha. Come O Lord!’ (1 Cor. 16:22).

Eschatology and Advent (11): is Christianity a delusion?

As Advent comes to a close, this is the final post in our series. Here’s a fundamental question that we are left with:

Is history moving towards an ‘end’? And to be more specifically Christian, is that end a good one in which God renews and restores this broken world?

OR

Are such hopes human delusions? History just keeps grinding away. There have been and are any number of utopian dreams, both religious and secular, that imagine history is about to end and a dramatic transformation is about to occur.

The political philosopher John Gray was on BBC Radio 4 ‘Point of View’ this week arguing the second option. The title of his talk was ‘The Recurrent Dream of an End Time’.

‘Human beings dread the prospect that the world they know is coming to an end, while at the same time they long for a world different from any that has ever existed.’

He gives various examples of a ‘millennarian mindset’ – particulaly political ones – in which hopes of a dramatic and imminent transformation of the world is about to dawn.

Failed Dreams

CHRISTIAN MILLENNARIAN MOVEMENTS – there have been many throughout history

FRENCH REVOLUTION – a new world order of reason – that descended into chaos and bloodshed

COMMUNISM: Russian and Chinese (Mao). Gray could have included Pol Pot in Cambodia setting the clock back to year zero. They also ended in bloodshed, genocide and disillusion.

LIBERAL OPTIMISM: the dream that ‘history had ended’ with the spread of liberal values (Francis Fukayama in the 1990s. It wasn’t convincing then, its seems even more foolish now).

ALIENS: (no, not the movies). Think H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds’ and movements since that imagine imminent catastrophe or new beginnings.

EXTINCTION REBELLION. The world as we know it is about to ‘end’

SILICON VALLEY. The dreams of tech executives that an ‘Omega Point’ in human history is about to arrive where we can develop a new sort of humanity, coupled with AI, to create a new age of transhuman immortality.

“The belief that the end of history is imminent is always near”

Can We Face the Truth?

The reason, Gray suggests, is that if history is linear it is going somewhere. There is a story to the world, to our lives, and the fact that we can have a part to play in participating in that future gives hope.

The human animal, cannot bear to think that its existence has no wider story. It denies the reality that our lives, and our civilisation, will start and end, to be succeeded in time by others.

It is this delusion that Gray rejects. All dreams of a golden new age will perish. There is no escape from everlasting recurrence. History is not going anywhere.

The question is, he asks, is whether we can overcome our obsession with hope of a better age to come, or will we be like the hapless characters in Samuel Beckett’s piece ‘For to end, yet again’ who are always waiting for an ending that never arrives?

If Christ is not raised

Gray is always refreshing to listen to. He sees how much politics, technology and religion overlap in how they represent ways to think about our place in the world. Nothing is ‘value free’ or ‘story free’. He’s especially astute in describing the optimism of so much secular liberalism – that it is somehow ‘beyond’ the outdated and regressive beliefs of religion(s).

So I’m with him. Human dreams of a new age about to dawn are just those – dreams. We do not hold the future of the world in our hands. In fact, we are horribly brilliant at making a violent and unjust mess of this world.

And this brings us right back to advent and apocalyptic theology. The Christian faith is either true or it isn’t.

Either God has been active in and through human history (the story of Israel) or he hasn’t.

Either God has apocalyptically invaded that human history in the ‘once and future coming of Jesus Christ’ (to quote the strapline of Fleming Rutledge’s book) or he hasn’t.

Either history is pitiless endless recurrence (Gray) or it is unfolding in God’s eschatogical time towards the parousia of Jesus, final judgment, resurrection of the dead and new creation in which all things will be finally be put right.

In the Bible, Paul sees this ‘either / or’ of God’s eschatological future or human delusion just as clearly as Gray does.

While he was not writing apologetically trying to ‘defend’ the truth of the gospel (his main concern is to affirm the resurrection to come), in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 he imagines the world if Jesus Christ was just another man who lived and died.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So am I – and you if you are a Christian – a ‘hapless’ figure waiting for an ending that will never come? Well, it all depends if the new age has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or not.

Eschatology and Advent (10) Fleming Rutledge on the good news of judgment

If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?

Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?

This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.

To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?

In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.

One angle is how divine judgment is good news.

I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But

Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)

1. The judgment of God as good and necessary

‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.

Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.

The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)

… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)

(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.

If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.

And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.

  1. Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
  2. Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
  3. Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.

It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if

we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)

… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)

2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment

But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.

This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19

For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …

I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..

‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.

Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5

for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.

This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.

GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)

3. Personal Judgment

And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)

Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.

Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.

We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)

This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.

These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.

Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?

Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?

What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?

Eschatology and Advent (8): Fleming Rutledge and Apocalyptic Theology

Advent is a time of waiting, in hope, for a transformed future. The season of Advent makes dedicated space in the church calendar to reflect on the nature of the Christian faith as life lived in the eschatological tension between two ages – the old age that is passing away, the new age of the Spirit that has dawned with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This eschatological framing of Christianity is a very long way away from the liberalism of Ritschl and Wrede, or the demythologised existential faith of Bultmann.

It sees the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God, the victory of cross and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit as apocalyptic events.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis) means ‘revelation’. Technically it refers to a particular type of literature (like the book of Revelation), full of dramatic symbolism, revealing divine realities in order to help readers (often facing persecution or suffering of some sort) to interpret their present circumstances and live accordingly.

But a broader understanding is used by many today, including Fleming Rutledge. When she uses ‘apocalyptic’ she is referring to a divine invasion into the present world order, a catalyst for something dramatically new that has happened in the here and now, so much so that nothing will ever be the same again.

[An aside: the ‘apocalyptic turn’ in NT theology is not uncontroversial. Building on work by J C Beker (1980) and J L Martyn, others like Beverly Gaventa, Philip Ziegler, Douglas Campbell, Martinus de Boer and others, have stressed themes of divine invasion, discontinuity with previous revelation, and a cosmic war with almost personified forces of Sin, Death, Flesh and the Powers. This emphasis on a great spiritual conflict behind the scenes has a very different feel to emphasis in much traditional Christianity on individual faith, divine grace and forgiveness of sin. It does not have to be a case of ‘either / or’ – though some theologians push in that direction].

In her Introduction Rutledge summarises the main components of apocalyptic theology (pp.18-21). All of them resonate with the fully eschatological character of the Christian faith that we have been talking about in this series.

These themes continually appear in her Advent sermons and are thus essential for the book as a whole. We will summarise them here and after this post we will simply look at a selection of her sermons in the lead up to Christmas.

A question first – do you think of Christianity as an ‘apocalyptic’ faith? Do you see your life, and the vocation of the people of God in the world, as being lived out within a cosmic battle behind the scenes between God and forces opposed to his good purposes?

Does this sort of language and imagery feel a bit ‘extreme’? Or do you find it truthful, making sense of the ‘heart of darkness’ which describes our world?

The Components of Apocalytpic Theology

1. God is the acting subject

The action of God is revealed in Jesus Christ (‘When the time had fully come’ Gal. 4:4). It is God who inaugurates his kingdom and takes on the forces of evil. It is God’s prophet John the Baptist who announces judgement. The active agent in history is God.

2. The Three Agencies

Liberal theology tends to elevate human experience and reason. God may or may not be an actual person. Apocalyptic theology begins with God, his enemy who has invaded the world, and human beings who are under his power.

3. Two Ages Overlapping with one another

The NT world is one of two ages, two powers in conflict with each other: Spirit versus Flesh; God versus the Devil; two kingdoms in battle; darkness versus light. (Rutledge has a passing swipe at language of ‘spiritual journey’ as if we face no opposition, just a journey towards maturity and wisdom).

4. Struggle and Conflict at the turn of the ages

The ages are in battle; believers are called to participate – to be non-violent soldiers in a spiritual conflict against this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and the Enemy and his powers.

5. The Apocalyptic Role of the Church

Christians do not fight alone. Called into community, the battle is corporate not isolated soldiers on their own. The task of the church is to be a bridgehead of the kingdom of God in the world (kosmos).

6. The Armour of Light

The ‘weapons’ of the Church are different to those of the world. Patience, love, kindness, forgiveness, prayer (see Eph 6)

7. The Stance toward the Enemy

Rutledge calls the Great Enemy “the personified power of Sin and Death” to whom all humans are in bondage. All of us are God’s enemies until the Gospel brings us over to his side (not by our own wisdom or efforts but by grace).

8. The Justification of the Ungodly

Everyone is ungodly – this is the great argument of Romans 1-4. Pagan Gentiles but also Jews are alike unrighteous. “None of us deserves God’s favor” (p.20). Hope depends utterly on God’s redeeming action.

9. The Future of God

The Christ-event has inaugurated the reign of God but it remains unfulfilled. “God’s future determines the present, rather than the other way round.” The present evil age is temporary.

10. Suffering and Hope

In the inbetween times Christians are to expect suffering, trials and tribulations. Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage believers in desperate circumstances. But the promises of God will have the last say at the return of Christ.

11. Apocalyptic Transvision

Christians need discernment to understand the battle they are in. The Spirit is given to the church as a sign of the age of come, empowering and equipping the church for life in the inbetween times.

12. Continuity and Discontinuity

Rutledge rightly acknowledges that this is the issue where most controversy exists around apocalyptic theology. Some so stress ‘invasion’ and newness that it seems to cut off the NT from the story of Israel (N T Wright is especially critical of some apocalyptic theology at this point). She argues discontinuity does NOT mean severance from the OT.

What it does mean is a rereading of the Old Testament in light of the first and second comings of Christ. It means that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise of God from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God … This is the truly radical nature of the Advent promise, which sweeps away cheap comforts and superficial reassurances and, in the midst of the most world-overturning circumstances, still testifies that “Behold, I am coming soon! … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end! (Rev. 22:12, 13) (p.21).

What, I wonder are your present circumstances this Advent? Perhaps they are, humanly speaking, practically devoid of hope. Perhaps you find little to rejoice about this Christmas. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the scale of bad news and prophecies of doom in your newsfeed.

It is precisely into such darkness that Advent speaks hope.

Eschatology and Advent (7) Fleming Rutledge ‘Advent Begins in Darkness’

The vast hoards of readers of this blog will know that during Lent earlier this year, we read our way, one day at a time, through Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

I don’t do end of year lists, but I can say that it is easily the best book I read this year – in fact in quite a few years.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading her Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (2018). Of disappointment there has been none.

The introduction to thinking theologically about Advent is excellent. Most of the rest of the book consists of sermons preached over the last 30 or so years organised loosely into various themes. The next few posts in this series are going to give just a flavour.

So let’s get going.

What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Rutledge quotes the Swiss pipe-smoker early on because his words encapsulate her overall argument – all Christians live in eschatological times between the ages. The kingdom of God has arrived, but we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

The world in which we live is riven by innumerable horrors – war, famine, disease, abuse, injustice, environmental destruction, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, industrial levels of abortion …

This is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, the heart of darkness. And Advent looks unflinchingly into that darkness and names it for what it is.

It does not do so nihilistically. Advent awaits a transformed world; it looks forward in hope to a future consummation of the kingdom because of the victory of God in Jesus Christ over Sin, Death and the Powers.

In this sense, the Christian faith has a threefold dynamic that Rutledge puts this way (p.7):

The past: God’s initiative towards the world in Christ (Christmas)

The future: God’s coming victory in Christ (second coming or Parousia, made present in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost)

The Present: a cruciform (cross-shaped) life of love for the world in the present time (Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week)

The surprising twist that she traces is that historically Advent is NOT orientated primarily towards preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Rather, it is primarily a time of reflection on, and preparation for, the second coming of Christ.

If you’ve followed this series, you can appreciate why focus on the second coming has been neglected in the church. In the modern period it was either dismissed as mistaken, mythological, symbolic or scientifically untenable. Rutledge tells the story of, as a young woman, being told we don’t believe that sort of thing nowadays.

If you are in a church community, how much is the second coming talked about? Is it preached on? If so, how? Or is it quietly ignored – with such silence speaking a thousand words?

Another way of putting this is, how honest is our theology in facing up to the darkness? What has Christianity to say to those suffering, to the sick, to the trafficked, the abused, the poor and those without hope?

What has our theology to say to those who use others for their own ends, who exploit, abuse, hate, kill and bully? To systemic evil? What do we say about final judgement and the reality of hell?

As we have seen in this series, Christianity is eschatology – is future hope. So what Barth means is that Advent describes living within the tension of the now and not yet while patiently awaiting a transformed future.

Rutledge puts it this way

… the Christian disciple finds his or her vocation precisely here: in the collision of the ages where the struggle of the Enemy against God continues, making space for the conquering love of God for the world. (16)

Advent requires the courage to name the darkness of the now and that judgement is something to be hoped for. (She’s good here noting how ‘justice’ is a popular word but ‘judgement’ is equated with ‘judgemental’ which is ‘bad’).  Yet God’s judgement is a putting all things right.

Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgement of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world. (22)

 Honesty requires that this truth is acknowledged and faced. Christianity is not sentimental or trivial – God in Christ has confronted the darkness of evil and death at the cross.

Faith and hope means trusting in God amidst the confusion, pain and transitoriness of life in the now. Much that happens in this world now is not God’s good intent. In fact he is waging a war against powers and principalities opposed to his good will.

All this has the flavour of apocalyptic theology – we’ll summarise how Rutledge defines this in the next post.

Eschatology and Advent (6) the inaugurated eschatology of N T Wright

This post finishes our sketch of the recovery of eschatology within contemporary New Testament studies. To bring the story up to date I’m going to look at one of the main voices in NT studies and in eschatology – that of N T Wright.  

From this foundation, some follow on posts will dip into Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous preached eschatology within her book of sermons on Advent.

Doing things this way will highlight how eschatology is no Cinderella doctrine tacked on to the end of Christian thought and life. It is key to understanding and interpreting the gospels, Paul and all the other writers of the NT

Switching focus from eschatology in modern theology to Rutledge on Advent, is deliberate. Not only is eschatology central to Christian theology, it preaches! We’ll look at examples of how.

N. T. Wright

Wright’s eschatology is central to most of his work. And it is most certainly not a fluffy, sentimental, vague hope. Indeed, Wright has spent a lifetime battling against what he sees as popular Christianity’s platonized eschatology – a form of dualism that wants to escape the world and get to heaven.

At times, so much has his emphasis been on realised eschatology along with a historically realist interpretation of the gospels, that when Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) came out in 1996 some reviewers wondered if Wright had abandoned the ‘not yet’ altogether.

An example is Wright’s reading of Mark 13 and the Olivet Discourse. This is a clip – see the whole chapter.

20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Rather than read this as futurist end of age language, Wright’s reads it as Jewish apocalyptic language, referencing Daniel 7:13, referring to the vindication of the Son of Man within history (namely the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and not as a literal description of Jesus’ second coming in the clouds with power and glory.

Wright self-consciously travels the Schweitzerstrasse in his reconstruction of Jesus within history coming to understand himself, through reading of Israel’s scriptures, as the embodiment of an Israel in exile awaiting YHWH’s return to his elect people.

Acting in faith, Jesus the Messiah acts courageously in himself to confront evil in and through his sin-atoning and representative death. His coming simultaneously enacts divine judgement on Israel’s rejection of her true king and his gospel of the kingdom come.

But Wright departs from Weiss and Schweitzer in seeing Jesus’ death not as a failure of mistaken hopes, but God’s paradoxical victory over sin and death, witnessed in the vindication of the resurrection Christ.

Since JVG, his inaugurated “already and not yet” eschatology has become clearer and more fully worked out.

Jesus is an eschatological and apocalyptic prophet in and through whom the kingdom comes. This world has been changed as a result and, because of Jesus’ resurrection, will be fully transformed in the future.

Thus, Wright says for Paul

“this hope both had been fulfilled through Jesus, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection, and the life-transforming spirit, and would yet be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus and in the work of the same spirit to raise all of the Messiah’s people from the dead.”[1]

And from my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies

The nature of that transformation is holistic; it embraces the spiritual, political and social within a renewed creation. A consistent Wrightian theme is that the emphatically “earthy” nature of that future hope has social implications for the praxis of Christian ethics in the “here and now”.

Wright loves the big picture. Some say he pushes this too far in ways that the evidence does not support. But the story he tells is that Paul, the Synoptics, John and other New Testament authors all, in distinct ways, articulate a recognisably consistent eschatological hope in light of the story of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarises Paul this way

“The belief in a now and not yet inaugurated kingdom through the exaltation of the human being Jesus, Israel’s messiah, was not then a piece of clever apologetic invented in the late first century let alone the mid-twentieth century. It was part of the earliest apostolic gospel itself.”[2]

And for the Gospels

“John has his own ways of saying the same thing, but it is the same thing [as the Synoptics]. The gospels do not contain apocalyptic; in the first century sense they are apocalyptic. They are describing how the revelation, the unveiling, the visible coming of God took place.”[3]

God has disrupted the world in Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to become reigning Lord.

A new revelation (apokalypsis) has unfolded. Reality will never be the same again.

The victory of God has been won, the long promised Spirit has been poured out, we live now in the overlap of the ages, the present evil age is passing away, the new age has dawned, flesh against Spirit, Spirit against the powers, God versus his enemies – all until the final consummation of the Kingdom when God will be all in all.  

This is how the NT sees things.

And it means that the Christian life within the community of the people of God, is eschatological through and through.

We live in an age of sin and death that is under the power of spiritual powers opposed to God and his kingdom. Unless Christians grasp this, and face the darkness head on, they will be ill-equipped for the battle.

Christmassy sentimental religious feel-goodism just does not cut it. The world is too broken. Injustice is too brutal. Sickness and suffering is too painful.

And this is where Fleming Rutledge comes in.

Few preachers have seen the challenge more clearly and how Advent is NOT primarily a time for preparing to celebrate the incarnation and birth of baby Jesus.

Rather it is a time to look into the heart of darkness with hope in the future coming of Jesus Christ as Lord and judge to overthrow Sin, Death and the Devil and establish his kingdom of light.

The next few posts this Advent will be in her company. You are welcome to join us.                                                                                                                                                   


[1] Wright, PFG, 1258-59. Emphasis original.

[2] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

[3] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

Eschatology and Advent (3) hope as a little child

Continuing to think about eschatology and advent leading up to Christmas, but taking a pause from sketching the story of NT eschatology. How about this for a quote written 20 years ago about the nature of hope in the dark and uncertain times in which we live?

For too long the modern ideology of progress has pictured hope as grown-up, as the triumph of humanity come of age, taking its destiny into its own hands and creating the future for itself. More recently this vision has turned against hope, as supposedly mature humanity has come to seem more like a barbarous army, marching with aggressive determination to conquer the future, trampling everything in its path, progressive only in its mastery of ever more powerful and sophisticated means of destruction. Can the modern enterprise of hope be redeemed from despair?

Bauckham and Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology in Contemporary Context. 1999. p. 212.

It is this context that the authors refer to a theological poem by Charles Peguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (1911) in which hope is pictured as a little girl swinging between her elder sisters faith and love (charity). Tiny as she is compared to them, she looks like she is being carried, but in truth she is carrying them.

Hope does not grow up. In an age of fading and lost hopes, this is, so to speak, the hope for hope. Hope must always be born anew: “the little girl hope is she who forever begins.” (Peguy, The Portal, p.23).

Bauckham and Hart, Hope Against Hope, p.212.

Hope as a young child confronting darkness …. there’s eschatology and advent in action.

Advent and Eschatology (2) The future absorbed into the present

We’re continuing with a series of posts on eschatology and Advent. The first couple or so are telling the story of the recovery of eschatology within NT studies within the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Existential Eschatology (Bultmann)

We’re picking up the story with Rudolf Bultmann.

He drove down the Schweitzerstrasse in that he was committed to the ‘otherness’ of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. As a good existentialist, Bultmann believed that the preaching of the Kingdom of God presents us with a momentous decision; response to the kerygma of the Kingdom means that God’s future breaks into our present, freeing us from our inauthentic past.

This is a continual process of living an authentic faith. But it reduced eschatology to an abstract principle of value to Christians as they live life in the present. For Bultmann eschatology is reduced to metaphor and symbol, which, while powerfully transformative in the here and now, are not to be believed as speaking of actual realities.

Hence his programme of ‘demythologization’ – the actual return of Jesus, judgement, new creation and so on are mythological, to be relevant in a modern world they need to be demythologised.

And of course once you start down the route of deciding which bits of the NT are ‘myth’ and should be put aside, you may end up with some helpful ethical principles, but the result will be a very long way away from the faith of the NT writers.

Bultmann’s emphasis on the present life effectively swallows up eschatology in the present.

If by a very different routes, Bultmann, like Wrede and like Schweitzer, also ended up with a version of ‘this-worldly’ Christian faith rather than a future-orientated faith.

Realized Eschatology (C H Dodd)

Over in Britain, Charles Harold Dodd, rejected the Schweitzerstrasse in his attempt to harmonise the future and the present within his programme of ‘realized eschatology’ as developed in The Parables of the Kingdom (1935).

Dodd, like Bultmann, but for different reasons, also reinterpreted Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God in terms of the present. He (rightly) saw how Jesus’ parables challenged listeners to respond to the presence of the kingdom of God in the life and teaching of Jesus; now was the time of both judgment and salvation. Those that respond with faith have eternal life now.

“This world has become the scene of a divine drama, in which the eternal issues are laid bare. It is the hour of decision. It is realized eschatology.”[1]

While Dodd acknowledged that the Kingdom is not merely present, he was reluctant to describe it as a future reality awaiting consummation, his emphasis was on its impact in the present. Apparently, later Dodd did make more space for real future events. So while his realized eschatology failed to carry the day, he did pave the way for ‘eschatology’s come back’.

We will turn to that come back in the next post(s).

All this continues to raise a question for day to day Christian life.

How does future hope shape your life in the present?

Is that future hope merely an abstract idea or example that helps us live significant lives in the present? (Bultmann, Dodd – and also in different ways Wrede, Weiss and Schweitzer).

Or is it talking of real events in God’s timetable of one day putting everything right?


[1] Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 198.

An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).