N.T. Wright on Advents
N.T. Wright is, in my estimation, our greatest living theologian. By 'our' I don't just mean us Anglicans, I mean us Christians. A bold statement, to be sure, and one with which others might take issue. This year, Bishop Wright wrote the words (libretto) for a choral piece about Advent. As Advent draws to a close, I want to give you some of his introduction to that piece. He provides for us a clear-headed reflection on the nature of this season.
The great, massive Advent moment is still to come in the future. . . Both Old and New Testaments promise that one day the God who created the world will flood it with his glory, transforming it so that it thrills and throbs with his love, justice and peace. That is the promise, from both Testaments . . . In the Old Testament, this is seen in well-known Psalms such as 96 and 98, and in particular the great Messianic vision of Isaiah 11, where the whole creation is restored in peace under the rule of the ‘little child.’ In the New Testament, it encompasses passages such as Acts 1, Philippians 3, and of course Revelation, which speak of the return of Jesus himself (the ‘second coming’) to put all things to rights.
Part of the difficulty of grasping all this, in our day, is the frustrating fact that a good deal of Western Christianity has almost entirely forgotten this promise. Many people assume without question that the final Christian hope is to leave this wicked world of space, time and matter and to go off, as disembodied souls, into ‘heaven‟. That is fine as a statement of what happens to God‟s people immediately after they die, but it won’t do as an account of the great scriptural promises of new creation. There is a further, fuller hope, for a new world in which we shall have new bodies and new tasks to perform, celebrating and implementing God’s victory over evil, injustice and death itself.
The other moment, umbilically joined to this final one, is of course the first ‘coming’ of Jesus. In the four gospels, this is not primarily concerned with Jesus‟ birth, important though that is, but with his appearance at the time of John’s baptism, and the launch of his public ministry in which he announces that God is at last becoming King. This combination of themes makes our own liturgical keeping of Advent very complex: are we preparing for Christmas, for the Coming of Jesus through John’s Baptism, or for the Second Coming? The answer, liturgically, often seems to be ‘all three’, but I suspect that many ordinary worshippers are just confused.
Jesus’ Kingdom-announcement (What would it look like if God was running the show? Watch and listen and you‟ll find out!) is the anticipation, close up and personal in Jesus’ deeds and words, of the final promise in the Psalms and Isaiah. So the role of John the Baptist ... is to get people ready for this ‘coming’. His ministry of baptism picks up the Old Testament promises of God’s fresh cleansing of his people. His preaching and teaching warn people to get ready for the Coming One who will sweep through God‟s world and God‟s people like a forest fire. And part of that ‘getting ready’ is the challenge to live already, in the present time, by the rule of the justice that is coming. Hence John‟s simple, direct challenge to his hearers.
The close link between first and second comings of Jesus then becomes clear. Jesus is baptized by John. The Spirit descends, anointing Jesus afresh for his public ministry. The voice of God himself is heard, announcing him as his beloved Son. He is the one who will bring God’s sovereign, saving rule ‘on earth as in heaven’. The double Advent theme thus dovetails perfectly together. The first coming is not only the preparation for the second one; it forms a kind of template for it. Learning to live appropriately between the two ‘comings’, under the rescuing rule of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, is what it means to be Christian.
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