Meeting Hope in Advent

“Annunciation” by Guido of Siena (1230-1290).

By Flemming Rutledge –

In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time. It can well be called the Time Between, because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. In the Time Between, “our lives are hidden with Christ in God; when Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3 4). Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not-yet that our faith requires.

It is challenging to hold two ideas in mind simultaneously: once and future, now and not-yet, but this is the summons of the gospel. We are citizens of two worlds, or ages: “this present evil age” and the age to come, the commonwealth of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Our true home is in the future, but it is made present reality to us by the Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our redemption (Ephesians 1:14 NRSV).

The time of the coming of Christ is now, in the Word preached and in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But the time of the coming of Christ to consummate all things is not-yet, and there is nothing whatever that human beings can do to hasten that coming. The command to “prepare ye the way of the Lord” in the opening section of the apocalyptic announcement of Isaiah 40-55 is given not in order to entice the Lord to come, but to expect him imminently, for he is already on his way.

That is a delicate balance. Ever since Paul wrote to the Galatians, the church has constantly had to be on guard against the ever-present human wish to take the reins back into our own hands. It is a daily temptation to think that we and our works are going to supply something that God does not already have. The key word here, perhaps, is “participation” in what God is already doing. This is where apocalyptic transvision comes in. Jesus himself calls for this sort of discernment: “He also said to the multitudes, ‘When you see a  cloud rising in the west, you say at once, “A shower is coming”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’“ (Luke 12:54-56).

Reading the signs of the times is one of the most important of all the gifts given to the church. How often we have failed! We have remained silent when we should have spoken; we have retreated into our churches when we should have acted; we have mistaken a worldly cause for the cause of God. We asked earlier concerning the relationship of the gospel to the “world” that is so often referred to negatively in the New Testament. The nature of apocalyptic  transvision is to perceive where in the world the activity of God can be discerned.

The constant temptation, given the self-centeredness of the human person under the sign of Sin and the specific individualism of Americans, is to think entirely in terms of each person’s individual death and individual passage into heaven. But even if we do think that way, we must already notice that no one lives entirely alone. Even the most confirmed hermit in the mountain wilderness of Montana has been shaped by contact, for better or worse, with other human beings. Even the lack of meaningful contact with others has an effect on an individual. The biblical worldview has no place for the autonomous individual. The human community is always the focus. And so, when we think in terms of now and not-yet, it is the destiny of all humankind that is envisioned.

“Comfort ye my people” (Isaiah 40:1) is not a message for a solitary self-determined person. It is addressed to all of God’s people in exile, and the original setting in Babylon is widened and expanded to include all the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:3) who are no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Paul’s apocalyptic vision of the future of God is the most expansive of all, rising to a peak never before scaled in Romans 11:32 – “God has consigned all human beings to disobedience, in order that he may have mercy upon all.”

Living between the times requires not only transvision (seeing across, through, and beyond) but also a kind of double vision. The life of each individual Christian will be shaped and formed by her identity as part of the body of Christ, but at the same time and through the same lens she will see the whole of humanity and all of creation as the great theater of the activity of the living God. The acts of God are often hidden and must be discerned by faith; in the now, we may often feel that we are stumbling in the dark. But in the not-yet, ahead of us, shines the Light of the World, the Daystar from on high, the “light to lighten the gentiles.” He comes to us from the future that belongs only to God, a future guaranteed by the One who created the world ex nihilo – out of nothing – in the beginning.

The hope that we meet coming toward us in Advent, then, is the hope that lies beyond any possible good news that could arise out of the human situation. It must come to us out of the future of God or not at all. Such is the background of the Advent announcement that bursts upon a world in captivity.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest, a best-selling author, and an acclaimed preacher. Her last book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, won Christianity Today’s 2017 Book of the Year Award. This article is excerpted from Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge ©2018 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.

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