Advent, for me this year, was meaningful. It was the first time in my life that I was really able to begin to grasp the tensions and promise of this traditional Church season. I’ve blogged about it before.
Certainly, planning our church community’s worship around the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love was helpful to me. My senior pastor grasped the themes as well as he presented his sermon series, “Advent Upheaval.” Putting off Christmas carols, for the most part, until December 19th enhanced the meaning of the songs when we finally did sing them. (The power of delayed gratification.) But perhaps the most profound impact on me was reading NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus.
Wright is not a casual read. Some of his books are a bit easier, such as Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope (I highly recommend both). But The Challenge took a bit of thinking to process. I don’t think I read a whole chapter in one sitting. There was so much to take in. Many of the themes I’ve read in Wright’s books before. But there was a good deal that was new to me.
Wright’s approach to Jesus – his self-awareness, vocation, and mission – is historical rather than through biblical exegesis. That approach is a gift to Evangelicals. He remains faithful to evangelical values and doctrine while shedding a bright light on the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth. The light he shines is primarily energized by Wright’s consideration of Second Temple Judaism – the culture milieu in which Jesus lived.
As I read the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure if I even liked this man, Jesus of Nazareth. Who did he think he was! Such arrogance. Such chutzpah! To the Jews of his day, the Temple and the Torah was everything. Clearly, Jesus saw himself as usurping the place of both. Talk about “advent upheaval!” I was uncomfortable as I found myself identifying, almost more often than not, with the Pharisees who hated Jesus. That’s a scary thought.
Wright also takes on the questions of Jesus’ divinity and the resurrection; again, all from a historical perspective and arrives at an orthodox understanding. Wonderful stuff.
I finally began to underline in the final two chapters. I wish I had done that in the first two-thirds of the book. But the final two chapters are where the author takes the implications of his work and applies them to Christian life in our contemporary setting. He is both comforting and challenging. One of the things that I love about Wright is that he takes postmodernism seriously. He sees challenges and opportunities for the Faith. Using Luke’s narrative of the risen Messiah’s encounter with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, Wright gives the story a compelling and contemporary twist:
“Was it not necessary that modernist versions of Christianity should die in order that truth might be freshly glimpsed, not as a set of doctrines or theories but as a person, and as persons indwelt by that person?” (130)
Wright is a thoughtful and helpful critic of modernist views of Christianity, both liberal and evangelical. I find his voice refreshing and challenging. The author was especially helpful to me in sharing his own struggles to live in the seemingly incompatible worlds of Evangelicalism and serious history. He has born harsh criticism from both sides. I’m no NT Wright. (Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Dan Quayle comes to mind here.) But I live in the seemingly incompatible worlds of traditional and contemporary worship. Part of my vocation is to suffer in the middle, bearing the heartbreak and burden for entrenched preferences and divided congregations. The angst is real. Sometimes I feel like the prophet Jeremiah, wondering why God has laid this on me. But like the prophet, “his Word is in my heart like a fire.” (Jer. 20:9)
Wright encouraged me with this:
“You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile, and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways which declare that the powers have been defeated, that the Kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled; and to be prepared the tell the story which explains what these symbols are all about.” (144)
If you call Jesus, “Lord,” that is your calling as well.
May the understanding and practice of our Kingdom vocation in this confused world be clearly manifested in the challenging new year we are facing. Let’s walk in the Light that we celebrate during Advent.