And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament
421 pp., 31.99
Lauren F. Winner
Preaching the Old Testament
In theory, I am committed to preaching the Old Testament. I generally feel exercised about how little the Old Testament is proclaimed in churches, how rarely it is preached, how many Christians act as though the Bible started with Matthew. Yet when I look back over the sermons I have preached in the last few years, the vast majority of them take up passages from the Gospels—and although my congregation reads a psalm every single Sunday, I have preached on a psalm exactly once. I am not proud of thus defaulting to the Gospel reading. In doing so, I am, I think, infecting the pulpit with Marcionite tendencies that are already too widespread.
I am not alone in this. As Dennis Olson noted in a 1990 article in the Journal for Preachers, many clergy steer away from Old Testament preaching, for a number of reasons—ministers doubt their own command of the historical context of Old Testament books; ministers suspect that their congregants find the detailed genealogies and laws of Old Testament books off-putting; and so forth.
As a new volume of sermons makes clear, Fleming Rutledge—an Episcopal priest who has for many years devoted herself to a ministry of peripatetic preaching—is an exception (one of many) to the general rule. And God Spoke to Abraham brings together 55 of her Old Testament sermons; the oldest dates to 1975, the most recent to 2010. Here are sermons on Abraham and his three visitors, and on the Exodus. Here is an Ash Wednesday sermon on Psalm 51 and a Trinity Sunday sermon on the burning bush. Here is a sermon, originally preached at a small conjoined Episcopal-Lutheran church in western Massachusetts, in which Rutledge reads the fortunes of the shrinking mainline through the prophet Isaiah: Yes, "the church in New England is in exile in the very land of its birth," but into "this decline? … the One who has demonstrated his power to raise the dead and pour out his Spirit upon the church even in the wilderness speaks to you and to me this very day as if for the very first time …. I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."
Rutledge has a rare command of the English language. Her prose is piquant; her paragraphs stand up like starched pieces of clothing. But she is doing far more in these sermons than crafting admirable sentences. She is instructing the church about who our God, the God of Israel, is.
I think of Fleming Rutledge first and foremost as a preacher of Paul. In her Pauline sermons (some of which may be found in an earlier collection, Not Ashamed of the Gospel), she preaches the good news of liberation from the powers of destruction. She preaches the gospel of a gracious God who forgives our sins, and sets us free from sin (sin understood both as corporate powers and individual compulsions). This, it turns out, is not just Rutledge's word when she is preaching Paul. In her Old Testament sermons, she sounds the same theme: thus, in a sermon on Jeremiah 31, she takes up the Lord's having "redeemed [Jacob] from hands too strong for him," a redemption that makes it possible for "maidens [to] rejoice in the dance." The message, Rutledge says—the "unified message … from the Old and New Testaments"—is that "There can be no rejoicing in the dance unless the Lord redeems us from hands too strong for us." God—the God who is revealed most fully and finally in Jesus Christ—is the God who redeems us from those too strong hands.
There is, to be sure, long-standing debate about how Christians should preach the Old Testament. Must preachers always pair an Old Testament reading with a New Testament reading? (For a passionate statement of this view, see Elizabeth Achtemeier, who argued for such pairing because "apart from the New Testament, the Old Testament does not belong to the Christian church and is not its book," and "we [Christians] must hear the Old Testament in Christ.") Must we make an explicit Christological move in every Old Testament sermon we preach? Must a "Christian sermon" on Genesis or Lamentations name the name of Jesus?
Rutledge does not shy away from these questions. In the introduction to And God Spoke to Abraham, she argues that Christians must "read the Old Testament in light of the New"—it is "impossible for a confessing Christian to do otherwise." In saying this, she is decidedly not calling for a kind of Christian reading that is deaf to Israel's own voice; she is not countenancing reading that refuses to credit the faithfulness of Israel or the past activity of God among the Jewish people. To the contrary, Rutledge states clearly that "it is imperative that we remember that the Torah constituted the Jewish community. We cannot simply appropriate the Old Testament for the church and interpret it Christologically without giving thought and care to what we are doing." One might add only that Torah constitutes the Jewish community still.
In parsing the politics and diction of Christian preaching, Rutledge passes on an insight from Calvin: Calvin understood every reference to "God" to be a reference to the Trinity—if we take the Trinity seriously, every time we mention "God" we are talking about Jesus Christ. Because of this, Rutledge does not feel compelled to "refer explicitly to God the Son in every sermon."
That said, she does frequently make the terms of Christian theology explicit. Most of these sermons not incidentally but crucially quote the New Testament, invoke the Cross, or name the Trinity or Jesus. So a sermon on "The God of Hurricanes" moves from the Psalter and Job to Mark 4; the call of Samuel leads ultimately to the claim that "the story of Samuel is the story of Israel, and the story of Israel is your story and mine, and ours—the story of salvation through The Child Who Was to Come, of whom St. Luke says, he 'increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.'" There is nothing wrong with this statement—indeed, there is a great deal right about helping Christian auditors connect their story with the story of Samuel and the story of Israel. Yet on my reading, only eight of the sermons could, arguably, be described as remaining squarely in the landscape of the Old Testament, and I would have appreciated the inclusion of more sermons that allowed us to linger in the Old Testament text without an explicit Christological move. Such inclusion would, I think, have more fully opened up the multiplicity of ways that Christians can receive the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.
For Christians, says Rutledge, there can be no speaking of "the God of the Old Testament" as though that God is somehow different from "the God of the New Testament." In a sermon on Isaiah 28, she reminds us that "There is just as much good news in the Old Testament as in the New Testament, and a lot of it has the additional advantage of being written in poetry." In another sermon on the same text, (Rutledge admits to "being fascinated" by the prophet's words about evil and suffering), she insists that "a wrathful Old Testament God has not been replaced by a loving New Testament God." Jesus, after all, was known to strike the occasional note of judgment—and God is seen doing much loving in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament, Rutledge makes plain, is not the God of caricatures of the Old Testament. Rather, it is precisely "the Old Testament God" who has "come down from his throne on high into the world of sinful human flesh and of his own free will and decision has come under his own judgment in order to deliver us from everlasting condemnation and bring us into eternal life." Since the God of Abraham is the Father of Jesus Christ, "the witness of the entire Scripture is a seamless garment. No change within God occurred in the intertestamental period; there is no break in the revelation of God's self, as though there had been an alteration in God."
At the same time, "there are intrinsic, inalienable features of God in the Old Testament which we would not be able to extract from the New Testament taken by itself." Without Old Testament preaching, how will we know about the election of Israel, "the righteousness of God as both noun and verb," God's jealousy, and God's "aseity (being-from himself)"?
If you, like me, have a nagging feeling that you are not paying enough attention to the Old Testament—if you, like me, feel inadequately acquainted with the biblical testimony to God's jealousy; God's righteousness; God's freedom, testified to in election; or indeed God's love—consider taking up Rutledge's sermons. (They are not an endpoint; as Rutledge surely hopes they will do, these sermons will likely inspire you to further reading—including, I dare suggest, reading more of the Old Testament itself.)
For nourishing the church's biblical imagination for over 30 years, and for offering us now this challenging and inspiring collection, we owe Rutledge deep thanks.
Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She is the author most recently of Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne).
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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