The Promise of Advent

The season is upon us when all our hopes are trained on the inexhaustibility of a particular event in time and space, the coming of Jesus Christ. It is a season in which we remember that the gospel is received in the mode of anticipating and awaiting a promise.

Christ has come, but Christ is yet to come. The Word has become flesh, but the last word has not yet been spoken. Jesus Christ has preached the kingdom, but he has not yet delivered that kingdom into the hands of the one he called Father. The promised coming still unfolds inexhaustibly before us — an unfolding inexhaustible in what has already been revealed, and inexhaustible in what is still there to be revealed.

Just as grace is not a “thing” but the giving to us of God’s own life , so also the promise is the promise of our oneness with God. Stop for a moment, if you will, and consider what this means. Consider what it means that the gospel unfolds for us in the form of this particular story of promise. The biblical story of promise does not recount a list of abstract propositions, rather it tells of a grand and surprising drama, the drama of God’s own life in our midst.

To be sure, the religions of the world are full of marvelous stories. Yet here is one that claims to be God’s own story — not just a story “about” God, as though the New Testament were recounting a 33-year divine experiment in which some prince of a deity seeks to discover what it is like to become a human pauper. No, this is not the sort of story in which God is just play-acting. Nor is it just a grab bag of metaphors that help us approximate who God is. Instead, Scripture purports to tell us God’s own story, the very drama of who God is. It is the story apart from which, to put it as boldly as the gospel demands, God would not be God. It is a story with implications for who we are and who we are to become, but also with implications for who God is and what the reign of God is to become.

If I may put it reverently, the story is not only about what we hope for, but it is about what God is hoping for in making the covenant of promise with us: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God’s commitment to this promise is unswerving, “I shall not be God without you.”

In other words, it matters to God that God claims the people, Israel, for God’s own end, liberates them from Egypt and gives them the Torah. It matters to God that God determines to become one with us in Jesus of Nazareth. It matters to God that Jesus was faithful to his calling, and it matters that his faithful life was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead.

What we are saying is that God lives God’s life with us in the mode of an embodied drama in space and time. Not only does God allow us space and time by creating us, but God embraces and redeems that space and time through an act of gracious self-giving for the Other. Since space and time are the only modes of our availability one to the other, what would it mean if we followed all those theologians who have consigned the living God to a region beyond space and time, defining God’s eternity as a timeless and monotonous duration? In our feverish theological efforts to protect God from human finitude, have we not removed God from just the place God has chosen to be found? As Karl Barth and others have argued, the gospel invites us to think the very opposite of the timeless, spaceless deity of abstract theism. In Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power, God’s life unfolds in an embodied, temporal way.

All this has implications for a theology of Advent and incarnation. That God lives God’s life with us in the mode of an embodied drama means that neither we nor God can say everything there is to say about God all at once and in a single breath. We cannot say everything there is to say about God, because this side of eternity not everything of God’s truth and life ever becomes real for us all at once.

Even more amazing than our human inability to speak of God all at once, however, is the fact that God does not speak all at once either. What do you suppose is behind this divine reticence? Why not come in a burst of glory and be done with it? The answer, according to the gospel, is because God is not yet finished with us. The drama is still unfolding. We are not yet what we shall be. The last word has not yet been spoken. We still need to be redeemed.

We should remind ourselves of this each and every time we are tempted to pronounce the last word about things divine. We await the one whose coming will not be coerced, the one who still makes room for the Other, who says always and again, “Behold! I am doing a new thing.” We await — do we not? — the inexhaustible promise of the gospel.

William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.