Making Room for the Promise

Expanding Promises

Advent is the season of promises — those that have been fulfilled in Jesus and those He gave us himself. Advent means “arrival.” The word comes to us from the Latin, “Adventus”, which is a translation of the Greek, “Parousia.” The fancy words don’t matter to me as much as their difference. How strange this inheritance of words! How strange the Bible and those who lived it! I wonder as I wander…

Jesus’ early followers were quick to make connections between what had been promised centuries before through the Hebrew Prophets and what Jesus said and did. It seems to me that some of the things Jesus said and did were very intentionally aligned with those promises. It seems to me that it was as if Jesus deliberately performed the role of Promise itself in the drama of history. From his self-described mission statement drawn directly from the words of the prophet Isaiah in Nazareth to his words of anguish on the cross which quoted the 22nd Psalm, Jesus lived into the language and longing of his people.

Jesus’ followers followed. Aligning with his example (and perhaps his unrecorded direct instructions), they told His Good News again and again looking for new and novel ways that Jesus fulfilled every promise of their tradition. From the sermons recorded in Acts which borrow from Psalm, Patriarch and Prophet alike, to the Apocalyptic imagery in the Book of Revelation which heavily alludes to Daniel and other ancient texts; the writers of the Bible are strangely comfortable assigning new meaning to their Scriptures.

More than originally intended?

One might argue that the meaning was always there but unrevealed before Jesus’ arrival, but I find little help in such ahistorical understandings. Such interpretations are, I believe, the product of a preposterous attempt made by relatively recent Christians to be certain about everything. The Bible is complex and full of overlapping layers. I can’t imagine Jesus didn’t consciously fulfill Zechariah 9:9 when he made such a fuss over having a donkey to ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; but I don’t know if Jesus ever considered himself a priest in the order of Melchizedek as the author of Hebrews described him in Chapter 7. And I don’t mean to say that the author of Hebrews is wrong. I mean to say that it is possible that some of the connections Jesus’ followers made between Him and their Holy Scriptures may have not come to His mind when he walked around Palestine with the women and the twelve.

Afterall, the prophets who wrote down many of the things which later lovers of God claimed for Jesus often had no idea that it would take hundreds of years for their sayings to ripen to their fullness. The contexts and literary cues of many prophets suggest a much more immediate hope in the minds of the authors, and yet “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Merry Christmas! Isaiah was probably thinking of a soon-to-be-born king who would redeem the mistakes of his ancestors. But when that perfect king never came, the thought of an Annointed One snowballed for centuries until it was clear to most everyone that Isaiah’s prophecy could never refer to any ordinary ruler. The promise grew in the waiting. The hope spread across the royal graveyards of history. It gestated in the womb of countless women oppressed by empire after empire.

Our Impact on the Promises

Our Wonderful Counselor has come. So say we all at Christmas! But would Isaiah even recognize Him? I like to think so, but where Isaiah’s hope began, and where Jesus arrived are not the same. Time and use transform the promises. Hope for today cannot, by definition, be hope for yesterday. And so, we cling to the future just as those who shaped Isaiah’s hope clung to it, leaving our own impressions on it by the sheer tightness of our grip. What we received on the first Christmas Day, intact though changed from the original, we pass on with similar impact and amplification.

Jesus’ own promises grow and spread and gestate. Here are my favorites for today, representatives from each Gospel:

  • “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20),
  • “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mark 13:31)
  • “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:27-28)
  • “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:30)

Jesus’ second Advent still looms on the horizon. It could be any day now! Can we yet hold our hearts in anticipation? What will Jesus save me from today? How will his promises prove true in this trial? In my work at the hospital, I care for people who make huge impacts on the promises of God. They are forced to put all of their weight into it, and God is not unchanged. The hope of eternity with Jesus must needs expand to include each child we lose; and it must include each miracle we get to witness. Our experiences are caught up in this hope. Jesus’ second Advent is getting bigger.

On a wider scale, the promise continues to swallow history, no matter how shameful and sorrowful. The fire of “Every warrior’s boot” (Isaiah 9:5) will burn bright with boots from Ukraine and Burkina Faso, Yemen and Myanmar. Likewise our understanding of the universe expands the promises of God. “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) might be something like a Big Bang now. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:9) now speaks of stardust along with dirt. Accepting this complexity and all the overlapping layers, accepting the impact we make on God by expanding the need his promises must meet, accepting the everchanging nature of the universe and holding that in tension with an ancient book written by people who can no longer change because they are no longer living — all this is entailed in embracing a season of promise.

A Poem inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor

A couple of years ago I wrote a poem that tried to wrap my heart around this wonder. I had just read Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. She is great at writing short, little books that leave a lasting impact on me (I just finished Speaking of Sin which I also recommend). Just as the prophets were made for our expanding hope, the scientists and their discoveries are open to our expanding vision and experience. Taylor offers new meaning for new scientific discoveries like the stardust clouds we can now see forming galaxies billions of years ago by the light that took that long to travel across the inconceivable expanse of the universe. Taylor gently lays you down between these overlapping folds of quantum physics, Genesis and a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Maybe my poem serves better than all these paragraphs in making room for the promises in you, and, vice versa, making room for you in the promises.

Luminous Web  
After Barbara Brown Taylor and in her honor 

From dust you are and to dust you shall return – 

Could those ancient Hebrews be right about it all? 
The exploding stars and carbon clouds? 
The coalescing swirl forming all we know and love? 
Could they have gotten it right, 
Even if they couldn’t know how? 
History’s surprise matching the futures? 
Zechariah’s cygnet ring 
Slipped onto the singularity’s finger? 
Looking forward they didn’t know 
How right they were. 
Why shouldn’t it be the same 
When they look back? 

Why shouldn’t they know? 
From dust you are and to dust you shall return. 

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