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Advent III: Forget the Former Things

December 14th, 2020 | 3 min read

By Peter Leithart

The incarnation is often seen as an unforeseen, unforeseeable miracle. Miraculous, certainly. But unforeseen? Only in the sense that the resolution of a detective story is unforeseen. Once we know whodunnit, all the clues click into place and we realize no other outcome was possible.

The Bible’s big clue is God himself. He’s God of Israel and, for that reason, God-for-Israel. He commits himself and his infinite resources to serve his people. He incorporates Israel’s name into his own (e.g., Exod 5:1; Josh 7:13; Ruth 2:12; 1 Sam 1:17; Psa 59:5; Mal 2:16). He’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Exod 3:6, 15), Moses (Deut 4:5), David (2 Sam 22:3), Elijah (1 Kgs 17:21), and Nehemiah (Neh 2:8, 12). If Israel fails, God fails. If his people vanish, he vanishes. Is he likely to let that happen?

God-for-Israel doesn’t deal with Israel from a distance. He promises to be with his people and fulfills his promise again and again – when he delivers his word through Moses (Exod 19:9), when his glory descends from Sinai to settle above the wings of the cherubim (Exod 40:34-38), when he leads Joshua in conquest (Josh 5:13-15), when he suffers exile among his people (Ezek 8-10). For better or worse, God-for-Israel has always been Emmanuel, God with us.

The God-for-Israel and God-with-Israel doesn’t stand impassively by, unmoved by his people’s rebellion, failure, and misery. He laments and grieves and rages (Num 14:11, 27; Psa 78:40; Jer 48:28-36). He rejoices over his bride with shouts of joy (Zeph 3:14-20). What will this God do to redeem his people? The obvious answer is: Whatever it takes.

Many stumble over a supposed metaphysical puzzle: How can the finite contain the infinite? The question assumes God is a Demiurge constrained by creation’s limits. But he’s not a Demiurge. He’s the Creator who determines the capacities and limits of his world. Why can’t the Creator make the world, and man, expansive and elastic enough for him to enter?

I suspect there’s another stumbling block, regarding time. We’re nostalgic, looking back wistfully to paradise lost, but in Scripture, the big thing comes at the end. Yahweh directs Israel’s hopes toward an Eden that follows the devastation (Ezek 36:33-36). In the latter days, the mountain of the house of the Lord rises (Isa 2:1-4), and the stone cut without hands demolishes the imperial statue (Dan 2:28). “Forget the former things,” he tells Israel (Isa 43:18), because things to come surpass what has been. The God who is for and with Israel is the God of then future. At the end of the Old Testament, God says what he said to Israel at the sea: Stand still, and watch what I do next! (Exod 14:13, paraphrased).

Once the incarnation occurs, we slap our forehead with an “I should have seen it coming.” It’s the most natural thing in the world for the God of Israel, the God-for-Israel, to so identify with Israel that He becomes Israel to suffer all they’ve suffered and to rescue them from Sheol. He’s already shown himself willing to go to the extremity of incarnation, the cross, and the tomb for the sake of his bride. He dons a new wardrobe for the final act, but he remains entirely in character.

Advent Reading

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