We are entering a season of heightened risk of congregations functioning as nostalgia factories (thanks to my friend Ben Garret for this perfect description). Let’s avoid this trap. God’s ongoing, continuous arrival on the scene of our lives in the person of Jesus presents a clash, comfort, and catalyst that is too radical and world-overturning for sentimental short-sightedness that rarely speaks to the depths of our soul’s longing.
This nearness, this clash, is not a hit-and-run. It’s not a divine one-off. It’s ongoing. It is not merely that God once came near to us in Jesus, or that God intermittently comes near to us; rather that God is always and continuously drawing near and indeed nearer to us. Narrating Advent and Christmas as “Once upon a time… therefore let’s not forget” will not suffice. The enduring presence of Jesus through the Spirit exhibits the profound mystery of what Robert Jenson described as the whence, whither, and eternal present of God’s triune life. By faith, all our experiences with God are in God’s “right now.” (Systematic Theology, Vol 1. 218-220).
This ongoing arrival is always apocalyptic – revealing, unveiling, exposing, binding up the broken, tearing down principalities and powers that oppose the ways of God’s shalom and tremble at the hint of God’s presence. This arrival anchors a question mark next to all assumptions about power’s origins and procession, emerging through the “other,” through the unexpected, the marginalized and neglected, indeed through Christ, in the power of the Spirit. Along these uncharted routes, God is drawing near to you, to me. Right now.
I’m reminded of John’s vision in Revelation 22 of the river of life, flowing from Jesus who repeats, “I am coming quickly!” Jesus is a river whose rushing water never relents. An unceasing, unstoppable, continuous river of God’s comforting, catalyzing presence. Isaiah calls it a river in the desert, in a parched wilderness, parched lives. And yet it finds its way to us daily. In this river we are awakened to the fact that the one we’ve been chasing is already and always running toward us, the one we are seeking is always finding us right where we are, rejoicing over us, over you, over me (Luke 15 comes to mind).
And so we cry out with David, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me,” (Psalm 139:7-9) remembering moreover, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34).
The Spirit – the comforter – finds us where we are but never leaves us where we are. God sends us out in freedom to witness to God’s desire for justice, righteousness, reconciliation. The comforter is the catalyst.
Willie Jennings describes this dynamic in his commentary on Acts, “God comes to us one at a time, specifically, uniquely in the singularity that is our life. God comes to you and to me, as only God can come to you and me, as God, our God. The coming is a calling, a drawing, an awakening of our life to its giver and lover…. (the) God who never loses sight of us, who knows us by name and is coming just for us.” (Acts, 93) And moreover, “it will be love, as Karl Barth says, that goes into the far country. This is love that cannot be tamed, controlled, or planned, and once unleashed it will drive the disciples forward into the world and drive a question into their lives: Where is the Holy Spirit taking us and into whose lives?” (Acts, 32)
Clash, Comfort, Catalyst. In the incarnate, risen, and ascended Jesus, they’re inextricably bound and always pressing against us as God’s inexhaustible desire for a world turned upside down in love.
In Wendel Berry’s words,
“what we need is here.
And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here”
May the eyes of our hearts be open and receptive. What will it look like for us to give witness to this, model it, proclaim it, and rejoice in it? Into what way forward is God’s nearness pressing us, and what does it bring into view?
God is near. God is now. Rejoice.