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The Interweaving of Time in Advent

December 19, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 1:67-71 (NRSV)

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
+++for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
+++in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
+++that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Focus

Time is interwoven in Advent. Past, present, and future are braided together as we hope for the coming of Christ. We yearn to be like Zechariah in Luke 1, who had such confidence in God’s future actions that he could speak of them as if they had already happened. May God fill your heart with unshakable hope in this season of preparation for Christmas!

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

In Advent, time is like an elegant woven fabric. This season interweaves past, present, and future in a colorful and unique way. During Advent, we revisit the past, remembering how Israel waited in hope for the Messiah. But we also look to the horizon of the future as we wait in hope for the second coming of Christ. Additionally, there is a strong present dimension to Advent. We are opening our hearts to God today so that we might be prepared for a joyous celebration of Christmas, not in the distant future, but in just a few days.

Portions of Luke 1, the New Testament’s “Advent Chapter,” also weaves together various tenses of time. We see this in a striking way in the prophecy of Zechariah known as the Benedictus (from the first word of the Latin version of Luke 1:68-79 which is, as you might guess, benedictus, meaning “blessed”). The context for Zechariah’s psalm-like prophecy is the birth of his son, John (the Baptist). As you will recall, when Zechariah first heard from the angel that his wife would bear a son, he was incredulous, and therefore was given the penalty (or the gift, or both) of not being able to speak until the baby was born. So, upon the birth of John, Zechariah regained his ability to speak. Luke writes, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (1:64). A part of his praise is captured in the Benedictus, which Luke describes as a “prophecy” (1:67).

Notice the curious way in which time is portrayed in the opening verses of Zechariah’s prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:68-71). The Greek original of this passage has four verbs that are translated “has looked favorably,” “[has] redeemed,” “has raised up,” and “spoke.” (The “be” verbs in verses 68 and 71 are implied from the context but not written, a common practice in Greek.) In fact, all of the verbs are in one of Greek’s past tenses (aorist). A very literal translation would say that God “looked favorably,” “redeemed,” “raised up,” and “spoke.” But translators rightly convey the nuance of the Greek by using the perfect tense in English (with “has”) for the first three verbs.

Why do I say this is curious? Because at least two of the actions of God described by Zechariah are not in the past, but the future. You could say that God “has looked favorably” (past or perfect tense) on his people, as evidenced by the birth of John and the coming birth of Jesus. And it’s clear that God “spoke” through the prophets in the past. But the redemption of which Zechariah spoke hadn’t come yet. It lay in the future. Likewise, the mighty savior hadn’t yet been raised up in any obvious sense. He was still growing in the womb of Mary. Yet, Zechariah spoke as if what was yet to come in the future had already happened. Now that, I suggest, is curious.

Experts in Greek grammar explain this unusual use of language with the descriptor “prophetic aorist” or “proleptic aorist.” (“Proleptic” has to do with foreshadowing future events.) Occasionally, prophecies of the future will employ the aorist mood, even though it’s usually associated with the past. This usage conveys the utter confidence of the speaker that what is being foretold will indeed come to pass.

So, in Luke’s telling of the story in Greek, Zechariah used the aorist in a standard way when saying that God “has looked with favor on his people” and “spoke” through the prophets (Luke 1:68, 70). Both of these actions happened in the past. And he used the aorist in an unusual, prophetic way to underscore the certainty of what was yet to come, God’s redeeming his people by raising up a savior.

Now, back to Advent. When we look back to the longing of the Jewish people for the Messiah, we do so with absolute confidence that the Messiah will come, since we know that, in fact, he did. Our own longing for the next coming of the Messiah can also be confident, but it feels different since we don’t know exactly when and how this is going to happen.

And then there’s our hope for the present. We would like to encounter God in a fresh way during this holiday season. With so many difficult and discouraging things happening in our world, and perhaps in our own lives, we hope to be renewed with hope from the Holy Spirit. We would like our confidence in God to be strengthened, even if we can’t understand what God is doing (and not doing). As we join with the first Christians in praying “Maranatha! Our Lord, come!” we also ask for such confidence in God’s future that we could sing, “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!” while looking back to his first coming and forward to his second.

May God give you such confidence in this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas!

Reflect

In what ways have you experienced God’s redemption in your life?

What helps you to have confidence that God will fill the promises God has made?

If God were to answer one big prayer for you this Advent, what would that prayer be?

Act

Set aside a few minutes to make a list of ways that God has been at work in your life, redeeming, blessing, renewing, empowering, etc.

Pray

Gracious God, with Zechariah, we bless you this day, lifting up our prayer.

You have indeed looked favorably upon us. You have redeemed us from sin and death, from an empty life of self-absorption, from hopelessness and despair. You have saved us by your grace, so that we might be reconciled to you and live as agents of your reconciliation in the world.

You did indeed raise up a mighty savior for us in the house of David. You have begun to fulfill through Jesus all that you promised through your holy prophets from of old.

All praise be to you, Lord God, for your immeasurable goodness to us! Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the HIgh Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Advent Hope: God Enters In


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