Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

12/6 2012

Advent, Polamalu, and Prolepsis


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My wife Wendy is a huge Troy Polamalu fan.

She admires the classy way he shows love and respect for his wife and his understated but firm Christian confession—and then, of course, there is my own uncanny physical resemblance to Troy Polamalu.

Mostly, though, it is fun to watch Troy Polamalu play football! He hurls himself into the game, seeming to be everywhere at once. While other defenders try, with greater or lesser success, to follow where the ball is, Polamalu reads the line, intuits where the ball will be—and then does whatever he needs to do to put himself in that spot, to break up the pass, get the tackle, or make the interception. To use a theological expression, Polamalu plays proleptically.

Advent is a season of joyous expectation as we look forward not only to our imminent celebration of Christ’s birth, but also to Christ’s future coming, and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. But we miss the point if we think this is all about the future.  Far too much ink has been spilled and time wasted in the fruitless attempt to predict the future with the symbols and visions of Scripture, as though the Bible was a horoscope or Tarot deck rather than word of God for people of God.  Jesus himself firmly directs us away from that tack: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).

Instead, Advent invites us to live the way Troy Polamalu plays: proleptically, as though the promised future was already a reality. God calls and empowers us to live by the principles of God’s kingdom not someday, but here and now! So the prophet, speaking of Messiah’s future reign, declares, “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jer 23:6)—not “The LORD will be our righteousness, someday,” but “The LORD is our righteousness, right now.” Future expectation transforms life in the present.  Paul too speaks of this proleptic life. While on the one hand, Christ’s reign and our salvation are part of the world to come (cf. 1 Cor 15), on the other, Paul can speak of that reality as though it had already arrived: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).

The certain triumph of God’s reign gives us hope, so that we can live confidently in the present. We can face whatever comes, because we know the end of the story.  We need not cynically yield to this world’s standards and expectations, because we know what God’s future holds. Like Troy Polamalu, we know where the ball will be!  Now, are we willing to do whatever it takes to put ourselves there, at the point of God’s inbreaking reign?

Written by the Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary