Advent begins this year in burned out cities littered with dead bodies and in a devastated countryside where the deer and the antelope do not play (Jeremiah 33:4-5 and 10). After centuries of divine patience with Israel’s blatant covenant breaking, God has finally had it. This dark book of Jeremiah is God’s word of judgment upon his wicked children and upon those who will be instruments of his judgment.
That judgment has begun to fall, so there is death and terror, deprivation and sorrow everywhere. Picture the bombed out cities of modern day Syria or the fire ravaged hills of California or the whole country of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. But at the very moment when God’s judgment reaches it depth, God speaks an unexpected word of hope. Just when Israel thought there was no hope, God repeats a promise he had made centuries before to David, a word about healing and security, prosperity and joy.
That’s what we have in Jeremiah 30-33, the so called Book of Consolation in the midst of Jeremiah’s tear filled words of judgment. Our text is the exclamation point at the end of the Book of Consolation.
Jeremiah himself is not in a good place; indeed, he is in prison. But as would happen so often to the Apostle Paul centuries later, it was in prison that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Our text is the second revelation given to Jeremiah as he languished in the “courtyard of the guard (33:1).” It is a word we desperately need in these dark times, so it is a fitting way to begin our Advent journey in 2018.
I speak of dark times primarily because of the political situation in my beloved country, where partisan division has reached historic proportions and the country seems to be coming apart at the seams. The news cycle bombards us with dire warnings. “It’s never been this bad. We’ve never had such leadership. We can’t survive this kind of government gridlock. We are doomed as a country.” Of course, people in places like Afghanistan, North Korea, and South Sudan will tell us that we don’t know how bad it can get when leadership runs amok. We still have a thriving economy and the rule of law seems to be firmly in place. But all around the world we hear voices declaring that things have never been worse.
Our text in Jeremiah challenges us with a very important question in this situation. Who are we going to believe—the word of the secular prophets or the word of the Lord? Earlier in Jeremiah, those secular prophets (claiming to speak for God) had declared that all is well; prosperity and security are our lot in life. Now, after years of bad news (Jeremiah lived through 40 years of disaster), those same prophets are declaring that there is no hope. Two times in this chapter alone, God quotes those prophets: “You say about this place, ‘It is a desolate waste without men or animals (verse 10).’” And in verse 24 God says, “Have you noticed that these people are saying, ‘The Lord has rejected the two kingdoms he chose?’”
In our text for this first Sunday of Advent, God has a counter word for a dark time. Don’t believe what those talking heads say about your future. Listen to this word from Yahweh. “The days are coming,” says Yahweh, “when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.” Read chapter 33 carefully and you will hear over and over, “The Lord says, the word of the Lord came to me, this is what the Lord says….” In our age of the 24 hour news cycle, God’s people need to be confronted with this question. Who are you going to listen to? Who will set the tone of your life? Who will you believe as you face dark times? CNN, Fox News, CBS? Or the God of Israel who made a promise that has great implications for our world today?
Here is the word of the Lord for Israel and for us. “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line….” Of course, this harks back to the promise God made to David in II Samuel 7 and reiterated in David’s last words in II Samuel 23. “You will always have a son on the throne of Israel. David’s line will not die out.” But Israel was about to be dragged off into exile and the last Jewish King was going along for the ride. The monarchy was over. It had been an abject failure in the last years of the two kingdoms, and now it was dead. So, the promise of Yahweh had come to nothing. Everyone could see that. Everyone said that.
But the Lord says something very different than the popular pundits and the pusillanimous preachers. There is coming a time when Yahweh will raise up a little sprout, a shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), “a righteous branch from David’s line.” And he will do what these failed kings did not and could not do. First of all, “he will do what is just and right in the land,” exactly what God appointed leaders are supposed to do—act righteously and defend justice, especially for those who are victims of injustice. Second, and precisely because he does what is right and just, that Branch will save his people. “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
What Israel needed (and what every nation needs) in order to be safe and secure, prosperous and happy, is a leader who does what is right and just. Or, as verse 17 (not, unfortunately, part of our reading today) puts it, what we all need is a king and a priest. “For this is what the Lord says, ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the priests, who are the Levites, ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.” God will provide leaders (or more correctly, a Leader, the Branch from the line of David) who will restore both government and religion, who will rightly render the affairs of the people and will lead them in their worship of God.
This, of course, points ahead to the fullness of time when God sent forth his Son, the greater Son of David to do precisely what God promised here in Jeremiah 33, but in a greater way than Jeremiah or any of this contemporaries and countrymen could have imagined. This promise was not limited to Israel’s future prosperity and security. Indeed, much of Israel rejected Jesus because he did not restore the fortunes of Israel in the way our text seems to promise. Instead, Jesus restored the Kingdom of God to the whole world and is in the process of bringing that Kingdom to the fruition promised here in Jeremiah 33.
In fact, this promise helps us see the breadth of the hope promised by God to David and his line, which includes all who put their hope in the Branch. He not only makes us right with God, but also brings a kingdom filled with righteousness and justice. Israel was looking for a rebuilt nation that resembled what they had under David. Christians often focus on a heavenly dwelling that has little to do with this earth. Our text corrects both extremes. Ours is not, so to speak, merely a vertical hope; it is also a horizontal hope. Yes, of course, Jesus reconciles us to God, but he also promises to reconcile us to each other and the creation in the new heavens and the new earth.
I can’t say it better than The New Interpreter’s Bible, so I’ll simply quote. “The vision of the future and of God’s blessing that permeates the Scripture is not simply spiritual, interior and personal… the God who saves is also the God who blesses. That blessing is found in the provision and maintenance of life, in the continuities of birth and growth and marriage, in the sustaining of lives by work and economic gain, in the rich joy that human intercourse brings to individuals and communities…. [that is] the restoration of this world to its proper character as God’s creation.”
I am not talking here about how humans will be able to build the Kingdom of God on earth. This is not the secular hope that drives modern culture. This is the Gospel hope centered in Jesus Christ. Our text summarizes that hope in the name found at the end of our text, “The Lord Our Righteousness.” Whether that is the name of the restored Israel/Jerusalem (as here) or of the Branch himself (as in 23:6), the idea is that the righteousness that will reconcile us to God and to our fellow humans and to creation is a gift from God.
Indeed, God himself is our righteousness. This sounds a great deal like the theme of Paul’s magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” The righteousness of God in Jesus Christ declares us righteous in God’s sight and makes us righteous in God’s world. We can take no credit for the restoration of our relationship with God or for the restoration of God’s creation. The Lord alone is our righteousness.
In the season of Advent, we look back to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s surprising promise and we look ahead to the brave new world the promised Branch will bring. This promise will sound foolish to the prophets and preachers who alternately glory in human potential or wallow in human failure. But this is what the Lord says, and it is as certain as day and night.
Indeed, Jeremiah 33 ends with God anchoring the certainty of this promise in the rhythms of creation. “If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them (verses 25 and 26.” As surely as day follows night, God’s covenant promise will send the King and Priest to restore right relationships and right religion in Israel and in the world.
Advent starts out small, with a single Branch, but ends with the world rid of thorns “far as the curse is found.” (“Joy to the World”)
When my wife and I moved into our condo 20 years ago, there was a stand of tall verdant trees lining our backyard. Over the years, those trees have died a branch at a time, until there was nothing left but skeletal trunks devoid of all branches and leaves. The last trunk fell in a windstorm last month and now lies across the boundary line. There is no way a new branch will grow out of that dead piece of wood and become the basis of a whole new forest. That’s how dead Israel looked to the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day. Only a prophet in touch with the living God could come up with the impossible promise of our text—“I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 2, 2018
Jeremiah 33:14-16 Commentary