December 1, 2019

“The Promise”

Jeremiah 33:14-18

December 1, 2019


Happy New Year!  No, I’m not confused—I am aware that it is December 1st, not January 1st.  Maybe I should have said, “Happy Christian New Year!” instead.  It is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.  This liturgical calendar moves us through the seasons and festivals we observe as Christ followers.  It provides an alternative way for us to think about how we move through and experience time, with our relationship with God at the center.  


We begin with Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas, when we celebrate Christ’s birth.  Christmas is followed by the season of Epiphany, which starts on January 6, the day we celebrate the arrival of the Magi, Gentiles who traveled a long distance to find the Christ child.  Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the whole world—reminding us that God’s covenant was intended for all people—Jews and Gentiles alike.


Then we observe Lent in preparation for Easter.  Lent is a time of reflection and repentance as we contemplate Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  In that way, we are prepared to welcome the amazing miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, which we celebrate at Easter.  The last and longest season of the Christian liturgical year is the season after Pentecost.  On Pentecost Sunday, we mark the coming of the Holy Spirit, filling the followers of Jesus and empowering them to boldly proclaim the Gospel.  This long season encourages us to grow in our discipleship, to learn more about our relationship with Jesus and how to share it with our neighbors.


That’s a quick lesson on the Christian liturgical year.  With each season there is a change in the colors of our banners to help orient us to this different way of marking the days.  So once again, “Happy New Year!”


Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  In much the same way that Lent prepares us for Easter, Advent prepares us to celebrate Christmas.  It is a season of waiting, anticipation and preparation.  In this season we not only wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth, but we are also looking forward to Jesus’ second coming.


We mark our waiting with visual reminders of the days before Christmas.  In worship, we light one more candle each week until all the candles, including the white Christ candle, are lit on Christmas Eve.  Blue is the color for Advent because it is the color of the sky just before dawn.  The light of the season slowly increases until the sunrise of Christmas.


This morning at our Advent breakfast we made paper chains to help us mark the season at home.  As I encouraged the children to do, open a link from the chain each day.  Each strip of the chain has part of the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke.   By Christmas, you will have read the whole story. 


An intentional observation of Advent can be a counterweight to the Christmas shopping, baking, decorating and partying frenzy that the world tends to engage in.  There is nothing wrong with all this celebration.  I enjoy the decorations and parties and being in touch with friends.  But I find that when I slow down and remember that it’s still Advent, that there is a yearning for God’s presence, that we need Jesus to come to save us, then my appreciation for Christmas and my celebration is deepened.  It adds depth to my gift-giving and my reaching out to friends when I remember that Christmas is God’s answer to creation’s yearning for salvation and deliverance.


M. Craig Barnes, a pastor and now President of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote a book called Yearning: Living Between How It Is and How It Ought to Be.  That’s Advent, isn’t it?  A time of living between how it is and how it ought to be.  He wrote this about hope:

“Hope arises out of the hard truth of how things are.  Christians will always live carrying in one hand the promises of how it will be and in the other the hard reality of how it is.  To deny either is to hold only half the truth of the gospel.


“But our dual burden drives us a little crazy.  We long for simplistic reassurances.  We want to know that we have found a gospel that will vanquish the hard realities.  To live with a promise and its contradictions is the most heroic challenge of the Christian faith.”

M. Craig Barnes, Yearning: Living Between How It Is and How It Ought to Be, © 1991, p.16


What I hear Barnes describing is society’s rush from Thanksgiving to Christmas without acknowledging the hard reality that the human condition was really bad and really needed God’s intervention, God’s grace, God’s mercy to turn things around.  Barnes rightly suggests that unless we acknowledge the hard truth of how things are, the hope that comes to us through Jesus Christ at Christmas is diminished, even absent.  “Hope arises out of the hard truth of how things are.”


Our Scripture reading for today sounds like it skips over the hard truth—until we become aware of the context in which the prophet Jeremiah has spoken.  Jeremiah 33:14-18 is a vision of a wonderful day.  There is hope in the Lord’s message:  “The days are coming, when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah…” (v. 14)  The days are coming.  God has promised.


According to our Scripture lesson, what is coming is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and Judah.  There will be a new branch from King David’s line.  After all the kings that refused to worship the Lord and follow the Torah, there would be a king who would do what is just and right in the land.  Judah will be saved and Jerusalem would live in safety.  The righteousness of the Lord would be the hallmark of the city of Jerusalem.


The hard reality is that when these words were spoken, Israel was suffering greatly.  It may be difficult to see this just from today’s Scripture reading.  If you did the suggested readings in the “Sharing God’s Story @ Home” inserts last week, you have read about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  That’s the context for today’s reading.  Jeremiah spoke God’s message to the people of Jerusalem during the extended siege by the Babylonians, prior to the fall of Jerusalem.  


It was a very bleak time for the people of Jerusalem, and hope was hard to find.  Their fields were desolate.  People were starving.  They were scared, and with good reason.  They knew that they could never win a war against the Babylonians.  It was only a matter of time before the walls of the city would be breached and they would be destroyed.  God allowed the foreign powers to have their way in Judah because they had not followed God’s ways and had not kept their covenant with the Lord.  Remember how so many of the kings of Israel and Judah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord?”  They were facing the consequences of unfaithful kings.


Jeremiah was in prison because he dared to speak the prophesy God had given to him that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians.  King Zedekiah didn’t like hearing that he would be arrested and taken to Babylon (Jeremiah 32:3-4).  So he locked up Jeremiah.  


But in the midst of hopelessness, God had instructed Jeremiah to do something crazy to let the people know that there was hope in the future.  Jeremiah purchased land in Judah (Jeremiah 32:6-15).  If you knew that your country would be invaded and taken over by a foreign enemy, what good would it be to buy land?  It was a foolish purchase.  The deed would be no good under a foreign government.  The land purchase was a sign that the Lord’s promises to Judah and Israel would be fulfilled in the future.  Jeremiah was not waiting for the fall of Jerusalem.  He was looking forward for its restoration after the fall.  


Jeremiah called the people of Israel to hope in the face of mounting despair.  He spoke God’s promise to them.  This is today’s reading, Jeremiah 33:14-18 from The Message translation:

“‘Watch for this: The time is coming’—God’s Decree—‘when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, “God Has Set Things Right for Us.” God has made it clear that there will always be a descendant of David ruling the people of Israel and that there will always be Levitical priests on hand to offer burnt offerings, present grain offerings, and carry on the sacrificial worship in my honor.’”


Through Jeremiah, God reminded the people of God’s promise to them.  He gave them a vision of the kind of king and life that was so much better than what they had.  A king from the David-Tree, a throwback to a king who was honest and fair and righteous.  A few weeks ago we read about the shoot from the stump of Jesse in Isaiah’s prophecy.  It was the same promise, the same God.  


Not only would they have a good king, but Judah and Jerusalem would live in safety.  No more siege.  Their land would be known as the place where the righteousness of the Lord prevailed.  This was the promise of God.  “The days arecoming,” said the Lord to the people of Israel.  This was the kind of vision that enabled Jeremiah to purchase that plot of land in Judah.  People thought he was crazy, buying land that was going to be taken over by the foreign invaders.  But that’s not what Jeremiah was waiting for.  He was looking beyond the imminent destruction of Jerusalem toward the fulfillment of God’s promise.  


For certain, things were going to get worse—way worse—before they got better.  But the word of hope, hope arising out of hard truth, was for the long term.  The Babylonians did breach the walls of Jerusalem, and carried the king, the royal court, the army and the leaders of Judah into exile.  They devastated Jerusalem, and left a puppet leader and the weakest citizens to fend for themselves.  But after the exile, God’s promise was fulfilled and the Jews were allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem.  


And years later, a different kind of king was born.  Jesus, who was a descendant of David came to set things right between God and humanity.  And through his ministry, he led people to the proper worship of God, lives lived in response to God’s salvation and redemption.  Jeremiah saw beyond the immediate siege of Jerusalem to its restoration, and beyond that to Jesus.


There is much around us that would discourage us from having hope for a just and righteous world.  Wars, the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, drugs, alcohol abuse, the alarming number of violent crimes in our community, the impact of climate change…the list of our contemporary woes goes on and on.  But these circumstances, as hard as they are, do not shape our lives.  As God’s people, we are shaped by our relationship with God and God’s promises to us.  We are a people of hope who pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are a people of hope who can see beyond the stress and difficulties of this life to the life that Jesus came to bring, the life that God created us to live.  We look beyond Christmas 2019 to the day when Jesus will return and the kingdom of heaven will come to earth completely.  That’s what we remember and celebrate during Advent.  


It may be that this month, you will have the opportunity to minister to someone who is stressed out, trying to keep up with the shopping, cooking, baking, card-writing, gift wrapping, and needs to be reminded of the hope that is at the center of the celebration of Christmas.  Maybe you will be able to give someone a little peace, helping by taking some of the load from them and reminding them that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, who came to reveal God’s love for us.  God doesn’t care whether the gifts we buy are perfect, but would like people to know they are loved.  That’s the point of our gift giving.  Maybe you will be able to cheer up someone who is missing a loved one who has passed away, and you can acknowledge their grief and gently remind them that God’s vision is for a new world without death or tears.  And God is working to bring about that new world.


We enter the season of Advent as people of hope, fully aware of the hard realities of life, including the stress of this season and the losses people have experienced.   We wait and prepare for the day when God’s salvation, God’s reign, God’s plan for the redemption of all of creation will be fulfilled.  We look beyond the current situation.  In anticipation of God’s reign to come on earth, we begin living under God’s rule now.  We work for justice and righteousness.  We reach out to our neighbors and community, sharing the love of God through our actions, and living with God as our king.  The days are coming….In our waiting, may we be people of hope, faithful to God’s vision and promise for our world.  Amen.