Jeremiah 33:14-16 CEB
The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.
I love that Advent starts our Christian year, rather than January. It reminds us all that our year looks a bit different. We are not counting the years, marking off the days on a calendar to measure what we have lost. Instead, ours is a reminder that we are moving toward something, a birth but much more than a birth. We hope for and long for the promised coming of Emmanuel, “God with Us.” This season, just before Christmas, can be a weird time. We often wish to rush ahead to Christmas Day, to the joy and celebration. Sometimes we fill this time with nostalgic trappings of past celebrations, where we watch Christmas movies, listen to Christmas songs, sing Christmas hymns, and do all we can to invoke the warm fuzzy feelings often connected to this holiday. However, focusing on nostalgia means looking to the past, and if our only hope is to recapture what we love most about this time of year, we may miss the beginning words of our scripture reading this morning where it says, “In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David's line.” In those days, there will be righteousness and justice. Now, that's not speaking of something in the past but instead looking ahead and hoping for something in the future. We are reminded that hope is not simply wishing for a return of our rose-tinted past, but our hope is something that we do not yet see, something we do not yet have, and something that we don't even know how to wrap our minds around completely. Our hope is for a day when all is made right and just in this world.
In our reading this morning, we have repeated reference to righteousness: “the Lord is our Righteousness” and that this branch of David will one day come and do what is right in the land. What is righteousness? Important, I think, because righteousness has oftentimes and especially in our modern times been so closely linked with self-righteousness that it has become somewhat of a bad word, it’s considered a negative thing to be overly righteous. Our first task should be to seek to understand righteousness for what it is and dismiss what it is not. Commentator Rev. Debra Block puts it this way, "Righteousness is not an attitude or an absolute standard. It refers to conduct in accord with God's purposes. It is doing the good thing and the God thing.” She goes on to say that "Self-righteousness is the inflated ego of self approval; righteousness is the humble ethic of living towards others in just and loving relationships.” As Christians, we seek to love as God loves and have a heart for what God has a heart for in this world. We do not seek to make more rules that people will fall short of in their lives. Instead, we seek to follow God’s Spirit tugging at our hearts and leading us towards God’s good and loving purposes. This kind of definition moves us away from confusing righteousness with always being right and in the right.
In fact, getting on board with doing the Godly and good things gets us moving forward. In the season of Advent, we can end up getting lost on a nostalgia trip where we can start looking backwards, assuming that all of the good things, all of the best things, are behind us. When in truth, this season of Advent, this start of our year, directs our attention forward. December into January draws our attention toward the close of the year, toward all the things that are winding down and coming to an end, so it is easier to look back all too fondly at the good things in the past behind us, rather than look forward into the uncertain future. However, if we are looking behind ourselves, we're not keeping an eye on the Lord’s coming. Now, perhaps we envision the past to be better, simpler, more religious than our present time. Maybe we see today as a place where things seem to be falling apart all around us, and so we hunger for better days in the past. If these kinds of feelings ring true, you are good company for the people Jeremiah is prophesying to while in prison. Many of the Judeans at this time have been sent off to Babylon, into their own captivity. Many of them might be dreaming of the days of old when they did not have so many troubles. Jeremiah’s prophecy does not predict a return of the old, instead promising something different, something more. Jeremiah tells of the Lord’s promises to restore Israel, which had been destroyed years before, and Judah, now under the thumb of Babylon. The Lord’s promises to restore them and give them one from the line of David, not simply to carry them into the past, but to deliver them into a future where they will know justice and see righteousness in their land. The past is not where God’s promises lie, they are always and forever in the future, just around the corner. They are something that we eagerly wait for.
With all this talk of righteousness and justice, we run the risk of thinking we know the measure of these things that God will pour into our world. When in reality, we may only grasp the justice and righteousness we feel we need. My friends, it is key to never put God in a box, for we might be surprised at the mercy, compassion, grace, love, justice, and peacemaking that God will bring to our world again through the birth of a small babe in a lonely manger. Our best safeguard against all this might just be a dash of humility. One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I ever received during my time in seminary was this: “At some point or another, we have all been the villain in someone else’s story.” Sit with that for a second. When God speaks of justice and righteousness, when God speaks of a messiah who will come to deliver his people, we tend to think of ourselves as needing justice and deliverance, but what about those who might say that they need deliverance from us? I do not say this to make us feel guilty, but it is a potent reminder that the justice and righteousness that we wait for - that we hope for - is not simply enough justice and righteousness to answer our own perceived wrongs. It is enough justice and righteousness to answer the hurt and anguish of our neighbor. It is enough justice and righteousness to answer the deepest cries of hopelessness found in this world.
Are we willing to walk into a future where we might have to come face to face with this reality? Are we willing to face a future where righteousness and justice in the land might mean we have to admit where we have been wrong and where we might have wronged others? Could this be why nostalgia is so much more tempting, to have our world made right and justice means to go back into the past and away from this uncertain future? In preparing the way for the Lord to be born into our midst, in preparing the way to go home to God, we might need to be ready and willing to listen to those who have no past to fondly look back on. It might be listening to the desperate cries from those who have never known justice, whose lives have never quite been right. The Lord's coming birth means being willing to set aside the past, set aside nostalgia, and work with all the hopeless people of this world to find a place in the birth of Christ for hope and peace and goodness and justice. We must join them in looking ahead to that kind of future, and we may need to be prepared to cry out for their justice and righteousness. Are we ready to accept the full measure of God’s promise? Are we ready to cry out with true longing, “How long, O Lord?” How long will it be till you come again into our hearts and homes this Christmas to make the world right and just? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman