The oracle from Jeremiah 33:14-16 is a repeat of a similar oracle in the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah. I guess it was important. It says, in part, “The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Jeremiah is the story of a people’s journey into despair. The constant betrayal of God’s law had lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people. The book is one big drag. Jeremiah hates his job. The people hate him for doing his job. God seems to hate the people for not doing their job of recognizing their obligations as a nation. It would be a book of complete despair if it weren’t for the middle chapters, namely 30-33. In these chapters lie the hope and the promise of God. Martin Luther even called it the little book of comfort, the book within the book. And it’s actually quoted in church more than all of the horrifying angst-filled despair of the rest of the book. It’s like the chorus of angels singing Hallelujah while all hell breaks loose in Revelation. They point toward a different reality, a better hope. A promise of good things to come if we just pay attention and amend our ways because we paid attention. When we are in despair, it is hard to focus on the promise. It can seem like a cruel ruse. But that promise won’t let us go. We return to it year after year, yearning for this to be the year to be different, better, healthier.
It’s not just any promise, it is THE promise, the Good Word. The righteous branch of David will come. A righteous one, not an unrighteous one. Remember, the last king, Zedekiah, was so accommodating to the conquering army that there was not enough there there upon which to build or preserve the people. It is even said that he was appointed King by Nebachadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He accommodated and acquiesced until Nebachadnezzar had enough. The temple was burned and the people were sent into exile. The weak king took the blame. But The Promise of Jeremiah is that a good king, a righteous king, a holy king in the Davidic line will come and the nation will have its chance of redemption.
It will be known by a new name. The new name in v. 16 is YHWH is our tsedaqah/righteousness. Giving a new name changes them existentially, or so went the ancient understanding. Simon was changed to peter. Saul was changed to Paul.
"The days are surely coming…when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah: In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety."
We long for safety and security under the warm blanket of justice and righteousness. We long for a world set right. We long for a people living in peace. We long for a break from suspicion.
When Jesus came, a good 500-600 years after Jeremiah’s oracle, Israel was occupied by the Romans. Jesus came to a land where national security was at odds with human rights. People were driven from their lands in order to pay for the great taxes instituted by the Roman Empire. It seemed clear that government was not on the side of the poor and the outcast. Sound familiar?
The people feared the authority of the state. They feared the military might of the state. Those who spoke against it were crucified. The Jewish leadership, trying to keep the "peace" was inept in stopping the brutality. When the prophets spoke of a Messiah, they were talking about a revolution. And whenever people invoked the Messiah prophecies, the state reacted by protecting itself.
The arrival of Jesus both provided hope and threatened the security of ancient Israel. The very rumor of his existence undermined the known forms of security for the rich and powerful. This must have been why Mary sang, that "God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty, that God will bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly." (Luke 1:52, 53) The presence of this coming one both set people free and also posed a threat—so much so that Herod would seek to kill all children under two in a pre-emptive strike against any such threat to national security.
But at the same time, the coming of Jesus fulfilled a profound promise from God—namely that God would not leave the people comfortless. The Coming One would establish justice and righteousness in the land. This is the essence of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings throughout his lifetime. He sought to establish justice and righteousness in people’s lives.
To believe in Jesus, to be a Christian is more than saying a simple prayer and making a confessional statement. It is a lifestyle choice bathed in justice and righteousness and warmed by God’s eternal fire. This is what brings security and safety.
King Zedekiah was a puppet. So was Herod. But then again all leaders are in some way compromised. The promise is an age-old wish for a new branch will lead with righteousness and bear responsibly before God.
Gary Charles, in his commentary in Feasting on the Word puts it this way: “The stories of Advent are dug form the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation.”(Year C, Volume 1, p.3) And yet, we recite them year after year in the hope and faith that the promise will once again take hold.
So how does this scripture apply to present situation in Israel and Palestine? A Palestinian state has just received recognition by the United Nations, over the objections of the US and Israel, but with the approval of the vast majority of member countries. But is it peaceful? Far from it. Is there justice and righteousness ruling in the land? It’s hard to tell as people are cowering away from rocket fire. It’s hard to tell if righteousness and justice are present as walls get built, and Israelis continue to encroach on Palestinian land, crowding people into smaller and smaller areas where they can’t help but be frustrated and react.
I spoke recently with a Jewish colleague. We can talk about a lot of things, as long as we don’t talk about Israel. It’s too charged a topic, and any criticism of Israeli action feels to her like anti-Semitism and harkens back to the cruelty of the holocaust. So, I asked her how to speak with a Jewish person about concerns about Israeli policy. She said that it’s important to start out by recognizing Israel’s right to exist. I do that and I recognize the Palestinians’right to self-determination, although knowing that the PLO has had as a core belief the destruction of Israel makes it a stumbling block. Of course, it would seem that Israel’s actions seem to want the destruction of the Palestinian people. So, we end up with an impasse. Using words like occupation is too provocative for some of our Jewish friends. And yet, not talking about the annexing of land and the wall and lack of Palestinian rights is too provocative for our Palestinian friends. The reality is that to both nations, the land they occupy is Holy. It is the origin of their peoples. And we long for one who will come to fulfill the promise.
And oddly, the Israelis and the Palestinians have this oracle from Jeremiah as their common scripture. What would it mean for them to live into such a promise?
We need a vision of a Messiah to rule with justice and righteousness. And so, we look toward that on this first Sunday in Advent. We sing every Advent:
O come O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear.
But what if we were to contemporize it and sing:
O come O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Palestine,
that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear.
God has promised that eventually, peace will come. There will be a righteous branch that will rule with justice and righteousness.
When people heard what Jesus said, and saw what he did, how he treated people with respect, how he eschewed violence and how he opened the eyes of the blind, they harkened back to the words of Jeremiah. For they glimpsed the possibility, the breakthrough of God to show a better way. The powers that be thought it to threatening to let such an idea, such a promise, reign free on the earth, so they killed Jesus. But the promise was already set in motion. It had already penetrated people’s hearts and imaginations. It was already on a trajectory that could not be stopped. And we remember and reclaim our part of that promise this Advent season. We remember why we are here. We are not here to wait for Jesus to do the work for us. We are here to join with Jesus in being the ones who embrace the promise of God that righteousness and justice will live in the land. And the name of our land will be renamed God is our righteousness. In the Holy Land, in this land that it might become Holy.
What would make for peace in the land?
What would justice and righteousness look like?
How can we live into that promise?
The promise is articulated very well in this prayer with which I will close this sermon:
Prayer for the Children of Abraham / Ibrahim
By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
For every aspiring ballerina huddled
scared in a basement bomb shelter
For every toddler in his mother's arms
behind rubble of concrete and rebar
For every child who's learned to distinguish
"our" bombs from "their" bombs by sound
For everyone wounded, cowering, frightened
and everyone furious, planning for vengeance
For the ones who are tasked with firing shells
where there are grandmothers and infants
For the ones who fix a rocket's parabola
toward children on school playgrounds
For every official who sees shelling Gaza
as a matter of "cutting the grass"
And every official who approves launching projectiles
from behind preschools or prayer places
For every kid taught to lob a bomb with pride
And every kid sickened by explosions
For every teenager who considers
"martyrdom" his best hope for a future:
May the God of compassion and the God of mercy
God of justice and God of forgiveness
God Who shaped creation in Her tender womb
and nurses us each day with blessing
God Who suffers the anxiety and pain
of each of His unique children
God Who yearns for us to take up
the work of perfecting creation
God Who is reflected in those who fight
and in those who bandage the bleeding --
May our Father, Mother, Beloved, Creator
cradle every hurting heart in caring hands.
Soon may we hear in the hills of Judah
and the streets of Jerusalem
in the olive groves of the West Bank
and the apartment blocks of Gaza City
in the kibbutz fields of the Negev
and the neighborhoods of Nablus
the voice of fighters who have traded weapons
for books and ploughs and bread ovens
the voice of children on swings and on slides
singing nonsense songs, unafraid
the voice of reconciliation and new beginnings
in our day, speedily and soon.
And let us say: amen.