The year was 588 BCE. The place: Jerusalem, a walled town and the capital of a small kingdom in the foothills of southern Palestine. For years now the Babylonian superpower in the east has been on the move: striking down foes and gobbling up smaller powers. A decade before, Babylonian forces had captured Jerusalem, exacted heavy tribute, deported king and nobility, and installed a puppet ruler named Zedekiah. Now in 588, Zedekiah has attempted a foolhardy rebellion, and the Babylonian armies have returned: drums are beating in the valleys around Jerusalem; smoke from enemy camps drapes the sky; siege ramps and other equipment of war are under construction within sight of the city walls. Rumors are more plentiful than food: horrible tales of Babylonian brutality circulate wildly, in houses and on street corners. The place stinks of dread. People search high and low for explanations, for scapegoats, anything to grab hold of and make sense with. Jeremiah, a priest and prophet of God, sits imprisoned: for years he had pointed the finger straight back at the leaders and people of Jerusalem as cause of their own sufferings. Jeremiah preached that Jerusalem would fall because of the people’s infidelity to their God and because of their injustices. Worse, Jeremiah has prophesied all the grim details: slaughter and famine and pestilence, a city reduced to rubble, and bodies in its alleys. He has wept for the fate of his people. He has even counseled surrender to the Babylonians, and accused Zedekiah the king of bringing on a worse fate for the people because of his resistance. For all this, Zedekiah has locked him up.
And now in the face of this, in the solitude of his cell, and with the rumble of siege ramps in the floor at his feet, Jeremiah lifted up his heart to Israel’s God: and he heard a word of hope and healing. Where there soon would be ruined houses and bodies, this God would bring about health and peace. Where desolation and emptiness soon would appear, this God would restore the voice of gladness and thanksgiving. Where sin and iniquity saturated the city, the God of Israel would abundantly forgive.
In the three verses from Jeremiah we heard together tonight, Jeremiah announces the key to this future healing: the branch of David. That is, the king like David of old who will execute justice and righteousness.
The king from David’s line is the key to this hope because in the imagination of Israel, the destiny of the king and the destiny of the people are deeply bound up together. The king is a sort of proxy for the people, and their representative before God. When the king does evil and forsakes God, the king and people together suffer the consequences. When the king loves God and protects the poor, he is blessed by God, and the people also reap peace and prosperity. So when Jeremiah foretells a king who will do justice, it is no accident that he immediately afterwards predicts the security of the city Jerusalem. In a way, this king will be the foothold for God’s righteous intentions. The beach-head. The king will be the landing point for God’s peaceful and righteous purpose, which will then spread to encompass all of God’s people.
And both these realities are from God’s own hand: not of human doing, but a miracle of grace. In fact, Jeremiah ties the coming of this king and the justice that follows so much with God’s action that he says the very name of the city will become, “The Lord – YHWH! – is our righteousness.” In this context, righteousness doesn’t just mean “moral uprightness”: it means proper functioning, wholeness, legitimacy, peace. Righteousness here includes everything that is working harmoniously: the king who does justice and the city dwelling in peace. And these two realities are so totally God’s own work that the new name of the city simply equates them: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Israel’s faith in God was so deep that they clung to these promises from the prophet Jeremiah even after the city of Jerusalem was destroyed – and after the kingship of David’s line had faltered. They continued, like Jeremiah, to lift up their hearts and to hope in their God. In time, our own forebears in the early church would join in this heritage of hoping: and the main ingredients of Jeremiah’s prophecy became important lenses through which they saw Jesus Christ, our Lord. Because of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead, they were sure, first of all, that he was one uniquely favored by God: blessed for his righteous life that conformed wholly to God’s compassionate purpose. They were also sure that Jesus, as the descendant of David exalted by God, was God’s chosen ruler. For the Christians as for their predecessors in Israel, the destiny of the king and the destiny of the people were deeply bound together. This meant that as much as Jesus obeyed God and received the blessing of resurrection life, that the people over whom Jesus reigns also share in this blessing. St. Paul speaks of our being united with Christ, so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus is the landing point for God’s righteous and healing intentions for humanity. The foothold. The beach-head. The first, preliminary pickings before the general harvest. And all this is from God: Jesus’ coming and the peace he brings are so much God’s own action that the name of our community might as well be, “The Lord is our righteousness.” In a moment we will recite the creed, and confess Jesus’ unity with the God who sent him; soon after we will sing the Sanctus, and bless this one who comes in the name of the Lord. Our Creed, our songs, our worship everywhere proclaim that Jesus’ coming and the peace that he establishes are the very work of God, and the most wondrous miracle of grace.
Jesus’ coming is a past reality that we remember and celebrate, especially during this first Sunday of the Advent season; I remind you afresh that we here do share in Jesus’ own blessing and his own peace with God. For the completeness of his compassion, Jesus was blessed with resurrection life – and because we are united with him, our representative and king, there are stirrings of resurrection renewal in our lives. Because of Jesus’ uninterrupted peace with God, there is also forgiveness and clear skies between us and God this night. In a way, we can rejoice that God has been faithful, and has fulfilled this very old promise we have once again read tonight. But it’s also painfully obvious that Jesus as the branch of David has not yet brought about the fullness of justice and righteousness to this beleaguered world. And so these old promises remain real promises for us to lean into and hope upon. The epistle and the gospel have given us some tasks for this time of waiting: growing in holiness and love, staying alert, avoiding dissipation, praying and watching. But above all, as we head towards the last busyness of the semester – and as we enter the Advent season of celebrating Jesus’ once and future coming, let us together keep up our hope in God, and let us remember that we share in the destiny of God’s chosen king, Jesus Christ.