Advent scripture readings do not include angels, shepherds, stars in the East or the Magi. Many describe a world of struggle, sin, dashed dreams and desolation. They reflect the reality of the world and attitude of the people of Israel who waited sometimes in doubt and despair for a redeemer. To the devout few, God felt absent. This is the background for the first reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33:14-16) on this first Sunday of Advent.
Jeremiah lived and prophesied before the destruction of Jerusalem (587BCE). He often spoke angrily to kings about God’s judgment on their faithlessness and the punishment that would befall the holy city. Jeremiah was generally regarded as a gloomy presence and even driven away from the community because people didn’t want to hear what he tried to tell them.
Despite this background and his reputation, the first reading for the first Sunday of Advent offers hope and promise for a saviour. (Martin Luther referred to chapters 33 and 34 as “The Little Book of Comfort”.) In this passage Jeremiah shines a light into the darkness of his earlier prophecies. He looks beyond the time of judgment to the time when God fulfills his earlier promise to David (2 Sam 7:12-13) … I will raise up your offspring after you … and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
In the passage that we read for the first Sunday of Advent Jeremiah renews God’s promise.
Here it is in its entirety. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, 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. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
The days are surely coming is an introductory phrase for a salvation oracle. Jeremiah uses it a dozen times as a verbal cue that what follows is of divine inspiration.
The righteous tree branch contrasts to the corruption that Jeremiah rails against among the Davidic kings. Up to this point Jeremiah has cited the monarchy for corruption, exploitation and faithlessness. Despite this lineage he promises a righteous Branch someone who will fulfill God’s commitment to David of a forever kingdom.
This oracle is a remarkable contrast to Jeremiah’s previous threats and warnings. It points to days of justice and righteousness, which we will come to know as Christ. But those days are almost 600 years in the future for the people to whom Jeremiah spoke.
In our own days we can understand the sense of malaise the Jewish people felt. Bombastic leaders tweet self-congratulatory messages. They spew hate and think the solutions are more guns. They wage wars of attrition against their own people or smaller neighbours. They transfer wealth to the already fabulously rich and blame poor migrants for crime. They lock up or kill their political enemies rather than listen to their grievances. They ignore the science of climate change. And throughout this God feels absent.
Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work is not done, that corrupt leaders will not have the last say and that righteousness will eventually win. We draw hope from these promises even as we struggle under the present day consequences and the threats to the future and that our leaders burden us with. And we see the experience of the Jewish people who struggled through defeat, slavery, a sense of desolation after their return until the fulfillment of God’s promise, hundreds of years later.
- Who is your Jeremiah? Who warns people on God’s behalf to change their ways? Is it a religious leader? A politician? A scientist? Academic? Activist?
- What does righteousness mean to you? We don’t use the word often these days outside of church. Is it someone who speaks truth to power, like Jeremiah? Is it someone who exercises power with integrity? Is it someone whose life is guided by Christian values? Something else?
- What signs of justice and righteousness do you look for in leaders? Does it have to do with fairer distribution of wealth? With action on climate change? With better access to health? Better childcare provisions? With a life that is rooted in faith?