Waiting for Righteousness
Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, November 30, 2003
This year Advent begins in prison. Jeremiah is locked up behind bars. And that’s not all. The oracle that we have heard this morning is one of seven that Jeremiah delivers in the midst of great national tragedy. “The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah” (Jer. 32:1-2). Jeremiah speaks out of the midst of the great nightmare that the nation has long feared and has always imagined to be simply a bad dream. The reality of the trouble that is besieging Jerusalem is in full view. The evidence is everywhere. A city and a culture and a people who had imagined that they were protected by divine decree are now discovering that they are as vulnerable to judgement as anyone else. Their way of life ignores the cry of the weak and the ache of the wounded (Jer 8:11).Now it is all crumbling. The end of a way of life dawns in an encircling army. The season of Advent begins in trouble. It seems so out of sync with the seasonal shopping season that besieges us. It seems a strange way to begin a new year. Instead of clean slates and bright hopes we begin with the truth about the trouble that hovers over and encircles our days. The darkness grows on too many fronts. You know the long list by heart. Global warming. Terror. Militarism. Epidemics. Poverty - of body and of spirit. Depression mounts. I chat with the cashier at the Town Pantry as I pay for a tank of gas. He shakes his head in anguish. He points to the headlines that declare grinding poverty and unchecked AIDS in Africa. He listens in disbelief to griping about gas prices as the same whining customers purchase twenty, thirty, forty dollars worth of lottery tickets at a time. He sees a people in denial, a people blind to the trouble, a people whose way of life cannot continue. This is where we begin Advent. We begin, with Jeremiah, besieged and imprisoned in desperate times and circumstances. In circumstances like these it is not possible to sing “Joy to the world”. Not yet. Advent begins with the blues. In the midst of commercialized glitz and manufactured happiness, the church dares to begin by telling the truth about the mounting evidence for despair. But this is not because feeling depressed is ‘good for you’. We do not wallow in the trouble, gloating like a mean-spirited ‘scrooge’ of a church. In fact, we dare to speak about the world’s blues and the nation’s blues and the church’s blues and our blues because the gospel of Christ is addressed to a people who sing the blues. Christmas carols only make sense when they are sung in response to Advent blues. And the Advent blues themselves feel good, because they already know that there is a new day coming. Even the blues have the deep rhythm of hope. The liturgical blue of Advent is not the blue-black of nighttime despondency. The blue of Advent is more like the dawning blue of the sky at first light. There in his prison cell, in earshot of Babylon’s siege engines at the walls of Jerusalem, Jeremiah announces an impossible future: “The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will fulfill the promises 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 shall be called: ‘YHWH is our righteousness’.” The promised days of justice and righteousness are “surely coming”. It is one thing to confidently proclaim such news when progress toward the Kingdom of God seems self-evident (say 1903), another thing entirely when all hell is breaking loose (say 2003). But this is when a hope of biblical proportions is born. Biblically speaking, hope is rooted in the promises of YHWH, the one who called Abraham and Sarah, who led Moses and who Miriam praised. Jeremiah’s hope is grounded in the dramatic, impossible story of God’s mission to bless the earth and its peoples against all odds. This is not an easy optimism that overlooks the potency of evil or sin. Jeremiah is not looking at history through rose-coloured glasses. He is no ‘ivory tower’ theologian, far removed from the desperate circumstances that confront so many at nearly every turn. Jeremiah’s ‘ivory tower’ is made of barbed wire. He is confronted with the sure and certain end of the known world. The economy, the society, even the Temple - all of these are finished. It is over. Finished. Yet at this desperate ending, faced with no possible future, Jeremiah speaks for God, announcing a future turned upside down. God points ahead, over the horizon of history, to one who will fill David’s shoes. Messiah David. King David. The little kid brother from tiny Bethlehem who became giant killer, nation builder and poet of devotion to God. “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David”. One day the family tree of royal lineage will have good news of great joy for all the people - to you will be born in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Lk. 2:11). Even as he says it Jeremiah hears the Babylonian army cutting down the olive groves that surround Jerusalem. It is standard military practice in the ancient world. This essential source of food and oil does not reach maturity until it is thirty-five to one hundred and fifty years old. After the destruction of the olive groves there is a long generation of waiting as the stumps nurture shoots that finally produce a crop once again. This is Jeremiah’s astonishing claim. Not only will there be a new David. This Righteous branch will produce a harvest of righteousness. Jeremiah knows what the people know. They know that the name of their king - Zedekiah - means “YHWH is righteous”. But Zedekiah does not live up to his name. He is a leader who does not kept his promises. His is a government that has not delivered. The people know that it does not matter how many leaders are named “righteous” - they fall short. But now Jeremiah stakes God’s claim on the future, saying that the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem will, itself, receive a new name: “YHWH is our righteousness”. We are not sure what to make of this promise. We are not sure that we want to be named or be made righteous. The word ‘righteous’ no longer delights us. It sounds so, well, so self-righteous! Yet a people whose hope is made of biblical proportions know that we pray for the righteousness of God. God’s righteousness is what the whole creation longs to know. To say that God is righteous is to say that God is in the business of making things right, of judging rightly, of restoring right relationships. Jeremiah sees that God’s righteousness is what the future has in store. This is where we begin the year. We begin with a daring claim. Jesus Christ is the promised righteous branch of David’s line. He comes to set right a world of unrighteous relationships. He comes to save peoples and churches who have tried and failed to make themselves righteous. Our life together is a sign of his coming. Gathered at the Table we glimpse the righteous kingdom come, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. Here we taste and see the righteous heart of God. Dispersed from worship, scattered like salt in a culture of denial and despair, we live as agents of this deep and disturbing hope. Beyond the siege of despair Jesus Christ comes in righteousness to judge, to heal and to save. “The LORD is our righteousness.” And we say “Thank God, thank God”.