Sunday 2 December 2018
The First Sunday of Advent
The prophet Jeremiah is in prison. He was put there for questioning the power of the king, for suggesting that the ruler might not be as powerful or as competent as he loudly proclaimed himself to be. Outside the city, Jerusalem, the mighty Babylonian Army of King Nebuchadrezzar stands at the gates, laying siege. It’s only a matter of time before they breech the walls and capture the city. Everything will be left in ruins, the people will be hauled off into captivity for 70 years. They will lose everything: their land, their king, their freedom, and the very heart of their religious proctice, the temple of God that lies in the center of the city. It will be utterly destroyed. It seems like a hopeless situation, something akin to the end of the world. And of course, the people’s anxiety is all the stronger because they don’t what is going to happen next. All they know is that enemy is at the gates and the future is entirely unclear.
And this is the moment when Jeremiah proclaims these words: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promise. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Truth be told, things had not been all that great before the Babylonians showed up. The kings of Judah were not what you would call ideal. Like most politicians, their actions did not live up to their words. And the people hadn’t really been living their lives in particularly godly ways either. When Josiah was king, he had tried to make some reforms, but apparently they weren’t all that effective, because Jeremiah is still preaching doom and gloom everywhere he goes. And Jeremiah’s negative message has gotten him in trouble with just about everyone. It lands him in jail.
That’s why it seems so strange that at the moment of greatest despair, at the time when things seems their absolute worst—that is when Jeremiah changes his tune and offers a message of hope. The days are coming, he says, when all of this mess will be fixed. Not only will Judah be freed from the coming captivity, but a new king will sit on David’s throne. And this new king won’t be like the old ones, corrupt. This king will bring about a reign of justice and righteousness.
Justice. Righteousness. It’s taken me quite a while to make my peace with these words. For a very long time I resisted them, because they did not hold particularly positive connotations in my mind.
Justice always seems like punishment. We have a Justice System, and its function seems to be to punish those who have done something wrong. Ideally, it would do more to rehabilitate people, but the most it can usually manage is punishment. No one looks forward to an encounter with the Justice System. And I must say that my feelings about the word justice were very strongly influence by the way it was used when I was 22 years old, in September 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, when President Bush said: “Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” By that he meant, of course, that attacking Afghanistan and killing our enemies would be an act of justice. Justice is not something delivered by police and courts, but by smart bombs and unmanned drones. If that is what justice is, then it would be wise to stay as far away from justice as one can.
And righteousness. It’s not that much better. Most of the time when we use it in ordinary speech, righteous is preceded by the word “self.” Self-righteousness is quite common, but not something to be praised. It can be quite convenient, though, and very appealing to believe that “I” am right and worthy and good while “you” are unrighteous, wrong, and bad. It makes life much less complicated. All I have to know to determine if something is right is to determine who did it. If I did it, or if my people did it, it must be right. But if it was done by my adversary or my enemy, then it must be wrong. It is oh so easy to compare the very best of what my side has to offer with the very worst of what their side has to offer, so that I can always be assured that my side is the righteous side. Of course, this kind of self-righteousness ensures that I will never be able to sympathize or compromise with someone on the other team, and that they will never be able to sympathize and compromise with me. It means I will never be able to love my neighbor, as God commands.
Even if these ideas don’t sound very appealing to me, something about justice and righteousness represented a message of radical hope to the Judeans in exile in Babylon. For us today, justice and righteousness often function as catch phrases, words that we use to describe our actions that otherwise might seem immoral. “I was filled with righteous anger. What I did wasn’t revenge, it was justice.” But the Judeans looked forward to a king who would bring justice and righteousness; they didn’t fear such a king.
And it’s probably because they had quite a different idea about what those words meant. Justice, for example, wasn’t about punishing the guilty. No, it was about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. Justice was about love and grace, not the opposite of love and grace. It was about deliverance, about raising up the oppressed, about salvation for God’s people.
And righteousness. The dictionary definition is “the state of being right.” Note that it’s not “the state of believing oneself to be right.” The righteous king would do right by the people, would bring about peace and equality, not hide behind a screen of so-called righteousness. The righteous king would actually do the right thing, not just think that he is right or declare that he is right.
It is only when I change my perceptions and start thinking of justice and righteousness in this light that they seem like they might be worth looking forward to. A time when everyone is judged fairly, when those who have been kept down will be brought up, and when peace will reign. That seems like something worth waiting for. It seems like something worthy of our hope and anticipation.
Advent is a season of waiting, a season of hope. We are waiting for Christ Jesus, putting our hope in Christ’s coming. And it is a threefold coming that we anticipate: the coming of Christ in the past, the coming of Christ in the present, and the coming of Christ in the future. It’s a bit like those three ghosts in Charles Dickens’s famous novel. Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future: those are the three things that we anticipate in the season of Advent.
The coming of Christ in Christmas Past is a familiar story. It’s a story of shepherds and angels, wise men and a star, a virgin mother and a newborn baby lying in a manger. Christ came into the world, forsaking heaven, and became Emmanuel, God-With-Us, in order to show us God’s love. In order that we might know just how far God is willing to go to get our attention. God was willing to give up the godly nature and become one of us. Willing even to become a helpless child, wrapped in rags, surrounded by stinky animals out in a cold barnyard. That is the depth of God’s love for us.
And the story of Christ’s coming in Christmas Future is almost as familiar. The Lamb of God riding on the clouds, coming in glory at the end of the age to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. To once and for all set everything right, and to bring everlasting and complete peace. No matter how hard it gets, we know that Christ will come at the end of time to set it straight, and we anticipate Christ’s coming in final victory in this Advent season.
But the story of Christ’s coming in Christmas Present is a bit more tricky, isn’t it? How will Christ come this year, in 2018? Will Christ be born in your heart? Will you make a room there for the baby Jesus? Will Christ come in the breaking of the bread, the sharing of the cup? Will Christ come in the sounds of singing voices? Will Christ come in the way we treat our neighbors, the way we reach out to the needy? Will Christ come in the way we spend our money and our time this holiday season? Will Christ come in the laughter of children, the wisdom of the elders?
Jeremiah was not looking for a king who would come at the end of time. He was looking for a king who would come and set things right in the real world. And he wasn’t looking for a merely spiritual solution, either. Jeremiah was looking for a practical, real-life solution that would address the most difficult of society’s problems.
So, how will your king come this year? Will you make room in your heart for the little baby to be born? And will you make room in your life for the Christ child to grow and mature? And will you make room in your world for that fearless prophet, the living Christ, whose kingdom will bring real justice and real righteousness, not just in the future, but in the present?
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. The days are surely coming.