Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent 1 of Series C (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares 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 dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on the first Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson just read from the thirty-third chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. Dear friends in Christ, the Lord planted a tree. He took a sprout from the house of Jesse, that old man’s youngest son, and planted David in the midst of Jerusalem, the great and holy city. There, according to the Lord’s good pleasure, that tree grew strong and mighty, becoming a towering monument of God’s grace and favor. This tree wouldn’t quickly flower then just as quickly fade, for the Lord promised David that it would endure, His tree would last forever. “Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… Your throne shall be established forever.” The tree of David is to be an eternal tree, standing forever on the strength of the promise given by the Living God. 

Fast forward several centuries. That tree still endures, despite the division of David’s kingdom, despite the wickedness of those who sat on his throne. The tree still endures, but it is sickly and weak. Unrighteousness, debauchery, and idolatry have poisoned what God planted. And now, as Jeremiah speaks the words of our text, the enemies of God’s people have come. The Babylonians have surrounded Jerusalem, the holy city, and they are carrying axes. They mean to cut down David’s mighty tree, and it seems that God is willing to let them. He declares, “I have hidden my face from this city because of all their evil.” Their evil has brought them to this point, to the point where Jeremiah will tell the king in the next chapter to surrender in order to save his own life, and that of his people. Israel’s unrighteousness led her to be conquered and utterly destroyed by the Assyrians; Judah’s has led to a siege and the sure and certain doom of exile. Jerusalem will fall, the city will be ransacked and destroyed, but more importantly, the tree will be cut off. It will be hewn down and burned. All that will be left is a withered, rotting stump. The line of David has failed, its great promise has come to nothing. Man’s wickedness, man’s unrighteousness seems to have proved stronger than God’s Word. The Lord promised David, “Your throne shall be established forever,” but in the days of Jeremiah, it appears that his throne won’t last the year.

This is a tragic story, the account of a king and kingdom who were once mighty, enjoying the favor of God, and who now face complete and total destruction. It looks to be the account of a God who keeps some of His promises, or at least keeps them until man becomes too wicked to make it worth the effort. But what does this history lesson have to do with you and me? In a word, everything. If David’s tree is cut down and utterly destroyed, you and I go to hell. The fate of creation, the fate of man, the fate you and I, are all tied to the fate of that tree. That tree carries within its trunk the promise of redemption from sin and death for all people. If that tree dies, hope dies with it, the only hope that we ever had. For God promised that He would bring salvation through David’s line, and if He allows that promise to fail there is no other way; we are doomed.

If David’s tree is destroyed, you and I face the same fate as Jerusalem: exile. In fact, it’s much worse than that; Babylon’s armies are a bunch of playful kittens compared to eternal destruction in hell. Don’t kid yourselves; without the promise contained in that tree, you have no hope. For you are not righteous, not even close. You were conceived and born in sin, in unrighteousness, separated from God in your very nature. So, even if you can manage to live a perfect life after birth, you are already too far behind to ever catch up, even if your good deeds can outweigh the bad (which they can’t). The truth is, however, that you don’t live a perfect life. You covet, you lust, you use filthy language, you think hateful thoughts, you are infected with pride, so that even your seemingly good deeds are tainted with sin. It is as Isaiah declares, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” You set up idols of your own making, idols of money and pleasure, idols of people, idols of things which can neither talk nor think. The unrighteousness of Jerusalem and her fate isn’t an artifact of history; it is a picture of us, it is a demonstration of what we have become, and a preview of what will be God’s punishment.

To all observers, it seems certain that God’s promise has failed, condemning not just Jerusalem, not just David’s tree, but all people to destruction. But as the armies gather around the holy city, waiting to destroy its walls and cut down the tree, Jeremiah the prophet speaks a Word from the Lord: “Behold, the days are coming, declares 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.” God has not forgotten His promise to David; He has not forgotten His promise to all creation, to you and me.

Yes, Jerusalem will be overthrown, yes the tree will be cut down, leaving only a rotten stump. But from that stump, the stump of David, the Lord will send forth a shoot, the righteous Branch. The stump left for dead by the enemies of God’s people still has life, though not life in itself. Only God can bring forth this Branch, only He can bring life into the midst of death. For this shoot will spring forth in the womb of a virgin, conceived not through man but by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is called the righteous Branch, for this shoot from the stump of David has no sin of His own; He walks this earth in perfection, living the sinless life that we are unable to. Wherever He goes, righteousness and justice follow, coming forth as the flowers in the spring, as He Himself sprung from the stump of David’s fallen tree. He comes, as the fulfillment of God’s promise to David, He comes, in accordance with the words of Jeremiah, He comes this Advent season, as true God and true man, the righteous Branch, our Savior Jesus Christ.

He comes to the gates of the city where David’s tree was cut down and burned, to the holy city, Jerusalem, and He enters to reestablish David’s throne, to plant the tree once again. “The whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” But the Branch didn’t plant Himself in the palace of Herod, nor in the temple courts, but outside the city walls on a hill called Golgotha. There the Branch was lifted high upon a cross, He was planted in the ground on that hill of death, and His blood watered the roots of David’s stump. He came to Jerusalem that day to die, to die for our unrighteousness. The one who is the righteous Branch came to execute justice and righteousness in the land. He brought forth justice, God’s justice of salvation, by allowing Himself to be judged as guilty in place of His people. He brought forth righteousness, His own righteousness, through His death and glorious resurrection. The Branch took root on Golgotha’s bloody hill, in the garden’s empty tomb, and now it has grown into a mighty tree, even unto the right hand of the throne of God. There David’s throne is established for eternity, as God promised him so long ago. There the righteous Branch, our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, pours out His gifts upon His people, as the Lord promised through Jeremiah.

“In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” You and I have no righteousness in ourselves, and no means of earning favor before God on high. Had God’s promise failed, we would’ve been doomed to hell. But God keeps His promises. He caused a righteous Branch to spring forth from David’s stump, and this righteous Branch was judged guilty in place of His unrighteous people. Now we have a righteousness that has been given to us, it isn’t our own. We have the righteousness of the Branch, and so our name will forever be, “The Lord is our righteousness.” The entire Church bears this name, this new name. This righteousness is bestowed upon us, it clothes us, it isn’t our own. The Lord is our righteousness, for God Himself provided the righteousness we needed by sending the righteous Branch to die and rise again in our place.

Jeremiah promised that the days of salvation were coming, despite all appearances, despite the destruction that gathered around the holy city and David’s tree. God kept His promises, His promise to David reaffirmed by Jeremiah, in the first Advent of Christ, His coming as the righteous Branch to enter Jerusalem and die to become our righteousness. Today, we still live by God’s promise through Jeremiah. Despite all appearances, despite the ravages of sin and death that surround us, despite the suffering and persecution that we face in this sinful world, the days of salvation are coming. God will keep His promises, His promise to David proclaimed again through Jeremiah, in Christ’s second Advent, as He comes again in the clouds to bring us to the new heavens and the new earth, the place where righteousness and justice grow like the plants in spring, where Judah will be saved, where Jerusalem will dwell securely. There you and I will dwell securely for eternity, safe from sin, safe from death, just as God promised. In the Name of the righteous Branch, our crucified, risen, and returning Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

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