November 29, 2015
William G. Carter
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 woman looked up from the morning newspaper and said, “I just don’t know what the world is coming to.” The headlines were grim: gunman shoots up a clinic in Colorado, protests on Michigan Avenue in Chicago over a white cop shooting a black teenager, tensions are high between Russia and Turkey after a plane was shot down, and a presidential candidate makes fun of the disabled.
The world is a mess, no doubt about that. It’s tempting to think it is worse than it always has been, and that’s not true. The thorns and thistles have been with us since Adam and Eve found themselves expelled from the Garden of Eden. The names have changed, the situation is the same. The woman shuts the newspaper, folds it on the kitchen table, and heads off to church.
It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and the preacher reads the ancient text: “Thus says the Lord: the days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Suddenly, for her, there is new glimmer of a star in the sky.
Advent begins by holding the world as it is with the world as it will be. We look around to see how things are, and we hold that in tension with what God declares is going to come. If we don’t hold both together, we either sink into despair or we stumble around in a pink bubble of optimism. Either we moan and groan that all things are swirling down the drain, or we put on a plastic grin and declare that it’s all going to get better.
The message of Advent is that neither position will do. Neither dark despair nor sunny optimism will do. We need something more. We need hope.
Hope is a misunderstood word.
- Are the Yankee going to win the world series next year? “I hope.” But biblically speaking, that’s not hope.
- Will the family get in for Christmas? “We hope.” But that’s not the Bible’s view of hope.
- Will the next president of our country eradicate evil, rebuild prosperity, and get all of our leaders to work together for the common good? “That’s our hope.” But you won’t find that kind of hope in the Bible.
Often, we use the word “hope” when we really mean “wish.” We wish for the World Series, the family travel, and national peace. All of those things are valuable, which is why we want them. We wish for them. Each may be out of our control, but we can wish for them to come true. I wish for a white Christmas with no ice on the roads, a full sanctuary for all of our worship services, and for everybody who made a financial pledge to the church to get caught up. When I open my eyes, I can wish that all of that is true.
Yet when the Bible speaks of hope, there is no wishing involved. And do you know why that is? Because it is not our wishes for the future, but God’s declaration of what is to come. The God who is eternal, who straddles past, present and future, already knows what is to come. And the same God who spoke the world into being is speaking the future into existence. God already knows what is to come, because God is already there. But God is also with us, here and now.
I trust that doesn’t cause your brain to explode, and I wouldn’t want you to take my word for it. Simply put, this is how the Bible creates hope. God speaks from somewhere ahead of us, and when we hear it, we have hope.
Our three verses of Jeremiah are a good test case. They come out of the blue. You can tell from the phrase, “Thus says the Lord.” That’s how the prophets like Jeremiah announce the Holy Voice. It’s usually a Voice that comes out of the blue, hardly ever expected. And in Jeremiah’s case, God speaks when nobody knew what to say.
It was a dark and stormy time for the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. After centuries of internal upheaval, life was about to get worse. The Babylonian Empire was on the way to plunder the land and take all its riches away. As somebody notes, Jeremiah’s job was “to speak Israel into exile.”
In his call, God gave him the word to “pluck up and plant” (1:10). Israel was going to be painfully aware of the “plucking up.” We grumble if we have to remove our shoes to go through a security screening, or recoil in anguish if terrorists strike somewhere else. Imagine if your whole country were on the brink of destruction, the treasuries were to be emptied, and all the smart people stolen as slaves.
Not only that: imagine all that happened, and you still hold the memory that God has said, “Your nation is my chosen and beloved. Your temple is my footstool on earth.” And the Babylonians still come. The questions would be many. Has God left us? Is the Babylonian Empire greater than our God? What will come of us?
Into this fearful time, “Thus says the Lord…” And we heard what God declares (it’s brief, I’ll say it again):
The days are surely coming 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.”
Now, there is the substance of the hope. God will keep the promises made to the people. God will send a Ruler to make justice and righteousness in the land. God will rescue the people.
- So when is this going to happen? Nobody knows.
- Why can’t it happen now? Ah, you’re wishing again.
- How do we know it’s really going to occur? Because God says so.
See, that is how the Bible understands hope, true hope. Hope is something that God declares. We can doubt it or dispute it, but the words are in the air. We can live as if it’s an ancient and archaic word, but the prophet wrote it down. Again, we live in the tension between the world as we know it and the world as God declares it will be. This is Advent. Officially speaking, Advent is only the season of four weeks preceding Christmas, but do you understand me when I say that, for all of us, Advent is every day of the year.
One of my daughters hates to be a sermon illustration, but I figure it’s safer to use her for a sermon illustration than to use one of your daughters or sons. She lives in Washington DC and goes to school there. One day this summer, she called. Her voice was shaking. One of her friends was getting out of a cab. A car sped by and there was gunfire. Her friend was killed, totally randomly, by somebody who was never found.
What do you say? “There, there, it will be all right”? No, that’s an empty wish. It has no spiritual protein. It’s not going to help. For a moment, I wanted to say, “Come home, we’re going to get you out of that dangerous place,” but that presumes a random act of violence will never happen here. That is unrealistic, and an empty wish.
I can’t remember what I did say. I think I stammered in fear, too numb to speak, too worried about my kid to have the best words to console. In time, however, what has come to me is the Advent promise of God. It goes like this: this is not how God will rule the world. God says “justice and righteousness.” God declares the lion and the lamb shall lie down together (Isaiah 11:6-7). God says our children will play together safely in the streets of the city (Zechariah 8:5).
In the image of Jeremiah, a “righteous branch will spring up for David.” That is an unusual phrase, which he has said before. The translation from Hebrew doesn’t quite fit our English, but the sense is this: a green sprout will come from the ground unexpectedly. It emerges from the mystery of God who speaks it into new life. And it’s a reminder to all of us that, should we see an unexpected emergence of a plant or a tree, God is behind it. And the One that God will send to rule over us will come in a similar way: unexpected, desperately wished for, and full of life.
So we gather this Advent, hoping for the Christ. As Christian people, we affirm God has kept the promises to his people. The Righteous One has come in the line of King David. He creates justice and righteousness among those who hear him say, “Love your neighbor, feed my lambs, speak truth to power, live in forgiveness, create peace.” We listen to his voice, believe it is true, and live by his words.
And yet we live in the holy hope that Christ will come again, and bring all things together in the justice of God. He will come because God is fair and gracious. He will come because God has not given up on the earth and the creatures that God has created. He will come because God has spoken our hope.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Walter Brueggeman, Jeremiah 26-52: To Build, To Plant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 39.