Jeremiah 33:10-16 (NIV)
10 “This is what the Lord says: ‘You say about this place, “It is a desolate waste, without people or animals.” Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither people nor animals, there will be heard once more 11 the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying,
“Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever.” For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before,’ says the Lord.
12 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In this place, desolate and without people or animals—in all its towns there will again be pastures for shepherds to rest their flocks. 13 In the towns of the hill country, of the western foothills and of the Negev, in the territory of Benjamin, in the villages around Jerusalem and in the towns of Judah, flocks will again pass under the hand of the one who counts them,’ says the Lord.
14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 “‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’
Last weekend I celebrated a very important anniversary; a 10-year anniversary, which is of course the tin/aluminum anniversary, and would seem quite appropriate. Thanksgiving weekend of 2002 I began an important relationship, a relationship that continues to this day with daily interactions. Obviously, I am speaking of the anniversary of the day that I purchased my Volkswagen Jetta.
We’ve been through some good times, and we have been through some bad as well. Together we have traveled near and far. Together we packed up and moved to Virginia. Sure, there was the time that she left me stranded on the side of the road when my wheel bearing went out. But we got through it and we have a stronger relationship because of it.
I know that there will come a day when my VW and I will be separated from one another. And I know that this day is coming sooner rather than later. And for that reason, I am not going to put much money into her. She leaks a little oil, which causes a lot of smoke. The transmission slips when it gets cold out, and it is only getting colder. But there is nothing that I plan to do about it. She is past the point of rescue. The biggest investment that I am planning to make in my VW involves filling the gas tank.
Things are a bit different with our Honda Civic. Our Civic is just over five years old and runs well. She is getting up there in miles, and there are a few issues, but I plan to have a much-longer relationship with our Civic than I do with our Jetta. Because of this, when the air conditioning went out on the Civic this summer, I was willing to shell out a few bucks to fix it. There is no way that I would fix something like that in the Jetta. I’m not going to fix the essential issues of the VW, let alone a luxury like air conditioning! But one clearly spends and invests differently based on their long-term view and goals.
Our passage of scripture for this first Sunday of Advent is kind of gloomy. Most of us will never be able to really understand what is going on here, but a little context will help us better connect with Jeremiah and his audience.
Jeremiah lived and was prophetically active during the early stages of the Babylonian Exile, which took place around the year 582 BC. Jeremiah was living just outside of Jerusalem as a part of what we often refer to as the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom had fallen at the hands of the Assyrians about 150 years earlier and the people of the Southern Kingdom witnessed it all. They witnessed their relatives, fellow descendants of Jacob, overthrown and taken away as prisoners. The reason many people believe that the Southern Kingdom was not overthrown was because of their geographical situation on the side of a mountain, which protected them from the Assyrians.
But the people of the Southern Kingdom would not be so lucky this time around. They were about to be overtaken by the Babylonians, the very people who overthrew the Assyrians. Jeremiah, being a prophet of the Lord, knew this. He spoke freely and openly about it. And Zedekiah, the king of the Southern Kingdom, really didn’t like to hear this stuff. So he threw Jeremiah in jail. Let’s just say that they didn’t have this little thing that we call “freedom of speech” back in those days. That’s right, Zedekiah threw Jeremiah in jail on the charges of…being a very negative person.
Yet in spite of being imprisoned for prophesying the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah continues to warn the people of the coming of the Babylonians. But then Jeremiah does something rather unexpected. In chapter 32, Jeremiah buys a field; he becomes a property owner. And not only does he buy land, he buys land in the Southern Kingdom, the very land that the Babylonians are about to take from the Hebrew people.
This seems like a terrible investment to me. It is like fixing the air conditioning in a car when you know its useful life is almost over. But this purchase is symbolic. And this is the context for our text today from Jeremiah 33, which reveals a change in Jeremiah’s attitude. He starts by talking about the land as desolate, a deserted wasteland, uninhabited by people or animals. But there will come a time. But there will come a time when “the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever’” will fill this land again. Jeremiah’s purchase of the land only makes sense in light of this promise from God. The people are going to suffer, but they are moving toward something. And that is supposed to make it bearable. This news is what is going to help the people get through this time of exile.
Many of us had the opportunity to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday. Sonya, the children, and I had the chance to pack into the Honda and head to Ohio on Wednesday and we returned on Saturday. The trip is pretty simple, only a few major roads and a few back roads and we can get where we need to be.
The thing that has the potential to make this trip a little more difficult is the fact that we travel with two small children. Paxton, 34 months old, did a wonderful job of traveling. It was fun to just look back at him and see him gazing out the window, watching the trees go by. And if he needed something to do, we just suggested that he look for deer, which surprisingly worked. But Hadley, well that’s another story.
Miss Hadley just hit 8-months-old last Sunday. For the most part, this is a really fun stage of life. She is sleeping better at night and eating new foods every day. And for the last month or so, she has become more and more mobile. She crawls like a lightning bolt, she pulls herself up on things, and she can walk around while holding on to fixed objects. She is always on the move. And my hypothesis is that because she is so mobile and active she has absolutely no interest in being confined, like in a car seat.
For the first two hours of our trip Hadley screamed at the top of her lungs. Calm, cool Paxton would lean over toward her every now and then and say, “Hadley, we’re people,” which seems to be his suggestion that she was acting more like an animal than a little girl. Every now and then he would really emphasize his words, breaking the contraction, “Hadley, we…are…people!”
If you have ever ridden with me, you know that I don’t like to stop for anything. I pull over for gas when the needle is on “E” and not before. But we stopped in Beckley, WV for about an hour to stretch our legs, grab an early lunch, and reduce the decibel level for a while. That was two hours into a seven hour trip. And it had been about the longest two hours of my life.
If the situation would have been different, I would have turned that car around and headed back to Staunton. The two hour return trip would have been preferable to five more hours in the car and then a seven hour return trip in a few days. But we kept going. We here heading toward something. We had a telos, an end destination, a goal.
I know it is really wrong to compare our trip with a screaming child to Babylonian Exile, but the same motivator is in place. Just as we had a goal of something better yet to come in our travels, like family and turkey, so too did Jeremiah have a goal of something better yet to come. Let’s look at verse 14-16:
‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’
The Hebrew audience that read these words years later interpreted this prophesy in a specific way. To the Hebrew this was a prophesy that the people would be freed from exile and be permitted to return to Promised Land; the “Branch sprout from David’s line” was to be a king from the ancestry of King David when the people returned to Jerusalem. This prophesy has many similarities to Isaiah’s prophesy of the branch coming from the stump of Jesse. Where there appears to be death, there will be new life. And it is that new life that keeps them going.
As Christians, we read this a little bit differently. Rather than seeing this sprout, this new growth as the return to Jerusalem and a king sitting on the throne there, we see this as pointing us toward a different king, also born to the line of Jesse; that is Jesus. As Christians, we believe that this new life will come through our risen Lord.
So how does this compare to the world that we see around us? Are we seeing new life? Because people still get sick, lose jobs, houses, and friends. There continues to be war and rumors of war and natural disasters. People are starving, dying in our streets. People are dying of treatable illnesses. People are dying because they don’t have access to clean drinking water. And this can be depressing. It seems like there is no hope. It seems like there is exile, separation from God and separation from what is good.
Sometimes it seems like the world is getting worse and is going to continue to get worse. If you turn on your radios, televisions, or computers, you will hear about global warming, the AIDS epidemic and drone warfare. The moral fibers of our society seem to be coming unraveled. And these are things that I did not need to worry about when I was growing up. I hear all of the time that we need to get back to a certain way of doing things or the way that things were back when. There may have been some good things at certain times, but there were bad things going on then, too. I promise. The 1950’s might have been a time when everyone went to church, but an African American didn’t dare sit down at a lunch counter at certain delis. No, I don’t think things are getting worse. I think we are becoming more aware of the problems in our world and we are getting tired of it. We grow weary of living in exile. But I don’t think we need to get back to a certain time. We need to move forward. We need to move forward to the kingdom that Jesus called us to live out. And if we will make this our goal, knowing that things are going to get better by our joining together with one another and with God, we will be able to not only endure our current suffering. We will be able to work to make the world more like what Jesus had envisioned.
I believe that there will be a day when Jesus comes back and establishes his kingdom forever. And he shall reign forever and ever. But we Christians are not called to sit around and complain about the way things are today. We are to be a witness to all of the world that a better day is coming. And we do that by living as a part of the kingdom today.
Jeremiah bought a plot of land when he knew that he and his people were about to be overtaken by the Babylonians. It makes no sense by most earthly measures. But it served as a witness that better days are a coming. Not only after death, but here on earth. Jeremiah’s prophesy is not about heaven. It is about working together for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Knowing that things can get better and will get better helps us to endure the periods of exile in this world.
We must hold on to hope. As we go through our times of exile, hope is what will get us through it. Our friend Patty is a young mother of four, from the age of 13 to 7. Just over a week ago she completed her final chemotherapy treatment. She spent her autumn months picking up her own hair, cleaning up her own vomit and sometimes just trying to find a comfortable way to pass the time until her next treatment. Oh yeah, and she did this all while homeschooling her children and trying to keep things together around her home, leading music at church, and being a big help to me. Yes, she got a lot of help from her husband, children, friends, and family. But it couldn’t have been easy. So why go through the exile that is chemotherapy? Hope.
Because Patty had hope that she would recover, she subjected herself to this poison that the doctors and nurses injected into her body every three weeks. Patty endured all of this because she wanted to see her children play soccer, graduate from high school and college, and maybe one day get married and have children of their own. What pushes her onward is the hope of growing old with her husband and watching the sunset over the mountains. It is the hope that better days are ahead that helps us to get through these times of exile. Hope for better days in this life, and the life to come.
I am convinced that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to make this world a better place, to help bring others out of exile and into God’s kingdom. If your faith isn’t making this world a better place, then it isn’t the faith that Jesus called us to. We must buy land because we know that this exile is coming to an end, and we have a part in it.
We know that this world still has the possibility to be what God would have it to be. One sing of our hope is that we continue to have children. If we really thought that this world was going to hell in a hand basket, then we would stop procreating! Why would we create children who will just have to endure more pain, sorrow and suffering than we do? No, I think that we know that this world can look more like the kingdom of God, so we continue to have children.
When a child is born, we are in awe over the possibilities that are ahead. This child could be a doctor, a professor, or a scientist. She might find the cure for cancer, end global warming, or be the next great evangelist. We hope, because we know that this exile will one day come to an end. We continue to have children because we continue to have hope. And Advent is about the hope that we have in a child, a child born in a manger 2,000 years ago.