Today marks the first Sunday of Advent-the liturgical time of the year during which we wait, with eager anticipation, for God to enter the world.
This waiting has been happening for a long time and will continue for a long time. And, as Christians, we become those who wait. We wait for God to come back, to usher in a time and justice and peace.
Throughout history there have been those whose most important roles in life have been to actively wait for God, and to prepare those around them to meet God.
The prophet Jeremiah is one of those people. He was a prophet, who for forty years, warned his society about the ways they were straying from God. He lived in a tumultuous time, about six hundred years before Christ came into the world. During his time as a prophet, Jerusalem, which had been ruled by kings in the line of King David, was invaded by the Babylonians. They removed the rightful king, and replaced him with a puppet king named Zedekiah. All went according to the Babylonians’ plan for awhile, but eventually Zedekiah was convinced by the people of Jerusalem to rebel and he did, but was crushed by the Babylonians.
The people of Jerusalem were devastated and they prayed that God would free them from his captors. Babylonia was not the only powerful nation of the time, and soon the Egyptian army marched to the area. The Babylonians backed off of Jerusalem and the people of Jerusalem were thrilled! Their prayers had been answered! God had delivered them!
Jeremiah had the unpleasant job to tell them to hold onto their horses for a minute. He warned them this break was just a reprieve, and he was right. In the year 586 BC Jerusalem fell to Babylon again.
The words Jeremiah speaks in our passage today are spoken after Jerusalem has fallen. Strangely, they are words of hope, not what you would expect in the middle of such dire circumstances. Before our passage today, Jeremiah explains that God has hidden his face from Jerusalem because of its inhabitants’ wickedness. But his words don’t end there. Jeremiah describes to his listeners a vision of a restored Jerusalem in which its inhabitants will experience security and abundance. He speaks of life replacing the desolation that currently describes the town.
In our passage today, Jeremiah speaks specifically of the righteous Branch of David who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. Righteousness is a key term here. Remember the figurehead king we discussed earlier? The word for righteousness in Hebrew is Zedek, and the king’s name is Zedekiah. Unfortunately, this king could not live up to his name.
So, when Jeremiah speaks of a righteous Branch of David, he is specifically contrasting this image of an upright leader with the image of Zedekiah, a corrupt leader. Righteous not only means just, as we think of it today, it also has connotations of being right-of conforming to norms and expectations. So, the Branch of which Jeremiah speaks will not be grafted in, as Zedekiah was by the Babylonians, it will be a Branch of the true line of kings-the line of David. But, this branch will also be righteous in the sense of being holy and aligned with God. This branch will conform both to lineage and to God’s standards for kingship-being just and merciful. In fact, this Branch of David will be called righteousness.
The image of righteousness springing up from desolation, from hopefulness is a beautiful one. And this image is really the image of Advent.
Advent is about waiting for God, waiting for righteousness to enter the world. Waiting for life to come from desolation. Waiting for salvation.
American protestant theology usually describes salvation in terms of the individual. We think of a person being “saved” at a prayer meeting, for instance. When Jeremiah speaks of salvation and God’s righteousness, though, Jeremiah is thinking in terms of a community’s salvation.
So, what is the difference between individual and community salvation?
When we think of salvation in individual terms, we think of one person’s righteousness. We think of this individual confessing his sins, being forgiven by God and going on to have a relationship with God.
However, righteousness is not simply about the relationship between individuals and their God. Righteousness is about a way of life. When you think of salvation in terms of a community, you begin to understand that righteousness is not just about being connected to God, but it means living out that relationship with God by your relationships with the people around you. If you are ‘saved’, but are a jerk to your kids, you’re not experiencing righteousness. If you’re ‘saved’, but are not taking care of orphans, widows, and the poor, you’re not experiencing righteousness. If you’re ‘saved’, but not seeking to be in right relationship with others, you’re not experiencing righteousness. Righteousness is a way of life in which a community conforms to the righteousness of Christ.
And in America, I think a lot of our recent culture wars have to do with different groups having different interpretations of what it means to be a righteous people. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by sticking with traditional values. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by eliminating AIDS. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by protecting ourselves from terrorism. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by slowing down global warming. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by fixing inner city schools. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when all races and both genders are treated equally. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we narrow the gap between rich and poor. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when the media becomes tasteful again. Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we all believe the same things.
I don’t think we’ll ever achieve righteousness as a nation by backing the right issues. Our only hope, really, is Jesus. Our hope rests in a prayer that Jesus will let us conform to his righteousness. This kind of conforming takes effort and sacrifice and cannot be undertaken without the power of God behind us.
Jesus does more than save us from death. Jesus changes us. When we are truly in relationship with Christ, we are constantly challenged to grow, deepen and be transformed. And that transformation is always toward righteousness.
And for that transformation, we need to wait. But this is no passive waiting, this is a waiting that is full of longing-longing for Christ, longing for God, longing for righteousness. This is a waiting full of prayer and of study and of relationship.
This is a waiting full of hope.
Like Jeremiah, we know that God is for us. And with Jeremiah, we wait for Him.