Monday, December 04, 2017

Sermon on Jeremiah 23:5-8, for the 1st Sunday of Advent (1 YR), “The Righteous Branch”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today on the 1st Sunday of Advent, we hear from Jeremiah the prophet, who lived in a dark period of Israel’s history, but prophesies brightly of the coming Christ who will restore righteousness and justice in the land. A quick thumbnail sketch of the history, is that the nation of Israel had endured several centuries of sliding into decline, idolatry, corruption, and gross immorality. They had experienced their “glory days” around 1000 BC under the reigns of King David and Solomon, when the nation was strong, the leadership was mostly just and wise, and the 12 tribes were united. Shortly after Solomon’s death, the decline began. The kingdom was divided during the reign of his son—the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the two southern tribes of the Kingdom of Judah. Eventually the ten tribes of Israel were swallowed up by the empire of the Assyrians. The looming threat of northern enemies squeezed the Kingdom of Judah—but prophets like Jeremiah could not convince them to amend their ways and turn back to God. So Jeremiah was left with the unsavory task of proclaiming God’s imminent judgment on Judah. Their northern enemy Babylon would invade Jerusalem, and they must surrender or lose their lives. 70 years of captivity faced them. He not only foretold this, but saw it firsthand, which is why Jeremiah is also known as "the weeping prophet." 
Soon there would be no king in the line of David, to rule on the throne—for six centuries! They didn’t realize it in their time, but they would never be able to restore the monarchy of King David’s line. But this was more than just a political and patriotic concern—it was a spiritual crisis of faith. God had promised that He would establish David’s house and kingdom forever, saying in 2 Samuel 7:16: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever”. And a few verses earlier, God had promised to establish one of David’s offspring to “build a house for [God’s] name and [God] would establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (v. 13). Those who took God’s promises seriously had to be asking with the Psalmist, “Are His promises at an end for all time?” (77:8). So how was God going to reconcile this promise of an eternal King in the line of David, with the seeming end of the Davidic monarchy and the captivity of the people of Judah?
Here’s where the prophet Jeremiah enters in with words of hope in 23:5-8, our reading today. Jeremiah 23:5–6 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’” The coming righteous and wise king would be from the line of David. He would save Judah and give Israel security. But they would wait 6 centuries for His arrival, and to learn who He was. But to the faithful, they knew Him by these titles: “The Righteous Branch” and “The LORD is our Righteousness.” We’ll explore those titles shortly.
But first, we always puzzle and wonder at why a Palm Sunday reading shows up on the 1st Sunday of Advent. And now you can guess why: the King that we anticipate at Christmas, was the King that the Jews greeted and welcomed into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—believing that the prophecies had come true, and shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9) and “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10). Their understanding would need to grow greatly by the Holy Spirit, but they clearly saw prophecies coming true, and the long absent King in the line of David, entering Jerusalem to reign. Jesus did come to reign, but not in the manner they hoped for, as a political king. Rather, the forever kingdom and throne that He came to establish, was to elevate His throne above all earthly powers. Jesus came to establish a rule of justice and righteousness. Not just a King of Israel or Judah, but He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jeremiah gave us two titles for Jesus in the reading. The first, “The Righteous Branch”, connects with other prophecies of Isaiah 11, that call Jesus the “shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit”. This pictures the line of David’s kingdom like the seemingly dead stump of a tree, that will not grow again. But from it, new life shoots forth, a righteous branch that will bear fruit. This is a prophecy of Jesus as being the new life, the new fruit-bearing branch that will grow out of that stump. Jesus would not be like the wicked kings and faithless shepherds that Israel had known before—but He would show true wisdom and justice in all that He did. He would Shepherd His people with love and self-sacrifice, so that none would be lost or missing, and He would care for the injured and heal them. This was the kind of King that Israel would receive, in fulfillment of God’s promises. Not just another warm body to sit on the throne till His death, but a radical change of that kingship and throne, to elevate it above all earthly powers. Jesus is this crucified and risen King, the Righteous Branch.
And His second title: “this is the name by which He will be called: the LORD is our righteousness.” LORD, when you see it in all caps, is God’s personal, self-revealed name, in the Old Testament. YHWH in the Hebrew. So the coming Savior Jesus being called: “YHWH is our righteousness” is an acknowledgment that He is Divine. And “our righteousness” gets to how God’s people are saved and will dwell securely. Our salvation and security is not in any earthly kings, princes, presidents, or other powers, but our salvation and security is in YHWH, our righteousness. Righteousness is God’s standard of innocence, goodness, and perfect obedience—both in avoiding the wrong and in doing the good. YHWH’s righteousness becomes our righteousness when God imputes or credits it to our account by faith in Jesus.
We don’t carry any righteousness of our own that we can put before God—nothing but filthy rags. But Jesus baptizes us into His death, stripping us of dirty rags, and baptizes us into His resurrection, clothing us with pure robes of His righteousness. We carry Christ’s righteousness into God’s presence, so that when we are forgiven of our sins and clothed by Christ, we stand clean and holy in His sight. We call Jesus “The LORD (YHWH), our righteousness”. This treasure, of a life cleansed and made new, is not just a future reality, but a present joy that is ours—the present pledge of a clean conscience before God, and freedom from the stain and shame of guilt.
Jeremiah 23:7-8 gives another future promise. Faithful Israelites used to recall God delivering them out of slavery in the land of Egypt. In Jeremiah’s time, with the destruction of Jerusalem and a generation of exile in Babylon lying ahead, he predicts that there will be a future day when the faithful will recall God delivering them out of the north country—the land of their exile, and all the nations to which they were scattered. “Then they shall dwell in their own land.” A generation and more later, children and grandchildren of those who lived through those dark days, would see God faithfully deliver on His promises, and return them from exile to their homeland. We can still recall God’s great deliverances for Israel in the past—but now we have even more to add to the list. We can say, As the Lord lives who brought us up out of the slavery of our sins and death”—we can praise and remember that Jesus has delivered us from sins, and from the exile of hopelessness and defeat, into the reign of His justice and righteousness.
Thus we can face dark days with known and unknown threats to our security, by looking back to God’s faithful record of deliverance. We can focus our eyes on Jesus, to whom all the prophets point their bright spotlights—illuminating the promised Savior. Awaited in Jeremiah’s generation; awaited in Jesus’ own generation, and greeted on Palm Sunday, and awaited again in our generation; we long for the completion of His righteous rule. For we confess that He will come again to judge both the living and the dead, and that at “the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Advent is a time of waiting, hope and expectation, and our hope is firmly founded on the record of His faithfulness. We trace that record of deliverance joyfully this Advent and Christmas season, and each new year as we continue the wait for His return. We rejoice to look to Him, The Righteous Branch, and the LORD our Righteousness! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Compare Jeremiah 23:5-6 with 33:14-16. What similarities and differences appear between the two passages? What is the identity of this king known as the “Righteous Branch” both in prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-10; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12) and fulfillment (Acts 13:22-23; Romans 15:12)? See also Luke 19:38.

  1. The Jews were facing the destruction of Jerusalem, their capital city, and the nation of Judah, as well as exile in Babylon. What is the “good word” or promise that God made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah (v.5-8)? See Jeremiah 29:10; also 2 Samuel 7:12-16 and Jer. 33:17-18.

  1. What kinds of  insecurity do we face in our times? What efforts do we make to try to secure our safety, possessions, health, future, etc? Why are all these efforts futile if our soul is not secure? Mark 8:35-38; cf. Luke 12:13-21.

  1. Who alone can secure the soul, and give us the peace that enables us to dwell securely? Jude 24-25; Psalm 40:1-3; Isaiah 32:15-18. From what assaults must it be guarded? What kind of false security should we watch out for? Isaiah 47:8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5.

  1. Why does having Jesus Christ, the Lord our Righteousness, with us, give us the ultimate confidence and security to face all the uncertainties and insecurity of life? What does it mean to have the One who has conquered death on our side? 1 Corinthians 15:54-57.  What does it mean to have His righteousness stand in our defense? Revelation 12:10-12.  How does the believer possess Jesus’ righteousness? Romans 3:26; 4:3.

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