We lament that things are really bad. You’ve done it. I’ve done it. We see a world where Christianity no longer dominates the culture as it once did. We know that in a half century the sexual ethos of our culture has been turned completely upside down to the detriment of marriage and family. Our nation and culture are now divided in obvious fractures, and it is hard to imagine how they will ever be repaired. The political situation seems to be one of perpetual grid lock with constant war in social media. Islam threatens Europe and spawns conflict within itself and against the West.
Yet in doing so we forget that many people at many times in history have thought the exact same thing. I certainly don’t want to minimize the significance of the things I have just listed. They do matter and they are problems. But we tend to focus on the problems and think that somehow our time is unique because of them.
The people living in Judah at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. probably wouldn’t have had that much sympathy for us – certainly not the ones who wished to be faithful to Yahweh. By any definition, things were really bad during the time in which the prophet Jeremiah lived.
When it came to living as God’ people, the nation was just going through the motions. In the eighth century B.C. Yahweh had dramatically delivered Jerusalem from the besieging Assyrian army – the same army that conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and had taken the people into exile. However because of this, the people of Judah were now treating the temple as if was some kind of magic charm – a guarantee of safety no matter what they did. Yahweh said through Jeremiah, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!'--only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.”
The prophets and priests were misleading the people. Yahweh declared: “The priests did not say, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.”
The prophets were telling the people that everything was fine when it was not. Jeremiah wrote, "Ah, Lord GOD, behold, the prophets say to them, 'You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.'" And the LORD said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.’”
But you didn’t need to be religiously sensitive to recognize these were bad times. The Babylonians had arisen as the new superpower of the Near Eastern world. Judah was caught between the Babylonians and Egypt as they vied against each other for control. Judah became a vassal of the Babylonians when they defeated the Egyptians, and in 605 B.C. the Babylonians took a small exile of elite Judahites – including Daniel – to Babylon.
The Babylonians and Egyptians then fought to a draw, and Judah seized the opportunity to rebel. But in 597 B.C. the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and took King Jehoiachin along with other important Judahites – including the prophet Ezekiel – into exile in Babylon. Now the scoundrel Zedekiah was king. He was looking to Egypt for help as he plotted another revolt against the Babylonians.
Jeremiah announced that Yahweh’s judgment was coming against the nation’s sin. The temple was no protection when the people weren’t living in faith. He was going to use the Babylonians to destroy the temple and take the rest of the people into exile.
Just prior to our text, Yahweh had spoken condemnation against the leaders who had misled the people. Jeremiah wrote, “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds,’ declares the LORD.”
But then he went on to offer comfort and hope. Yahweh promised that he would gather the remnant of the people from the lands where they had been scattered. He would give them shepherds – leaders – who would care for them. And next in our text we hear: “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.'”
Yahweh promised to raise up a king from David’s line who would bring safety to his people and righteous rule – just actions that were true to God’s will. He would bring about a restoration of the people that would be an action so dramatic that it would eclipse the exodus from slavery in Egypt. We hear: “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but 'As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’”
During Advent we are preparing to celebrate how God began to fulfill this promise. As a start, he used King Cyrus and the Persians to allow the exiles to return home. But this was just the beginning and pointed to something bigger. In the first century A.D. he raised up a righteous Branch for David. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, descended from David and was born in his city of Bethlehem.
He is “the Lord our righteousness.” God acted in him to put all things right as he died for us on the cross and rose from the dead. Though without sin, he received God’s wrath in our place. In a great exchange, Jesus Christ received the judgment for our sin, and we received his righteousness. Through baptism and faith in Christ, you are now righteous in God’s eyes – you have been justified and have the status of saints.
This is wonderful news. But we need to be careful, because there is always the temptation to fall into the trap that ensnared Judah. Jesus Christ can become a kind of magic charm that we think keeps us safe no matter what we do. We can use the forgiveness we have in Christ as an excuse to sin – after all, we have forgiveness in Jesus! Yet this is not how faith lives. Instead, faith struggles against temptation and seeks to live according to God’s will. And when we fail to do this, we confess this sin in genuine repentance.
As we look at Scripture, we find that the fulfillment of God’s promises often takes place in stages. He acts in ways that bring deliverance. Yet this action is not yet the whole salvation he has promised. It is something that begins and points forward to its completion. That is how it was with the return to the land after exile. The people of Judah were allowed to return. But it was not yet the complete return and restoration God had described.
It is the same with Jesus Christ, the righteous Branch from the line of David in our text. The word “Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” During Advent we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ as he was born in Bethlehem. But this arrival was not the final one. Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. He won forgiveness and salvation for us. But then he ascended into heaven. And we do not yet dwell securely. We still live in a fallen world and experience its hardships of suffering and death. We still struggle with the old Adam within us.
The preparation to celebrate Jesus’ coming at Christmas reminds us that this was only his first coming. And so Advent also points us forward to Jesus Christ’s second coming. It points us to the Last Day when he will return in glory and bring every single promise to complete and total fulfillment.
Today’s text teaches us to think in this way. We hear: “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’
but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”
For Judah and God’s Old Testament people, Yahweh’s great saving action was the exodus from Egypt. But Jeremiah says what God is going to do will eclipse this in a way so that when they refer to God they will instead focus on this final restoration. The same can be said for us.
Right now, we focus on the forgiveness that we have because of God’s saving action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is correct – after all this has given us righteous standing before God and the assurance of eternal life with him! Yet this will pale in comparison with the consummation of his saving work that the Lord Jesus will bring on the Last Day. In our resurrection and in the renewal of creation he will make everything “very good” once again. Sin, temptation, suffering and death will be something that is not even remembered anymore – much less still present in our lives. This is the hope that we have because of our Lord’s death and resurrection as we look towards his second coming.