Sunday, December 01, 2019

When? — a sermon on Jeremiah 33

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Jeremiah 33.14-26 (CEB)
1 December 2019, Advent 1, NL2-13
Advent theme: “The Time Is Surely Coming” // Promise

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfil my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. 17 The Lord proclaims: David will always have one of his descendants sit on the throne of the house of Israel. 18 And the levitical priests will always have someone in my presence to make entirely burned offerings and grain offerings, and to present sacrifices.
19 Then the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah: 20 This is what the Lord says: If one could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night so that they wouldn’t come at their proper time, 21 only then could my covenant with my servant David and my covenant with the levitical priests who minister before me be broken; only then would David no longer have a descendant to rule on his throne. 22 And just as the stars in the sky can’t be numbered and the sand on the shore can’t be counted, so I will increase the descendants of my servant David and the Levites who minister before me.
23 Then the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah: 24 Aren’t you aware of what people are saying: “The Lord has rejected the two families that he had chosen”? They are insulting my people as if they no longer belong to me. 25 The Lord proclaims: I would no sooner break my covenant with day and night or the laws of heaven and earth 26 than I would reject the descendants of Jacob and my servant David and his descendants as rulers for the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will restore the captives and have compassion on them.


Last week we heard about King Josiah and the reforms he instituted when the scroll of God’s word was discovered during a Temple renovation. Josiah was a young man, just 26 years old when he led the people in renewing their commitment to follow God’s way together as a community, gathering around the scripture and doing what it said—which meant following the book of Deuteronomy’s instructions about structuring society in such a way that the poor, the immigrant, and the widow would be cared for, that the land would be stewarded well and preserved for future generations, and ensuring that only the one true God was worshipped. 

Jeremiah was a child himself when he was called to be a prophet a few years before that reform — back when Josiah was 21. God commissioned him to speak to kings and to the nation, to call them back to faithfulness and to let them know that the consequences of their bad behaviour were on the way.

Over the years since then, and through the change of kings, Jeremiah spoke boldly. He reminded people of God’s instructions, and of God’s enduring faithfulness even in the face of their brokenness. He acted out the words he was given, not just speaking them but actually putting on a one-man drama of the things God wanted the people to hear. His message was unpopular, and he was regularly contradicted by the court’s official prophets, who were paid by the king to say what he wanted to hear. 

By the time we get to today’s story, more than 30 years and three intervening kings have passed—some with reigns as short as a few months, so it must have felt much like a constant election season does. All of those kings are described as “he did what was evil” — and still Jeremiah is speaking God’s challenging word to the people. Where we picked up today, Jeremiah is about my age, and Zedekiah is the fifth king of his lifetime, and the Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah is in prison. 

The Babylonian army, led by their King Nebuchadnezzar, had surrounded Jerusalem, and tried to starve the people out. They had siege engines and such, but they hadn’t been able to break down the walls....and they had held the siege now for a year. Inside, the people of Jerusalem were beginning to crack under the strain. They were running out of food and water, and there was no sign of an end to this drama. Their political leaders were oblivious to the impact that their decisions had on the everyday person in the street. The religious leaders were not much better, and regularly led them astray, following other gods that promised success, wealth, and power without asking for any kind of life changes, though they did ask for child sacrifice sometimes.

The siege would go on for another year before the city finally fell to the Babylonians. But the people Jeremiah was speaking to that day didn’t know that. They were simply living in the middle of the chaos, trying to eke out a normal existence, to manage all the stress of the constantly uncertain situation. 

They were under a literal siege, but sometimes I honestly feel like we are being psychologically besieged in our postmodern world. Between the political dramas, the manufactured crises, the economic instability, and the daily onslaught of misinformation or partial information or flat out lies, not to mention terrorism....added to the regular stressors of life in the digital age, and in the midst of a massive climate feels like a swirl of chaos from which there is no escape. And we have no idea how long it will go on, or whether we’ll ever get a calmer normalcy back, or if there’s something worse ahead, or if there’s a new normal we have to create along the way.

The people of Jerusalem were just on the edge of desperate, but they were still in the middle of all of it.

And that’s the moment that Jeremiah offered them this vision of God’s restoration and compassion, a vision of hope and a promise of a future of peace and justice, when the political and economic and religious systems would be structured like the kingdom of God, and everyone would know the presence of God with them.

They didn’t even know yet how the crisis was going to end, and here the prophet was giving them this promise. First there would be the consequences for their years of injustice and infidelity—they would be taken into exile, scattered across the Babylonian empire, and Jerusalem would be destroyed. They would end up living 70 years in exile, with only the poorest of the poor left behind as caretakers of the vineyards, because of course no king can be without his full wine production capacity in use. But one day...the time is surely coming, the prophet proclaims. But not yet.

The fact that it is not yet does not mean the promise is untrue. God does not break promises. Just as it would be impossible for God to break the system of day and night, it is impossible for God to break faith with us. Though people might look in from the outside and say “it seems like they’ve been abandoned” the reality is that there is nowhere we can go away from God’s presence. Because once God is committed, there’s no out. God is all in, forever. From the very beginning, until the end of time, just as day follows night, so God will be with us. The promise of the kingdom of heaven coming on earth will be fulfilled. God will raise up the people that make this possible, the people who will lead us in a society structured around justice and righteousness and faithfulness. 

In the middle of a siege, whether literal or psychological or political or emotional, this feels like an impossible promise. When? When is the time that is surely coming? And what do we have to go through first?

That is the question of Advent. This is a season of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation. The time is surely coming, but it isn’t yet. The promise will be fulfilled, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like exactly, yet. 

Of course we do know what is coming. We already know the fullness of Christ’s promised presence, we know that God chose to be among us in the flesh and do this work himself, we know that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to be the people God promises to the world, the people who lead the society in doing what is just and right. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world. 

But this is an already - not yet reality. Yes, we already know it. But it is not yet visible in all its fullness. The kingdom of God is not yet known on earth as it is in heaven. Just like the prophets and the people they spoke to, we are still waiting, still anticipating, still longing for the day that God promises. We are still waiting to see those promises fulfilled. And even when the storm swirls around us, we still look forward to that day, and know that God never breaks a promise. The time is surely coming—the time of restoration and compassion, of justice and righteousness, of grace and peace.

May it be so. Amen.

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