"RIGHTEOUSNESS"- Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, December 2, 2018
Texts: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16
In the last 18 months, perhaps more than any other time in my three decades of pastoral ministry, I have been told two things: a) that my preaching is getting a little too political and b) that my preaching is not political enough (smile).
I certainly work hard to make my sermons relevant and engaged with our life and times. But I also do not ever want my preaching to be mostly responsive, or worse, reactive, especially to the latest tweet or some other news item.
But today, on this first Sunday in Advent, when the church launches into a new church year, I feel pulled again into the heartaches and ever troubling circumstances of these days.
Curiously, the season of Advent always with talk of the end times, and the need to stay awake – as we just heard in the choral anthem. Advent also begins in the dark, leaving us gazing, wondering where we might find God. The church year begins with us huddled inside, with darkness arriving so soon each evening. How does it get so dark so fast?
Yet it is not just the darkness and declining light of the day in these Advent days, it is the darkness in and around us – the doubts that fill our hearts, the discouragement that fills our lives, the despair that creeps in beside us, the dis-ease that we sense about so many things.
Just this week – we keep hearing about the turmoil at the southern border, . . . . and tear gas, . . . and chaos, . . . and legalities . . . and hard hearts. We are a big country, with big wealth and big plans in the world; . . . but the signs from the southern border make me wonder about the size of our heart. Fear and insecurity and politics can lead us so quickly away from those better images of ourselves as a nation, as a people of compassion and generosity. Who are we? What do we really stand for?
Just this week, we learned again about the serious threats of climate change, and our stressed-out eco-system. Can we really ignore or deny the data and be faithful, be good stewards of God’s creation?
There are so many tensions that seem to be growing – between Russia and Crimea, between China and the US, between Iran and the world – all of which could ignite fires of turmoil, or worse.
Then, the economic issues surround us – interest rates, slow growth in the markets, the complexities of Brexit, tariffs . . . and more.
AND THEN, we all have . . . . our personal struggles – a new cancer diagnosis perhaps, . . . a new low for a loved one, . . . a new dead-end on a relationship, . . . or dead-end on a treatment plan, . . . or a job possibility.
These are all serious issues. Could things get worse?
None of this is really new for human life – serious struggles, deep threats to life and living. There have always been comparable times of disruption and heartache through the ages when people were left reeling, wondering what on earth and in heaven was going on. But whatever their occasion, or size, troubles require attention.
In one particular season of life long ago, the troubles might have been far worse than today. Around the year 590-580BC – more than 2600 years ago – the region of Judah, that area around Jerusalem – was under siege. And during that time, a certain prophet named Jeremiah was called by God to speak God’s promises, to clarify God’s faithfulness, to call forth God’s people. Jeremiah was in the middle of the mess, praying and preaching, struggling and striving, speaking with courage and crying with real tears.
What was happening in and around Jerusalem – the center of God’s people, the Hebrews? The Babylonians – a strong and emerging people from the east - were coming and did come - to sack the kingdom of God, sack the city of God, destroy the temple of God, and destroy all that God’s people had worked so hard to attain. Here is what scholar and teacher Walter Brueggemann says about this time: “the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC at the hands of the Babylonians constituted the defining experience of ancient Israel given to us in the Old Testament. This was a supreme and social, and therefore religious catastrophe.” What happened then and there shattered everything about life, destroyed every aspect of life. (Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope, p. 4)
Why did this happen? Jeremiah the prophet answers that question – because the people drifted away from their core values of worshipping and serving God, of loving their neighbor, of caring for each other. All through the first have of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet conveys how God is furious with the people – they reneged on the covenant with God. Instead of turning in compassion and care toward the world, they turned inward, in selfishness. Instead of helping others, they helped themselves. None of the leaders, none of the people, wanted to hear this: they were not interested in building an ethical community; they were interested in their own comfort and position. Their desire to maintain their own power and influence trumped everything. So no wonder God’s people become vulnerable to the Babylonians.
And by the time we get to Jeremiah 33 – guess what? – the worst is not just going to happen, maybe. It has happened! When the prophet speaks in chapter 33, Babylon's armies are invading the land with an efficient brutality. Sounds of war and scenes of death are the backdrop for his words. Indeed, it is so bad that Jeremiah has shifted his message to imagine something totally new, totally different: hope and renewal. So let’s hear this passage on this first Sunday of Advent:
14The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It is only when the way of life that bankrupted Judah ethically and physically is razed to the ground that Jeremiah can begin to imagine a way forward. Then, to paint his vision of restoration, Jeremiah picks up on an image used other places in scripture - he does not reject government because government has messed up so royally. Rather he re-envisions it in a radically new guise. With the old forms of life destroyed, the prophet looks out on the wasted landscape and, speaking God’s words, begins to fill it with images of beauty, peace, and wholeness. “In those days . . . I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up. . . . and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
The images of life-after-disaster are not overblown with glitter and gold and celebration. In the midst of chaos, Jeremiah preaches that there is a promise in all the mess about a new beginning. In the waste, he sees an opportunity for a fresh start. A righteous branch, pruned from a dying tree and replanted by God, will mark the tentative new start for this people.
Then there is more in this vision: a leader who is defined by righteousness from the inside out stands at the center of this restored community. This leader is radical, not because he does something never imagined, but because he actually does what he should do. He rules, not in the service of securing power and prestige for himself, but for the good of others. Then, the city under this new king will be so secure, so safe for everyone (not just a few), and so radically changed that it will need a new name: "the Lord is our righteousness."
Imagine that – out of the extreme mess, including the worst things that could have happened to the people – the loss of everything – Jeremiah says God will not desert the people. In fact, God will cause a Branch to spring up from the desolation, who shall execute justice and righteousness, and this is the name by which it will be called – “the Lord is our righteousness.”
“You haven’t got it right!” says the exasperated piano teacher. Junior is holding his hands the way he has been told. His fingering (on the keys) is unexceptionable. He has memorized the piece perfectly. He has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But his heart’s not in it, only his fingers. What he’s playing is sort of music but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping. He has succeeded in boring everybody to death, including himself.
RIGHTEOUSNESS is getting it RIGHT. If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house. (F. Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 82)
RIGHTEOUSNESS is the state of being in the RIGHT. And this word appears over 500 times in the OT and 225 times in the NT.
RIGHTEOUSNESS is what God intends, what God works for, what God expects of us as God’s people, and what the Kingdom of God looks like. RIGHTEOUSNESS has to do with things being as they should – compassion prevails, equity and justice established, kindness and shalom everywhere. RIGHTEOUSNESS – everything made RIGHT – the fullness of God, the peace and wholeness of God – no more tears, no more tear gas, no more posturing for power, no more terror, no more groaning about creation, or worrying about some issue, or waiting for test results – justice, righteousness, hope, light everywhere. A branch shall spring up with new growth – God’s growth – “the Lord is our RIGHTEOUSNES.” That is the new name. Everything made RIGHT.
When early Christians encountered Jesus, they saw him as the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus brings to us the full reign of God. The old structures of oppression and injustice are broken down to make way for a new creation. For Jeremiah, in the image of the righteous branch, justice and righteousness spring forth from the ground and lead to life abundant for all. (see Amy Erikson, Day1.org)
As we move into the Advent season, even with all the swirling discouragement, even with all the dis-ease about our lives and world, we are invited to lift our gaze – live in God’s hope and keep watching, waiting, and working for God. The Lord never deserts us. God is never out of the picture. No matter what is beating us down or weighing heavy on our hearts – Jeremiah says, “this is the name by which it will be called: ‘the Lord is our righteousness.’”
“The Lord is our righteousness” – say that: “the Lord is our righteousness.” It is a reminder that God does not ever desert God’s people. It is a reminder that we live always with HOPE – as the first candle on the wreath reminds us. Say it again – “the Lord is our Righteousness!” It is also a reminder that we cannot simply sit idly by – we are to be motivated to live as God’s servant people, working for justice, spreading kindness, promoting love and peace. “The Lord is our righteousness. “ God will make things right and, as God’s people, we are to participate with God in promoting RIGHTEOUSNESS, everywhere, always.
As we gather around this table once again, and partake of the Lord’s Supper, “the Lord is our RIGHTEOUSNESS.” We are fed for strength and faith so we can live toward God’s RIGHTEOUSNESS. We are fed for courage for the challenges, sustenance for the journey, nourishment for God’s work because “the Lord is our RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
God makes things right and God will make all things right. This is what shapes our hope. This is what shapes our life. We keep taking the long view – trusting God. We keep remembering – no matter the wasteland, or the loss, or the chaos – God does not desert us. We keep our gaze on God. We focus our lives, our days, our daily work – on aligning our lives with God’s RIGHTEOUSNESS.
May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we believe; help our unbelief. And fill us with faith and hope; yes, . . . hope! Amen
Alex W Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on December 2, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.