Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Righteous Branch

Jeremiah 33:14-16 The covenant that God established with his Old Testament people was a two-sided covenant—God would do his part—and the people would do theirs.  God did his—but they didn’t do theirs.  They broke their part of the covenant again and again.  In mercy God took them back again and again—to no avail.  They never really changed—and by this time in their history, they made no pretense of even wanting to change.
Jeremiah was sent to them to let them know that God was going to execute that part of the covenant that the people had ignored—the covenant curses for disobedience.
That message should have led the people to repent—but it didn’t!  Instead they surrounded themselves with false prophets who promised them what their itching ears wanted to hear:  that there would be peace and plenty—that there was no need to change the direction of their lives-- and that they had nothing to fear from God’s judgment.
How wrong they were!  In that terrible moment, when thousands of Babylonian soldiers surrounded Jerusalem—they knew that Jeremiah was right and that the judgment of God was at hand and that there was nothing that they could do to change it—they knew that they were beyond human help.  That is the context for the words that we hear tonight from the prophet Jeremiah: 
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In 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.” 
What a comfort these words of promise must have been in that dark hour!  To know that just as surely as God had kept his word and was poised to bring judgment—so he would keep his promise to raise up a deliverer for them—that as bleak and as desolate as things were—there was still hope in the Righteous Branch that God would graciously raise up from David’s line.
The challenge for us is to hear Jeremiah’s words as God’s Word to us no less than it was to the people of that day—for they truly are.  The same message of judgment and salvation is intended for us too.  PAUSE!
Each week we confess that, because of our sins, we justly deserve God’s punishment in time and eternity.  Those words are intended to make us realize that what we really deserve for our sins is what the Israelites in Judah received—the destruction of all we love and hold dear—in this world and the next.
I think that most of us struggle to believe that our sins are really as bad as all that—especially since, for the most part, we live outwardly upright lives.  I think that most of us struggle to believe that God is really as demanding as all that-- since nothing in this world can reveal or measure the true holiness of God.
And what the devil, the world, and our flesh tell us is the same message of the lying prophets of old:  peace, peace where there was no peace.  That God really won’t judge.  That things are not as bad as all that.  That we can continue on as before.
But the truth of the matter is that God is holy and righteous in a way that we can’t even begin to comprehend and our sins ARE as bad as all that.  In fact, our sins are really not much different at all than the sins of the people of that day.
We too struggle with idolatry—maybe not the obvious kind of bowing and worshiping before an Asherah Pole like the Israelites engaged in--but the more subtle and sinister idolatry of trusting in our money and efforts for our security or making an idol of our health and recreation and family.
We too are part of a culture that murders its children—and even if we have not engaged in abortion ourselves—how many of us have failed to lift our voices to stop it—how many of us have worked to end it?
We too are a part of a culture that has reduced God’s gift of sexuality down to its basest forms.  And even if we have never committed adultery—even if we have been married for decades-- how many of us can say that we have never lusted—how many of us can say that our entertainment is not filled with filth—how many of us can say that our moral compass has not been badly skewed by what we see and hear and read.
And just like the tribes of Judah who turned a blind to what happened to their kinsman in the north at the hands of the Assyrians, and refused to see it as judgment from Almighty God, and a warning to leave their own lives of sin—we have done exactly the same thing—failing to recognize the temporal judgment of God in the circumstances of this world that befall us.
It didn’t use to be that way.  In our parents and grand-parents day, when they experienced a severe drought or terrible storm or the curse of war, the church would begin her prayers for deliverance by first asking for forgiveness for themselves—knowing that God does indeed exercise his judgment in time to rebuke and warn and correct his people.
Now we regard these events as some else’s fault-- or the luck of the draw for an unfortunate few-- or merely “natural” disasters with no cause or purpose-- rather than recognizing them for what they are—a sign of the broken-ness of this world and God’s impending, final judgment on mankind on account of sin.
When we see these things for what they are—when the truth about our own lives is revealed for what it is—when our half-hearted confessions and past resolutions to do better have not brought us very far in turning from sin and to the LORD-- we are struck with the same kind of emotions and thoughts as the Israelites who looked over the walls of Jerusalem and saw their destruction at hand—that we are beyond human help.
That is why these words from the prophet Jeremiah are just as true and meaningful and important to us as they were to the people of that day.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In 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.”
Just as Jeremiah prophesied, the “days to come” came to an end some 600 years later, and in the town of Bethlehem, the city where David was born, a baby was born to a virgin named Mary and her husband named Joseph, both direct descendants of David.
            That baby’s name was Jesus and he was the fulfillment of that gracious promise of God made through the prophet Jeremiah–he was the Righteous Branch who would execute justice and righteousness in the land and save his people–a newborn King who would reign on the throne of David forever.
            This child, unlike any born of a woman before or since, was righteous in God’s sight.  The holy perfection of the Living God was his own for he was not only the Blessed Virgin’s son but was also God’s Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.
            And yet in every other way he was just like us--real flesh, real bone, a real human soul.  He was part of the human family–born under the righteous demands of God  in the Law.  But he was never touched by the stain of original sin and he never failed at even one point of the Law to please his heavenly Father as he lived out his life.
Jesus the Righteous Branch came into the world to bring life and salvation for all people—to deliver us from God’s judgment in time and in eternity--and that is what he did. 
Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of his ancient people the Israelites and our sins and the sins of the whole world and the One who was born possessing the perfect righteousness of Almighty God was judged a sinner and punished, in our place.
By his death, the dead tree of the cross became the “tree of life” as God grafted in it the Righteous Branch of his son Jesus so that everyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ receives his perfect righteousness in place of their sins.  As Jeremiah promised:  “The LORD is our righteousness” and through faith in him our “hearts are blameless in holiness before our God and Father.”
            God fulfilled his gracious promise made through his prophet Jeremiah to do what was just and right in the land through the work of his own Son, the Righteous Branch, Jesus Christ. 
That promise fulfilled changes our life in this world.  Yes, we are still surrounded by enemies on every side.  But we have the promise of Jeremiah that there is a day coming when, “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely.” 
The people of Jerusalem had to wait for that promise to be fulfilled and we do too—for it is the day of our Lord’s return in glory.  But that day will come and when it does all the threatening enemies of God and his people will be destroyed—once and for all—and we will dwell securely in the Lord’s presence.  Amen.

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