“Deliverance—But Not as Expected”

Advent 1

November 29, 2015


Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36


          Today we begin the season of Advent. It is at this point in the Christian year that the Christian calendar and the secular calendar perhaps show the sharpest discontinuity between them. The secular world is getting ready for Christmas and all that comes with it. The church is often tempted to go along and focus on the coming of the Christ Child. I invite us to remember that Advent, which means “coming”, is about all the ways, times, and places in which God comes to his people. The birth of Jesus is certainly one of those, but not the only one.

          The prophet Jeremiah was active in the final days of the Kingdom of Judah before Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and its leading citizens were carried off to exile in Babylon. He continued to be active in the early years of the exile as well.

          Before Jerusalem fell, Jeremiah warned that God had declared judgment on Judah for its sins, and that the Babylonians were the instrument of God’s punishment of his people. He warned that the temple would be destroyed, the city sacked, and the leading citizens, including the king, carried off into captivity. For this message, which was seen as undermining national morale, Jeremiah was imprisoned. The Book of Jeremiah says that today’s scripture lesson came from his time in prison.

          Our reading from Jeremiah this morning talks about a righteous Branch to come from the family of King David who would do what is just and right in the land, who would bring safety and salvation to Judah and Jerusalem. The name of this righteous Branch would be, “The Lord is our Righteousness.” In Hebrew that is tsedeqyah, which transliterates into English as Zedekiah. It so happens that was the name of the king of Judah at the time, although that was not his original name. His original name was Mattaniah. The name Zedekiah was given to him by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when he was installed as a puppet king to govern Judah. I am guessing Nebuchadnezzar meant the name as some sort of cruel joke, for scripture tells us that Zedekiah did not live up to his name; he did not govern according to God’s righteousness at all.

          If King Zedekiah thought this oracle of Jeremiah was about him, he was sorely mistaken, for he did not bring safety and salvation to Judah and Jerusalem. After several years of being Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet, Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians. The rebellion was crushed, the temple was burned, the city was sacked, and the leading citizens were exiled to Babylon. Zedekiah was forced to watch his sons be executed, then was blinded and hauled off to Babylon in chains.

          All this could mean that God intended that safety and salvation for his people would come through continuing to be a vassal state of Babylon, and Zedekiah failed to get the message. It could also mean God was pointing to another yet to come who would be a new Zedekiah.

          Christian interpreters have long understood this passage to foreshadow the coming of Jesus. Indeed, when people in Jesus’ time began to understand him as Messiah, God’s anointed one, many of them looked upon him as a ruler and military leader who would lead a revolt against the Roman Empire and restore Israel to greatness as a nation. Jesus, of course, did not understand himself that way. In fact, much of what he taught can be understood as an effort to discourage a revolt. But the fact that some did think Jesus planned to lead a revolt was enough to get him crucified.

          Now the Jews did eventually revolt against the Romans a few decades after Jesus walked this earth. This revolt turned out to be just as disastrous as the one Zedekiah led against the Babylonians. Once again Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed. Once again what people thought would bring safety and salvation brought violence, bloodshed, and destruction.

          The deliverance that Jesus came to bring was not accomplished by defeating earthly empires through violent revolution. Instead it was accomplished through sacrificial love, demonstrated through Jesus’ death on the cross to forgive the sins of humankind and his victorious resurrection that defeated the powers of sin and death.

          Even though the powers of sin and death have been defeated, they have not given up. There is an impulse in human beings that wants things to be set right, that wants justice to be done. However, people don’t always agree about what that looks like, and many of the conflicts in our world today have to do with conflicting visions of a just, righteous world. We live in a world where many believe violence is necessary to bring about justice and righteousness, where the standard response to what is seen as evil is to kill as many of the perceived perpetrators as possible, where the oppressed try to set themselves free by violence and are in turn ruthlessly crushed by violence. This tendency toward violence in search of safety and salvation is true of every earthly power, whether it happens to be friend or foe to you and me. And I recognize that when I am angry with people and situations in the world because I believe injustice is being done, there is a part of me that wants to resort to violence as well.

          Included in the desire to see the world set right is the hope we have in Christ that someday he will return in glory to set everything right, to bring safety and salvation. According to our Gospel lesson, Christ will return on a cloud with great power and glory. We are told this event will strike the world with awe and fear. Popular understandings of how this will happen also often portray this as an act of great violence and destruction. But I question whether that is really so. Violence did not deliver Judah from the Babylonians. Jesus did not act violently to deliver us from sin and death; instead violence was done to him. And all the efforts to bring about a better world through violence down through the centuries have only led to further violence and bloodshed, making the world less safe and saving no one. Why would God violently usher in the fullness of his Kingdom when that method has been proven ineffective?

          Christ’s return is generally portrayed as the inauguration of the Last Judgment. Now judgment is not necessarily a violent act. Judgment when done well is an act of holding people accountable for their actions. It is intended to bring about rehabilitation and restoration of the offender. It is a fearful thing to be called to account for one’s wrongdoing, to be sure. But what if God’s way of setting things right is to hold humanity accountable, to rehabilitate, and, through the death and resurrection of Christ, to restore all people to right relationship, rather than using violent destruction to do so? If God in Christ is about the reconciliation of the world to himself, as the Apostle Paul wrote, and if God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life, as we read in the Gospel of John, is this not a reasonable expectation?

          “Lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption in Christ is not coming in the way we may expect. It is coming, in God’s good time, in God’s way. And that way calls not for violence and destruction, but rehabilitation and reconciliation. We cannot redeem the world ourselves, but we can participate in God’s purposes in the way we live in the world. Yes, there is much going on in the world about which I become angry. Yes, there is within me the desire to react in violent ways. But I also know that reacting in those ways does more harm than good. So I pray for the ability to live in the world as God would have me live, to seek God’s love and justice through rehabilitation and reconciliation rather than through violence and destruction, even while waiting for Christ to come again to set everything right. I hope you will join me.


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