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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Its Name, His Name, Our Name - An Advent Sermon


A few weeks ago, I made a detour from the standard lectionary readings to spend a few weeks preaching from the Confessional passages of Jeremiah. That was a good thing and I was glad to do it, but I was relieved to return to the lectionary texts when that series was done. Jeremiah may be one of my favorites, but he’s better in small doses; he can be a bit overwhelming. So, I was amused when the lectionary texts chosen for this first week of Advent brought be back to the prophet Jeremiah.

“See, days are coming-declares the LORD-when I will fulfill the promise that I made concerning the House of Israel and the House of Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a true branch of David’s line, and he shall do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And this is what she shall be called: “The LORD is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16 JPS)

This will be an Advent sermon, yes, leading us to think about the coming of Jesus, preparing our hearts for Christmas, and leading us forward into greater hope for the future, but in order to get there we need to go back to the days of the prophet Jeremiah and the last King of Judah, King Zedekiah. In order to go forward, we need to go backward.

Zedekiah, the third son of the good king, Josiah, was given the name Mattaniah “gift of Yahweh” at birth. His father, the good king, the young king Josiah, was killed on the field of battle against Pharaoh Necho. Necho first appointed Mattaniah’s brother Jehoahaz the puppet king of Judah, but he only ruled for three months before being deposed by Pharaoh Necho, and imprisoned. Jehoahaz was replaced by the other brother, Jehoiakim. But, according to the historians who composed the books of Kings, he also “did what was displeasing to the LORD” and only ruled for 11 unpleasant years. Jehoiakim’s rule was brought to an end by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Jehoiakim died during the Babylonian siege of the city of Jerusalem and his body was thrown outside the walls (Jeremiah 22:19). Jehoiakim was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin–but only briefly. After three months and ten days, Jehoiachin, along with 3,000 of the leading citizens and officials of Judah were taken away into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. 

Jehoiachin was succeeded by his uncle, Mattaniah-now renamed Zedekiah by King Nebuchadnezzar.
During his time as king-as puppet king, answerable to Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah was not criticized by the prophet Jeremiah, as his nephew and brothers had been. But this isn’t to say that he was a good king. His new name, Zedekiah, means “My Righteousness is Yahweh;” Zedekiah, however, never quite lived up to the import of that name.

He was a weak king-but this isn’t entirely his fault. His father, Josiah, had attempted to rule between the rock and the hard place between two powerful empires, Egypt and Babylon, and was squashed. His brothers and nephew had flip flopped their allegiances, trying to preserve the little nation of Judah’s independence. But they could not. And when Jehoiachin and the court officials were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, 21 year old Zedekiah was left without any experienced political advisors. Jeremiah described those who were left as “bad figs.” (Jeremiah 24)  Zedekiah was never accepted as the legitimate king of Judah; even after he was taken away into captivity, the people still considered Jehoiachin as their rightful king.

Jeremiah repeatedly counseled the desperate king to bite the bullet and to surrender fully and completely to Nebuchadnezzar, to accept the inevitable. But the bad fig advisors in Zedekiah’s court and the people of Judah still insisted on trying to make a go of it. Zedekiah felt unable to accept Jeremiah’s advice, and the bad fig advisors pushed the weak king to try to hold out against the Babylonians, by making an alliance with Egypt again. (Althann 1069) Nebuchadnezzar responded, as you would expect, with force. The Babylonian army came and laid siege to the city again and during those 30 months the city experienced the worst sorts of woes and every desperate depravity. Before the city was captured, Zedekiah and his family attempted to escape, but they were captured and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah’s sons were executed in front of him and then his eyes were gouged out so that the last thing he ever saw was their gruesome deaths.

The city of Jerusalem was razed to the ground. Solomon’s Temple was plundered and destroyed; its treasures were taken away to Babylon. And the rest of the people of Judah were taken into captivity; only a few–of the poorest people of the land-were left. This is where we must begin when we consider the words of the prophet spoken during the final year of Zedekiah’s troubled kingship.

“See, days are coming-declares the LORD-when I will fulfill the promise that I made concerning the House of Israel and the House of Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a true branch of David’s line, and he shall do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And this is what she [the city of Jerusalem] shall be called: “The LORD is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16 JPS)

Ever the ironic prophet, Jeremiah preached imminent doom and destruction during years of prosperity, now the destruction he’d prophesied was near at hand (indeed, the army was camped just outside the walls) and he’s speaking of blessing, of salvation and restoration and security.
In this darkest hour, Jeremiah anticipates the coming of a “true branch” (JPS) a “righteous branch” (NRSV) – “the Righteous Branch” (KJV).  But this is no eschatological, world conquering hero. (Hyatt 988) He is not a military leader to ride into battle against the Babylonians, to fight in armed combat against Israel and Judah’s enemies. This Davidic scion would bring salvation and security through his righteousness. The Hebrew word “Righteous” here is “zedek” and is probably intended as a play on the name of the failure king. King Zedekiah did not live up to the righteous expectations of his name. But the word also implies “rightful” and “lawful” and “legitimate,” another dig at Zedekiah, “whose name suggests legitimacy-but who [was], in fact, a Babylonian vassal” (Brake 776).

The hope that Jeremiah sees in the future for Judah and for Israel is a good and rightful king who is a legitimate descendent of David, and who will rule in justice and righteousness. This would be Judah’s deliverance. This would be Israel’s security.  And it is because of this justice and righteousness that the city of Jerusalem would become known as “the Lord is our Vindicator” (JPS)

Other translations give the city’s name as:
“The LORD is our Righteousness” (KJV, NRSV)
“The LORD gives Justice” (CEV)
“The LORD is our Salvation” (GNT)
“God Has Set Things Right For Us” (The Message)

The city that had become a “horror-an evil-to all the kingdoms of the earth, a disgrace and a proverb, a byword and a curse” (Jeremiah 24: 9 JPS) in its utter destruction at the hands of the Babylonians would in days to come become such a wonderful place that it is called by God’s own name, known as the place of Yahweh’s Righteousness, the place of the LORD’s Saving Justice.  Its name would be “The LORD is our Vindicator.” Its name would be “The LORD is our Salvation,” “the Lord is our Justice,” “our Righteousness.”

I said that before we can go forward, we need to go backward. And here, as we’re just beginning to look forward with longing to the coming of this Righteous Branch, this good and righteous Davidic King who would bring restoration and security to the city of Jerusalem, we need to go backward a little bit further.

The passage chosen for us by those who established the standard lectionary readings (Jeremiah 33: 14-16) actually quotes from an earlier section of Jeremiah with a small, but not insignificant, difference.  In Jeremiah 23: 5 – 6 it says:

“See, a time is coming-declares the LORD-when I will raise up a true branch of David’s line. He shall reign as king and shall prosper, and he shall do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And this is the name by which he shall be called: “The LORD is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 23: 5 – 6 JPS)

Did you note the difference? In 33: 14 – 16 it is the city of Jerusalem that will be known as “The LORD is our Vindicator” or “The LORD is our Righteousness” but in the earlier passage (earlier in the book as well as earlier in the book’s sometimes disordered chronology) it is the righteous king himself who will be known by that divine epithet. The emphasis in this earlier prophecy is on the man; in the latter the emphasis is on the city.  The earlier passage is more “messianic” (though messianism is not really prevalent in the whole of Jeremiah’s writing. Only a few passages in his book could arguably be considered messianic: 23: 5 – 6 / 33: 14 – 16, 30: 8 -9, and 33:17.)[i]

I thought it odd that the lectionary reading for this first Sunday of the Advent season would take the less messianic passage. It seems like a no brainer, to me anyway. If we want to start our thinking towards the coming king of Israel, the messianic king, the prince of peace, the great desire of nations, the righteous branch, the noble son of David that brings Saving Justice to the whole world, why not, when you have the choice between two very similar readings, go with the one that puts clear emphasis on the One whose name is “The LORD is our righteousness”?

But while the Advent season (despite all the indications to the contrary, it is not Christmas season yet…) does prompt us to anticipate the coming of that “Rose e’er blooming”, that “flow’ret bright” (Baker) of Jesse’s lineage – both in his coming as a child in Bethlehem and his glorious eschatological coming, Advent also prompts us to anticipate the coming of that King of Israel’s kingdom, the coming of the New Jerusalem, the coming of heaven to earth.

When the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, they plundered the Temple of Solomon and carried off its many treasures as the booty and spoils of war. But the Ark of the Covenant was lost. Did it go to Babylon? Was it destroyed during the siege? Was it carried off to Ethiopia? Or Egypt? No one knows. One legend says that the prophet Jeremiah, having been warned of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, snuck the Ark out of the temple and hid it in a cave on Mount Nebo. (2 Maccabees 2: 4 – 10) No one really knows.

But the prophet Jeremiah wouldn’t have been concerned by its absence. He envisioned a time when “men shall no longer speak of the Ark of Covenant of the LORD,” when it would not even come to mind. The people would not “mention it, or miss it, or make another.” It would be a time when Jerusalem became the “throne of the LORD” and all nations would assemble there in the name of the Lord. (Jeremiah 3: 16 – 17 JDS)

The Medieval French Rabbi known as Rashi, commenting on this passage, said it would be a time when the whole assembly was so imbued with the spirit of sanctity and righteousness that God’s presence would rest upon the congregation as if they were themselves the Ark of God’s Covenant. (Rashi)

We are to be this congregation. This is to be our name.

“Sing choirs of New Jerusalem
Your sweetest notes employ;
the paschal victory to hymn
in songs of holy joy!”

(Cambell)

In the New Testament John, imprisoned on the island of Patmos, saw a revelatory vision of temple of heaven opened, “and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” (Revelation 11:19 NRSV)

And where is this heaven? Where is this kingdom? Where is this city so righteous that its name, and the name of its king, and the name of its assembled congregation is “The LORD Is our Righteousness”?  Do we anticipate it? Do we desire to see it? Do we long for it?  This advent season is a time to consider the coming kingdom of God.

But not merely to think about it in abstract meditation. We are not merely longing for it with some vague wistful hope. Do we want to, as the slogan says, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Then let us begin even now during this time of Advent. That Righteous Branch and his Heavenly Kingdom are not far removed from us as they were in Jeremiah’s day. For the Kingdom has come and is among us. I’ve frequently quoted William Booth, the founder and first General of The Salvation Army who said, “Making heaven on earth is our business.” (Booth)

Do we long for that Righteous Branch and the city of God? Then work for justice and righteousness. Put away all violence and warring. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned. This is the kingdom of God; this is making heaven on earth. Do we want our name to be “The LORD is our Saving Justice”?  Then do good, and be good. Make peace. Make love. Make joy. And God’s holy presence will dwell upon us, and we will live in peace and security.

“How bright appears the Morning Star,
with mercy beaming from afar;
the host of heaven rejoices.
O Righteous Branch, O Jesse’s Rod,
the Son of Man and Son of God!
We too will lift our voices:
Jesus, Jesus, holy, holy
yet most lowly, come, draw near us;
great Immanuel, come and hear us.

(Mercer)

Lord, Make our name, “The LORD is our Righteousness.” Amen.



Althann, Robert. “Zedekiah” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 6. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.
Baker, Theodore – translation. “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” (German Traditional) 1894.

Booth, William. “Don’t Forget” 1910.

Bracke, John M. “Branch” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 1. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

Cambell, Robert. “Sing, Choirs of New Jerusalem”

Hyatt, James Philip. “Jeremiah: Exegesis” The Interpreters Bible Vol. 5. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956.

Mercer, William. “How Bright Appears the Morning Star.” 1859

Rashi 

Wassink, Matthew W. “A Biblical Theology of ‘RighteousBranch’ in Jeremiah 33” 




[i] There is the difficulty, however, that 33:14 – 16 is not included in the LXX Greek translation of Jeremiah. So the question is: “is it more likely that an authentic passage was deleted from the LXX translation or that an un-authentic one was added to the MT?” (Wassink 2) Either way, for the purposes of this sermon we will accept the text as we have it, with both passages.

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