14 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill 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.
Advent seems like a strange season to many Christians. Not only is it strange, it’s maybe not-so-strangely misunderstood. It casts an unfamiliar vibe. Part of the reason for our misunderstanding of the Advent season is undoubtedly due to Advent’s conflict our cultural mindset which occupies the same time. After all, most of us are getting ready for Christmas before the dishes from our Thanksgiving meals are put away. I admit that I did my Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, albeit from the comfort of my chair in front of my computer.
Another oddity with Advent is that it messes with time. During the weeks of December, most of us are paradoxically looking forward to the birth of a baby that has already been born—and is yet still being born in us. And, we’re looking forward to the New Year when, for Christians, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year.
The reality of Advent, however, is that it has no star in the east to guide magi toward the child born in Bethlehem. It has no choir of angels singing refrains of God’s glory, and no shepherds watching their flocks by night. Advent has no birth in a cattle stall, no swaddled baby in a manger, and no Blessed Virgin Mary who ponders in her heart the words of the angel as reported by those shepherds.
The Scripture verses we read during the season of Advent are sometimes strange and difficult to hear. The Gospel readings are all focused on adults who speak about the coming of God’s dominion in apocalyptic overtones. The readings from the New Testament letters all point to the nearness of the Lord’s return. The Old Testament readings speak of a future time of restoration and peace with the coming Day of the Lord which are spoken to a people who are facing the terrors of exile with their crushed hopes, dashed dreams, with a trail of blood, tears, and burned livelihoods either before or behind them.
Advent is not filled with the feel-good stories that we love. These are not the childhood favorites that draw the waters of bubbly nostalgia up from deep within our hearts. Even the songs we sing in Advent, with their minor keys and tempered tempos, fail to gratify our desire to sing the carols of Christmas joy and gladness. Advent can be frustrating to us. It can be confounding to those who simply want to get on to the joy of Christmas with its gift exchanges and family gatherings and well-prepared feasts.
For me, Advent is one of my favorite seasons—it always has been—probably because the theme of the season matches most closely to how I feel all the time. I may not always feel joyful during Christmas. I may not always feel a sense of wonder during the season after Epiphany. I may not always feel remorseful or repentant during Lent. I may not always feel like I’m living out the glories or the victory of Easter, or feel alive and empowered by the Spirit in the season after Pentecost.
You see, I’m the type of person who sees how messed up the world is and I long for something better, something more, something to heal the hurts of the world. I’m the type of person who grieves deeply with each injustice I hear about on the news: every life cut short with all the hopes, dreams, and potential that’s destroyed with them; every injustice against women, minorities, refugees. My heart hurts for every person living in the midst of war or poverty or violence, who suffers at the hands of nations and powers, and the inhumanity they inflict all for the sake of the illusion of control. I grieve for the trauma that each person with these experiences and in these situations will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, and for all they lost and won’t ever get back.
I know that all sounds rather bleak. Maybe even pessimistic. Maybe my words sound like those of someone on the brink of despair. Despair would certainly fit with those who heard Jeremiah’s words. They were facing exile. They were living in the midst of war and death and destruction.
What keeps me from the brink of despair is my faith in God’s promises. When I hear about the horrors people have endured or are enduring, these things fill my prayers. And my prayers for justice, for peace, for righteousness, for restoration, for renewal: they shape my despair into hope and hopeful imagination. Instead of the paralyzation of despair, my soul cries out in longing and hope, Maranatha! The cool thing is, that word from Aramaic either means Come, Lord, or The Lord has come. One points to the source of our longing for God. The other points to the source of our hope in God.
I long for the day when the poor have everything they need, when no more children cry because they’re hungry, when cancer and other illnesses don’t cut lives short, when death is no more, when mourning and crying and pain are no more. I long for the day when refugees no longer have a reason to flee, and all are welcomed as friends no matter what insignificant border they happen to cross. I long for the day when every tear is wiped dry. I long for God’s dominion on earth.
It’s a sense of longing that runs through the season of Advent. The name of the season, itself, means coming. And that’s what we’re longing for in the season of Advent: that the Lord will come and set all things aright. We sing the mournful-sounding hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a minor key because only a minor-key fits when our unfulfilled longing for God’s righteousness can no longer be contained.
“The time is coming,” the Lord declares, when God’s gracious promise to Israel and Judah will be fulfilled. Jeremiah spoke this word of God’s promise to the People of Jerusalem when their world was crumbling around them. Jeremiah shouts to us that, even when things look bleak, we can trust in God’s promise that a new day is coming, when righteousness is the norm.
Jeremiah foresaw a future king of David’s line who would be righteous, who would do what is just and right. You see, Jeremiah blamed the unrighteousness of the Davidic monarchy for the exile that the people faced in his day. The Davidic kings exploited their own people, and they were unfaithful to God. They let justice and righteousness fall to the ground when they were supposed to be its defenders.
The righteous branch was also foreseen by Isaiah, who said, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. He will delight in fearing the LORD. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” (Isaiah 11:1-5 CEB).
God promised to raise up a branch from the stump of a kingly line that had been cut off. Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were the last kings of David’s line. In the middle of hopelessness, Jeremiah offers the people hope. Jeremiah promises them days for which they might long: days when everything that the people have lost will be restored, and the coming-one of David’s line will govern the people with righteousness and justice so that they live in safety.
But, what does the word righteousness even mean? It’s a churchy word that we’re sometimes afraid of because we usually hear it used when we think someone is being self-righteous. Righteousness isn’t an attitude. It’s not an absolute standard. It simply means acting in accordance with God’s purposes. It’s doing the Godly thing. Righteousness is doing good instead of doing bad. It’s also doing as opposed to being. Righteousness is humility, and the ethics of living with and for others in relationships that are loving and just. Self-righteousness is the opposite of righteousness. It’s inflated ego and self-approval. Advent is an invitation for God’s people to remember that we are called to practice righteousness, now, even as we yearn for the future of God’s dominion.
Speaking of our longing: Holy Communion, this meal we’re about to share together, it’s a foretaste of our longings fulfilled. But we need to remember that this meal doesn’t point to magi, or a star, or the things of tender nostalgia. Instead, it points to a world gone mad: a world that desperately needs and longs for the salvation of our God. This meal is of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ whose body was beaten, broken, and bled out by people and powers also for the sake of the illusion of control. This table is set with food paid for at a costly price. Yet, we’re invited to partake, to share in this meal with each other so that we are reminded that our longing for God is not in vain.
God declares that “The time is coming.” Maybe Advent isn’t so strange or unfamiliar after all.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay
(c.f. Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1, pg. 2-7).