On this first Sunday of Advent, one cannot read the prophecy of a "righteous Branch" springing up for David in anything but a messianic light.
And that is a theologically sound way of reading this passage from Jeremiah. It is worth noting, however, the circumstances in which the prophecy was first spoken and heard.
Though it is likely that this particular section of Jeremiah's prophecy is a later addition (33:14-26 is lacking in the Septuagint), in its current literary context, the promises are spoken to address a dire situation. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, are advancing on Jerusalem. The streets of Jerusalem will soon be filled with the corpses of her people (33:4-5), and the prophet Jeremiah himself is imprisoned by King Zedekiah (33:1).
The worst has not yet happened, but it is inevitable. Any reasonable person can see that the city is doomed. Jeremiah's many prophecies of judgment--prophecies that have landed him in prison--are coming true. Yet now, in the midst of catastrophe, the prophet finally speaks words of promise! In the previous chapter, he has purchased a piece of land, a foolish thing to do in a country soon to be conquered by invading armies. Nevertheless, he has purchased the land as a pledge, as earnest of God's redemption: "For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (32:15). In the midst of impending doom, a sign of hope is enacted.
Similarly, in chapter 33, the prophet speaks of the coming restoration, the restoration of normal, everyday life. There will come a time in the land of Judah when "there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride" (33:10-11).
And now, in this passage, Jeremiah speaks of the restoration not simply of daily life (as momentous as that is), but also of one of the chief signs of God's favor, the restoration of the Davidic line. A righteous Branch will sprout from the line of David. A similar image is found in Isaiah 11:1--"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." The image is one of hope and unexpected joy: new life springing up from what looks like a dead stump.
One of the chief tragedies of the Babylonian Exile, of course, was the end of the Davidic dynasty. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God had promised that it would always be so (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). But the Babylonians destroyed David's city, burned Solomon's temple, and took David's heirs into exile. The promises of God seemed to have come to an end.
To a people devastated by loss, Jeremiah's prophecy offered hope: "The 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" (33:14). All might seem lost, but God still is faithful. The house of David might be cut down, but God is able to bring life out of death. A branch will sprout.
Historically, of course, the Davidic line did not return to the throne, so passages like this (and its parallel, Jeremiah 23:5-6), were in time interpreted to be speaking about the coming ideal ruler, the Messiah. That is certainly the reason this passage is one of the lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Advent. The descendant of David who will "execute justice and righteousness in the land" is the one for whom we wait in this Advent season. And his salvation encompasses not just Judah and Jerusalem, but the whole world.
Such is the word of promise and hope in this text. The preacher should also acknowledge, however, that like Jeremiah, he or she speaks these words in a time when many are experiencing great loss: loss of job, of security, of home. While there are no invading armies on the doorstep (at least not in the North American context), many parishioners will resonate with the fear and hopelessness of Jeremiah's original audience. The preacher would do well to speak about that historical situation so that the words of promise and hope are heard in all their power.
A righteous Branch will spring up. It is a word of hope, but not naïve hope. Jeremiah is not someone who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. Far from it! This is a prophet imprisoned by his own government because he keeps prophesying doom.
A righteous Branch will spring up. Maybe so, but that saving act of God is not readily apparent in Jeremiah's or Judah's current situation, dreading the imminent arrival of enemy armies.
A righteous Branch will spring up. This word of tenacious hope is spoken to counteract all of the life-sapping, despair-inducing evidence to the contrary. And that is its power.
The same proclamation is given today to us, inheritors of Jeremiah's task. We are called to speak a word of hope and promise in a world often filled with fear and uncertainty, even despair. Especially in this season of Advent, we speak words of hope. In the midst of darkness, light is about to break in. In the midst of despair, hope erupts. After long waiting, a branch will sprout. The complete fulfillment of God's promises has not yet happened, but it is coming. Such is Advent faith, and Advent hope.