Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16
As Advent begins this year, we immediately hear God’s assertion: “I will fulfill the promise I made… I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up… Jerusalem will live in safety.”
The first reading for this Sunday is assurance. We need these words in order to absorb what will follow throughout Advent, for many words in this season are filled with foreboding. The Lukan text for today warns of what will come “like a trap.”
What vision does the lectionary give us in this time? On the one hand, it says that God’s word is about something very serious. On the other hand, we are to hear this seriousness from the position of ultimate security. We begin the new church year with the extremes of fear and ultimate stability set before us.
Jeremiah was uniquely situated to speak bold words of hope because of both his proximity to the events in Jerusalem and his status as something of an outsider. He lived two miles from Jerusalem in Anathoth and was, therefore, not a power structure “insider.” Yet, standing apart, he did not lack awareness of the nation’s situation. As the son of a priest, his lifelong apprenticeship meant he breathed in knowledge of both politics and faith.
Scholars tell us he was born around 645-640 B.C.E. This is a time of insecurity for the Hebrew people because the powerful Assyrian nation threatened to overrun them. Look at a map of the region in that period and you will see little Judah squeezed between the huge nation of the Assyrians to the north and the Egyptians to the west and south. During Jeremiah’s life, the rulers of Judah had to deal with whether to make alliance with Egypt to avoid destruction from the north.
What does a prophet do when threats arise? In the answer to that question lies the power of this reading. A prophet does not turn to the easy answer. A prophet does not lie. A prophet of the Lord lifts up God’s deep commitment to Israel and proclaims hope that comes from far beyond the political, military, social, and economic solutions humans can dream up. Jeremiah’s prophetic voice bypasses conventional answers to the problems of national survival and points to a future in which the Lord’s own righteousness will reside with the people: “I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David…. [to] execute justice… in the land.”
The time is not now, but it is coming. The Lord has made a promise that will not be forgotten. “The days are surely coming…” We might hear in Jeremiah’s speech the cadences of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who thundered to the nation marching in 1963 for civil rights: “I may not get there with you… but I have seen the promised land…” The days are surely coming.
The prophet is the one who holds out a vision for us to cling to especially when we cannot grasp the meaning. With these pronouncements, Jeremiah sets the tone for all that is to approach our ears in Advent, for we need to hear the warnings to “be alert” in the context of ultimate and sure promise.
Often, when we are in the midst of a situation, we have difficulty looking beyond it. The way forward can dissolve into panic over the immediate present. The horizon shrinks to concern for sheer survival. This is when ends and means get confused.
What do a people do when threatened? Remember what the United States did when threatened in 2001. Remember the fear of that time. How difficult it is to listen to the prophet who cautions against making agreements with one enemy in order to defeat another, for it can be argued that the U.S. embraced the restrictions of liberty in the name of freedom.
In Jeremiah’s time the forces arrayed against stability and security were formidable: the Assyrian power was at its height, threatening the people of Israel. Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord under three rulers of Judah, warning against listening to the wrong voices. He told King Josiah not to side with Egypt. He castigated false prophets during Johoiakin’s reign, preaching that failure to obey the Lord would bring the nation to ruin. He urged King Zedekiah not to fight the Babylonians. In the end, no one heeded Jeremiah’s warnings. When he was about 35 years old and seasoned as a prophet, Assyria was finally defeated by a coalition of peoples including the Babylonians. This did not usher in a peaceful time for Judah; everyone was exiled to Egypt, including Jeremiah.
The word of the prophet Jeremiah, however, still works to reach beyond the moment. Indeed, Walter Brueggemann writes that the promises of Jeremiah 33 “join together the resolve of heaven and the future of the earth.”1 The strength of Jeremiah’s proclamation regarding the coming of the righteous branch lies in the fact that these words speak from the perspective of ultimate power about a this-world savior.
Jeremiah’s oracles against Judah’s disobedience come at the beginning of the book and his oracles against Judah’s enemies at the end. And in the middle is the heart of what stands against all the destruction and failure: God’s promise to bring rescue and safety. It is the promise that holds us, because it is the only antidote to the very easy and very dangerous possibility of slipping into facile blaming when our nation is in trouble. It is exactly when the problems of our people are most murky and complex, when the future seems most bleak, that we turn to the word of the Lord for vision.
Hold the image of that righteous branch as you preach through this Advent season. The branch is the eschatological reality toward which the people of God are securely moving.
1 Walter Brueggemann, To Build, To Plant: A Commentary on Jeremiah 26-52 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 92.