The Season of Advent ushers us into the Bible’s Antenatal Clinic! It’s a season of expectancy and looking forward into an unrealized future. The weight of the expectancy gathers momentum!
Consequently, the Bible Lectionary that I use tapes together two prophecies: a prophecy from Jeremiah (33:14-16) and the prophecy of Simeon from Luke’s Gospel (2:25-35).
One prophecy looks forward from a particular point in history. The other looks back. It’s as if two bookends are being employed, between which is the long sad history and purpose of Israel. It’s as if a puzzle is about to be resolved, like the last chapter of an Agatha Christie novel. The denouement is finally here,
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 ‘“In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.”
The context is important. The city of Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar and the people will shortly go into exile (Jer 32:1-6). Jeremiah is in prison (Jer 32:2; 33:1). Jeremiah regards the way the kings (and priests) of Jerusalem have behaved as one of the major reasons for the present disaster (cf. Jer 22:13-18, 24-30). The people are about to lose everything that has given meaning to their lives – the temple, the city, king, priesthood, their homes, family etc. God seems to be silent, absent, and preoccupied with judging the people for past wrongs. But the passage offers future hope to the people.
I am going to fulfil the promise! “The promise” could relate to various Old Testament texts, but it most likely refers to the promise to David, that his dynasty would endure (2 Sam7). The contemporary story of Israel was the destruction of that dynasty. But don’t worry: the promise is unbroken, but it will be fulfilled in a way you don’t expect!
Let’s hear from Simeon in Luke’s account:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss[a] your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.’
33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Luke is giving us a picture of someone righteous and devout waiting faithfully for something he knew was to happen. He is waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” The restoration of the Davidic King. The Spirit promises him, moves him into place and then reveals Jesus. His waiting was not in vain! The baby has arrived!
Jeremiah was anticipating the distant fulfilment of the promise that there will be a descendant of David who will ‘execute justice and righteousness’, a promise that will later form the basis of messianic belief. But it also has something to say about the ‘present’, about living as people who hold a promise. (legacy, inheritance)
These verses teach us a number of things about hope.
First, Jer 33:14-16 suggests a continual reshaping about hope. God walks with us in history. Prophecy looks at mountain range: hope in and ideas about God’s purpose are continually being reshaped and clarified. This is true within Jeremiah. It is also true elsewhere in Scripture, as the hope for a “righteous Branch to spring up for David” (Jer 33:15) is not the same as the messianic hope that is the foundation of the later Gospel message. The promise in Jeremiah is a step on the way toward that understanding. If in Advent we think we await the fulfilment of a fixed and well-defined promise by God, then we only partly understand the deep sense of Advent, of waiting for the Lord. God’s coming among us always requires clarification, and is open to debate and new perceptions by the people of God. There is always the sense of surprise, of an unexpected coming. The Gospels (Matt 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38) present the coming of the messiah, the descendant of David, as the arrival of a baby. So in our own context, as in the book of Jeremiah, the promise of God’s coming is recognised as fulfilled only with much internal debate about the ways God’s purposes of righteousness and justice (Jer 33:15-16) are best served in the world – in political, religious, social or personal terms.
Secondly, we note that the hope in Jeremiah is not only that one day there will be deliverance for Judah and safety for Jerusalem, but that a descendant of David by executing the ‘justice and righteousness’ that have been expected of the kings all along (Isa 9:7; 1 Kgs 10:9; Ps 72:1-4) will bring it about. Advent is not just about something in the future. It is as much about justice today: it challenges the ways we govern ourselves, share wealth and responsibility, organise our communal life, and prepare ourselves for the future
Waiting for the Lord’s coming is not an idle, passive activity. It is waiting that is passionate and active. It is about calling for reform in the world, personal and social. In Jeremiah’s case it was about speaking from prison about hope beyond exile, of envisioning that through commitment to the old covenant expectations there would be a day when again the sound of joy would be heard in the streets (Jer 33:10-13). Jeremiah hopes not only that one day there will be a king who will reshape the people’s lives, but that, even against all that circumstance dictates, kingship itself would be reshaped so as to make new life possible.
Thirdly, hope in the coming of the Lord is always grounded in God’s own action. The prophet speaks words of healing (Jer 30:12-17), of return (Jer 31:2- 14, 23-26), of new life (Jer 31:27-30), and of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34).
He bases his hope in the promise of God (Jer 30:18-22), in God’s faithfulness (Jer 31:2-40), in God’s everlasting love (Jer 31:15-22), and in the certainty of God’s word (Jer 31:35-40).
He uses the lessons of history to underline this last point (Jer 32:1-15). But the word of judgment is never far away (Jer 30:23-31:1). Threat and promise are intimately linked (Jer 30:4-11). Yet in all this, and in spite of the people and the king’s unfaithfulness, God comes to them, even in their darkest hour – the hour of prison or exile. We note that the final word in this section in Jer 33:26 is from the Lord: ‘I will have mercy on them.’ The source of energy behind any hope for the present or future is God’s own word and action, and God’s challenge to present realities, present structures of society and church, and present visions of what is possible. Jeremiah’s hope was deeply rooted in God’s love and faithfulness, and in God’s own speech and concern about the political, social, religious, and personal dimensions of community life.
Advent is not just about waiting for God to fulfil his promise. It is also about our being transformed through waiting. When I go to the Doctors Waiting Room, I wait with purpose, not on the off-chance that something useful or satisfactory will ensue.
And so we wait. We wait for Advent and the mystery of incarnation. We also wait for the Second Advent, for the return of the king, and the wrapping up of history. But something has happened that has changed history forever.
Let’s ponder the final part of Simeon’s prophecy as we prepare to take bread and wine together. Promise, covenant, judgement, fulfilment, challenge, response.
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’