1st Sunday in Advent – 11/28/2021
Winter is officially on the way! Even though we have been blessed to enjoy a fairly comfortable November, one quick look at the calendar reminds us that the beginning of winter is only a few short weeks away. Last Wednesday morning's snowy and frigid blast made that abundantly clear.
Even though the first image of winter that usually comes to mind is beautiful white snow covering everything, the real look and feel of winter is deadness. The scene of fields green with wheat, cottonwoods laden with green leaves, and our lawns lush with green grass are long gone. Winter will further remove all evidence of life and growth. In its wake, winter leaves barren fields, dead-looking trees, and dried-up old grass. The whole picture is one of death. Winter's only saving grace is that once in a while, all this deadness is covered with the beauty of glistening, newly fallen snow, turning ugly brown and gray into a bright, shiny white.
But, here on Montana's Eastern Plains, the snow cannot conceal the death that lurks beneath for long. The warmth of the sunshine and the driving northwesterly winds regularly expose the deadness. The only thing that enables us to endure our long and cold winters is the hope for greener pastures. Experience has taught us that winter will not last forever but will eventually give way to spring's green and new life.
The changing of the seasons is much more than an adjustment in the earth's tilt as it treks around the sun. It is also God's yearly reminder of what takes place in our lives. We spring to life with our conception and birth. The growth and maturity of summer follow that. The fullness of life is replaced by the autumn, which seems to end quickly with the wintry blast of death.
However, there is good news in the changing of life's seasons. Just as there will always be spring after each winter, so, by God's good grace, our winter's death is replaced with the resurrection of new life in Jesus Christ.
It is that springlike hope that is proclaimed in our text today. For amid the coldness and death of winter comes God's promise that He will cause His righteous Branch to spring forth to bring us all life. We hear once again the words of Jeremiah the prophet: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah." In those days and at that time, I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Judah will be saved in those days, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."
It was not the best of times when Jeremiah was called to prophesy these words to Judah. It was the worst of times. It was, in a true spiritual sense, winter. Israel as a nation had all but dried up spiritually. For generations, she had rejected God's grace, rejected His decrees, and prostituted herself to other gods. She had abused and killed the prophets that God had sent her. Jeremiah himself had been cast into a cistern as a prison cell. Judah's kings, although sons of David, had abandoned the faith and justice of David. Except for a few of these descendants of David, like Hezekiah and Josiah, the vast majority of these kings ruled to make themselves richer and the people poorer.
Because of Judah's rebellion and apostasy, God was systematically stripping off her branches (Jeremiah 5:10). Her kings, all descendants of David, were deposed and executed quickly.
Following Josiah, her last faithful King, Judah, was ruled by four kings: Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, all within 24 years. Such a quick succession of short reigns had never happened before in Judah's history. It was a clear sign from God that Judah had placed herself under His wrath.
Besides this, while Jeremiah was prophesying these words, Jerusalem was under siege. The Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar, whom Judah's kings had also betrayed, had sent his army to destroy Jerusalem and haul off her people into captivity. The trees around the city were being cut down to build ladders to scale her walls and make battering rams to break through her gates. There was mass starvation and civil unrest within the city. Death seemed imminent for everyone. The wintry black and gray clouds of hopelessness and despair loomed ominously overhead. David's line was as good as dead!
It does not have to be dark and overcast outside for our lives to be shrouded in winter's bitterness and darkness. There are times when we feel like we are under siege. Instead of Babylonian soldiers threatening us, we now face the threat of foreign Islamic terrorists and homegrown terrorists destroying our cities and instilling fear in all. Radical ideologies such as wokism, socialism, and critical race theory threaten to change our entire way of life fundamentally. Our society's general hedonism and amoralism threaten to destroy our culture's very moral structure. It's atheism and religious liberalism teaming up in an attempt to destroy the Christian faith. The arrogant government overreach into our lives threatens to strip us of our constitutional rights. The ravages of a pandemic and the draconian measures being implemented to deal with them are making us feel less secure and more isolated and alone.
In the throes of such things, it is extremely hard to be cheerful and hopeful, no matter how lively and upbeat the music being played over the airwaves this holiday season. Hope for our world and even ourselves can vaporize with each passing day.
So, I'm delighted to provide you with a springlike forecast during your winter. It's of the very same essence as what Jeremiah predicted for Judah. For God promised to his besieged people that He would cause a righteous Branch to sprout up, one who would bring about justice and righteousness so that God's people would no longer bear the image of being those abandoned by God or cursed by Him but would instead be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
So, who is this branch? Several generations before Jeremiah, the LORD prophesied through His servant Isaiah that this branch, or sprout, would "spring from the stem of Jesse" (Is. 11:1–5). Jesse was the father of David. Yet, the Davidic kings ended when, in Jeremiah's day, Judah was hauled off into captivity, and Jerusalem was destroyed. Some 70 years later, the people of Israel were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem. But another line of kings reigned: the Maccabees. Jesse's stump appeared to be dead!
But here is the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. God put life back into that old stump of Jesse with His own life when, some 500 years later, His word spoken by the Angel Gabriel became incarnate in the womb of a young maid named Mary. Then on a cold Judean night in the city of David, Bethlehem, that holy child was born, and a sprout grew up before God and the world from the dead stump of Jesse, that is, from the house of David. The child was born to the virgin Mary and her espoused husband, Joseph. Both this carpenter and his chaste wife were of the lineage of David. They named this child "Jesus," as the Lord had instructed them. Just as His name meant, He would be a "Savior."
The Judean skies were full of angels praising God for the new King's birth. Shepherds came and kneeled before him, amazed that God was sleeping in a cradle. Later, wise men from the East came to pay homage to this King! So legitimate was Jesus' claim to the throne of David that the mere announcement that He had been born threw all of Jerusalem into a panic. Then-reigning King Herod tried in vain to eliminate this Son of David by slaughtering all the male children of Bethlehem, ages two and under.
Over the centuries, many have claimed to be this righteous branch, and they have come and gone. There will, no doubt, be many more. But only this one, born of Mary, has the lineage, has the proper parentage, and has the right attributes to be the One who could "do what is just and right in the land." Jesus is the Son of David but also the Son of God. "Incarnate of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit," Jesus alone can be called righteous. His righteousness exceeded that of even the Pharisees. He was without sin. He alone lived a holy and perfect life. He was the only one who perfectly followed the law and met all its requirements.
Jesus alone brought God's brand of righteousness and justice to our world, which saves sinners. Jesus instituted a system condemning the innocent for the sake of the guilty. He sacrificed Himself in the place of all of us, the unrighteous. Despite being God, Jesus rode on a donkey to bring down the world's mighty and raise the lowly. Those who believe in Him alone are declared righteous in the sight of God.
Here in this 21st century and the Third Millennium, the rapid change of technology, the uncertainties of where our present leaders are taking us, and the crumbling of time-honored traditions and institutions. The rampant immorality, the rising crime rate, the faster and faster pace of our lives, the threats to the Christian message and rising opposition to Christians, and the mounting threats of disease and trouble can still easily unnerve us about the future.
However, what the people in Jeremiah's first audience could only look forward to in hope amid their winter, you and I can look back on as an established, historical fact. God has kept His promise and raised His righteous branch. We celebrate the presence of our Savior King among us through His word and holy sacraments. Our hope for His future coming in glory to usher us into the endless summer of His eternal, heavenly reign has been ensured. The stem of Jesse has already conquered sin and death for us. He has assured us that our pains, struggles, and heartaches will one day end and be replaced with eternal joy. He meets with us regularly in His Word and Sacraments to give us a taste of the fruits of His victory, to bring us from death to life, and to equip us with the faith, strength, and will to persevere. He lives to return to grant us final deliverance from the winter of this life—this veil of tears.
Take heart then, dear Christian, amid your winter, and sing and pray in all confidence with the hymn writer of old:
"O come, thou branch of Jesse's tree,
Free us from Satan's tyranny.
That believe in Thy mighty power to save,
And give us victory over the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Will come to you, O Israel!"