A Branch Sprouts from a Dead Tree (Jeremiah 33:14-16)
The First Sunday in Advent (November 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 has made that abundantly clear.
Even though the first image winter usually brings to mind is that of 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, is now 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 that of death. Winter’s only saving grace is that once in a while all this deadness is covered with the beauty of glistening, new fallen, snow, turning ugly brown and gray into a bright, shiny, white.
But here on the Eastern Plains of Montana, the snow we receive can not hide for long the death that lurks beneath. The warmth of the sunshine and the driving northwesterly winds regularly exposes 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 the green and new life of spring.
The changing of the seasons is much more than an attitude adjustment in the tilt of the earth as it makes its trek around the sun. It is also God’s yearly reminder to us of what takes place in our lives. We spring to life with our conception and birth. This is followed by the growth and maturity of summer. But all too soon the fullness of life is replaced by the autumn of the golden years, which themselves seem to end all too quickly by the wintry blast of death.
There is, however, 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 to new life in Jesus Christ.
It is that spring-like hope that is proclaimed in our text today. For in the midst of 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. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: 'The Lord is our righteousness.”
When Jeremiah was called to prophesy these words to Judah, it was not the best of times. In fact, it was the worst of times. It was, in a true spiritual sense, winter. Israel as a nation was all but dried up spiritually. She had for generations spurned God’s grace, turned from His decrees, and prostituted herself with other gods. She had abused and killed the prophets 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. With the exception of a few of these descendants of David like Hezekiah and Josiah, the vast majority of these kings ruled to make themselves richer and the leave the people poorer.
Because of Judah’s rebellion and apostasy, God was systematically stripping off her branches (Jeremiah 5:10). In rather quick succession, her kings, all descendants of David, were being deposed and put to death.
Following Josiah, her last faithful king, Judah was ruled by four kings, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedikiah, all within a 24 year period. 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, at the while Jeremiah was prophesying these words, Jerusalem lay 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 in order to build ladders to scale her walls and to make battering rams to break through her gates. There was mass starvation and civil unrest within the city. Death for all seemed eminent. The black and gray, wintry, clouds of hopelessness and despair loomed ominously overhead. David’s line was a good as dead!
It does not have to be dark and overcast outside for our lives also to be shrouded in winter’s bitterness and darkness. There are definitely times when we feel like we are under siege. Instead of Babylonian soldiers threatening to do us in, it’s now the threat of foreign Islamic terrorists, as well as homespun terrorists destroying our cities, filling all with fear ...it’s radical ideologies like wokism, socialism, critical race theory that are threatening to fundamentally change our whole way of life… it’s the hedonism and amoralism of our society at large that threatens to destroy the very moral structure of our culture… its Atheism and religious liberalism teaming up in an attempt to destroy the Christian faith… it’s the arrogant government overreach into our lives that is threatening to strip of us of our constitutional rights…... or, yes, it’s the ravages of a pandemic and the draconian measures being implemented to deal with it that our daily making us feel less secure and more 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 cheerful the music is that is being played over the air waves this holiday season. Hope for our world, and even hope for ourselves, can seem to vaporize with each passing day.
I’m happy, then, in the midst of your winter to give you a spring-like forecast. It’s of the very same essence of what Jeremiah forecast to 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 more literally 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 destroyed. Some 70 years later the people of Israel were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem. But another line of kings reigned: the Maccabbees. The stump of Jesse was seemingly 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 virgin 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”.
To signify the occasion and honor God who had kept His promise to the people of Judah and the world, the Judean skies were full of a myriad of angels praising God for the new king’s birth. Shepherds came and kneeled before Him in awe that God lay in a cradle. Later on, 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. The then reigning King Herod tried in vain to eliminate this Son of David, by slaughtering all the, two and under, male, children of Bethlehem.
Over the centuries, there have been many who 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 truly called righteous. His righteousness exceeded that of even the Pharisees. He was without sin. He alone lived a holy and perfect life. He alone kept the Law perfectly and He alone fulfilled its requirements.
Jesus alone brought to our world God’s brand of righteousness and justice which saves sinners. For Jesus established a system whereby the innocent was condemned for the sake of the guilty. He sacrificed Himself in the place of all us, the unrighteous. Although being God, Jesus came in all humility riding on a donkey to put down the worldly mighty and raise up 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, the crumbling away of time honored traditions and institutions, the unchecked 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 in the midst of their winter, you and I can look back on as an established, historical fact. God has kept His promise and raised up His Righteous Branch. We celebrate with our Saving King’s presence among us in 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 made sure. The Stem of Jesse has already conquered sin and death for us. He has insured that every one of 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 to 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, in the midst of 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 trust Thy mighty pow’r to save,
And give (us) victo’ry o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!” Amen.