A Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Advent
Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Advent
Jeremiah 23:5-8 & St. John 6:5-14
by William Klock
This morning we come full-circle as we come to the end of the Church Year. We’ve got the funny Epistle lesson that actually comes from one of the Old Testament prophets—from Jeremiah, but the reason we read from Jeremiah today is that his prophecy to the Jews that a Messiah would come and establish his kingdom set the stage for us. The Gospel lesson of the feeding of the five thousands shows that when Jesus came, he did in fact come as the Messiah promised by the prophets. These lessons set the stage for us a year ago as we began the Church Year, but they set the stage again for us today as we move on. A year ago these lessons pointed us to a kingdom, and then for the next six months—the first half of the year—from Sunday to Sunday our lessons told us about the coming of Jesus, of his life, of his death, of his resurrection and ascension, and of the coming of his Spirit to give us new life. Then for the second half of the year the lessons showed us what it looks like to live in the kingdom he established. Today’s lessons prepared us to learn about the kingdom, but now that we’ve had a good look at it, we come back to them and they ask us: Are you living in that kingdom?
Look with me at Jeremiah 23:5-8. When Jeremiah wrote these words, the world was a complete disaster for God’s people. For centuries they had, over and over, rejected God. They would pay him lip service, going through the motions of religion, but in reality living as if he didn’t exist. The prophets repeatedly called them back to God, but they trusted instead in horses and chariots. Worse, more often than not, they spent those years worshipping the false gods of their pagan neighbours, even setting up altars to them alongside God’s altar in the temple. They were living in a physical kingdom God had established for them, but they weren’t really living the kingdom life he wanted for them.
God kept calling the people back to himself, but other than a small remnant of the faithful, the nation continually refused. And so God tried to get their attention by allowing all sorts of awful things to happen to them. Already, about 130 years before, the ten northern tribes of Israel had been wiped out and exiled by the Assyrians. Their punishment would eventually culminate in the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians, the total destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the Jews themselves being carried away into exile in Babylon. At the point Jeremiah wrote these words, the Babylonians were already in control of Judah. Jehoiachin, a king who did nothing but evil, handed Jerusalem over to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor who exiled him along with anyone of any importance, looted the king’s treasury, and stripped the temple bare. He took everything and everyone important back to Babylon and set up a puppet king in Jerusalem named Zedekiah. The nation was decimated, the people were desperately poor, and they lived under the boot of the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s often called the “weeping prophet” because he lived through all of that death and destruction and wrote about the conquest and destruction of Judah. And yet in the middle of what looked totally hopeless, he writes a message of hope:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
In a day when the rightful heir to David’s throne was a prisoner in a foreign land, when the temple of God was stripped bare and the worship of God had ceased, and when God’s people were scattered, Jeremiah prophesied that God would not leave his people desolate forever. A day was coming in which a true heir of David would again rule over God’s people—he would reign not as a puppet of some foreign emperor, but as the rightful king, and in his wise reign he would bring justice and righteousness to the kingdom. Imagine the hope that would inspire in these people who heard Jeremiah. They had no hope. The kingdom of God’s people was controlled by foreign pagans. There was no justice and there was no righteousness. And there certainly wasn’t any wisdom. In contrast, God says through Jeremiah, in the day of the coming king, his people will be saved and dwell in security. In fact, Jeremiah even puts it in terms of the scattered people being brought back together in one place: “Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell in security.”
And then to draw a complete contrast with the present state of the kingdom, he says that this coming righteous Branch will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.” The significance of that doesn’t show itself to us immediately because we don’t speak Hebrew. Remember that the corrupt puppet king who was on the throne at this time was Zedekiah. The name “Zedekiah” means “The Lord is our righteousness”. And yet Zedekiah made a mockery of that name. Scripture tells us that he did nothing but evil in the sight of the Lord, just as the kings before him. But Zedekiah made an excellent representative of the people for spiritual purposes. They had all rejected God and compromised with the world. Their destruction by the Babylonians was God’s wake-up call to them. There was no righteousness left in the land. But, says, Jeremiah, that’s going to change one day. The people had no righteousness of their own, they stood under the just condemnation and punishment of the Lord, but the Lord was going to send a king who would be and who would provide the righteousness the people didn’t have on their own.
In fact, Zechariah writes about this “Branch” and says, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord” (Zechariah 6:12). Zechariah lived during the time after the temple was not only stripped bare as it was in Jeremiah’s time, but after Zedekiah had stupidly tried to revolt, and the Babylonians had swept down on Jerusalem and utterly destroyed both the city and the temple. But at a future time this Branch—this king in the line of David—would come to be the righteousness the people did not have. He would save them. And in a time when, because of their sins God had removed not only his presence, but even the temple—the external emblem of his presence—this righteous king would restore the presence of God to his people.
And Jeremiah says that this King’s reign would be so great that it would completely change the identity of the people. Look at verses 7 and 8:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” Then they shall dwell in their own land.
The national identity of the Jews was tied to the Exodus—the time 900 years before when God had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. Their national baptism had been in the Red Sea during that rescue and that’s what they looked back to when they thought of themselves as God’s people. And yet Jeremiah says that a day is coming when what this future righteous King will do is going to completely change that perspective. His subjects won’t be talking about when the Lord brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land, but that they’re going to talk about how they were brought into this new King’s righteous kingdom from all the nations.
Brothers and sisters, Israel, in that time of desperation, is a type—a foreshadowing—of each of us as we were before Jesus saved us. We were lost in our sins, living as God’s enemies, deserving nothing but death and destructions. We had absolutely nothing to bring to God that was deserving of his love. And yet he sent his own Son to be born of the line of David and to become one of us; to live a life of perfect obedience to the law; and then to die the death that each of us deserves so that, as we put our faith in his sacrifice for us and submit to his kingship, he will be our righteousness—he will offer us what we can never have on our own, and because of that, he will give us what we need to enter the presence of God. In fact, not just enter the presence of God as the Jews would go to his temple, but he has established us as his temple—he has given the gift of the Holy Spirit to each and every believer and through that he makes us his temple. No longer do God’s people look back to a physical rescue in the Passover or through the waters of the Red Sea, but we look to our baptism in which we have been washed clean of our sins by water and given new life in his Spirit and we look to the Table as he offers here his body and blood as signs and seals of his covenant of redemption with us.
While our Epistle points us to the First Advent—to the coming of the righteous Branch. But in case we have any doubts about who Jesus is or about whether or not he actually established his kingdom, the Gospel shows us that the Branch did in fact come in the person of Jesus. The story is the feeding of the five thousand from St. John’s gospel. Thousands of people had followed Jesus out into the wilderness to see him heal the sick and to hear him teach and now they’re all hungry. It was too far to go to town to buy food, besides no one had the money to buy food for all those thousands of people. So Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish, donated by a young boy who was there, he blessed them, and then started distributing them to the people and was miraculously able to feed everyone there. And, in fact, not just feed them with enough to stave off hunger, but to let everyone have their fill. We know this because when everyone was done eating, John tells us that the disciples gathered up twelve baskets full of leftovers. The focus of the lesson today is in verse 14:
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
If we put this story in context, we learn from St. Luke’s gospel that Jesus had just been preaching about the kingdom of God and from St. Matthew that John the Baptist had just been beheaded before this. The people loved John. And remember John’s message: “The kingdom of God is at hand!” No doubt a lot of people had hoped that John was the one to usher in that kingdom. Jesus was doing some great things, but as far as the people could tell, he wasn’t doing anything that made it look like he was going to start a revolt to throw out the Romans. John the Baptist, on the other hand, was just the sort of wild firebrand that might lead that kind of revolt. Now John was dead. If the people hoped for their Messiah, it was now Jesus or nothing. And so they followed him into the wilderness. They saw him healing the sick and heard him preaching about the kingdom of God. How could this miracle be any more appropriate? Moses had led God’s people into a new kingdom and miraculously fed them in the wilderness and now Jesus was preaching about the kingdom and feeding them miraculously in the wilderness. He was like a new Moses, and so the people who saw this declared: “Surely he’s the Prophet who was foretold!”
Surely he was the King. His miracle here demonstrated the blessings of his reign. He had preached those familiar words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these thing will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). He promised that if anyone would seek first after God, that God would provide for all his physical needs. And so these people had trusted his message. They followed him into the wilderness and he had provided for them miraculously. They had taken him at his word and he made good on his promise.
And he didn’t just barely meet their needs. He had met their needs lavishly. He took five loaves of bread and two fish, multiplied them, and fed five thousand men—that’s just the men, not counting the women and children—and when he was done, there were twelve baskets left over. Even after feeding thousands, there was more left over than there was to start with! And this teaches us something about the lavishness of Christ’s spiritual provision for his people—for his Church. Jeremiah prophesied a kingdom in which God would care for his people and give them security. And that’s just what Jesus demonstrates. We can always trust he will meet our needs. But more importantly, as we seek first his kingdom, he’s going to equip us lavishly for our mission. St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). We have no lack of grace, no lack of mercy, no lack of love, and through his indwelling Holy Spirit none of us has any lack of power or gifting for the work he has called us to do. The Righteous Branch has come into the World. He has become our righteousness—the righteousness we can never have of ourselves. And he has offered himself as the Bread of Heaven, giving us new spiritual life and gifting us for ministry as we seek firsthis kingdom.
But, brothers and sisters, the First Advent of Jesus always points us to his Second Advent. Jeremiah and the Old Testament prophets prophesied the first coming of the King to establish his kingdom—bringing righteousness, gathering his elect from the nations, and bringing them together as his Church—his true Israel—as he makes them a temple for himself. But the King himself prophesied that he would come back. The kingdom life we have now is only the down payment of the life we will have with him when his kingdom is fully consummated at his return—when his spiritual kingdom will become a physical reality. In the meantime we have work to do. In the collect we asked God to “stir up” the wills of his faithful people, that we may produce abundantly the fruit of good works, and receive his abundant reward. We often call this last Sunday of Trinitytide “Stir Up Sunday”. Would that God might stir us up out of our complacency and remind us of the blessings he has poured out on us. Would that he might stir us up out of our complacency and remind us of the kingdom life he’s called us to live. Would that he might stir us up out of our complacency that we each might consider the gifting for ministry that he’s given us and do the work of the kingdom. Would that he might stir us up out of our complacency and remind us how important and how urgent it is that we share his Gospel—his Good News of hope for sinners—with those who are in darkness. How much of our time and our gifts do we squander? As the disciples did with the left over bread, gather up the fragments and consider again the call to ministry and service that God continues to give us as we move into the new year and come another step closer to his Second Advent. Yes, we do live in this world, but our real home, our real citizenship, and our real future is in God’s kingdom! Live fully in the grace he has given; use the gifts he has given you to advance his kingdom—don’t let them become leftovers; and take advantage of every opportunity he gives you to serve his kingdom.
Let us pray again: “Stir up, Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that they may produce abundantly the fruit of good works, and receive your abundant reward; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”