A Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson for the Sunday Next Before Advent
Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson
for the Sunday Next Before Advent
by William Klock
Today is the last Sunday of Trinitytide, but it’s also the Sunday that leads us into the season of Advent. The Gospel, where we see Jesus feeding the five thousand and making provision for them in the wilderness, reminds us that as sojourners in the wilderness of this land, he teaches and equips us for life as his followers—and that he does so abundantly. We’ve been receiving that teaching throughout the past year. But the lessons also lead us into Advent as they direct us to his coming. The Epistle today was one of those rare lessons taken from the Old Testament so that we could go back and see Jeremiah giving God’s promises of a Messiah to his people as they lived in desolation.
Our Old Testament lesson today is also from Jeremiah, but with this lesson we go back some thirty years or more before God gave him that prophecy of the righteous Branch. At the time Jeremiah wrote these words, times were difficult for the people of Judah, but they weren’t living in completely desolation as they would be when that later prophecy was given. They were living under Josiah, one of the good kings. Josiah did away with the pagan shrines and altars that had been built throughout the land, he got rid of all the pagan priests and priestesses, mediums and witches, and he restored the proper worship of God in the temple, including celebrating the Passover, which hadn’t been properly since Samuel’s days. And yet one good king could not undo all the evils that had been done by his fathers, nor could one good king turn the hearts of a people set on idolatry and worldliness. Josiah forced external reforms, but he couldn’t change the hearts of the people, and in fact, when Josiah died, the people went right back to their old ways.
But in those days of Josiah, God spoke through Jeremiah. Look at Jeremiah 3:11:
And the Lord said to me, “Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.”
Both nations were backslidden. Both nations were playing the harlot with false gods. Israel wasworse then Judah in terms of her sins. The lists of Judah’s kings includes a number of good ones. That can’t be said of Israel, where every king did evil in the sight of God. And yet Judah had advantages that Israel didn’t. Judah had the temple and the priesthood. Judah had the true king. Judah had God’s blessing from her founding. Israel was a rebel nation that abandoned all those things. And so while Judah’s sins may not have been quite as bad, her guilt was far greater because she knew better. Consider how when a teenager with a disadvantaged childhood turns to a life of crime, we’re often inclined to cut him some slack, but we have a lot of difficulty cutting that same slack to a teenager with a privileged background who should know better. That was Judah—the privileged brother.
Through the prophet, God calls these evil people back to himself.
“Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever.’ ” (Jeremiah 3:12)
But notice, this isn’t an invitation to simply come back and continue lives of sin—as if God is a doting parent with no interest in discipline or holiness. God invites sinners back into his arms, but only on his own terms.
“Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 3:13)
God offers forgiveness. He requires repentance. As we saw with today’s Epistle, we are unrighteous people. We cannot stand before God uncondemned, and yet he sent his Son to cover us with his own righteousness…if we will come on his terms. We must repent, admitting and confessing our sins. We have to humbly admit that we cannot save ourselves and as we stop trusting in ourselves, we put our trust in the righteousness of the Saviour. And of course, repentance involves a change of heart—a turning from our old ways and choosing to be obedient to God and to give him our loyalty.
This was the problem Josiah faced as a righteous king. He took away the shrines and altars to false gods, he got rid of the pagan priests and the sorcerers, and he restored the worship of God to the temple. But he couldn’t change the hearts of the people. He could make them go through the outward motions, but what they really needed was a change of heart and that doesn’t come without repentance and without the work of the Spirit. But for those who did experience that change of heart, who did come in repentance, God says:
“Return, O faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14)
God makes a promise to those who do respond to his call: He will gather them to Zion. Remember that about a century before this, the Assyrians had conquered Israel and scattered those ten tribes. They lost their identity as God’s people. Judah was going to face a similar fate in another thirty years or so. They were people who were no longer a people because of their sins. But God would give them new life and with that a new identity. Just as he had taken a rag-tag group of slaves out of Egypt and forged them into a nation, he promises to gather a new people to himself and create a new nation.
Now, many of those who first heard Jeremiah speak these words may have misunderstood. Just as the Jews of Jesus’ day assumed that he had come to re-establish an earthly kingdom, many people who heard these words took them to mean that God would use the faithful to re-establish the nation of Israel as it was in the days of David and Solomon. God did eventually bring the people of Judah back from their exile in Babylon. They did rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. But Israel remained scattered and without an identity, even to this day. And even the restored Judah, Jerusalem, and temple were mere shadows of what had been before. God’s plans are bigger than a certain geographical place or a certain race of people. In verses 15-18 he gives us an idea of what his new nation will look like.
“And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.”
In contrast to the rebellious kings that Israel had appointed for herself and who led the people into all sorts of evil, and in contrast to the false priests who established false religion and idol worship, God will give the people shepherds after his own heart—shepherds who will lead them in the ways of righteousness. The promise points to the righteous Branch, the Messiah. David was the king whom God declared to be a man after his own heart. And that’s what the people needed. They were rebellious. They raised up rebellious leaders who led them further astray. What they needed was a king who desired to follow God and who would lead them in the way of righteousness. And the Messiah would do just that. But more importantly, the Messiah would offer them his own righteousness, changing the desires of their hearts and graciously enabling them to be obedient.
The Messiah would multiply his people. The scattered tribes of Israel symbolise God’s calling of all the peoples of the earth to himself through the Messiah. The new kingdom is not for one particular race. Nor does its king reign over one geographical place. And God points to this second reality when, through Jeremiah, he tells the people that the ark of the covenant not only won’t be replaced, but will no longer be important to them.
Consider that the temple was at the centre of their worship, but it was the centre because the ark of the covenant was housed there—it was where the presence of God was physically present in his kingdom, in the holy of holies. When David built the temple, he described it and the ark as God’s footstool (1 Chronicles 28:2). Jeremiah’s message would have been shocking to the people. At this time the temple was still standing and the ark was still in the holy of holies. In fact, Josiah had just cleansed the temple and restored the right worship of God. And yet God tells them that in this day when he gathers his people from among the nations, there will be no ark—his footstool among the people will be gone. Instead, Jerusalem will be his throne—his presence will not only be far greater, but instead of honour the people with his feet, he will honour them with his full presence. And as his presence resides with his people in Jerusalem, he will draw all the nations to himself.
And here we can see Jesus in his ministry. When he established his Church, there was no longer a need for the temple or even for the ark. No more did he rest his feet in a temple made with hands and in a place where only the high priest could enter. He established a nation of priests and gave his Holy Spirit to indwell each of them, making each a temple and creating a New Jerusalem—a new holy city, not rooted in a geographical location, but made up of his people in whose hearts he has enthroned himself, and a people who witness his love and mercy and draw the world to him.
This is the ministry of our Lord, but his ministry calls us to service. Jeremiah reminds us that the New Jerusalem is not fully established yet. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, but the promise is that at his Second Advent he will make that spiritual reality a physical one—he will consummate his kingdom. In the meantime he calls us to do the work of building his kingdom. It’s challenging and it often pulls us out of our comfort zones, and yet he has promised to equip us and to change the desires of our hearts. As he offers his righteousness to us, and as we trust in him for what he offers, he changes us. Where we once, as Jeremiah writes, stubbornly followed our own evil hearts, Jesus gives us his own heart—a heart after the Father’s own. And knowing that we rely on his grace we pray today:
Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord, so that we may produce abundantly the fruit of good works and receive your abundant reward, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.