The Days are Coming / First Sunday in Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

“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.’”

Every actor deals with the fear that something will go horribly wrong when they step out onto the stage. Forgetting a line. Tripping over your own feet. A wardrobe malfunction. Fortunately, actors are taught to think on their feet and improvise if something were to go wrong in a scene.

An actress told how her cast mates in a stage play of “The Wizard of Oz” tried to improvise when the set machinery didn’t work. She was playing the role of Glinda, the Good Witch, who is supposed to be lowered to the stage in a large bubble. As she began her descent, the bubble stopped working. She was stuck 40 feet in the air as the cast down below ad-libbed, she’s coming, it’s Glinda, she’s coming, Glinda’s coming.

Can you imagine being those poor actors having to act excited as they waited, and waited, and waited for Glinda to arrive? If you can imagine that, then maybe you can have a little sympathy for the prophet Jeremiah as he tried to point the nation of Israel to the coming of their Messiah. Israel was hurting. Israel needed a Savior. That Savior was coming. But they couldn’t wait. They needed hope now. In the last days of his ministry, Jeremiah gave them that hope.

That’s what I do when I talk with people who need to get past a horrible event from their past: I help them to anticipate. I attempt to describe, as much as human words allow the hope to which they’ve been called, and the glory which we will receive. I describe how Jesus has power to bring everything under His control. That was the message of Jeremiah the prophet to his people and is saying to us as well.

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the good promise, I made to the people of Israel and Judah. 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. 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 Savior.’”

Jeremiah has been called “the weeping prophet.” He always seemed to be on the cold-shouldered side. Why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut. His inability to hold his tongue cost him dearly. He was exiled for a time from the priesthood. He was physically beaten and publicly humiliated on more than one occasion for expressing his unpopular convictions.  Why couldn’t he just keep quiet?

After all, he could have enjoyed a peaceful life, a relatively comfortable life. He had the soul of a poet. He really loved watching the almond blossom in early spring. He wrote of the migration of the turtledove, the swallow and the crane.

Why couldn’t he check those red-hot impulses that so often got him in trouble? Why couldn’t he just sit back and enjoy the beauty of nature? He could cultivate a garden, enjoy the blessings of marriage and family. Why didn’t he? The answer is simple. There was a voice within that wouldn’t let him alone.

On the other hand, why couldn’t his countrymen see the recklessness of their ways?  He tried to warn them about the consequences of their greed, their disobedience, their disregard of right living. But they wouldn’t listen. And because they wouldn’t listen, God had forsaken them. His country was now under attack.

This lonely, sensitive prophet could’ve said, I told you so! I told you so, but you would not listen. It would be easy for Jeremiah to do that and he’d be justified, but that wasn’t the message the Lord had put into his heart.

When we first meet Jeremiah, he is a preacher of righteousness. By the time we encounter him in this last chapter of his book, he speaks words of comfort. You may even say he had mellowed. Perhaps, but the situation had also changed. Before, his people needed to be confronted, now they need to be comforted. Before, they needed words of judgment, now they needed words of grace. Before, they deserved condemnation, now they needed hope. So instead of offering a word of punishment, Jeremiah offers a word of promise:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise, I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Sixteen times in his book he uses the phrase, “the days are coming.” Jeremiah is announcing the coming of Jesus. Oh, he didn’t realize when he made this prophecy just how God would fulfill the messianic promise, but it was an announcement of Christ’s coming just the same. And like all of God’s promises, it would be fulfilled.

It took 600 years, but what’s 600 years to God? A thousand years is but a day for God. The important words are these: the days are coming. The days are coming. There’s an inevitability about those words: the days are coming. Does it mean that they are right around the corner? No, but the days are coming. Does it mean that there won’t be heartaches yet ahead? It doesn’t mean that either. But etch it in stone where it will never be forgotten: the days are coming.

And that’s what this first Sunday in Advent is all about: The days are coming. The days are coming where there will be justice. That’s the first promise Jeremiah makes about the coming of the Messiah. There will be justice. This world needs more justice, doesn’t it?

We have an innate need for justice, don’t we? We want to see bad guys punished and good guys rewarded. There’s something built into the very fabric of our being that yearns for justice. Until the Messiah comes, what’s our role in creating justice? Because it is all too easy for us to turn a blind eye to injustice, even to benefit from it.

Righteousness is not a sweet virtue that everybody in the world desires. Those who take advantage of others for their own gain do not want the world to be fair and just. Those who benefit from the weakness of others do not want the world to be compassionate. Much money and power are invested in maintaining injustice. If every wage were fair, if every person were honored as a child of God, if every human being were safe from exploitation, many would lose their grip on status, self-gratification, and affluence.

We all squirm when we hear those words. Prophetic words are meant to challenge us. They’re meant to wake us up. Life isn’t fair. Nevertheless, the days are coming, says Jeremiah, when the playing fields of this world will be leveled. The days are coming when that which is unfair will be set right. For when the Bible speaks of justice, it isn’t merely talking about individual justice. God’s call is for a just society. God’s call is for basic fairness for all people. God’s call is for a new kind of society, a society where all persons will live in dignity and freedom.

That is what justice is all about. Jesus said the days are coming when the last shall be first and the first shall be last. During Advent we need to take those words seriously and ask ourselves whether we’re contributing to a just society or whether we’re one of those who are contributing to the status quo. The days are coming when there will be justice.

The days are also coming when there will be righteousness. Justice refers to the state of our society. Righteousness refers to the state of our individual souls.

It is interesting that the two terms; justice and righteousness are seldom linked. It is that old division in western Christianity between those who advocate a social Gospel, the gospel of civil rights, concern for the poor, and social justice, and those who support a personal gospel of piety, prayer and high moral conduct. The days are coming when such a false contradiction will be forever scattered. Both justice and righteousness are attributes of the Kingdom. They’re an essential expression of God’s character. We don’t have the luxury of taking our choice. We must have both.

The days are coming, says the Lord, when justice and righteousness will prevail. Justice AND righteousness. It’s not enough on this First Sunday of Advent to think of the superficial elements of this season, like lights and candles and trees and cookies. We need to think about the very heart of the Advent message, the coming of the Messiah, and with His coming, justice and righteousness, the redemption of society as well as the redemption of individual souls.

Ruby Bridges was just six years old when, in 1960, she was chosen as the first Black child to integrate the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Photos show the incredible courage of this little girl who was escorted to school each morning by federal marshals to protect her from the angry white parents who screamed curses, insults and threats at her each day.

Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist from Harvard, interviewed Ruby Bridges in an effort to determine how young children learn to cope with such frightening and dehumanizing abuse day after day. In the interview, Ruby told Dr. Coles that she prayed for the people who threatened her, insulted her, spat at her. Her mother and her minister had told her that God was watching over her each day, and it was her duty to pray for and forgive the people who opposed her.

When Dr. Coles asked Ruby if she thought this advice was correct, she said, “I’m sure God knows what is happening . . . He may not do anything right now, but there will come a day, like they say in church, there will come a day. You can count on it. That’s what they say in church.”

“. . . there will come a day. You can count on it.” That was Jeremiah’s message more than 2000 years ago. And it is the church’s message still today. Jeremiah the prophet was a lonely man. He had a fire burning in his bones. Jeremiah had a passion for righteousness and justice. He announced the coming of One who would bring righteousness and justice into the world. That One is Christ. We are Christ’s disciples. On this first Sunday in Advent, we need to ask ourselves, does righteousness and justice burn within us as well?