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Jeremiah 33:14-16: Hope

Good morning, church, and again, welcome to the season of advent.  Please go with me, to the book of Jeremiah, and we’re going to be reading from chapter 33.

I feel a need to apologize to Meg.  As our liturgist, she’s very patient with me and my ignorance of the church calendar.  When we got together and planned this advent season, we planned to preach on the lectionary readings during this time.  And technically, Meg, technically I am preaching on the lectionary readings.  I just got the year wrong and wrote my sermon on the readings for 2024.  So this sermon will be very appropriate two years from now.  I think I’m just forward thinking.  Ahead of the times.

But very appropriately for a sermon that’s two years early, the topic for this morning is hope.  Hope for the future—perhaps the future of 2024?  If the Lord comes back then, this sermon is going to be looking pretty good.  We will find out.

But three things I want you to know this morning from this passage; hope is despised, hope is a branch, and hope is a birth.  Read with me, in Jeremiah 33, starting in v.14. [Jeremiah 33:14-16]  This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.  Pray with me, briefly.

First, you should know that hope, in this world, is despised.  So you have to be careful with it.  Hope is dangerous.  Hope is despised.  Real hope.  And we need to make a distinction here.  There is a kind of worldly hope which seeks to pass itself off as the real hope.  You’re going to see it this Christmas pasted across television and movies and that most infernal of combinations—movies made for television.  They will tell you to hope without giving you anything real to hope for.  Just believe, they will say.  It is the season for hope.  But real hope is based on real things, and real hope doesn’t make us feel good.  Real hope, in our world, is despised.

I’m pulling this point, not from within the passage, but from behind the passage.  Jeremiah, at the time he’s writing this passage, is in prison, and I would argue he is in prison because of hope.  Jeremiah writing from prison reminds me of Paul’s letters from prison, and of his trial in which he explicitly states to the Sanhedrin that he says he hasn’t broken any laws, but he is in prison because he has hope.  That’s Acts 23:6.

Jeremiah is in prison because Jerusalem was being besieged by Babylon, and Jeremiah had the audacity to preach that the city was going to fall.  All of the other prophets and preachers in town were preaching a message that Jerusalem was indestructible because it was specially chosen and blessed by God.  This is an early form of national exceptionalism, what we would call American exceptionalism or Christian nationalism.  The idea is that our nation is protected by God, and God is on our side, whatever our side may be, because we are relatively godly.  God will ensure that we live our lives in peace and comfort.

Jeremiah’s message was, our country is passing away.  Our city will be overthrown.  Our nation is not necessary for God’s plan to work.  He said our hope should not be placed in the success of this kingdom we’ve built, our hope is in the eternal kingdom of God.  We may go into exile, live as refugees in a foreign land and live as servants, but God will go with us, and he will not forget us, and when he returns, he will restore us and our society to the way it was always meant to be, what Martin Luther King, also writing from prison, also imprisoned for his hope, what he would call the “blessed community.”

Real hope is dangerous.  Real hope can, like Jeremiah, land you in prison, or like Paul, before a tribunal, or like Bonhoeffer, into a concentration camp.  Why?  The world hates real hope because real hope brings into sharp focus the inadequacies of this world.  The world hates real hope because sermons preaching real hope start with the message this this world aint it.  Our hope isn’t for political change, or a return to the past, but our hope is firmly placed in the coming kingdom of God.  This world is not our home, and if we grow comfortable here it is because of our sins of complicity and complacency, not the society’s righteousness.  Hope shows us that God’s kingdom is the complete reversal of our own nations, and one day the earth will be flipped upside down, the mountains made low, the valleys raised up, the last made first and God himself will reign as king.

That’s a dangerous idea.  It landed Jeremiah in prison even though he was a priest, a pastor, even though he loved his people, his city, his country.  He loved them enough that he wanted them to have something real to hold onto in the midst of the sufferings of the world.  Fake hope will tell you it’s all going to work out for the best.  Real hope allows you to live in the midst of the in-ideal and to make something beautiful out of the suffering.  Almost every time the Bible talks about hope, hope is seen as a gift of God’s given in the midst of suffering, or even through suffering.

Paul writes in Romans 5, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

In this world there is sickness, pain, and death, so praise be to God who has conquered this world and is making it new.  This is a lesson the Lord taught me in the pandemic: if you are hoping for a world in which there is no more sickness and death, you’re not hoping for a new year; you’re hoping for a new world.

Our ultimate hope for the sick is not that they will be healed, but that they will be raised.  Our hope for our nation is not new policies and new leadership, but a new nation, the kingdom of God.  Our hope for our own lives is not for change, but to share in the cross of Christ that we might share in his resurrection also.

Real hope is despised in this world because real hope is overthrowing this world, and breaking through even now.  Hope is despised, and two, hope is a branch.  Hope is a branch.  V. 15 says this, “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.”  Hope is a branch.

This is an image picked up in most of what we call the minor prophets, or what Israel called the book of the twelve—the shorter prophetic works which close out the old testament and largely center on this same time period of the exile.  All throughout the book of the twelve, whenever hope is discussed, it is discussed as a branch growing on the stump of Jesse.

It’s a major image of the prophetic books to the point that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and people were hoping he might be the one to finally save Israel, they laid branches at the feet of his donkey as he rode.  The branch, the promised one.  Two things I want us to take from this image: the Christ comes in the midst of our brokenness, and that God’s timing is not our own.

I think we miss the power of this image because in our society we don’t stay in one place for very long.  We’re used to moving, so it’s hard for us to imagine the disorientation of the exiles of Jerusalem, and the image of the branch.  It had me thinking this week of one of my disaster relief trips in 2020—I may have told this story before.  I spent several days working on the property of an elderly man who lost about ten trees in hurricane Laura, and specifically he lost a group of three enormous pines from his front yard.  I mentioned to him that I wish I could have seen them, that they must have been beautiful, and he teared up a bit.  He told me they were beautiful, and that he had planted them himself the year he and his wife were married and moved into this house.

It takes planting a tree or an orchard and watching it grow through a lifetime to understand the pain of seeing the orchard burned or in possession of some stranger you don’t even know, who is not your child or your family.  It takes living on the fruit of the land to understand both the pain and the beauty of a branch growing from a stump.  There was a tree on our block, a younger live oak, that lost a limb last year.  A truck ran into it and tore off about half of the tree, but now, this year, there is a shoot, a new branch growing in its place.

The promise of the branch is a promise that even though Israel had been cut down, God would still allow new life to grow in the midst of the ruin, just as new shoots grow from cut orchards.  It may take a lifetime, but those trees will grow again to feed the generations to come.  And hope is in the waiting, watching to see what God will do with what we’ve lost.

Hope is a branch.  I preached the funeral for my grandmother yesterday.  Her loss felt to me like the loss of a limb, and now life limps on, damaged.  But I have hope.  The promise of the branch is a promise that anything, anyone we’ve lost will be given new life in Christ.  It will be slow, our sins are real and have real effects.  But everything old will be made new.  Everyone lost will be found in him.

One theologian I read suggests that impatience lies at the root of all sin, and I see what he means especially when I talk to people who are doubting the Lord and have given up hope.  Usually doubts take the form of impatience.  It’s not that God isn’t healing our loved ones of their illnesses, or freeing us from our addictions, or ridding the world of sin and pain.  God is doing all of these things.  He’s just doing them in his own time.  In eternity the dead are raised and the sick healed, and pain is no more.  He is doing all of what we ask of him, and more, things we can’t even imagine, to right the world from our sin.  But his time is his own.  In the meantime we wait, and we hope.

I’m rereading the Screwtape Letters.  C.S. Lewis writes this of our ability to view God’s work in eternity: “In a word, the future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity.  It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the past is frozen and no longer flows, and the present is all lit up with eternal rays.”  He says we sin when we focus on the future—controlling it, predicting it, fearing it, rushing it.

So hope is despised, hope is a branch, and hope is a birth.  Hope is a birth.  In vs. 16 here, and even more clearly in Jeremiah 23, we see the promise of a child being born who will be God and be for us our righteousness.  So from this we know that our hope is found ultimately in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Because he was raised we can hope for a world made new and rid of death.

What I have to give you this morning is hope.  Hope which isn’t just some vague emotion, but hope which is strong enough to anchor you in the midst of the deluge and overwhelm.  Hope which is based on something real, someone real who loves you.  Hope for a life which is actually green and growing, even if it has to grow out of the stump of what we’ve made of ourselves, and hope for a future wrapped up in the eternal.  Hope found in Christ, who is our righteousness when we had no righteousness of our own.

Hope is a birth.  In the same passage to which I referred earlier, the apostle Paul relates the coming of the kingdom of God to childbirth.  He says it is coming in the midst of incredible pain, and for us, it seems like it takes far too long.  Yet in the end, the result is beautiful new life.  He says Christ came into the world like that.  Have you ever thought about why God chose to be born into the world in the incarnation?  In the midst of pain, after his people waited, for them, what felt like far too long, and people had begun losing hope.  In the middle of the night, at an hour when we would rather be sleeping, in a place we would never have thought, to a couple wrapped in shame.  So Christ came.

And in all of that, I find a nearly incredible hope.  Because my life is so often filled with pain.  And when I call out to him, I feel like he waits far too long, and I lose hope.  Especially in the middle of the night when I am wrapped in shame, and I am not looking for God, not expecting to find him.  So Christ comes into my life, just like he came into the world.  Like childbirth, what Anne Riddler calls an “inconvenient demand.”

And I praise him that he does.  My invitation to you this morning is to invite you into my faith and my hope.  Hope that’s real, and based on real things, a real resurrection that we’ve really seen.  Real promises and a real invitation.  Hope that is despised, and yet worth it, like a pearl in a field, covered in dirt.  Like a flower that blooms and fades.  Hope that grows like a branch from the ruin of our lives, and it grows slowly, but eventually we will rest under it.

I want to close this morning with the poem I quoted just a snippet of earlier.

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