Preaching Jeremiah 33:14-16 (RCL: Year C, Advent 1)
The appointed RCL reading for next Sunday, December 3, 2006, is Jeremiah 33:14-16 (Year C, First Sunday of Advent). The text speaks of a coming "righteous Branch of David to spring forth" (33:15). This is a wonderful messianic text, perfect for Advent season. I hope you all will join me in discussing it over the course of the week and then grit your teeth and preach a sermon centered on it.
Let's unpack the rich image of a "righteous branch" (צמח צדקה). There are wondrous levels of meaning here. Most basically, this is an idiom for the "legitimate heir" to the royal throne of David. "Righteous" means conforming to standards and norms and "branch" is a term indicating a new shoot or scion in a continuously extending dynasty. An early 3rd century Phoenician inscription from Lapethos in Cyprus combines the terms צמח and צדק to designate a legitimate heir. A 5th century Phoenician inscription from Sidon similarly speaks of a legitimate royal heir as a "righteous son" (בן צדק).
But our passage takes this language much farther. For one thing, Jeremiah and his editors use the messianic ideal to critique and expose the challenges and evils of the here and now. Jeremiah 33 is set against the fall of Jerusalem in 586 due precisely to a lack of "righteousness" in Judah and its leadership. The name of the king at the time, Zedekiah, is built on this term "righteousness" / צדק but he falls far short of God's norms and standards. Deuteronomy 6:25 is ignored: there is no righteousness for the people because the covenant is not obeyed. Against Deuteronomy 24:13, innocent blood is shed and violence is done to the weak. Straight conduct, loyal to the community as a whole, is not being practiced, as it was briefly in the time of good king Josiah (Jeremiah 22:15-17). Josiah, like the coming Messiah, did what was right / righteous (צדקה).
"Righteousness" is not just a matter for kings and messiahs according to our passage. An earlier form of our text in Jeremiah 23:5-6 had said that the name of the messiah himself would be "The LORD our righteousness." Here, in our text, that name is given to the whole of Jerusalem, symbolic of all God's people (33:16). John Calvin aptly wrote that we, the faithful, "partake of this righteousness."
The whole community of faith gets admitted "into a participation of all the blessings by which he [the messiah] is adorned and enriched by the Father." Righteousness now becomes not just an issue of royal legitimacy, nor even just an issue of moral obligation, but also an expression of God's gift of salvation and gift of communal wholeness when God's reign comes in power one day. In Advent season, we look forward to that day and think about doing all we can to mirror its righteousness in the here and now.
More soon. Please use the comments space for discussions and reflections.