YEAR C: ADVENT 1
On this first week of advent – the season of waiting for the coming of the Lord – you might think that this short reading from Jeremiah serves only as a preamble to the Gospel reading, Luke 2:25-36. Yes, it does look forward to the distant fulfilment of the promise that there will be a descendant of David who will ‘execute justice and righteousness’, a promise that will later form the basis of messianic belief. But it also has something to say about the ‘present’, about living as people who hold a promise.
The context of Jer 33:14-16 is important. In terms of the story in Jeremiah, the city of Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar and the people will shortly go into exile (Jer 32:1-6). Jeremiah is in prison (Jer 32:2; 33:1). The people are about to lose everything that has given meaning to their lives – the temple, the city, king, priesthood, their homes, family etc. God seems to be silent, absent, and preoccupied with judging the people for past wrongs. But in terms of the literary context, Jer 33:14-16 falls within that part of Jeremiah known as the Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-33), which as the name suggests, gives hope to the people.
In particular Jeremiah 33 contains seven promissory oracles, of which this week’s reading is the fourth. Jer 33:14-16 repeats the words of Jer 23:5-6. The promise referred to in v. 14 could be the words in that earlier text, or maybe it refers to another promise to David such as in 2 Sam 7:8 or the one implicit in the last words of David (2 Sam 23:1-5) which we read last week. Whatever the case this promise to the Davidic house is unusual in Jeremiah. Jeremiah regards the way the kings (and priests) of Jerusalem have behaved as one of the major reasons for the present disaster (cf. Jer 22:13-18, 24-30). Given that, and the fact that this chapter does not appear in the old Greek versions of the book of Jeremiah, many scholars have proposed that the promises in Jeremiah 33 are a later collection of general promises belonging to the theme of the restoration of God’s people. They suggest that these words have been added to the book by later editors and may not have been part of the prophet’s own words.
Whether they are original to the prophet or not, these verses teach us a number of things about hope. First, if we take the arguments above seriously and consider Jer 33:14-16 at least a later addition to the book, then we see that hope in and ideas about God’s purpose are continually being reshaped and clarified. This is true within Jeremiah. It is also true elsewhere in Scripture, as the hope for a “righteous Branch to spring up for David” (Jer 33:15) is not the same as the messianic hope that is the foundation of the later Gospel message. The promise in Jeremiah is a step on the way toward that understanding. If in Advent we think we await the fulfilment of a fixed and well-defined promise by God, then we only partly understand the deep sense of Advent, of waiting for the Lord. God’s coming among us always requires clarification, and is open to debate and new perceptions by the people of God. There is always the sense of surprise, of an unexpected coming. The Gospels (Matt 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38) present the coming of the messiah, the descendant of David, as the arrival of a baby. So in our own context, as in the book of Jeremiah, the promise of God’s coming is recognised as fulfilled only with much internal debate about the ways God’s purposes of righteousness and justice (Jer 33:15-16) are best served in the world – in political, religious, social or personal terms.
Secondly, we note that the hope in Jeremiah is not only that one day there will be deliverance for Judah and safety for Jerusalem, but that a descendant of David by executing the ‘justice and righteousness’ that have been expected of the kings all along (Isa 9:7; 1 Kgs 10:9; Ps 72:1-4) will bring it about. Advent is not just about something in the future. It is as much about the reform of our present ways: the ways we govern ourselves, share wealth and responsibility, organise our communal life, and prepare ourselves for the future (cf. the Psalm for this week, Ps 25:1-10). Waiting for the Lord’s coming is not an idle, passive activity. It is waiting that is passionate and active. It is about calling for reform in the world, personal and social. In Jeremiah’s case it was about speaking from prison about hope beyond exile, of envisioning that through commitment to the old covenant expectations there would be a day when again the sound of joy would be heard in the streets (Jer 33:10-13). Jeremiah hopes not only that one day there will be a king who will reshape the people’s lives, but that, even against all that circumstance dictates, kingship itself would be reshaped so as to make new life possible.
Thirdly, throughout the Book of Consolation, hope in the coming of the Lord is always grounded in God’s own action. The prophet speaks words of healing (Jer 30:12-17), of return (Jer 31:2- 14, 23-26), of new life (Jer 31:27-30), and of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34). He bases his hope in the promise of God (Jer 30:18-22), in God’s faithfulness (Jer 31:2-40), in God’s everlasting love (Jer 31:15-22), and in the certainty of God’s word (Jer 31:35-40). He uses the lessons of history to underline this last point (Jer 32:1-15). But the word of judgment is never far away (Jer 30:23-31:1). Threat and promise are intimately linked (Jer 30:4-11). Yet in all this, and in spite of the people and the king’s unfaithfulness, God comes to them, even in their darkest hour – the hour of prison or exile. We note that the final word in this section in Jer 33:26 is from the Lord: ‘I will have mercy on them.’ And in the reading for the week, the last word is: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ If there is any cause for hope in the Lord’s coming to us, it is in this proclamation. The source of energy behind any hope for the present or future is God’s own word and action, and God’s challenge to present realities, present structures of society and church, and present visions of what is possible. Jeremiah’s hope was deeply rooted in God’s love and faithfulness, and in God’s own speech and concern about the political, social, religious, and personal dimensions of community life. Advent is not just about waiting for God to fulfil his promise. It is also about our being transformed through waiting.
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