Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Lord Our Righteousness

Continuing the Christmas theme, here's a talk I just gave at our church prayer meeting. It's based on Jeremiah 23v1-8. The audio will hopefully appear here in due course.

"The LORD Our Righteousness"

I was told to do “something adventy” – I hope this counts. It mentions shepherds and a king – in fact, there are three kings, so I think we’ll be OK...

I finally bought my advent calendar on Tuesday. I know it’s a bit late, but it’s magnetic and reusable so I can get it out again next year. And I got it for half-price because no-one buys advent calendars on 15th December! It’s always really cute how the students I work with love their advent calendars – usually their Mums send them through the post, as if they suddenly lose the ability to work out what day it is, even though they’ve managed for the past 3 months. But why? What’s the big deal?

It’s all about anticipation, isn’t it? We’re counting down to the big day, getting more and more excited as we get nearer. It’s a bit weird, because in one way we’re pretending to wait for something which has already happened. But as we do that we’re putting ourselves in the shoes of generations of God’s people who had to wait. People like Jeremiah.

Only Jeremiah was waiting a bit longer – he was around 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Of course people had been waiting even longer than that, ever since the fall God’s people have been waiting for the one God would send to sort it all out. But in this passage, Jeremiah is pointing forward to events 600 years later (or there abouts). That’s about 220,000 advent calendar windows, if anyone’s interested…

The situation is pretty grim at this point, and things are looking bleak. Jeremiah is preaching to the kingdom of Judah. The previous chapters describe a succession of awful kings who’ve led the people away from God and into idolatry and sin. The kingdom of Israel to the north has already been wiped off the map by the Assyrians. And it’s just a few years before Jerusalem is levelled, the temple is destroyed, and most of God’s people end up living in foreign countries. Some of them have already been carried off into exile, and now the enemy are closing in on Jerusalem waiting to finish the job.

At the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, he brings messages of warning from God. Turn back to God, or take the consequences. But now those warnings have given way to declarations of the inevitable destruction and exile that awaits Jerusalem. The situation is grim, and things look bleak.

But in the middle of the bleakness, there are glimmers of hope like this one here. It’s a pattern that’s repeated again and again in Scripture, isn’t it? Against the dark background of human rebellion and righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shine through. And that’s exactly what happens in Jeremiah 23 - there’s certain judgement, but there’s grace too, grace which is equally certain…

Let’s look quickly at the shepherds, then we’ll look at the King…

The Shepherds (v1-4)
What does a shepherd do? There aren’t many of them in Reading, but it’s the responsibility of a shepherd to look after the sheep in his care. So it’s a great image to represent those God has put in charge of his people – kings, but also all of the leaders and officials under him, who have been delegated authority and responsibility from God. Only these shepherds are rubbish. They’re “destroying and scattering” the sheep they’re supposed to be looking after. They’re doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing. It’s their sinful behaviour and their disregard for God which is bringing disaster on God’s people. It’s their fault that they’re about to be exiled, “scattered and driven away” (v2). And so God is going to do two things to sort it out:

First he’s going to punish – he’s going to punish these rulers for neglecting the care of God’s people, and for the evil they’ve done instead. He doesn’t elaborate on the punishment waiting for them, but given the woe’s God has dished out on the evil kings before this, it’s not going to be nice.

Then he’s going to provide. God himself is going to step in. In sharp contrast to the bad shepherds, God is going to gather his people. The exile isn’t going to last forever. God brought the exile on them (in v3 he says, “I have driven them”), and God himself is going to bring it to an end. He’ll rescue them himself. But can you see that he’ll do way more than that? They’ll be back in their pasture, where they’re supposed to be. They’ll be fruitful and increase in number. God will place good shepherds over them and they’ll be safe, secure and whole (v4).

That’s quite a promise, given the situation they’re in, and the exile they’re facing. But through the other side, God is promising a future they can probably barely even imagine at the moment. Peace and security and fruitfulness. Even though God’s judgement is certain, so is his grace and mercy and faithfulness.

The King (v5-6)

Well, if that promise was astonishing, what about this?
"The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David [a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness. (v5-6_

Every time we read about a King in the Bible, it should make us long for a better king. Even king David, the greatest King the Jews had ever seen, was a sinful failure. But here, in Jeremiah, it’s almost too much. King after king has been terrible. And even Josiah, who not long before this tried to bring his people back to God, even he failed to make any lasting impact. This is a people in desperate need of a better king.

God does better than that. He promises them the King, a King of Kings. Look at what he says about this King…

He’ll “raise up to David a righteous Branch.” This King is going to be from David’s line. God’s promise to David, that one of his sons will always be on the throne, will come true. On King David’s dying, decaying family tree, there’s one branch where there are still signs of life. And one day it will blossom into the greatest King God’s people have ever seen.

This King will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. God’s people haven’t seen a King like that for a while. Where all of their other kings have failed, this King won’t. And when he comes, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. He’ll be their rescuer and their protector – it’s this king who will bring about the happy, peaceful life in verses 3 and 4.

But the real shock is in verse 6, where we find out his name. “This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” This King will be God! And he will be their righteousness. God himself will be their righteousness. He will make his people righteous when he comes to be their King.

You’ve probably worked out who this King is now. But put yourself in their place. They had to wait 600 years to find out…

Keep a finger in Jeremiah 23, but flick to Luke 2v8-14.

Good news of great joy! In the town of David - where all of David’s descendents are staying at the moment, remember. A baby has been born on a branch of David’s family tree. And he will be a saviour. He is Christ, the Lord. He’s God’s chosen, long-promised King!

When God brought his people out of exile in Babylon, it was the very start of these promises coming true. But he’d barely even started. When God became one of us in the person of the Lord Jesus, he really showed what he meant. And it was bigger and better than anything Jeremiah and his fellow Jews could have imagined! King Jesus makes it possible for us to be forgiven, and for us to be reconciled to God. He brings an end to our exile from the presence of God, because HE has become “our righteousness” (see 1 Cor 1v30).

And how do we respond to a King like this? Surely the only right response is worship? Loving, joyful worship. There’s nothing else we can do. He’s done everything to restore His people, we’ve done nothing. In that first Christmas, just like in Jeremiah’s day, against the backdrop of righteous but terrible judgement, God’s grace and mercy shines bright and clear. Only this time it’s not the promise – it’s the delivery. (Literally).

Turn back to Jeremiah 23 and just look at the last couple of verses, v7-8. When God delivers his people from exile, He says, it will redefine his relationship with his people. Until this point, when God’s people wanted to remember the faithfulness of their God, they looked back to the exodus from Egypt. “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt.” They knew they believed in a real, living God, because they could look back on a real event in their history, the exodus from Egypt, which confirmed God’s power and his faithfulness. But, when he rescues them from exile in Babylon, all that will change. Instead they’ll say, “As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.” This will be the new benchmark of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy to his people.

I’ve never heard anyone say that. And why would we? “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It’s great that we can look back at God’s faithfulness to his people through the centuries – their history is ours too. But in Jesus, the LORD our righteousness, we have the ultimate demonstration of God’s faithfulness and grace and mercy. God’s promises through Jeremiah started to come true when His people returned from exile, but that was nothing compared to the way these promises are coming true in Jesus.

I said “coming true” on purpose, because we’re still waiting for God to finish fulfilling these promises, aren’t we? Can we look around at the world and really think that this has all happened? There’s more to come.

Through Jesus, through his death on the cross, our sin is paid for and our freedom is bought. But we’re waiting for the day when he’ll come back, when everything will be made new and the exile really will be over. When that day comes, we won’t say “as surely as the Lord lives” to remind us that God is real and good. It’ll be ridiculous. We won’t need to remind each other at all because he’ll be right there in front of us for the rest of eternity! …But, for now, we’re waiting. Pointing each other and pointing other people to Jesus, the Lord our righteousness, until he comes back.

I’m sure we’ll be praying for this in a minute anyway, but let’s be praying that this Christmas people will meet “the Lord, their Righteousness.” Their ONLY righteousness, and their only hope – they aren’t going to find it anywhere else. But let’s remember what we’re inviting them into. We’re inviting them to wait for our King to come back and reign wisely and justly and rightly forever! That’s brilliant, isn’t it? It’s good news of great joy! How can we not share that?!

And when advent is over and Christmas comes, what will you do? Will you stop waiting until 1st December next year? Or will you live praising God for his faithfulness and grace and mercy in sending the Lord Jesus? And will you live as though the future is true, and Jesus will come back, finishing what he started?