Monday, November 23, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-17 –Hope in Exile

Lesson Focus:
We are in exile waiting hopefully for our king to come again.  We must wait while proclaiming with our voice and our actions God’s desire for justice and righteousness. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should
  1. Recognize that the church in America is in exile.
  2. Identify the season of Advent as a time of active and hopeful waiting.
  3. Understand that our King has come and is coming again to finally and fully establish justice and righteousness.
Catching up on the story:
Jeremiah, a prophet from the southern nation of Judah leading up to and during the Babylonian invasion of Judah, is spoken to by God while in prison in the court of the guard.  God calls to Jeremiah and encourages him to seek God, calling on his name, so that God might reveal to him things that are hidden and secret.  Jeremiah must have complied because what follows is a series of promissory oracles which detail a positive future for Israel and Judah. 

A bleak vision filled with destruction is painted for us first.  This vision will contrast with the promises that God will make to Jeremiah for Israel and Judah.  A current detail of the destruction and despair that Judah has just or will experience is crucial for the message of hope that Jeremiah now brings. 

As we get ready to look at this text two things are important to note.  First, the promises that God will make in the following section concern the historical and sociopolitical future of the community.  Second, these promises are voiced and heard in the context of exile.  What Israel hears here is not predicated on their current circumstances, which aren’t good.  Rather they are heard and then proclaimed in spite of those circumstances.  God will bring about for God’s people what they have tried but failed to secure for themselves: safety, health, peace and a bright future.
The Text:
The text we are concerned with, verses 14-17, fall in a section of promissory utterances delivered by God to Jeremiah for the people.  Verses 14-17 tell of the renewal of the monarchy.  Only, this new monarchy will be unlike the kings who have gone before.  

This promissory utterance begins with the formulaic words, “The days are surely coming…”  Often when we hear these types of words what follows is dark and foreboding.  Here, however, that is not the case.  The formulaic statement jumps right into words which bring hope and comfort to a people in exile.  The days are surely coming, says God, when God will fulfill his promise to Israel and to Judah of a king who will be in the line of David.  This promise, which we find in Jeremiah 23:5-6, is not just for a king who will once again rule over Israel in Jerusalem.  It is a promise for a king who will be like David, a man after God’s own heart. 

Jeremiah describes this king as a righteous branch.  Imagine that the kings of Israel from David on are represented by a tree.  David would be the trunk and those kings that followed him, both good and bad, would be the branches.  The exile amounts to a cutting down of this royal tree.  The branches were dead and lifeless and so the tree must be cut down leaving only a stump.  Yet God has no intentions of abandoning this stump or removing it completely.  Instead, Jeremiah tells us, new growth will spring from that previously lifeless tree.  This new growth will not take place because of anything that anyone in Judah, Israel or elsewhere does; the new growth will happen because God has decided, in his faithfulness, that it will happen. 

Notice, however, how Jeremiah describes the branch.  It will not be like the branches that died and caused the tree to be cut down in the first place.  Rather, it will be a righteous branch.  This righteous branch will work for justice and righteousness in the land, things that have been absent for a very long time.  Now, we have encountered these words, righteousness and justice, before in the context of Israel’s unfaithfulness.  Think back to our study of Hosea chapter 2.  Israel, who had been so unfaithful, will not be abandoned by God.  God was going to woo them back.  God proclaims that he will pay the “bride price” for her.  Only the price will not be livestock or money, but will be righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy and faithfulness.  We said that those things that God had given Israel for her hand in marriage were the very same things she was to give God back in return.  Now, Jeremiah joins in and echoes Hosea’s call for the people, beginning with their king, to live with justice and righteousness. 

These two concepts, justice and righteousness, are complimentary.  It would be hard to have one without the other.  Justice deals with the rights and integrity of relationships within society and on a personal level. God will work on Israel’s behalf to ensure that she receives fair treatment and has dignity as persons created in his image.  A king who seeks justice will be a king that works to ensure that people, especially those prone to mistreatment, the poor and marginalized, receive fair and proper treatment.  Righteousness, on the other hand, is characterized by actions taken so that others may experience wholeness and wellbeing, as we seek to live in right relationship with them. God will act on Israel’s behalf so that she might experience wholeness.

So What?
After reading these words of hope we might remember that Israel has been destroyed and Judah is carried off into exile.  David’s line is essentially cut off.  Jerusalem will be destroyed and so will the temple.  A political king, one from David’s line, never returns to Jerusalem even though it, along with the temple, will be rebuilt.  This passage, then, is often read in the light of the hopeful expectation for the messiah. Those who return from exile will cling to promises like these in hope that, one day, God will restore Israel to her former glory. 

Often times, though, we take the promises of God and reshape them to fit our own preferred future.  This is certainly what Israel did.  As we begin the season of Advent, this righteous branch that God will cause to spring up is none other than Jesus Christ.  This king comes to us to lead us in justice and righteousness in the midst of our own exile.  We may not experience exile as Israel did--our homes have not been destroyed and we have not been carried off to a foreign land--but the church is in exile anyway.  The church no longer possesses the kind of power it once had in society and we are increasingly living in a post-Christian world.  At times it feels like we are strangers in a foreign land.  And that’s ok.  Because it is in this place of exile that we hear these words of hope:  A king is coming.  Not just any king, but a king who will lead us in justice and righteousness, both in the future and here and now.     

In exile we have two choices.  First, we can constantly lament our situation.  We can wallow in pessimism and worry.  Or, we can embrace the hope that our righteous king has come and will one day come again. The embrace of this kind of hope leads us out to proclaim, alongside Jeremiah, that all is not lost.  It is not just a verbal proclamation we are called to, however.  The words used to describe the king in whom we hope, justice and righteousness, are active and relational terms.  May we be a place and a people who not only proclaim the hope of our coming king with our voices, but with our actions, through our care for one another and through our care for the world around us.

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?  
    1. In the context of all that surrounds these short verses we are reminded that God is continuing his faithfulness to those whom he has created in his own image.  This continuing faithfulness is most evident when we think that all is dead and lost.  It is out of nothing that God created the world and it will be through seemingly dead and hopeless situations that God restores the world. 
  2. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. We are called to enact the same justice and righteousness that our king enacts.  If the king comes to establish those things, and we subject ourselves to this king, then we must act in the same kind of ways.  We are saved because Christ comes to enact justice and righteousness, and we become holy by allowing the Spirit to work through us, transforming us so that we too might enact justice and righteousness. 
  3. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. If we, as the church in America, are really in exile, where we may not be in charge of our own destiny, then this passage calls us to examine how we have been and will continue to react to a place diminished power and influence in this world.   

Specific Discussion Questions:

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
  1. The passage begins with the words, “The Days are surely coming…”  What days are those?  What is God promising will happen in those days?
  2. Jeremiah is using the imagery of a tree that has been cut down.  Who is the trunk of the tree?  Who are the branches?  Why has the tree been cut down?
  3. The text promises that a king from the line of David will always sit on the throne in Jerusalem.  Historically, after the time of Jeremiah and the Exile, a king in David’s line never again sits on the throne.  Many after the Exile began to read this passage in a way that looked for a future Messiah.  Today, who would we say is the “righteous Branch” that verse 15 speaks about?
  4. What kind of king will this “righteous Branch” be? 
  5. The concepts of justice and righteousness are not new to us.  What do they mean? Where do we need justice and righteousness to be practiced in our city?
  6. The church in America might also be living in exile.  We are experiencing an ever-greater loss of influence in our world both socially and politically. How are Christians reacting to this? 
  7. If the church is in exile, what is the church’s hope?
  8. What might it look like for us to embrace the hope of a coming king that Jeremiah proclaims? 
  9. Our “righteous Branch” has already come, beginning to establish justice and righteousness, but is yet to come again and finally make all things right.  Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. How might we actively wait for Christ to come again this Advent season?  Make a list with your group.