Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have not given up or abandoned this blog. I hope there are at least a handful of you still with me. I remain committed to making this work, and I will remain committed until God says move on.
I hope to be posting far more frequently in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps among other things, each week of Advent, I plan on posting the text of the previous Sunday’s sermon.
My hope and prayer is that this will spur conversation about what you heard God saying to you/us on Sunday, as well as what you might hear now as you read. I also hope and pray that this will aid us in preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ child. Finally, perhaps in the end there will prove some benefit to viewing our four advent sermons as a whole instead of four disconnected, even isolated, words from the Lord.
This Advent I will be preaching from a different prophetic text each Sunday:
Jeremiah 33:14-16 (11/29)
Malachi 3:1-4 (12/6)
Zephaniah 3:14-20 (12/13)
In last Sunday’s sermon, I sought to proclaim that with God, there is always a future. We are never futureless. Two-thousand years ago a branch sprang forth in Bethlehem just as Jeremiah had foretold. Today, we await this same one, and our future with and in Him… a future already secured by him.
Let me and others know what you hear God saying…
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to sprout from David’s line; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our Righteous Savior.” – Jeremiah 33:14-16
In 1983, Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor at Yale and father of 5, got the one phone call every parent dreads, but some – even some here – sadly receive.
“The call came at 3:30 on that Sunday afternoon, a bright sunny day,” Wolterstorff writes. “We had just sent a younger brother off to the plane to be with him for the summer.”
“Is this Eric’s father?”
“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must give you some bad news.”
“Eric has been climbing in the mountains and has had an accident.”
“Eric has had a serious accident.”
“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. Mr. Wolterstorff, are you there? You must come at once! Mr. Wolterstorff, Eric is dead.”
“For three seconds I felt the peace of resignation: arms extended, limp son in hand, peacefully offering him to someone – Someone. Then the pain – cold burning pain.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s son Eric, twenty-five years old, had been climbing a mountain in Europe when he had fallen… to his death.
Whether we have lost, or even had, children, we all know the perversity and utter wrongness of the death of a child.
“It’s so wrong,” Wolterstorff writes, “so profoundly wrong, for a child to die before its parents. It’s hard enough to bury our parents. But that we expect. Our parents belong to our past, our children belong to our future. We do not visualize our future without them. How can I bury my son, my future? He was meant to bury me!”
I used to think it was the finality of death that made it so hard. I thought death’s absolute nature was what made it hurt so much.
There is no maybe with death. Only what is and what is not.
Recently, however, I have realized this is only half the story – only half of the sting (1 Cor. 15:55).
I took some time this week to re-read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s little book, Lament for a Son, and I am so glad I did. Though I have read it before, this week for the first time a single word jumped off the pages like a bright red thread running through the whole. That word? Never.
In truth, it is the neverness that makes loss so painful.
The أبدا , or abadaan (ev-eh-don).
Never again will the one who has died be here with us. Never to sit down with us for a meal. Never to call to say hi. Never to stop by. Never to laugh together and never to cry. Never to hug. Never to see son or daughter, brother or sister marry or become a parent. Never to meet their grandson. Never to play with their neice.
“I lament all that might have been and now will never be…”
“There’s a hole in the world now… My son is gone. Only a hole remains, a void, a gap, never to be filled.”
When we grieve over something or someone lost, something or someone taken from us, it is this never, and its absolute finality of such a word, that we grieve. What we lament is all that will never be.
The pain we experience with such a loss comes not from what has happened, but what has not, and now never will, happen.
We mourn not just the loss of a person we loved, but with the loss of that loved one, our future. Our future with them.
When David, the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath, was made King of Israel and placed by God on the throne of Judah, God promised David that it would always be so – that a descendant of David would always sit upon the throne.
And for 400 years it was so.
But then, the Babylonians destroyed David’s city, burned Solomon’s temple, and took David’s heirs into exile. This was the end of the Davidic dynasty. The ultimate overthrow and nullification of God’s promise. They were a vanquished and conquered people. Not to mention humiliated and subjugated.
It would be hard to overstate the people’s loss.
They lost property and land, precious temple possessions, the temple itself, as well as their own loved ones – brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters. They also lost nationhood. They lost their home. And they lost their identity. But most of all, they lost the promise of God, and with it, their future with God… their future within the promise of God.
If you are familiar, think of the children’s book by Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, a book that, even as a child, I always found profoundly sad. Under King David, the people had been a massive, robust tree with firm, deep roots, a more than healthy trunk, and a vast canopy of branches.
Over time, as fewer and fewer kings “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” and more and more rejected YHWH and refused to walk in His ways, the tree slowly – like, 400 years slow – withered or lessened. A good king would come along and the tree would begin to show some life. Just enough to suggest hope remained… that the tree might still recover.
Then came the Babylonian seige. The final swing of the axe. The once mighty tree was felled, and nothing was left but a dead stump. The house of David was cut down.
Make no mistake. This was a death. It was the loss of future. The future promised to them – you will be my people… this city will be yours… a descendant of David will never fail to sit upon the throne – this future was over. Never again…
Never again to rule from the throne.
It is not only the death or loss of loved ones, nor our own death, that robs us of our future. Life is full of such endings. Full of the neverness of loss and death. It meets us in simple phrases, both spoken to us and by us. Phrases like,
“We have to sell the house.”
“I want a divorce.”
“I’m leaving you.”
“The official diagnosis is shizophrenia.”
“There has been an attack.”
“Another school shooting.”
“A plane flew into one of the towers.”
“We’re going to have to let you go.”
Even, “I recommend you put her down.”
The People of Jerusalem had been through something similar. The armies of Babylon came, encamped outside the city, and laid seige to it for 18 months. With the Babylonians encamped outside the city, the people of Jerusalem firmly entrenched themselves inside the city. But after 18 months, word camed down…
“There is no more food.”
“They have broken through the city wall.”
“Our army has fled.”
“The king has been captured.”
“The city, the temple!, is burning.”
“So many dead.”
And finally, “Some dude named Gedaliah is king.”
The darkness that the prophet Jeremiah for so long had been proclaiming had finally come, descending fast and heavy like death itself. All was lost. All that they had and were.
“We have to let you go. You’re fired.”
Their future, the future they had taken for granted, was now void.
“I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving.”
Their time as the people of God, the people of Jerusalem, the people of the temple, was over. A descendant of David no longer sits upon the throne.
“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. You must come at once. Eric is dead.”
Like any parent, Nicholas Wolterstorff never visualized a future without his son Eric. When Eric died, he lost not just his son, but the future he would have had, the future he should have had, with him.
Suddenly, he was futureless. With a single phone call, his future as Eric’s father was ripped from his hands… rent from deep within his chest. He still had a future, just not one with Eric. And in this sense, he was futureless.
I have no doubt you can all relate, in one way or another, to a hoped for, or even assumed, future… stolen… dislodged.
This is an ending. Plain and simple.
Fade to black. Roll credits.
But then comes a voice…
The same voice that proclaimed the loss of future.
But this time it comes proclaiming hope not despair…
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. He will be called by this name: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Is. 9:2) Into the heart of darknesses heart, the light is about to break. In the midst of despair, hope promptly erupts. After generations of waiting, a branch is soon to sprout. The total fulfillment of God’s promises is not yet… but soon… soon.
How can this be? We are in Babylon. David’s line is broken. Eric is dead!
“The day is coming when I will fulfill my promise!”
How can you? That future, the promise, they are already nullified. David’s line has been broken. Gedaliah sits upon the throne!
“The day is coming when I will fulfill my promise. I will make a righteous branch shoot forth from David’s line and He will be king.”
How is this possible?
How? Because both the possible and the impossible are possible with God,
And with God there is always a future.
A righteous branch will spring up.
Today is the beginning of Advent, a season of waiting. This advent my preaching will have the theme: what on earth are we waiting for?
In a sense, as we move towards Christmas and the birth of Christ, we wait with the people of Israel and Jeremiah for that which, in truth, we know has already come – the birth of a King. One who would come like a branch shooting out from a dead stump. New life out of the neverness of death.
However, where Jeremiah and his contemporaries waited for the coming of, the birth of, a King, we await His coming again.
We wait not for Jeremiah 33, but Revelation 21.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
However, as was the case for Jeremiah and the people of Israel, all the evidence – I mean, tangible, on the surface evidence – seems to suggest that the future for which we are waiting… well, that it’s never gonna happen.
Like that of a failed relationship or a parent burying their child, our Revelation 21 future seems like it’s never gonna happen.
But then comes a voice…
“The days are coming…”
And we remember, there is always a future with God. After all, a new branch sprang forth from the dead stump and did so in a stable in the City of David. In Bethlehem.
With God, we are never futureless, and our future is never godless!
And so we wait in hope for the King. The King who came before as the baby born to Mary.
We wait for him to come again. And we hope in the God who in Jesus Christ has already secured our future with Him.
For, again, in a stable in the city of David, a branch sprang forth, and He will do so again.