Promises, promises. . .

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve already done quite a lot at worship here today. I don’t want to go into overtime, so what I want to say today is going to be fairly short.

Every year during the Christmas season, we always start out by asking, “What were people expecting, before Jesus was born? What was going through their head, when they talked about the Messiah?”

Was the Messiah going to be a king, or a new ruler? Was the Messiah going to raise an army, and kick the Romans out?

Was the Messiah going to be someone they knew? Or a mysterious stranger who would show up suddenly?

They knew – they hoped and believed – that the Promised One would come and set things right. They didn’t know when it would happen, but they kept on praying. And they kept on reading the scriptures, looking for clues and hints.

Some of them treated the sacred writings like a code book. They played all kinds of number games, counting up letters and treating it like a coded message. Other people put their faith in politics – every time a new would-be savior came along, they were ready to sign up.

They did this for hundreds of years. They hoped and studied and prayed.
Some of them thought God was delaying the Messiah, till all the people turned their lives around, and started obeying all the commandments again.

Some people got completely obsessed by this – they thought that God wouldn’t save the world, because one person tied their shoes on the Sabbath, or because they didn’t keep the dishes they used for meat and the dishes they used for dairy completely separate. (That was a thing back then.)

Anyway, at the beginning of Advent, we always take a look at what people were expecting when they thought about the Messiah.

Their favorite place to turn was the prophets, because there were a lot of things in the prophets that seemed like hints about the Messiah. Isaiah was a favorite. But another was Jeremiah.

Jeremiah lived about 600 years before the birth of Jesus, during a time of tremendous upheaval. After King Solomon died, Israel got divided into two kingdoms, north and south. Israel was the north kingdom, and Judah was the south kingdom, and they were ruled by different branches of the royal family.

Right before Jeremiah came on the scene, the north kingdom, Israel, had been flattened by invaders from Assyria, which kind of straddled the border between modern-day Iraq and Turkey. But coming up on the horizon was a new invader, a country called Babylon, also from Iraq, but farther south.

From the prophets point of view, the north kingdom, Israel, had been defeated because they didn’t worship God any more. They let in foreign gods, and they also gave up the simple things that God really wanted: things like justice, and mercy, and kindness and humility.

They said that God couldn’t care less about all the sacrifices people were making at the temple. They said the problem wasn’t that God had given up on them, but that the country had given up on God.

So, that’s the background. Some of the prophets said that there was still time, if people would just turn around. But Jeremiah was famous, because he said, “Nope, it’s too late. Your time is up. That train has left the station. You’re going to be conquered.”

The people in power didn’t like Jeremiah very much. He kept on predicting disaster, even after the country had been invaded. Jerusalem was under siege, and Jeremiah kept saying, “It’s going to get worse!”

Jeremiah’s enemies got so made at him, that they threw him into one of the big underground reservoirs that fed Jerusalem. The invaders had cut off the water supply, and the reservoirs were all drained out, with nothing but a thick layer of mud at the bottom.

So, there Jeremiah was, literally stuck in the mud, over his shoulders and almost up to his head, nothing to eat or drink, while the rest of the city was starving during the siege. Not a good place to be!

But Jeremiah also saw hope. Not a shallow kind of hope, that some miracle would get them out of their tight spot.

Jeremiah had a hope that after the disaster, when the people of Israel and Judah were all taken away into exile, that in the midst of their exile, they would learn again that they depended on God, and that God would deliver them and bring them back, when all their foolishness had been wrung out of them. They would make a new covenant with God, and that’s where I want to begin this morning.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors, when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt. Because they broke that covenant, even though I was like a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘You should know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness, and I will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

This is one of the major promises that people hung on to, during the years people were waiting for Jesus. It’s different from all the military and political promises that other prophets made.

Jeremiah was saying that God would forgive them. God would gather them back, and return them to their homeland. God would put the commandments into their hearts.

They wouldn’t need preachers to scold them, and tell them, “You need to know the Lord,” Jeremiah said, because everyone would know the Lord, from the greatest person in the country to the very least.

Let’s take a look at another promise Jeremiah made.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Jeremiah 29:11-14

The first part of that promise ought to sound pretty familiar to us here at Springfield. Because we used that promise from Jeremiah for many years as something we leaned on.

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Anybody here remember seeing or hearing that? People carried that promise in their hearts for hundreds of years, while they were waiting for Jesus to be born.

We think we’ve got it bad with the economy and COVID and everything else — they were prisoners and slaves in exile, 1600 miles from home. If they were ever going to get home again, first they had to get free, and then they had to walk their way back.

That’s like walking from here to the Grand Canyon. Or from here to Hudson’s Bay up in Canada. Or like walking all the way to Nicaragua. That’s how far they were from home. But God promised to bring them back again.

“I have plans, not just for you to survive, but to prosper,” God said. “My plan is not to harm you, but to give you hope and a future.”

“You will call on me and pray to me, and I will listen. You will seek me, and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. . .”

That’s a deeper kind of prayer than we’re used to. It’s not a shallow prayer. It’s a prayer where we throw everything in, and don’t hold back. It’s a prayer with no reservations. And it’s not just for a moment, it’s a deep prayer, when our hearts are turned every day to God.

This is the kind of prayer that Jesus did. Jesus was not a king or a military leader. Jesus was a person of prayer. Jesus said that we could move mountains by praying. He said God would give us anything we ask when we pray.

Jesus prayed, and storms were stilled. Jesus prayed, and water turned into the finest wine. He gave thanks, and a little bit of food suddenly could feed thousands of people. We could spend all day talking about Jesus and prayer.

This is the kind of Messiah God sent to us. A good shepherd, who laid down his life for those he loved. A teacher, who taught like no one they’d ever heard before. Someone who told them to forgive each other, and that God had already forgiven them. That’s what the Messiah was going to be like.

Let’s listen just for a moment again to Jeremiah.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David 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 Righteous Savior.”

Jeremiah 23:5-6

Jesus would be a king, but a different kind of king. A healer. A peacemaker. Humble, not arrogant. The true vine. The living bread.

Jesus would be like no other king they’d ever seen before. And whenever we’re in trouble, we need to remember, not just to pray, but remember what Jesus is like, and the things he did to answer our prayers.

As we get ready for Christmas, in the weeks ahead, let’s stop frequently and remember what it’s really all about. It’s not about Santa Claus and reindeer. It’s not about trees and stockings.

It’s about joy to a world that seriously needs it. It’s about peace to a world which is torn by suffering and division.

Christmas is about God’s goodwill toward us, and it’s about our goodwill towards each other.

Christmas is about seeking God with all our heart, not making a list and checking it over and over. It’s about finding God in unexpected places – who would ever have expected to find the Messiah, the Son of God, in a stable? It would almost be as strange as finding a Savior on a cross.

That’s how Advent begins – with promises, with seeking, with prayer, with hope and faith.
Let’s take just a few moments of quiet prayer together.

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