Today is Advent Sunday, the first Sunday in the period known in the Christian calendar as Advent. For those who may not be aware, this period of time runs right up to Christmas Eve on the night before Jesus was born. It is a time of preparation and of waiting as we both prepare for His birth and wait for that great day. We could perhaps also view it as being a period of waiting for the fulfilment of a gracious promise made by God some 600 years earlier, and it is that great promise that I want us to think about today.
How good are you at making and keeping promises? We all do it don’t we, we make promises that either we forget about or have no intention of keeping. As Christmas is rapidly approaching, I suspect that there may well be a vast number of children who are saying “I promise I’ll be good if I can have xyz for Christmas” and I’m sure that if you think hard enough you will remember your own children saying that or even saying it yourself; come on, be honest!
Just think for a moment about a couple who become engaged to be married. They are making a promise to one another to prepare for marriage and set a date for the ceremony. During the subsequent marriage service they make solemn vows or promises to one another that they intend to keep until death parts them. Sadly, not everyone keeps those promises and marriages break up for a variety of reasons, very often with the innocent party suffering the most.
God also makes promises; however, the big difference between His promises and ours is that He keeps His! There are many occasions throughout the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments, where God makes promises to the world in general and to His chosen people in particular, and it is one of the biggest promises that He ever made.
In the Old Testament we can read about something called the old Covenant, a Covenant, or promise, entered into by God with His chosen people. God’s promise was that if the people obeyed Him and did as He asked, then they would be His people and He would be their God and would care for them. This promise was willingly accepted by the people who started out with the best of intentions. Sadly of course their good intentions didn’t last very long and they regularly broke their end of the bargain. They disobeyed God, ignored Him, totally denied Him, and even went so far as to worship idols instead of Him. God, however, was determined to keep His promise to His people even though the people wanted to go their own way, do their own thing and hope that God wouldn’t notice, or if He did, that He would still keep His promise to them. In Jeremiah 14 we can see them almost begging God not to break His Covenant with them despite all that they had done. Jeremiah wrote, “We acknowledge our wickedness, LORD, and the guilt of our ancestors; we have indeed sinned against you. For the sake of your name do not despise us; do not dishonour your glorious throne. Remember your covenant with us and do not break it.” (Jeremiah 14:20-21). Fine words which unfortunately were not matched by fine deeds; the people soon returned to their bad old ways and kept on sinning against God. How many times have we made big promises and not kept them? How many times have we said, I’m sorry about that, I promise I won’t do it again? I’m sure that many of us may have even said it to God in all sincerity. For many people such flimsy promises may have been made times without number, and yet they still expect the other party to the promise to keep their side of the deal.
So it was with the people of Israel and Judah and it was a situation that couldn’t continue. The people sinned; they repented and made sacrifices as sin offerings; God forgave them and then eventually the cycle started all over again. God eventually decided that this couldn’t go on and so He made a new promise and a new Covenant. Jeremiah tells us that God decreed that He would create a new Covenant with His people. Jeremiah wrote, “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house 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.’” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
It is only when we get to these verses in Jeremiah 33 that we see just how God planned to implement His new Covenant. Having made that promise in Jeremiah 31, now, here in 33:14 God says, “The time is coming when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah”. This promise to create a new Covenant was to be fulfilled but, as we shall see, not immediately. Jeremiah wrote these words during his ministry between 627 and 586 BC and so many years were to pass before this gracious promise was to be fulfilled. The first part of God’s promise comes in 33:15 where Jeremiah again records God’s words, “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”. Those words may sound familiar to some of you and if you think that they are familiar then you would be quite right! The prophet Isaiah wrote something similar in about 700 BC when he too recorded God’s words, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1). That “stump of Jesse” was in fact David, the very David referred to in 33:14, and Jesse was his father. I admit to being uncertain as to whether or not Jeremiah had read or heard Isaiah’s words and so it is quite possible that through the power of God these were two separate but similar prophecies. Interestingly enough here in 33:14 Jeremiah is actually repeating something that he had recorded earlier in 23:5 when he wrote, “’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.’” Teachers often repeat something that they have said previously just to make sure that their hearers have got the message. Similarly, Jeremiah either felt the need to repeat this great promise or he was prompted by God to do so. Given the repeated disobedience of His people I prefer the latter option; God wanted the people to be left in no doubt of what was to come.
God’s gracious promise was that He would send a descendant of David to bring the peace and justice that the people craved. Jeremiah even goes so far as to tell us that the name by which this descendant would be called was: “The LORD our Righteous Saviour” (33:16b). Isaiah tells us in that famous verse in Isaiah 9:6 that, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Whilst Isaiah happily gives us four names in a single verse for this individual, we have to trawl through Jeremiah a little to discover some clues as to who this Person would be. In Jeremiah 2:13 he talks of “the spring of living water”; in 23:4 we learn that God will “place shepherds over them [the people] who will tend them”. He repeats that thought in 31:10 when he says that this Person “will watch over his flocks like a shepherd”. We have already seen in 23:5 that he would be a “righteous Branch” and in 23:6, “the LORD our Righteous Saviour”. In 50:34 Jeremiah goes even further when he says that “their Redeemer is strong; the LORD Almighty is his name”. All of these glorious names and descriptions apply to the child who Isaiah had earlier prophesied would be born.
Despite his many failings, David was still highly regarded and held in great esteem by many of the people. God’s promise was to send someone Who would not only be the long awaited Messiah but Who would also be descended from the much loved David. The names and descriptions that I have just mentioned give us a clue as to just what this descendant would be like: He would be righteous before God, a shepherd, a Redeemer, a Righteous Saviour. That is the Person Who God was promising to send when He said in 33:14, “I will fulfil the good promise I made”.
That was quite some promise to make and yet it was made by God, Someone Who never failed nor fails to keep His promises no matter how badly the people in Old Testament times behaved towards Him and His previous promises, nor how badly people treat and regard Him in the 21st century.
That promise was fulfilled at what became the change over between BC and AD dates and so could possibly be regarded as 0 or 1 AD! In the first chapter of his Gospel, Luke tells us of a young woman by the name of Mary. One day an angel appeared to her and told her that she was to conceive a child with God and was to give the child, a boy, the name of Jesus. Luke added that, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33). When we look further into Luke 2 we read that this baby was indeed born as prophesied and was born when his family were in Bethlehem for the census. The angels announced His birth to shepherds in the fields when they told them, “... a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). It is the birth of this baby that we celebrate at Christmas and in light of these verses in Jeremiah 33:14-16 perhaps we should also celebrate the fulfilment of God’s gracious promise.
Why did God make and then fulfil a promise to send Someone Who in 33:16b, we see called “The LORD our Righteous Saviour”? I mentioned earlier that throughout the days of the original Covenant in Old Testament times, the people repeatedly sinned with the price of forgiveness being a blood sacrifice. Having sinned the people repented, sought God’s forgiveness and sacrificed animals as sin offerings. This cycle was repeated over and over again, so much so that the sacrifices became worthless. God decided to send Someone Who would become a once and for all sacrifice. This Person would shed His blood to pay the price for the sins of the people and all who accepted Him as Lord and Saviour would be forgiven and declared righteous by God. This Person was the One Who would be “the LORD our Righteous Saviour”; He would be the One Who would die to pay for our sins. This Person is the baby Who was born to Mary and His name is Jesus!
Not only did Jesus come to pay the price for our sins but He also came to reconcile humankind to God; to repair the damage that existed between God and His chosen people. He came to bring peace and justice to a world that was filled with war, destruction, and little in the way of justice. In Jeremiah 22 the prophet talks of a number of kings who were anything but just. The prophet records what God had to say about these unscrupulous kings. God wanted them to be just and right; to rescue people from oppression; to care for the foreigner, the orphan and the widow. They did not do any of those things and went further by worshipping idols and building a huge palace whilst the poor and needy went hungry. However, Jesus as a King was to be the complete opposite of them. He would rule with justice and equity whilst caring for the poor, the needy, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow.
There are those in the world today who regard the Bible as a load of old tosh! They have no respect for God’s Word and since they even doubt that God exists it follows that they don’t believe what is written in the Bible. Those who do accept that there is a God of some description believe the Bible to be a jumble of unrelated words that have no bearing on life today. They fail to see the connection between the Old and New Testaments, or the connection with life today.
Jeremiah has told us of a great promise made by God; in fact he tells us of this promise twice, in 23:5-6 and 33:14-16. In telling us of this gracious promise Jeremiah adds weight to what Isaiah has already had to say on the subject in Isaiah 4 and 11. These chapters and verses are linked and they tell us of a promise that was fulfilled by God when Jesus was born. He is the “stump of Jesse” and the “righteous Branch”; and lest there be any doubt about Jesus being this “righteous Branch” (33:15), take a look at the very last chapter in the Bible, Revelation 22. In 22:16, Jesus Himself says, “I am the Root and the Offspring of David”.
Let’s celebrate this Christmas and give thanks to God not only for the birth of His Son Jesus, but also for keeping the gracious promise that He made 600 to 700 years before He was born.