Expectations. We all have them. We have them for other people and they have them for us. Parents have expectations for their children and children for their parents. We have expectations for our spouse, our employer, our government, our church. This time of year, expectations are often raised. We expect decorations to dazzle, packages to arrive on time, dollars to stretch, everyone to be a little bit nicer, every gift given and received to be perfect. Then there are the expectations people have for God. They expect him to be there when they need him – and to leave them alone the rest of the time, to alleviate all pain and suffering, to right every wrong and punish every evil, to send snow only when it’s convenient and make the sun shine the rest of the time. Maybe that’s an exaggeration – or maybe not. The point is that we all have expectations – there’s no denying it. The fact that we are frequently disappointed is proof. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t have expectations. Advent is a season of expectation, of waiting, of hoping. For what? What should we expect to receive from God this Christmas? The prophet Jeremiah shows us.
The Israelites were people who had high expectations for God. They knew they were specially selected and protected by God and set apart from all other nations. (Deuteronomy 7:7-9) They possessed a special identity – children of Abraham, a Promised Land, God’s written Law and his Promise of salvation. There has never been and will never be another nation like OT Israel. And they expected to never lose this privileged status. In return, God expected Israel to be loyal and obedient to him. But Israel did not live up to God’s expectations. She was faithless and idolatrous and adulterous – and so she should have expected that God would keep his promise to tear them out of their homes and carry them away from their land as punishment – just as he had already done with the 10 northern tribes. (2 Chronicles 7:19-22) But she didn’t, so God sent Jeremiah to remind them.
Jeremiah was God’s spokesman before and after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took her people into exile. God warned Jeremiah of the coming destruction and he warned the people. But like people who turn the volume down when there’s a severe weather warning, the people ignored him. In fact, they actively tried to silence him. He was depressing. Bad for morale. Unpatriotic. They couldn’t fathom God ever allowing such a thing to happen to his chosen people. They had Jeremiah locked in prison (Jeremiah 37) and tossed into a cistern (Jeremiah 38) to shut him up. Even so, Jeremiah continued to speak God’s Word. He spoke of imminent desolation (25-29), but also of restoration. (30-33) Exile and return. Destruction and construction. Death and life. Jeremiah’s message dashed their short-term expectations but gave them long-term hope. That’s the buildup to today’s reading.
‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. One of the many important themes we find throughout the OT is this: God keeps his promises to real people in real history. Even if that’s all we got from reading the OT, it would be well worth our time. ‘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. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Even in the darkness and hopelessness of exile in Babylon, believers like Daniel and Esther clung to God’s promise to send a descendant of David who would deliver them. Even though the Temple of the Lord lay in ruins and their king was bound in chains, they believed that the day would come when Judah would be delivered and Jerusalem would live in peace and safety. They longed for it. They hoped for it. They expected it.
Then finally, after 70 years, came Cyrus’ decree (Ezra 1:1-4) which allowed the exiles to return to Judah, to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple under Ezra and Nehemiah. God kept his promise. They were back. But not really. It wasn’t the same – it was a sad shadow of the glory days under David and Solomon. When the old timers looked at the rebuilt temple they wept and said – as old timers of every generation tend to “It’s not as good as it used to be.” (Ezra 3:12) And it wasn’t. The Ark of the Covenant had been lost or destroyed. (Jeremiah 3:16) The glory of the Lord didn’t fill the temple. They weren’t free. They were occupied by foreign powers: Persia then Greece then Rome. But even then, the faithful in Israel never forgot the words of the prophet Jeremiah – the promise of a righteous King from David’s line. One who would do what is just and right and bring salvation from their oppressors. They remembered this promise and even in the darkest of days they looked forward in hope. They continued to expect something greater.
Over the years various Messiah-like figures arose and attempted to bring liberation and restoration to Israel. But they all flamed out. And then, a week before Passover, here comes a most unexpected candidate: Jesus of Nazareth, with his band of rag-tag followers, riding on a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem. But the crowds had seen what Jesus was capable of and hailed him as their King. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David. (Mark 1:10) They were right. Every prophecy he fulfilled and miracle he performed proved that this was the One, the righteous Branch from David’s line.
What did those people expect of Jesus? What were they hoping for? What they had always hoped for: a holy war, the restoration of Israel’s political freedom, a descendant of David on the throne, and glory restored to the Temple. And that’s exactly what Jesus brought. But not in the way they expected. He came to do justice to their sin and ours, to be righteous in ways we have not and cannot. He came to carry out a great exchange: our sin for his righteousness. He came to be our substitute – the King Israel really needed, to sprout up in Bethlehem only to be to be chopped down and burned in the fire of God’s wrath against our sin on Calvary. He came to launch a holy war – not against Rome, but against sin and death and the devil – the powers of hell that threatened to destroy us eternally. Jesus came to save Israel – not by ruling on a throne but by dying on a cross. In Jesus, God kept his promise to Israel.
Is that what you expect of Jesus, what you are hoping to receive from him? Are you longing for the kind of king who is born in a barn, eats and drinks with prostitutes and criminals, washes his disciples’ feet, rides on a borrowed donkey, carries his own cross to a hill outside Jerusalem to bleed and die for you? Does he meet your expectations? Because this is not the kind of king the world expects and demands (offer free forgiveness and peace with God – nah, I’ll pass…but offer daycare and financial seminars – now that kind of Jesus gets people excited). Unfortunately, those false expectations leak into our lives too. Maybe it’s not so much that we expect a conquering hero type – a manly, Vladimir Putin type to rescue us. But we often expect Jesus to fix our short term problems. We expect Jesus to be a therapist who will heal the rifts in our families in time for Christmas, a UPS man who brings us the material things we want when we want them, a doctor to heal our failing bodies and minds, a baby sitter to raise our kids, a financial adviser who will keep our nest egg safe or a buddy to cheer us up when we’re down. If that’s what you’re expecting, prepare to be disappointed this Christmas. In fact, repent right now for having false expectations. That king isn’t coming because that isn’t the King God promised. On the other hand, if you expect to receive what God promised – a King from David’s line, who will do what is just and right, who will suffer God’s wrath in your place, who still brings amazing gifts to you in humble ways (through Word and water, bread and wine): then prepare to receive more than you ever expected. Because a Savior from sin is God’s Christmas gift to you. He is the King God sends you.
And he’s the King we need, not because his coming will change your current circumstances – because he will make the Christmas lights shine a little brighter or the deals a little better – but because he comes to do something even more amazing and necessary: he comes to change you. He comes to save you, to give you a new name and a place in God’s eternal kingdom. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness. In the NT, Jerusalem is the name given to the Christian Church – all believers everywhere. (Revelation 21) The translation is misleading here, it literally reads this is the name by which SHE will be called. She. The Church. The Bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:25-27) She takes the name of her groom. His name is The LORD Our Righteousness and so is hers. And, more importantly, that is the name God gave you when he washed you in the waters of Baptism.
We need this King because we desperately need the gift only he can give: perfect righteousness. This is good news that is better than any Christmas bonus or stocking stuffer; this good news is better than we could ever have any right to expect: righteousness – the perfect life (in thought, word and deed) that God demands from us – is not something we do, it’s something Jesus does. Not something you have to earn, something he freely gives. That’s not what we expect when it comes to God and righteousness and salvation. That’s not what our children expect either, if we fill their minds with demonic ideas of a fat man in a red suit whose gifts are based on whether you are naughty or nice. We expect to have to do it (and so does Santa), but Jesus does it. We expect to have to earn it and prove ourselves worthy of eternal life. He earns it for us and makes us worthy. Jesus is the LORD Our Righteousness and, through faith, his name is our name, his righteousness is our righteousness. Expect Jesus to come to change you, to give you a name you have not and could never earn – and you will not be disappointed this Christmas.
Advent is the season of expectations. The expectations of the holiday season, of the coming of Christmas, of family and friends. Both reasonable and unreasonable expectations. Advent is a season of watchful waiting, like Israel in exile, waiting and watching for Savior God promised to appear. Once he came in a manger in Bethlehem and riding on a donkey into Jerusalem to win our righteousness. Now he comes to you in water and Word, bread and wine to give you his righteousness. Soon he will come in power and glory at the end of time to raise you to the eternal righteousness. Expect him. Place your hope in him. He always exceeds expectations. Amen.