Jeremiah 33: 14 ‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah.15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the Lord is our righteousness.’ 17 For thus says the Lord, ‘David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel; 18 and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man before Me to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to prepare sacrifices [i]continually.’”
Those of us who heard Pastor Fabe Traoré from Burkina Faso speak here last summer may have had a question lingering in our minds. He spoke about how, long before he became a Christian, a French Mennonite missionary/linguist couple employed him to help them learn his tribal language, and then to translate Bible stories into his language. Fabe told us that the translation work started with the Old Testament, and continued for several years with stories, psalms and prophecies from the Hebrew Bible. Nowadays, most missionary linguists working in traditional, tribal societies like Fabe’s do the same: they first teach and translate the Old Testament, before they ever get to the New Testament and Jesus. We may then wonder: What gives? Why the long delay, before getting to the New Testament gospel about Jesus? If they’re Christian missionaries, shouldn’t they hurry up and proclaim the Christian gospel?
Well, for one thing, the Old Testament is still current events in many parts of the world. Things that may strike us in the Western World as strange in the Old Testament, such as rituals, sacrifices, ceremonies, rules and regulations about diet, clothing and civil law, make perfect sense to other people more in touch with nature, with spirits, and with codes of honor and shame, purity and defilement. Translating and teaching the Old Testament first sets up points of commonality with these cultures, and generates much interest.
But another reason for starting with the Old Testament is so that people are then ready to hear the New Testament gospel answers to the questions that the Old Testament leaves hanging, unanswered. Like the question left hanging in today’s reading from Jeremiah: “David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel…”
Jeremiah spoke those words, and that promise, to Hebrew people in Exile in Babylonia, about 600 years before Christ. But when the first Jewish exiles started returning to Judah and Jerusalem 70 years later, no king of David’s lineage ever returned to the throne. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the second temple five hundred years later, in 70 AD, any last, lingering hope for a rightful, righteous king from the line of David was dashed completely.
So, what happened to God’s promise, that ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel?” Where is the promised king of justice and righteousness from David’s lineage? There are logically only three possible answers: 1) You could say that Jeremiah and the Bible just got this one wrong: there will be no king of David’s lineage, ever; or, 2) you could say that the promised king of David’s lineage is still to come, some day, somewhere; or 3) that this promised king has come, but he is yet unrecognized, and unacknowledged to many or most people.
Answer three may sound far-fetched, that the prophets’ promised king has come, but that many or most people have yet to recognize and acknowledge him as such, that already he has entered our world, unknown and invisible to most people, awaiting the day of his universal coronation. Oddly enough, Fabe, growing up, would have heard a story just like that from the traditional singers and story-tellers of West Africa, about a righteous, liberating king, who dwelt unrecognized, even rejected, among his future subjects before ascending to his throne. In his youth, while still a prince, an evil, foreign usurper overthrew his father’s kingdom, and the prince and his mother fled into exile. The prince’s name was Sunjiata Keita. While in exile, Sunjiata and his mother, Queen Sogollon, lived in squalor and fear, among the poor, unrecognized for the royalty they were, not only because of their poverty, but because of Sunjiata’s disability. For most of his childhood, Sunjiata could not walk. But Sunjiata overcame his disability. And his qualities of character and leadership drew friends to him, so that, with their help, he returned to his father’s kingdom, overthrew the usurpers, claimed his rightful throne, and liberated his people from oppression and occupation. Having lived and suffered among the poor, as one poor himself, he ruled justly and wisely on their behalf.
By the way, there really was such a king in West Africa, eight hundred years ago. The story about him, in song and dance, is the national epic of the nation of Mali. If anything about that story sounds familiar, Sunjiata Keita was the inspiration for the Disney movie, the Lion King.
I suspect that Sunjiata’s story is so popular, both in its Disney movie form and in the traditional Malian epic, because it touches a longing common to human hearts everywhere: for the hidden, overlooked value of each one of us to gain recognition and celebration. Deep down, we sense that we are created and called for something more than just Keeping Up With the Joneses, or Dying With the Most Toys. But just as strongly, we long for a reign and a ruler whose power will make justice, peace, virtue and dignity secure for everyone. And it helps if this ruler is one of us, who identifies and empathizes with us, who loves us, and who knows of what struggle and sorrow and fear and simple joys our lives are made.
Which may sound surprising in a nation like ours, founded on democratic principles, where everything we do and say must pass the test of equality and liberty. And rightfully so. Thank God for that. Ask most Americans what this world needs most, and few of us would say at first, a ruler, or a monarch, like they have in Saudi Arabia. So, I have been told that language about rule, hierarchy and power is offensive, even in church, even in relation to God. Talking even about God as ruler, king or as greater or more powerful than us only justifies kings and dictators or men or white people or English-speaking people acting like gods over other people, different from themselves, some have told me. “Speak, rather, about God serving, enabling and empowering us, rather than ruling us or being monarch over us,” some have said. And it’s not like there’s never been any history, no experience of oppression, extermination or exploitation in the name of God. I get it.
So why would God even promise us a ruler, when the whole idea of monarchy and royalty sounds like a 180 degree turn against the march of progress toward ever greater equality and self-determination that we’re supposed to be on? When kings and queens and dictators and Fuhrer’s and emperors and Caesars seem to do as much harm as good? Yes, they make the trains run on time, but so often at terrible costs to the people whom they always find to persecute and scapegoat. And they always find someone. Like our spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists of the 16th Century. You’d think that, with our history of persecution, pacifist Mennonites would be the last people to get excited about Jeremiah’s words, that “David will never lack for a descendant to sit upon the throne of Israel.”
But Bob Dylan said it best, when he sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” There’s no escaping being ruled by someone or something, whether by our fears, our shame, our pain or our passions, or by some higher, greater ideals that rule our fears, shame, pain or passions. That’s our only choice. We know, logically, deep down, that our appetites, our fears, our shame, our pain and our past can rule us and ruin us in ways just as brutal, destructive and crazy-making as a Hitler or a Stalin. Democracy, equality and self-determination only work, oddly enough, when something or someone greater than ourselves rules us, disciplines our passions, diminishes our fears, frees us from shame or pain from the past, and makes us care about our responsibilities as much as about our rights. If not, then our relationships become free-for-alls, and society degenerates into a dog-eat-dog contest for personal rights and dignity at each others’ expense. What’s more, if our fears, pain and passions rule us like dictators, then despots and dictators will use our fears, pain and passions to rule us.
And that is precisely NOT the kind of ruler whom God promises us in today’s Old Testament passage. God promises a righteous ruler who will carry out justice and righteousness, not only over Israel, but over all the earth. Which brings up another question, another puzzle in the passage: God promising a righteous ruler over Israel, even the world, okay, that starts to sound good. But one of the line of David? You mean, King David of ancient Israel, the warrior, the holy terror against the Gentiles? David the adulterer and murderer, who took another man’s wife and sent her husband to die in the front lines of battle, so as to cover up adultery with murder? Why would God promise an everlasting lineage to the likes of David?
We could simply say, as did Martin Luther, that “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood.” What should we expect but that God would use such imperfect agents and bent and broken tools to accomplish his purposes? That’s good news for all of us. That means that God can use us, too. And we can rejoice that our assurance of God’s love and eternal life has more to do with God’s goodness and power, than with our own.
But for all his faults, David was also “a man after God’s heart,” God himself said, because, at least, David knew how to repent when confronted with the truth. David was zealous for God, for a relationship with God, for God’s honor, especially, to build God a temple. David was a worshiper of God and a leader in Israel’s worship of God. And David cared for justice, mercy, and for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, at least enough to be remarkable, compared to other rulers in the neighborhood, to other monarchs at the time. After all, he came from among the poor. As he had been a shepherd of his father’s flocks, so was he, more often than not, a shepherd to Israel. And for a formative part of his life, David was also an exile, homeless, a refugee, unrecognized as a monarch, persecuted and pursued by an evil king, even though God had already chosen David for the throne, and promised him a crown.
And such a ruler have we, One who fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah: Jesus, who said, “I am the good shepherd,” and proved it by laying down his life for his flock. Like David, Jesus is building a temple for God on this rebel planet, a house of flesh and blood, his people, the church, in whom his Spirit dwells. Jesus is also our high priest, leading his people in the worship of his heavenly Father. His kingdom is one of mercy, justice and peace, oriented toward the needs of the weakest, and the dignity of the most despised and rejected.
For, like David, his ancestor, our righteous ruler knows what it is like to be an exile, homeless, on the run among the nations, even, like Sunjiata Keita, to live in obscurity, among the poor, the outcast and the unwanted, unrecognized for the royalty he is, but not ashamed of the lowly company he keeps. If anything, he is their ruler, king of the unconnected, the expendable and the overlooked.
There is a hole in every human heart that can only be filled with such a ruler, who reigns not only over the race and the planet, but in our very hearts. Just consider the popularity of movies like Lord of the Rings and the Hobbits. In them people pledge their very lives to a monarch, or dwarves or elves for that matter, to follow him in battle and to see him enthroned, because he has proven himself both courageous and caring, principled and persuasive, willing to lead his subjects, but willing also to die with them, even, to die for them. Now explain why such movies are so popular in so fiercely egalitarian and individualistic an age as ours. Could it be that deep down, in our deepest heart of hearts, we don’t object so much to having a ruler and being ruled; rather, our concern, rather, is about who rules us and how we are ruled? Because, deep down, we also know that to be our own rulers is to risk being ruled by nightmares, monsters and devils of our own making? We cannot be our own personal kings and monarchs any more than a locked door can be its own key. When God promised through Jeremiah that Israel would never lack for a king from the line of David, he was not only promising a key that would unlock the blessings of life, of love, of justice, peace and plenty, in answer to the longings, of Israel, that was also a promise to answer the deepest longings of the whole world, for every nation, for all Creation, and for every person on earth.
Christ the King is the key that opens the door to the blessings of peace, justice, security and abundance for Israel and, indeed, all Creation. And that’s what Fabe and his friends in Burkina Faso were ready to hear when finally they studied and translated the Gospels and the New Testament with the missionary linguists. They embraced this king because they too were waiting to hear the answer to the promise, that ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel.”
But who would have thought that the promised, prayed for King would come from that part of the world where the eyes of the powerful west were focused in fear, toward the source and setting of endless war and terrorism on the edge of Empire? Where the worshipers of one God, a God of the prophets, raised their resistance against what they saw as a decadent, idolatrous, imperialist, infidel power? Who would ever have thought that the world’s promised king would come from among the people despised and distrusted by the cultured and cosmopolitan citizens of that western empire, who saw them as backward, rigid and reactionary?
Does that sound familiar? Anything like current events?
And who would have thought that this promised king would come not from a posh palace, nor from a privileged, powerful family, but from among the poor, among those suffering under foreign occupation from the West? A king who would enter the world homeless, even as a stateless refugee fleeing terror, persecution and credible threats from government agents to his life, when Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt?
Does that sound familiar, like current events?
And who would have thought that this promised, prayed-for King would grow up with carpenters’ callouses on his hands, that, instead of sleeping under soft sheets in a palace of pearl, he would have nowhere to lay his head, that he would come not to be served, but to serve, not to conquer and kill his enemies, but to give his life a ransom for many, even to die the death of a rebel and a slave?
Who would have thought that the kingdom of this promised Son of David, and everlasting High Priest, would be a kingdom of the poor, the exile, the alien, even the refugee? That he would even take personally the treatment of the poor, the exile, the prisoner and the refugee as indicative of our treatment of him? “Inasmuch as you have done this for the least of these, my brothers,” Jesus said, “You have done it for me.” And who knew that by means of this man, a Galilean with a regional accent and carpenter’s callouses on his hands, God himself would rule Creation?
For who would have thought that this promised king of David’s lineage would, in ways we can barely grasp, be the Word made flesh, the fullness of God Almighty in our mortal frame? That, in him, it would be God again, and God alone, who rules his people? Who would have expected such an act of condescension and submission on the part of the Most High? Who would have thought of such a stance of deep and humble identification with mortal, sinful humanity, from the ruler and Creator of the universe?
Yet all that is seemingly so unbelievable and ironic about this king is the Christian gospel: that the promised righteous ruler of Israel, indeed of the world, has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. His ascension and enthronement, are only now underway, soon to be completed, in human hearts, and over all creation.
It has been a long journey, from the giving of God’s promise, that “David will never lack for a man of his lineage to sit on the throne over Israel,” to be “a righteous branch who will rule the earth in righteousness and justice,” to the fulfillment of this promise in the Son of Mary. There is first of all, the journey of divinity into humanity that we call “the Incarnation,” God taking on mortal flesh; Secondly, there is the long journey of the Covenant people toward the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets and the prayers of the psalms; there is thirdly the journey of this promised king through his life as a refugee, an exile, a sojourner, an itinerant preacher, from the manger to Mount Calvary; and fourthly, there are our own personal journeys, and the journey of all creation and the church through history, moving toward the coming, complete enthronement of Christ over every aspect of our lives, in every corner of ourselves, and every corner of the earth.
And so the theme of our observance of this season: Jesus’ Journey, from today, the First Sunday of Advent, through Christmas and on to Epiphany, the first Sunday of the New Year, when we celebrate the first revealing of the Christ to the Gentiles: the Wise Men from the east. But we’ll also remember something that follows hard on the heels of the Wise Men: the effort of Herod and his henchmen to kill the Christ child, and the flight of the Holy Family as refugees to Egypt.
It is fitting that these journeys should figure so prominently in this year’s observance of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, because the whole world now, it seems, is on the move. Never since World War II have so many people been displaced from their homes, some for environmental reasons, as climate changes, soils wear out, and water and grain grow scarce in some places. People are also being displaced by tribal and religious conflicts, such as in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan. Others are being driven from countries by cruelty, corruption, and gangs, like Eritrea, Guatemala, El Salvador and parts of Mexico. Some of these refugees are internally displaced, meaning, they remain within the borders of their own countries, but cannot return to their homes or towns. So they live in shanty-towns, in shacks of cardboard, plywood and corrugated tin. Others are driven across borders to other countries. Worst of all is the spectacle of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others coming to Greece by boat, and then marching from one country of Europe to another, seeking refuge.
If we’re looking for another way to mark this season, besides the forced jolliness of over-consumption and over-commitment, consider cutting back, to aid the least of these, the king’s brothers and sisters in their millions, on their refugee journeys, seeking safety and shelter in their exile from their homes, by sharing at least a little bit in their sacrifice, a little bit in their hunger, in solidarity in what little ways we can with them in their hardship. Is there something we can give up this Advent-through-Epiphany season, something we can sacrifice to share with our Refugee King and his army of the homeless, maybe a meal a week, or that tall mocha latte you’ve come to expect every day, or that new fishing rod, until next Christmas? Some holiday indulgence forgone, the value of which we can give and consecrate on January 3, Epiphany Sunday? That’s the day when we remember the Wise Men bringing their gifts to the homeless, refugee child, in Bethlehem. Then we’ll collect and consecrate the fruits of our sacrifice as an offering to the work of Mennonite Central Committee on behalf of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
For if David’s promised Son had waited until this day, this year, to make his first appearance, we might just as easily overlook him now among all the displaced people seeking shelter in that war zone where warring empires clash, as we did twenty-one centuries ago. But were we to recognize our refugee king now, as so few did then, we would say that nothing would be too much for him. He could never ask of us any sacrifice that he has not already made for us.
Please pray with me…..
O God, though we confess that part of us resents and rebels at the very thought of a ruler, a monarch over us, we also know that, left to ourselves, we are, to our great hurt, ruled by our fears and our folly, by our past, our pains and our pleasures. We can no more be our own rightful rulers than a locked door can be its own key. The greatest freedom we find under your Lordship, even, finally, freedom from death. By your Spirit within us and among us, help us this season to welcome you in your coming, even as you come now among the homeless, the refugee and the exile. Extend your lordship over us and into more of us, into every part of us, and there reign in your rightful place, as soon you shall do over all Creation, to your glory, and to our eternal joy.