Psalms 72:1, 12-13, 18-19
The prophet Jeremiah composed the words of hope that we read today in the dark moment of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. That was in the early 6th century before Christ. He was looking forward to a time when the people of Judah would be restored in their homeland and ruled by a real king, not a puppet of an alien empire. After fifty years, some of the Judean refugees did indeed return under the Persians, but Governor Zerubbabel was not allowed to act as a sovereign, as a full-fledged king. Nor did such a monarchy develop under the Greeks or, later, under the Romans. Writings like the book of Daniel show us that, even though they had been restored, in a sense, and had even rebuilt their temple, the people of Judea were still in a kind of exile, from which they longed to be released. The hope expressed in Jeremiah’s vision (and also in those of Isaiah and Ezekiel) grew to be a hope for an Anointed One who would preside over a New Age experiencing the Reign of God in a fresh way.
Eventually, after the first Easter, the Christian community saw Jeremiah’s prophecy fulfilled in Jesus—not, of course, as a secular king but as the viceroy of the kingdom of God, which has no embassies in the capitals of the world.
As I write this reflection at the southern edge of Jerusalem, the contemporary town of Bethlehem—now really a city—is visible through my window. Just to the east sits the checkpoint where young members of the Israel Defense Forces, Uzzies hung from their shoulders, halt and refuse or permit, as the case may be, those who would enter or leave the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. In this setting, the words of Jeremiah have a special poignancy: “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” For Jeremiah, Israel and Judah were two ways of naming the same people. Those words have a different resonance now, when Israel names a modern state created in 1948 and covers half of geographical Palestine, and what was Judah in the 6th century is now partly Israel and partly the occupied territory of the West bank. For the Palestinian majority now living in what was much of old Judah, “salvation” would be freedom from foreign occupation, and the growing incursion of alien settlers. And for most Israelis, “security,” obviously, is the goal that drives their efforts to expand the territory around the state of Israel. Security and salvation, in the way that Jeremiah probably understood these things have still not arrived for Israel and Judah. What is a Christian to make of this? We claim that Jesus is that branch of David who brings peace and justice.
Let’s turn to the Gospel reading—the annunciation of Jesus’ conception to Joseph. Listen to a sentence rarely noted in this passage. In this dream vision, the angel of the Lord says to Joseph: “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus, the Greek form of the familiar Hebrew name Joshua (or Yehoshua) does literally mean, “YHWH saves.” The ordinary Hebrew way of understanding that would be, “God saves from sickness and enemies.” Thinking about that helps us realize the amazing new thing contained in the promise that the child in Mary’s womb will “save his people FROM THEIR SINS.”
Well, all of Christian theology, one way or another, is our effort to understand how Jesus saves his people from their sins. According to the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, that saving from sins begins after the death and resurrection of Jesus opens the possibility of a new way of being human—by conversion to the Reign of God, allowing God to heal our loneliness, fear, greed, and violence so that we can live not from spontaneous human selfishness but by the power of his spirit in the kind of community life summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. An impossible dream? That’s the message of Matthew. That’s the teaching of Jesus. It’s meant to happen—by the grace of God, and our response.
The Israel/Palestine of today is still a microcosm of the world. We will continue to need Advent to remind us that the world will remain in a very real exile until enough of us allow ourselves to be converted to the Reign of God and live lives that reflect the justice that is necessary for peace. That is more than Jeremiah could hope for. It is what Jesus promised and makes possible. It still seems a distant hope. It is a good thing the life of our faith communities sometimes allows us to taste it along the way—in our prayer and in our action.
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