On Being Just, Righteous, and Human
Anybody remember Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live? We often find Debbie at an otherwise upbeat social occasion, and all Debbie can think of saying is something really depressing. “This sure is a great Thanksgiving,” someone might say. “And the turkey is wonderful!” But you see, Debbie Downer is there, so she will probably say, “Did you know that every year, the day after Thanksgiving, 5,000 people die of heart attacks because they ate too much?” Well, soon, no one wants to be with her at all. We’ve all known folks like that, right?
Well, the prophet Jeremiah was kind of like Debbie Downer. You see, Jeremiah often said the truth that needed to be said, but not the one people wanted to hear. The people of Judah, especially the rich and powerful, had become captives to their own moral and spiritual blindness. So, Jeremiah would say to his king, “you know, you might like your power, but soon, you won’t have any power because the Babylonians are knocking on our door and they will invade and take us over! God won’t stop them, either, because you have been unfaithful to God.” Indeed, in the year 587 BC the Babylonians did invade, first occupying Jerusalem and then sending its citizens into exile for 70 years.
Or Jeremiah would say to the wealthy, “you’re having a great party that never ends, but you will soon pay the price for ignoring the poor in your streets and mistreating your foreign neighbors, for God demands justice and compassion for the marginalized, hospitality to the stranger.”
Prophets like Jeremiah were not invited to parties much. They were even imprisoned for being so incessantly negative. And yet the situation Jerusalem found itself in was negative. They were captives to their own sin and to the Babylonians. Soon they would be exiled from their land.
This is Advent, my friends, and though the particulars are different, we too are captives and exiles. Amidst the cheery Christmas carols, bright lights, busy stores and holiday parties, a most dire assessment lurks. We, too, are captives to something that is destroying us; we are exiled from our true selves. Save us, Lord! And so, we wait.
Now, Jeremiah was in prison when he wrote today’s lesson. He may have been in prison for being a Debbie Downer, but like any good prophet who channels the voice and heart of God, Jeremiah was about to pivot, and that is what our lesson is about today. No more Debbie Downer. It was time for good news:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
So, Jeremiah was both deeply troubled and deeply hopeful. Despite Jeremiah’s grim assessment of the broken world in which he lived, he dared to suggest that God would save them. A righteous branch will spring up from the tree of David, and this branch, this king, will execute righteousness and justice in the land. Judah will be saved and live in safety because God loved them and would never leave them.
Justice and righteousness are the twin themes for Jeremiah, that tell us about what God is up to, how God regards us. It is nothing less than a new creation.
I would like to take a few minutes examining the righteousness and justice of our Lord that at once saves us and challenges us.
I recently watched the movie, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Just like Jeremiah, Mister Rogers did not shield children from the truth about our world, that there was brokenness, hatred and heartbreak. He would address themes like divorce and even assassination in this gentle but truthful children’s show. But he would offer them the hope of a different way of being in the world. Through it all, he was not only sending a powerful message to the kids. He was sending an equally powerful and humbling message to the adults of our world, about a justice and righteousness that can save us from ourselves. A justice and righteousness that comes straight from Jeremiah and from Jesus.
It’s been said that justice is what love looks like in the public sector. When racism divides and dehumanizes people, that is not only injustice, it diminishes us all and holds us captive to hatred and tribalism. Fred Rogers, back in 1969 had a black police officer on his show named Officer Clemons. One episode, he invited Officer Clemons to take his shoes off and join him in a kid’s pool. This was more than a cute event, it was an act of justice. It was also a baptism!
In a world that holds us captive to the idea that black people and white people are over against one another and shouldn’t share a swimming pool, Mister Rogers said otherwise. As Nick talked about last night at the Advent event, we Christians are counter-cultural. By sharing a pool, Mister Rogers is proclaiming the justice of God that reminds us that all cultures and ethnicities have a shared humanity that ought to be celebrated and affirmed! He is also conducting a baptism because he is bearing witness to a new creation, where people are in mutual and supportive community with one another.
How can we, too, bear witness to this message – a message, a word that saves us?
And there is “righteousness.” The word “righteousness” is often misunderstood. We might think of it as roughly “Holier than thou,” and if we know people like that (and we always do), they are usually not helpful!
Biblically, righteousness essentially means love, not some static quality of purity. It means a love that declares the inherent and unique value of each one of us. Jeremiah and Jesus both remind us that God will never abandon us, but, rather, will save us from a world that enslaves and kicks people to margins, neglects the poor and disenfranchises outcasts, and sends the message to any of us that we are not worth much, really.
All because we are the apple of God’s eye.
And God does this because God loves us, no matter how much we stumble. God will even bear the weight of this broken world in order to deliver that message to us. That is righteousness. Righteousness gives life, or it is not righteousness at all.
We need this message because we live in a world that breaks us down with the message that we are not enough, that we are not quite right, that we don’t fit in.
It was clear that the puppet Daniel the tiger in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was Fred Roger’s alter ego. So, the brokenness and doubt that Fred felt along with the rest of the world was given voice by Daniel. Including wondering sometimes if he was a mistake. Lady Aberlin had a response for Daniel.
To be saved is to be told that you are no mistake. It is to be told that we are united by Christ as one human family. Amen.