Dead on Arrival?

Audio here.

Video of the Divine Service here.

Bulletin here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s kind of hard to believe now, but there really was a time before cell phones and e-mail; even telephones in general, or even the telegraph, which finally made it possible to spread news from one coast to another and around the world. But before about 1861, the only way to get information from the east and midwest to California was to write a letter. And when you sent it, via stagecoach, it took about 25 days to get there. The Pony Express lowered that time to about 10 days, but usually it was only the government or the wealthy who took advantage of the shortened time, because it cost $5 to send a ½ ounce piece of mail. That would be roughly $130 today!

So if you wanted to send word to someone in California, you wrote a letter, and it took almost a month to get there. Now imagine a man who’s dying in Missouri, and he wants to tell a family member who’s in California. He writes a letter and he says, “Come quickly. I’m dying and I want to see you before that happens.” But, of course, he doesn’t know when, exactly, he’s going to die. So it’s possible that the letter will reach the family member after the man is already dead. If so, that word is dead on arrival. It’s pretty much useless, since the man is already dead.

Or imagine that someone sends word that an army is about to attack a city. But by the time the letter gets there, the army has already attacked and destroyed the city. That word is dead on arrival; useless, pointless, worthless.

I wonder if the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon, felt something like that hopelessness when Jeremiah spoke to them. Jeremiah had said that they would be in exile for 70 years. To some people, that’s an eternity, because by the time Israel is restored—if it ever is—they will have died. The word seems dead on arrival; useless, pointless, worthless. What good is that word for people stuck in Babylon, with a destroyed city, a destroyed temple, and many dead?

In the midst of that uncertainty, Yahweh speaks through Jeremiah, and He says these words: “Look! In those days, declares Yahweh, I will raise up the good word which I spoke to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah (33:14). I know the English says “I will fulfill the promise,” and that’s certainly true. God keeps His promises. But the Hebrew hints at something else in addition: that that Word, the good word that He had spoken to Israel, seemed dead on arrival. What was the good word? That God would bring them into the Land of Promise. That Land is front and center in the promises made throughout the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, down to David, and through the prophets.

And Jeremiah could very well be thinking of words that Joshua spoke to Israel, at the time when they first entered the land. Joshua said that God had finally done what He had promised them, that He would bring them into that good land. And Joshua says, none of the good words that Yahweh spoke to you—not one of them—has fallen to the ground and failed. They are in the land; they dwell there in security; they have peace from the nations around them. Not a single good word of God has failed.

So after all these years, has it failed because they are in exile in Babylon? Well, Joshua also said another word to Israel when they entered into the land. He said that if they rebelled against God and worshiped other gods, God would bring on them evil and they would not live long in the land. And so it happened. The people grew complacent in their security. They got comfortable with the status quo and took for granted that everything that they had, God had given them. They forgot God. They had all this good in the land, but they forgot that it was because of the good word of God that they were there at all.

So they went into exile. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, and now here they are, listening to Jeremiah on the banks of some foreign river in a foreign land. Even now, is the good word of God dead on arrival? Has it become worthless, pointless, empty? Hear what Yahweh says through Jeremiah: Look! In those days I will raise up the good word that I spoke to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Even if God has to raise the word from the dead, it cannot fail. I will cause a righteous shoot to spring from David. What Isaiah says in a different way: a shoot from the stump of Jesse. A stump is a dead tree. But God will make a new growth to spring up from death. I will raise up the good word. That Branch will do justice and righteousness. In His days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely, and she will be called by this Name: Yahweh is our righteousness.

Yahweh is our righteousness. A righteous branch to do justice and righteousness. Because there’s no justice and righteousness to be found in Israel. That’s why they’re in Babylon. Only injustice and unrighteousness. So God will do it Himself and be their righteousness. We know who that Branch is. We know the one who came from the house and lineage of David, whose name is “Yahweh’s salvation,” Jesus. But the first time we hear of His coming in the season of Advent, we hear about His coming into Jerusalem to die. His advent is for His dying. This is how He will do justice and righteousness. This is how He will accomplish salvation and cause His people to dwell securely. He will take their unrighteousness and their injustice and lie down in death.

And when He is raised from the dead, He will carve out for them a space. In the midst of death, in the midst of exile, in the midst of doubt and uncertainty, we are in life. We dwell securely. Because He is our righteousness. Not our own dreams, wishes, hopes, desires. Those may well die. Not the things we have built, the things we have made, the things we thought might be. But the good word of God made flesh. The only thing, the only person, who will not stay dead. Everything that comes from us will pass away, but the Word of the Lord will never pass away. Even if God has to raise it up from the dead, He will do what He said. And that’s what happens. The Word is crucified and dies, and God raises up that eternal Good Word for you and me.

Every good word that the Lord has spoken will come to pass, and not a single one of them will fail and fall to the ground. Until the day that we finally see Him, and the whole earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord. Then we will dwell securely for all eternity in that new creation, cleansed of sin and death, injustice and unrighteousness, the gods of the nations and every failing thing that we have made with our own hands. Only Him, only His righteousness, only His Good Word, now and forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/30/18

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