The Living Branch
The days were coming… but they were not there yet. And the aching pain of invasion and exile hung around Israel like the chains they lived, as they strained their eyes into the distance hoping for the promise of hope. Wondering if it was really possible. really true.
And we wonder these days too. Is hope possible in this aching world full of injustice, inequality and pain?
Sometimes it feels like darkness closes in and all we feel is the cold night air and the loneliness of our human condition. Spend too much time steeping in the news cycle and the thickness of the dark makes your head spin.
‘So justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.’
How I long for a world without the pain. Without the dark. The darkness out there, and the darkness in here- the places in my bruised heart that struggle, stumbling to find the light.
Last night our little family braved the winter night air to attend a Christmas wreathe making evening hosted at the children’s school. A splattering of courageous Christmas lights welcomed us at the front entrance bravely scattering the dark.
In the old school hall branches of all sorts of greenery were piled on the floor along with red berries and pine cones and prickly holly cuttings all green and smelling like the promise of Christmas.
The children and I worked merrily along with a hall full of others wreathing Christmas into place, holly pricking fingers, mulled wine warming lips, carols warming ears. My children toiled tirelessly at this new task, determined to wrestle these bushes into wreathes, tackling this strange new tradition with energy.
All these living things wound together around and around and around, all living and smelling so fresh. For now. These green cuttings woven together will, as the Advent season rolls on and as Christmas closes in, gradually fade into brown, limp, death. It’s strange how something that looks so alive now, can actually be slowly dying. Cut off from the source of nourishment and life.
This righteous branch Jeremiah writes about, it was the one living thing. The rest of David’s line had lost their way in the dark. Like us, like our spinning world of pain. In the absence of justice the world goes dark. It’s so hard to see in the dark.
It is into this deep darkness, this dead end situation, that God breathes this promise. This promise of life.
‘“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
‘“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.’
Both Isaiah and Jeremiah describe Israel as something that looked dead, but would be sprouting new life (Isaiah 11:1).
It’s strange how it’s possible to look alive, but be slowly dying. And to look dead, but sprout new life.
We often mistake what ‘Life’ truly is, that’s why our world is constantly chasing dead ends and deadening dreams, things that promise hope but deliver emptiness. How do you know when something is truly alive and life giving? What does sprouting, branching ’life’ look like, according to God?
A promised King from the line of Kings.
‘I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.’
A person who lives justice and righteousness.
Because these two closely related words have always been the measure of life all along. Like a stethoscope searching for a heartbeat in a nation, in a family, in a heart. Where is justice for the vulnerable? Where is righteousness beating within?
The way things look is not the measure of what they are. The measure of the healthy ‘life’ of a family, or society is not how vibrant it looks, but whether justice and righteousness are present. In the absence of justice and righteousness, no life can thrive. Families, communities, societies, and nations can all look alive, while slowly dying from the inside out.
In the absence of justice the world goes dark, so God called a family to be the light, to live justice and righteousness on earth.
When God first called Abraham to be a living branch of God’s family tree, the measure was always this,
‘Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
Abraham’s blessing from God was contingent on his family living fully into this calling to be different in the world, a people chosen to choose like God, to choose justice and righteousness over every other inclination within, to be the light in the dark, the one living thing in an ever-deadening world.
Because justice and righteousness combined with love have always been the shape of this God’s heart. It’s who He is. It’s who we were. Once.
Justice is mentioned just over 120 times in the Bible, righteousness just over 200 times and justice and righteousness paired together are mentioned 32 times. These two threads woven together with love form a foundational picture of who God is and what is important to Him. In Scripture Justice and righteousness are described as…
- Attributes of God (Job 37:23, Psalm 36:6, Isaiah 33:5, Isaiah 56:1, Jeremiah 9:24, Hosea 2:19, Psalm 11:7, Zephaniah 3:5, Psalm 50:6, Isaiah 32:16),
- The foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14, Psalm 97:2)
- The calling of Kings (1 Kings 10:9, 2 Chronicles 9:8, psalm 72:1-2),
- Something God loves (Psalm 33:5, Jeremiah 9:24, Psalm 11:7)
- Something God actively works for (Psalm 103:6, Job 37:23, Isaiah 1:27, Isaiah 51:5, Jeremiah 9:24, Zephaniah 3:5)
- Something God decries the lack of in Israel (Isaiah 1:21, Isaiah 5:7, Isaiah 59:9 and 14, Amos 5:7, Amos 5:21-24, Amos 6:12, Habakkuk 1:4, Isaiah 28:17)
…and the very things the Messiah, the coming King who we wait for throughout Advent, will establish on this earth (Isaiah 9:7, Isaiah 11:4, Isaiah 16:5, Isaiah 32:1).
Justice and righteousness are not just idle words to God, there’s no empty rhetoric from the mouth of YHWH. Justice and righteousness are who He is. Who He says He is, and who He wants us to be in Him.
“…but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord”.
So many of the scriptures we quote in part at Christmas time include this promise from God (Isaiah 11:1-4, Isaiah 9:6-7).
“Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
So light the candles in the dark and hang the wreathes upon the doors all green and smelling like Christmas life. And let the branches remind us this season of the Righteous Branch that sprouted from the Kingly line of God, this Branch that is alive today, and longs to live in us. Our coming King who calls us to be different in the world, a people chosen to choose like God, to choose justice and righteousness over every other inclination within, to be the light in the dark, sprouting, shooting, living things in an ever-deadening world.