The Righteousness of the Church
The First Sunday in Advent| November 30, 2014| Rev. Rolf Preus| Jeremiah 33:14-18
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah: in those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David A Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell safely. And this is the name by which she will be called: ‘THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’” For thus says the LORD: “David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel; nor shall the priests, the Levites, lack a man to offer burnt offerings before Me, to kindle grain offerings, and to sacrifice continually.”
Today is the First Sunday in Advent. It is the first day of the church year. Advent means coming. The topic of Advent is the coming of Christ. Today’s Old Testament Lesson describes the coming of Christ. The prophet predicts a wonderful time when the promised Savior, whom he calls a “Branch of righteousness,” will execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. Judah will be saved. Jerusalem will dwell safely. All of God’s gracious promises will come true. When Jeremiah wrote these words it appeared that Judah had no future and that King David’s throne would vanish. God promised through his prophet that the kingdom of David would not perish. The Branch of Righteousness would grow from the broken nation.
The nation of Israel had been broken into two kingdoms. Each kingdom was conquered by foreign powers and taken away into captivity. She was God’s nation and God’s church. Because she embraced false teaching and false worship, God gave her up to her sins and let her be taken captive. She was cut off. Let that be a lesson to the church of our day.
The Old Testament was written in a language we do not know about a people we have never seen in a land thousands of miles away at a time thousands of years ago. For this reason, the study of the Old Testament might be regarded as daunting. We can understand the Old Testament if we keep one thing in mind. Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the Old Testament. If you know that Jesus Christ is true God and true man and that his blood and righteousness are your salvation, then you are in a position to read and understand the Old Testament. If you don’t know Christ, forget about reading the Old Testament. It won’t make any sense to you.
American Christianity has a high view of the Bible, but not a particularly high view of Christ and his Church. That’s a problem for us all, because we live in a religious culture that infects us with its various errors. Most Americans who call themselves Christian believe that the Bible is the word of God, but few believe in the dignity, glory, and holiness of Christ’s Church. If there is such a thing as an American brand of Christianity, it would be some form of Puritanism. Puritanism was a particularly severe form of Calvinism that found refuge in America several centuries ago. It spawned many religious movements in the New World and none of them had a particularly high view of the Church. The all American brand of Christianity is radically Protestant and anti-Catholic. As such, it has little respect for the Church.
Protestants criticize Rome for hanging onto her traditions, while tossing aside their own traditions as so much excess baggage. Protestants try to Christianize the culture. That’s what the Puritans did. That’s what the Norwegian Lutheran Pietists did. Instead of taking a countercultural position, standing up against the false religions of the popular culture, to preserve for future generations the inheritance of the past, these Americanized Christians toss aside their Christian heritage inherited from the fathers. In an arrogant dismissal of tradition and a naïve acceptance of trendy new measures and styles of piety, Protestants have broken from historic Christianity and found themselves lost within an increasingly rudderless American pop-Christianity – a Christianity that isn’t sure what a Christian is and doesn’t know how to find out. They fail in their efforts to take over the culture and are instead taken over by it. Despising the true dignity of the Church, they have lost it and are held captive by a power as hostile to Christ and his Church as any of the ancient enemies of Israel were.
If we take the Bible seriously, we will interpret every sentence on every page in light of Christ. He who was born in the fullness of time is the fulfillment of every word God has ever spoken to sinful humanity. He is the Word made flesh. His coming into this word was foretold by Jeremiah ten chapters before the text that is before us this morning. From Jeremiah 23, we read:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is His name by which He will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Now listen once more to the words written ten chapters later:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
That I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah:
In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David
A Branch of righteousness
He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
In those days Judah will be saved,
And Jerusalem will dwell safely.
And this is the name by which she will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.
It’s almost as if the prophet is repeating the same prophesy twice. He uses nearly the same words. If you’re not paying attention to the pronouns you might miss what he’s saying. In the first prophesy Jeremiah writes, “And this is his name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness” and in the second prophesy Jeremiah writes, “And this is the name by which she will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” He and she have the same name. His name is her name. She takes his name and with it she receives all that is his.
My wife’s name is Dorothy Jean Preus. It didn’t used to be. She was born Dorothy Jean Felts. She was Dorothy Felts until she was twenty one years old. She took my name when she married me, even as I gave her my name when I married her. By sharing the same name we share the same identity. We suffer together. We rejoice together. We share the same children, the same future, and the same life. She is my body and I am her head. We belong together. There is no Rolf without Dort and there is no Dort without Rolf. Excuse me for making this personal, but that’s the point of this sermon. When it comes to Jesus Christ and his Church, the relationship is personal.
She’s not an it. She’s a she. She’s Christ’s Church. She has his name. She receives God’s name in Holy Baptism. After Jesus offered up to the bar of divine justice his own obedience as the righteousness by which the world would be justified, he instituted Holy Baptism. This is no mere washing. This is a washing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Our name and God’s name are joined together. What is God’s is ours. Jesus is God. He is a man. He is the LORD, our righteousness. That’s who he is. And since his name is our name, and his identity is our identity, his righteousness is ours as well. Jesus Christ has the name: “The LORD, our righteousness.” The Holy Christian Church has the name: “The LORD, our righteousness.” His name is her name. It identifies her.
This is how God deals with his people. He puts his name on them and thereby gives them their identity. We read in Numbers 6:22-27,
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.
“So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
God’s name identifies God and it identifies his Church. The God who blesses us at the close of every Divine Service with the words he gave to Aaron for Israel is the God who fulfilled what these words promise. He fulfilled the Benediction in the Advent and Incarnation of Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father who was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. The kingdom of David now extends all over the world wherever the gospel is preached. St. Paul said of this gospel:
I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The just shall life by faith. Romans 1:16-17
The glory of the Church is hidden from human sight. Just as Jesus, when he came to become our righteousness, humbled himself and hid his glory under humility and suffering, just so, the Church, in receiving her identity from Christ, appears to the world in very humble form. Her glory is not in a clerical hierarchy headed up by a holy father, whether at Rome or somewhere else. Her holiness is hidden from sight. Her righteousness isn’t the good deeds of the Christians. It is nothing less than the good deeds and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. His righteousness covers her and constitutes her righteousness. This is what makes her holy.
This is why we should cherish the Church as our dear mother. Just as God has given her his very name, he has also entrusted to her all of his treasures. We don’t dare leave her behind and go off on our own. When we are in charge of our own identity we turn ourselves into our own gods and fashion idols in our own image. What we feel becomes the standard for right and wrong. What we want becomes the standard for what is true teaching and what is false teaching. We become spiritual orphans, manipulated into soul-destroying sins and errors by every religious con artist that comes along.
This is why we Christians stay with Christ by staying with his Church. He is the LORD, our righteousness and she bears his name. Those who want God as their Father must embrace the Church as their mother. To find the true Church of Christ we don’t look for important people with impressive resumes and large followings. We find that church where the gospel of the LORD, our righteousness, is taught truly and his sacraments are administered rightly. There is Christ. There is his true Church. There we will find peace for our souls because there we receive, through faith alone, the righteousness we need to stand before God. There is where we belong.