My wife June and I delve into our family trees every now and then and enjoy watching ‘Who do you think you are?’ on the BBC. We rather envy their resources and access to experts! Presumably the Beeb research hundreds of celebrities first to find half a dozen or so with interesting ancestors – and then approach those celebs to see if they’ll appear on the show.
A few weeks ago, it was Judi Dench’s turn – and they unearthed some Danish ancestry from the time of Shakespeare. Perhaps some of you saw the programme? One particular forebear was a Danish nobleman who fell in love with a commoner. They were forbidden in law to marry and so their children were deemed illegitimate. Amongst the documents, there was one which showed the coat of arms for the father and another for the son. But the one for the son was that of a stump of a tree, to show that the noble lineage was dead. However, the artist from hundreds of years ago had drawn a young shoot growing out of the stump, a picture of hope for the future.
As it transpired, the young man eventually did gain nobility himself and Judi discovered that her family tree included someone who had lived in the real Elsinore Castle, where Shakespeare had located his play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. And those of you who know Judi’s career will remember that her first stage role was as Ophelia – in Hamlet! Truth is stranger than fiction.
A righteous branch
In our short reading from Jeremiah, we have these words: ‘In those days and in that time, I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David: and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’. You might recall similar words from Isaiah 11:1-2 ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.’ A shoot from the stock of Jesse. It made me think of family trees, of Judi’s ancestor and that coat of arms.
A truth that wasn’t welcome
To put this in context, Jeremiah is in prison. He’s been arrested for prophesying the impending destruction of Jerusalem. A prophecy that turned out to be true but a truth that wasn’t welcome. In 587 BCE, the city and temple were razed to the ground by the Babylonians and the people taken into exile, were they wept when they remembered Zion. Our chapter comes as the armies are massing and it’s becoming very obvious that something very bad is about to happen.
The people of Jerusalem thought they were untouchable. They enjoyed all the privileges that they took to be theirs by right of being ‘chosen’. But they ignored all the warnings that Jeremiah and Isaiah and those like them had given. That the promises of God relied on the faithfulness of the people. They hadn’t held to their part of the bargain – and there are consequences when you align yourselves to people who might do you harm.
And, so, the people are in limbo. All the certainties of the past are rapidly disappearing. They are about to lose their homes, their city, their way of life, their last Davidic King – and their Temple built by Solomon (the one which God had so filled on its day of opening that the service was delayed). Many will lose their lives as well. It’s a time of darkness and doubt and fear. Where is God? Why is this happening? Are the promises still worth anything?
It will get worse
Jeremiah doesn’t soft soap this. In the earlier verses of this chapter, he tells them it will get a lot worse before it gets better. But it will get better. As impending disaster is about to hit them, in an incredible act of hope and promise, Jeremiah tells them that the days are surely coming when God will fulfil his promises. That Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety and a righteous branch will execute justice. The days are surely coming – but not yet. Not yet.
And we know from history that they do return. They do occupy the land again and they do rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. But there is no new king in the line of David. Which is why we now have these verses in Advent. Because they are taken as a prophecy about the coming Messiah. It’s why we see the family trees, the genealogies, in Matthew and Luke.
An odd time
But so what? What does this mean for us? Well, in the best of years, Advent can be an odd time. As Christians we can feel slightly out of sync. We know it should be a time of sombreness, of waiting and reflection – yet outside is bright lights and colour and shopping. And in our present moment we have uncertainty from rising prices and shortages, for what will happen next with Covid and how best to manage that. Or we’re worried with the health of the Queen. Or more broadly with what is happening to our environment and our planet.
This Advent, and every Advent, we are called, like Jeremiah, to speak into that. To take an act of faith and give words of hope and promise to those who may be in despair. It’s not to put on rose-tinted spectacles. Like Jeremiah, we may be in our own equivalent of jail, and we may first have to say it how it is, no matter how unpopular. And we may need to look at ourselves and see if there are places in our own lives which are at odds with justice and righteousness and deal with them before anything else.
All things new
But then, then, we need to envision an alternative reality which does make all things new. In the chapter before this one, Jeremiah buys a plot of land outside the city with the armies about to invade and everything about to be destroyed. A seemingly ridiculous thing to do – but it symbolised a faith that eventually they would be returning to their land. And they did.
In God’s strength, we too need to live our lives, take actions and say words which bring hope and a future to those around us. Because if enough of us live lives like that and act like that and say words like that, then we may just make it happen. Amen
‘Hope and family trees’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley on Sunday 28th November 2021. It was based on Jeremiah 33:14-16.