I see they are now selling strings of Christmas tree lights with built-in computer chips which play a tune as lights blink. Want one?
What really makes Christmas meaningful to you? What images, what ornaments of cheer? We do so much want this season to cheer us. What images will help us the most?
Interestingly, when God spoke to the people of old to cheer them with the message of Christmas, it was not a tree He spoke of nor its lights. He spoke of a branch and its lineage. It is a peculiar image because God presented it through the prophet Jeremiah, whom He sent to Judah in order to let them know they would be cut down by Babylon due to their sin. Jeremiah hated to tell the people that message. He is often called the weeping prophet as a result. Yet through his tears a hope still glistened in the image of this branch. When you understand that image you can know some of the special cheer and grace that this season holds for all the year and all our lives, even when our sin and failures would threaten to make us weep as well.
At the intersection of Clayton and Ballas Streets in St. Louis, there is a tree growing. It is not a very grand tree. It really is just a sprout growing out of the concrete. On the little triangular island of raised curb where they mounted the yield sign for traffic turning right, this twig has somehow taken root in a crack. It is a most forlorn-looking thing, particularly at this time of year. It is surrounded by yards and yards of barren concrete, dwarfed by the traffic signs that tower above it; long since de-leafed by the winter cold, it is whipped by the winds of passing cars. It is the most ignorable little stick you could possibly happen to notice. And yet I noticed it.
A year ago at Christmas time we drove home from some shopping trip to the mall where the lights glittered and the music blared, and the twig caught my eye. A piece of tinsel had been blown from some neighboring trash can or outdoor display and had entwined in the tiny branches of the twig. And as the winter wind lashed the sprout into a frenzied flutter, it seemed to wave the tinsel as a banner that spoke to me more clearly of Christmas than any of the glitz we had spent the day enjoying.
The tinsel was really just a cast-off of the season, yet its very presence signalled that it was Christmas again. The tinsel was a token of the time of year and all it represented. It was again time for rejoicing that the Christ child had been born. It was just tinsel, but I thought it was so special that out of all His creation that day God had chosen to decorate this insignificant, ugly little sprout with a shred of tinsel. God had picked up that discarded sliver of silver and put it in the hair of an ugly twig to make it beautiful to Himself, a wonderful beacon for any of us who would notice. Though the branch was insignificant it signalled the time of year and reminded of the child who came to save.
It is so typical of our God to act this way — to make the forlorn glorious. Ultimately it’s the message of Christmas, and the message of this passage, that God provides tinsel for twigs; the ignored, the ugly, the despised of this world He decorates with a special beauty. We need to see this message again this time of year for all the times of every year when we feel ignored, ugly and despicable. God can provide tinsel for us twigs, too.
He Drapes us with His Purpose,
He Covers us with His Love,
and, He makes us Shine with His Glory.
I. How does God drape us with His purpose?
By using us. The importance of this passage is that it shows us God can drape even the despicable with divine purpose. At the end of Jeremiah 33:15 God promises that He will bring forth His own that will do what is just and right in the land. He is promising the Messiah. But from where will the Messiah come? God says at the beginning of Jeremiah 33:15, that He will make this Messiah, the one He calls “a righteous ‘Branch,’ sprout forth from David’s line.” The wording is important because it illustrates how God can use the insignificant and failed things of this world to accomplish His ends:
That God uses the insignificant things of this world for wonderful purposes is indicated in the image Jeremiah calls to mind. When Jeremiah speaks of the righteous branch he is referring to an earlier prophecy of Isaiah where that prophet declared that:
“A shoot (or twig) would come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1).
Have you ever cut down a tree in your yard and then had twigs start shooting up from the stump? It is the image Isaiah is calling to mind but for any Hebrew it is an image of shame. Jesse was the father of David, the founding king of Israel’s glory days. An eternal kingdom was promised to David; Israel expected greatness to follow. And it did, at first. Under David and his son Solomon the kingdom grew and flourished. Then the people sinned; there is an ensuing division of the kingdom; Assyria attacks the northern kingdom; and, now, Jeremiah prophesies Babylon will also demolish Judah. The grand kingdom has been whittled down and now is to be cut down. Jeremiah looks forward to what the nation will be and, for all its present pride, all he sees is a stump; the nation will be an insignificant nothing, a joke, a shame, a source of derision for the enemies of God’s once-great kingdom.
Yet from this joke, this object of shame, Jeremiah sees something else arising. A twig or branch is going to shoot up which will save Israel and rule again with righeousness and justice. To whom is Jeremiah referring with this symbol of a branch? Jesus Christ, of course. The Savior of the world is going to come from this stump of a nation, because God can use the despised things of this world for His purposes. (Jeremiah himself is an example of one despised but used for a noble purpose as a prophet.) God is always doing this sort of thing. The apostle Paul says God uses the lowly things of this world and the things that are not (significant) to nullify the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). To display who He really is, God uses the insignificant things of this world to do amazing things for heaven’s purposes.
Think of how God works: Jesus, the king of the universe, is born as a spitting baby, in a dirty stable, in an obscure village called Bethlehem. Regardless of what we may know now, this was not an auspicious beginning. In his bestseller, All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum ends a section on his seasonal cynicism about Christmas by saying “What’s the big deal about this infant in a manger thing. Babies and stables both stink. I’ve been around both and I know. Bethlehem is a pit according to those who have been there [sic].” We may not like the words but they’re true. God did not pick the great things to glorify His Son. He used His Son to glorify the insignificant things. With His Son He brought glory to Bethlehem and heaven to a stable, and that which is insignificant and smelly He made so beautiful that we sing songs about it. In a later time He would even make a despicable branch of thorns into a crown of glory, and save souls by it. God drapes the sparkling tinsel of holy purpose on the most insignificant things. The Christmas images remind us how beautiful His designs can be for that which the world would reject.
God also uses the failed things of this world for wonderful purposes.
God’s design shines more brightly in the realization of the nature of Israel’s insignificance. The nation’s coming ruin is a sign of failure. She had a past of greatness and the potential to be great again. That she would be reduced to a sprouting stump from so great a tree is a mark of terrible failure. Even the word “branch” used here became synonymous with failure. The word “branch” is actually the root word behind Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up. How clever of God to see to it that the Righteous Branch grows up in “branch town.” Far from the term being one of distinction, it was a mark of shame to be from branch town or “twig-dom” because the name was reminiscent of Israel’s shame. That is why when Jesus said He was from Nazareth the people snickered and said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth, twig-city?” (John 1:45-46). Yet by weaving His life into Nazareth, Jesus made the two special, to say the least.
How important it is for all of us to know that God can use insignificant failures to yet accomplish His glorious purpose, for these same failures can come from so many directions in life. On one occasion I travelled to another city to speak at a conference for a well-known church in the evangelical world. I stayed in the home of the pastor — by all accounts a very devoted man. One afternoon as I was preparing my message for that evening I could not help hearing the sounds of the pastor’s children playing outside. I guess you could call it playing. One child, the nine-year-old son of the pastor, dominated the rest of the children with cruelty, profanity and intimidation. It was hard to listen to and even harder to study through, so after a while I walked out of my study to take a break. My room opened at the bottom of a stairway and I looked up to see the mother of the boy watching him out of the window at the top of the stairs. She was almost a silhouette against the window which made her obvious pain a more poignant picture. She was watching him with shoulders drooped and head down, and when she heard me she turned and I realized she was crying. She knew I also had heard her son, and through her tears she said, “I don’t know what to do with him. John doesn’t know either, all we know is that we have failed. He’s only nine years old and we have already failed.”
Do you know the pain of failure — with children, with a marriage, with a career, or with your walk of faith? More than once in my life I have heard the haunting lyrics of a sixties pop song, “I’ve had beautiful beginnings, but beautiful beginnings are all I’ve had.”
To have had beautiful beginnings and painful endings?! To have been like Israel?! To begin with promise and joyful expectation and then to face desolating failure?! Do you know the feeling?
I have a friend who manages a retail store at a local shopping mall. A year ago the shopping center had extensive renovation and the crowds flocked to his store. Though he was new in the business my friend’s store was a huge success and he set all kinds of company sales records. But after the Christmas crowds diminished, local gangs moved in. Then there was a murder at the mall. As a result of local fears about more gang violence the shopping crowds have stayed small at the mall. Some of the store owners recently speculated that it would simply take another murder to ruin them all. And then there was another murder. In one year my friend has gone from being a phenomenal success to being a dismal failure.
Whether it’s in your family, or in your career, or even in your faith, I would guess most of you also know what it is to have begun well and then to have had things go wrong. I will not tell you that what I am about to say will make the problems melt away, but you have to listen to me: God can use insignificant failures for His purposes. Nothing is more true of Him. You may have given up on yourself, but as long as the God of Israel lives, so do His purposes. He has not given up on you. If He had no purpose for you, you would not be here with the ability to learn from His Word today. If you are here it is because He is preparing you for His purposes tomorrow. I do not know what they will be, but I do know this: in a new day is new hope. In new days there will be new responsibilities, and new opportunities to serve Him — possibly, to address past failures. But even if past failures cannot be addressed we are able to move on from those negative experiences with greater wisdom for positive contributions to the people and purposes God will yet put in our lives. Our God encourages us in this passage by showing He uses earth’s failures for heaven’s purposes.
God underscores His ability to use that which may even be despicable to itself by showing that He can even use those whose shame is their own fault — draping the despicable with his purposes.
II. God covers the unfaithful with unfailing love.
The promise to the people of Israel is all the more remarkable when you realize that their plight is a result of their own sin. Why are they being cut down? Because of their own rebellion. The failure to live up to past glory and to future potential is not somebody else’s fault. Unlike my store manager friend at the shopping mall, no one else is to blame. They are. Yet God promises to bring from this unfaithful people a branch who is Christ the Lord. From their failure will come the Savior who will cover their sin. God promises to cover a faithless people with unfailing love.
A. Though they are sinful. Perhaps even more surprising about this unfailing love is the fact that God promises it to these people.
B. Though they are being punished. Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet because he weeps for the discipline that will come in the form of the enemies who will chop Israel down. But with the punishment he sees God’s continuing love and promise of future restoration with the repentance it stimulates. Here is a vital scriptural truth. The presence of divine discipline is never an indication of the absence of divine love. Even if our failure is the result of our sin, and even if we interpret our situation to be a revelation of God’s punishment, we should never assume that God’s love departs from His own.
One of my great sadnesses in the pastorate was to see the slow ruin of a young woman as she moved through her adolescence. I’ll call her Joan. She was at one time one of the glories of our church. She was radiant, bright, fun to be around, in love with the Lord. And then, slowly at first, something seemed to change about her. A certain slyness crept into her eyes. A bright expressiveness colored with a dark evasiveness. Her warm, endearing smile seemed to solidify into a studied stoniness and hardness of expression. Eventually the evasiveness became lies. The slyness became rebellion. Broken curfews turned into Saturday night drunks. Stony silence turned into angry yelling. A close family seemed to go to war with itself with an endless round of arguments, tears and slammed doors.
After a four-year nightmare of drunkenness, drugs and increasingly prolonged absences, this prodigal daughter returned to her parents’ home one night with the announcement that she was expecting a child and needed their help. The help she had spurned she now begged for. They took her in knowing that she probably planned to take advantage of them again. And, in many ways, she did. She considered her pregnancy a punishment of God — a biologically imposed grounding. But the necessary change of lifestyle slowed her down just enough for those who loved her to remind her of the God she had once loved and who still loved her.
She had trouble accepting that. She considered the sins she committed too great, and the infant she carried too clear an indication of God’s punishment, to spell anything but rejection. How good to be able to say to her as I say to you what the Bible says in Hebrews, “God only disciplines those He loves.” He is forever seeking to protect from greater danger. He is always drawing His own back to Himself. The presence of punishment does not indicate the absence of love.
Eventually, by God’s grace, she understood His care and received it. And when that young mother brought her child for baptism, I’m sure some saw the child as a symbol of shame, perhaps even a symbol of punishment. But not I, and not her family, and not she. As the waters of the sacrament trickled down that infant’s little head, we saw in the streams of water the tinsel of divine love covering shame and sin and saying to all, God covers even the unfaithful with unfailing love.
I need to say this to you, too. There is much to tempt the mature as well as the young. The addictions and adulteries that tempt us and trip us can make us believe we have fallen away from God forever. You may consider your sin to have separated you from the potential of God’s love. You may consider your difficulty to be the proof of God’s punishment. But the message of Jeremiah is that even though deserving and experiencing punishment for the sin that is their own fault, God’s people are loved by their God.
How can God act this way? How can He be loving to those whose own actions have made them shameful?
III. God makes the Shameful Shine with Heaven’s Glory.
I have friends who recently got a new puppy. They gave it the name Josephine Chateaubolier Sofrer St. Vincent. Must be some dog, right? Its breed is officially listed as Heinz 57 — it’s a mix, a mutt. But they gave it a wonderful name to make it say how special it is to them regardless of what others may think.
Now at times due to your weaknesses, failures or sin you may not feel very significant to God, but I want you to recognize how special you are to Him by the name He gives you. Do you see it here? In Jeremiah 33:16 Jeremiah says that when the branch comes, the nation represented by Judah and Jerusalem will be saved and “it” will be called “The Lord our Righteousness.” To what does “it” refer? Sometimes great Scripture truths like the best Christmas gifts come in the smallest packages. The prophet has made a crucial point with this little pronoun. A few chapters before when these very same words are used, the promised Messiah is called the Lord our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6). But now the despised and sinful nation is called the Lord our Righteousness; to emphasize the point the prophet actually changed that little pronoun “it” to the feminine so that we cannot mistake his point: this despicable nation will be saved and her name will be the Lord our Righteousness. God plans to give His own name to His people. It sounds impossible that these people who are such a mix of sin and failure could be special to God, but to tell them that they are, He gives them a wonderful name.
He gives His people His name. But He gives them even more than that to make them shine with His glory.
He also gives His people His nature. What is that name? The Lord our Righteousness. The branch that is to come, the Messiah, is called the Lord our Righteousness. He will provide the righteousness this sinful people could not provide for themselves. Oh, they could not have known clearly what we now know so well. God would provide the righteousness He required through His own Son. He who knew no sin would become sin for us so that we could become the righteousness of God. He would cover us with His body so that we would shine with the righteousness that is His.
What a wonderful thought this is. We cover our Christmas trees with tinsel that is supposed to look like silver but it’s really just tin-foil; tinsel is not really what it is supposed to represent. God represents us to the world by calling us by the name of His Son, but then He actually makes us what He calls us. He gives us the nature of His own Son and, thereby, makes us His own sons and daughters. The glory He puts on us is not just tin-foil; it is the pure gold righteousness of His own Son whereby we now shine like stars. It can change the way we look at others and ourselves to recognize that God allows us to bear the name and the nature of His own Son.
I remember sitting in a worship service and listening to a beautiful young woman sing. Hers is one of the most beautiful voices I ever heard. People listen to her and weep. But I have heard her weep as we have talked time and again about the sin she struggles with in her life. In the past she had been unfaithful to her husband and as a result she felt terrible guilt, and to escape her guilt she would drink too much, and when she drank she lost control, and when she lost control it was usually her own children who got in the way. Then, with the guilt of that sin on her conscience, the cycle would repeat itself again and again. Hers has been a horror story of modern family life; yet there she was, singing of the wonderful grace of Jesus.
I confess that there was a piece of me that considered this hypocrisy, a curious irony that one so flawed could sing so flawlessly. And then I realized that once again in my life I was looking at the tinsel on a twig. That beautiful voice was the tinsel — the representation of the beauty of God draped on a twisted twig. Her voice, like the tinsel, was the Lord’s banner for all the world to see. By it He said, “I give the despicable my name and my nature. No one is holy enough for me, I have to gift you with my holiness. I make the ugly, beautiful. I make the unglorious, glorious. I make that which is black with shame, shine like gold.”
When we realize that it is not our goodness or specialness that makes us special to Him, the real message of Christmas becomes clear to us. Because God does not reject what is despicable but takes it and makes it special to Himself, making it useful and glorious despite unfaithfulness, we understand that though we have been unfaithful, weak and failing, we can turn to Him again. His acceptance is what gives us the courage to take our sins to Him in open confession and humble repentance. His loving forgiveness is what gives me the privilege of urging you to come to Him again to ask for fresh cleansing and new use. He who used a stable for a king’s bed can use a sinner for the king’s service.
Has your sin made you flee from Him, made you turn away from Him in shame, made you doubt that His power can again enter your life to try to straighten out what you have botched so badly? Don’t you believe it! He who decorates twigs with tinsel can yet have a design for your life, and in this Christmas season He tells you so again. He gives tinsel to twigs, and forgiveness to the twisted and shattered. Our God loves to decorate. He loves you enough to tell you so in the message of Christmas He spreads across the world again this year for all to see in the obvious symbols of glory, but also in His special care of the lowly — which He would also have you see.
As tinsel can decorate even a twig with beauty, our heavenly Father covers our shame with His glory. In the images of the season He puts His Son within your reach — even in your hands again. Our God loves you so much that He puts His precious Son into your hands again to receive and to cherish. If your faults and failures shame you it may seem unlikely that He would deal so beautifully with you — improbable, even impossible. But then you must remember the message of Christmas that is blowing ’round again this year. Ours is the God who loves to decorate. He sent His Son for sinners. He even puts tinsel on twigs.