I know this is not the image Jeremiah has in mind, but when I think of this scripture about the "righteous branch", I can't help getting this picture in my mind: I am amid the dangerous waves of a churning river, either in a boat or capsized, and I am heading toward the rapids. Suddenly, I look up and there it is: a Branch, a strong Branch bending over the river. I grab it and hold on.
Somehow, that's the picture I get in my mind, even though, like I said, I'm pretty sure it's not what Jeremiah had in mind. I'm pretty sure that he is using the imagery of a Branch to connect with Israel and Judah's family Tree. There have been plenty of unrighteous branches -- Kings who has not been faithful, have not worshipped Yahwah and who have not cared for the poor. There hare been plenty of leaders who were shepherds who led their people astray. But Jeremiah is saying that there will be a day when the King will be a true shepherd, who will be do justice and love mercy. This King will not come from outside, but within the flock. He will be "a shoot out of the stump of Jesse", to use words from another prophet, Isaiah.
Still, I can't get the picture of the low-hanging branch over the water out of my head.
"The Lord is your righteousness," the branch declares, just by hanging there.
It is an invitation to trust: not my own wiles or wits, not my ability to swim, not my cleverness or even my own piety. It is an invitation to trust the Branch. Hold on.
So, on the first Sunday of Advent, the simple message may be this: Hold on. Trust that the one who hangs on the cross is your righteousness. Trust that the one who fed the hungry, healed the sick and cleansed lepers is your righteousness. Trust that the branch is strong enough to hold you, even though it looks weak.
Trust that the life he invites you to live is wise, even though it looks foolish. Trust that doing justice and loving mercy is really the only way to life, even though the way leads through death.