Weekly Seeds

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Creator of the world, you are the potter, we are the clay, and you form us in your image. Shape our spirits by Christ's transforming power, that as one people we may live out your compassion and justice, whole and sound in the realm of your peace. Amen.

Words of Comfort

Sunday, December 7
Second Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme
Words of Comfort

Weekly Prayer
God of hope, you call us from the exile of our sin with the good news of restoration; you build a highway through the wilderness; you come to us and bring us home. Comfort us with the expectation of your saving power, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading
Isaiah 40: 1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
  says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
  and cry to her
that she has served her term,
  that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
  double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
  and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
  and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
  and all people shall see it together,
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

A voice says, "Cry out!"
  And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All people are grass,
  their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
  when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
  surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
  but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
  O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
  O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
  lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
  "Here is your God!"
See, the Lord God comes with might,
  and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
  and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
  he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
  and gently lead the mother sheep.

All Readings for this Sunday

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

You're invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts at https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

Focus Questions

1. Why do you think the Gospel writers quote this passage of the Old Testament?

2. Do you think of your life as a story of "achievements" or of "miracles"?

3. How do you picture life in exile in Babylon? Would you have found it tempting?

4. How might Brueggemann's description of Babylon describe our culture today?

5. What are the signs that things are about to change?

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

Imagine an ordination service for a prophet, except that church officials in robes are replaced by God on a throne, and the congregation by a host of angels and heavenly messengers. (The music in this service would be particularly good.) The prophet Isaiah is charged to deliver a message from God to the people of God, the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon.

The people of sixth-century B.C. Israel had lost their temple, their great city Jerusalem and all that it symbolized, and their land as well, their leaders carried off into exile in Babylon. However, even before this disaster, their system (like any system) had never really known exactly what to do with a true prophet. So we assume that the ordination service for Second Isaiah was experienced as a call from God to speak a word to the people, and it's that call, that service, that message, that are described by our text on this Second Sunday in Advent.

For the first thirty-nine chapters of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet scholars call "First Isaiah" delivered a word of warning, threats of God's judgment, to the people of 8th century B.C.E. Jerusalem. Two hundred years later, as Second Isaiah answers his call to speak, much has happened: First Isaiah spoke of the threat of the mighty empire of Assyria, but in Second Isaiah's time, the Babylonian Empire has destroyed Jerusalem and carried the people off to captivity. The disaster has, like all disasters, provoked theological reflection and much lamentation. In fact, Walter Brueggemann says that the Book of Lamentations "sits" between First and Second Isaiah, a book full of grief over the exile, with "only one moment of hope...:'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God's] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulnessÖtherefore I will hope in [God]'(3:21-24)."

Unexpected word of hope

Only one word of hope amid all that long grief, but then, Second Isaiah comes along to cry comfort to the people, release and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and a great homecoming. Second Isaiah is all about hope, a hope rooted not in the people's strength or wits or goodness, but in the faithfulness of God. It's a surprising, unexpected word of hope, and a challenging one as well.

Many of the Jewish people must have wondered where God had gone. They felt cut off, far away, from God. We know that people in every age have felt that distance caused by sin and guilt, and struggled to reach across it, but God will not forget God's people or the covenant God has with them. "The Hebrew word for 'beauty' in verse 6 is hesed, which has the connotation of 'covenant faithfulness and love,'" Elizabeth Achtemeier writes. While God is persistent, faithful, and dependable, our response is inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable, no matter what we promise or intend, "we do have our moments of dedication," Achtemeier writes, "[B]ut our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful at the moment but rapidly failing when trouble and distraction come upon us." The prophet reassures us of God's "anyway" love for us: we sin, but we can count on God's faithfulness anyway, on the Word of God that "will stand forever" (v. 80).

The same God in both Testaments

The God we meet in the Old Testament has been described as a God of fear and threat, while the God of the New Testament, it has been said, is all about love and tenderness. Second Isaiah paints a fuller portrait of God. Yes, "the God who comes" (like ancient deities, including the gods of their captors, Babylon) is mighty and glorious and powerful. But the God of Israel is also a gentle shepherd who feeds the flock, gathers up lambs and holds them close. The people are urged to make way for this good news in their lives, a transformation of their situation. The powers that be, Babylon, have been overturned. The mighty have fallen, and the "little" people can dance with joy.

All of this is good news and the stuff of joy, but it's also unbelievable while you're still sunk in despair under the heel of the oppressor. At his "ordination," Second Isaiah is told to "speak tenderly to Jerusalem" (v. 2): "The Hebrew actually reads 'speak to the heart,'" Dianne Bergant writes. "Since the heart was considered the organ of thought, the phrase means 'convince Jerusalem' rather than 'be tender toward her.'" So in this season of Advent reflection in the church (a season that once was a penitential season of preparation), while the world has already started its celebration in decorations, parties, music, and shopping, our heads have some work to do before our hearts are carried away by holiday joy.

What do we need to clear away to make a path for God?

Just as the people of Israel long ago were told to clear a path for God, to make a way where there appeared to be no way, the text tells us to make a way for God to come into our lives, to remove the obstacles and impediments, to clear out old animosities and grievances, to cut back the weeds of doubt and greed, not just to make a nice little bed for the newborn babe but to open up our lives to transforming grace. In Advent, we attune our hearts and minds to the many ways that God enters our lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives and the momentous lives of nations in every age. Indeed, the scholars who writes on this text spend little time or ink on our private holiness and personal sins, and much more on the way we've collectively organized our lives, and the longing for the people for hope in the midst of the big events in history.

A new Jerusalem, a homecoming to the great city restored, is the dream and the promise of this text. As always, Walter Brueggemann writes evocatively of this hope: "It is as though the canon has gathered together all the candidates for the Martin Luther King award. They have learned to say, in distinct, harmonious tone: I have a dream, I have a dream, I have a dreamÖthe long nightmare of loss is over." Thousands of years later, we have experienced loss, too, in the face of war, poverty, violence (sometimes caused by religion itself), harm to God's beautiful creation, economic crisis, and hatred: "The loss is real," Brueggemann writes; "the city as we know it is defeated and failed." We have lost hope, he says, that we can fix all these problems and right all these wrongs, and perhaps we're right, "given the categories of imagination now operative." If Brueggemann is right, and I think he is, I wonder if Advent should be re-named: instead of the season of preparation or waiting or penitence, it could be called the season of imagination.

The impermanence of glory

The great preacher Gardner C. Taylor reads this text through the lens of a people captive in slavery in the midst of splendor like the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the world, surrounded by colossal architecture that surely impressed upon them their own insignificance, at least in the eyes of the Babylonians and their gods: "The humble, ill-clad slaves looking at this dazzling sight must have felt a terrible despair and an aching longing for homeÖ.What could some slaves mean midst all these achievements when they had only some exotic ways of worship and an invisible God upon whom to call midst the galling yoke and heavy oppression of their captivity?" To Gardner, verses 7-8 declare the impermanence of such glory compared to the glory and steadfast faithfulness of the God of Israel: "Isaiah took one look at all of this heathen splendor and pagan power and saw the fatal void at the heart of it all....'Never mind,' he must have mused, 'how green and lush the grass may seem. Never mind how bright and picturesque the blossoming flowers may appear.'" Nothing lasts like the Word of God, he imagines the prophet saying: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever" (v. 7).

Brueggemann describes God's response to the suffering of the people as poetry that will sustain them. The surprise in his reflection is the possibility that there were those who were perhaps beginning to get comfortable there in Babylon, in the safety and security of "a political-military superpower. It was also an advanced, sophisticated, winsome culture with its own theological rationale and its own moral justifications." The empire was a system, like all systems, that worked for some and not for others, but you had a better chance if you knew where to place your allegiance and energy. It must have been tempting to throw in your lot with the seductive culture around you, to find ways not only to survive but to thrive, even if it meant forgetting who and whose you were.

Then a prophet comes along, Brueggemann says, changing everything with the message that "redescribes the world" as "under new management, under the governance of the home-making, home-giving God and away from the deathly power of the empire." Such poetry is so powerful that it "cannot be unsaid, for [t]he word has been uttered and the juices of alternative possibility have begun to flow." Perhaps this is a comforting word, but it also disturbs and may even make us a bit anxious. What do even captives have to lose, if things change too much, too quickly, too imaginatively?

A past of miracles, or achievements?

The testimony of Israel, Brueggemann writes, remembers "a past that is saturated with life-giving miracles, not...self-sufficient achievement," and looks forward to "a future of complete shalom that is free of violence, brutality, competitiveness, and scarcity, a new governance that displaces that of empire." But today matters, too, because we live in the present, with the possibility of "neighbors to whom we are bound in fidelity, in obligation, and in mutual caring," in justice for all, including "those that the empire finds objectionable and unproductive." So it does matter how we organize our shared life today, in the face of the obvious empires of materialism and militarism that surround us, but also the more subtle and insidious empires that may appear at first as "good" things: for example, our drivenness toward achievement and winning - "What I've amassed is all mine; I've earned it myself" or "I don't have time for Sabbath" - no matter what toll it takes, including the loss of those neighbors we should cherish above achievement or wealth or power. Brueggemann uses a term that caught my attention, "a passion for private shalom," an apt description, one might say, of some of our contemporary faulty theologies.

This text is about evangelism, that is, sharing the good news of God's love and faithfulness. Knowing what we know about the Jesus for whom we wait, we can agree with Brueggemann that "it is no wonder that part of this poem is quoted in all four Gospels, a text that voices the radical newness that is to be initiated in the story of Jesus."

To what are you captive?

To what oppressors are the people in your community held captive? Indeed, do you think of yourselves as captives, or as oppressors? As you look around at our culture, what forces press in on us and on others, personally and communally? What "categories of imagination" are "operative" in your setting? Do you feel far from home, exiled? How does the image of a gentle shepherd speak to a world that tells us to succeed and to own and to acquire, to step on others and outlast them in order to reach our goals, to rely on military might for the nation's security and a gun in our home for our personal safety? How do faithful Christians reconcile the image of the shepherd with such a culture?

Speaking of guns: over the weekend in our city, a twelve-year-old boy with a toy gun was shot in a local park by a police officer who presumably thought the gun was real--a terrible, heart-breaking tragedy for everyone concerned. How do "Advent people" address the wrenching sorrow of such loss and violence, not only the shooting, but the violence which drenches the culture in which it happened, and the rent in the fabric of that neighborhood and the larger city of which we are a part? When I hear such news, and read the argumentative Facebook threads in which the city (along with those who observe from afar) struggles to make sense of what happened, and longs to place blame, to hold accountable one individual rather than all of us for the un-neighborly things that are happening every day, in this present day, my mind and heart grow so weary that I am almost numb. And I find myself longing even more deeply for that word of comfort, for that larger shalom that we imagine and lean toward during this Advent season, the promise of peace and healing and reconciliation and no more war, no more violence, no more threats, no more fear, no more heartache. Can we even imagine such a time? Is it just too tempting to hope for, and work for, a "private shalom" that seems more "achievable," more "reasonable," even if its blessings never touch the rest of our neighbors?

Hope despite the structures of despair

A most moving video (a commercial, ironically) is making its way around the Internet, telling the story of World War I soldiers who came out of their trenches on Christmas in a truce to share Christmas greetings, to play soccer and exchange small gifts, to engage one another as real persons, as their neighbors, their brothers, not as enemies. It is almost unbearable to watch, as they shake hands and recognize the bitter reality of having to return to their trenches and resume the effort to kill one another for some unknown and unworthy reason. (And again, the long threads of biting commentary exchanged in comments sections below the video are disheartening). It seems like, for one moment, peace broke through the violence and enmity and destruction. I don't know how parents or grandparents can shake that image from our hearts and minds and not ache as we speak so freely of "peace on earth" this December, while our culture continues to send our children off to such violence. We are surrounded by our own "Babylons," our own overwhelming brokenness, and we seek to find the signs of God's promise that lifts our spirits and our eyes to the hidden reality of shalom, breaking forth in spite of our best, or rather worst, efforts to keep it buried deep, below our fragile and under-exercised faculties of hope and imagination. Can we see those signs, that shalom, even so, in this present hour, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the massive structures of despair and domination around us that try to tell us that we, or at least some of us, are not precious in the eyes of God?

In this season of Advent, what are you preparing for? What sort of road "broad and smooth" needs to be cleared in your heart in preparation for the coming of the One who shepherds us? Is it easier to believe in God when you're in captivity than it is to believe the captivity is really over? What are the signs that things are about to change? Are courageous enough to hope for such a thing to happen?

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For Further Reflection

Joan Baez, 20th century
"Peace might sell, but who's buying?"

E.F. Schumacher, 20th century
"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius ó and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

Richard Rohr, 21st century, in Falling Upward
"We need to unlearn a lot, it seems, to get back to that foundational life which is 'hidden in God' (Colossians 3:3). Yes, transformation is often more about unlearning than learning, which is why the religious traditions call it 'conversion' or 'repentance.'"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us - in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day."

Edward Hays, A Pilgrim's Almanac
"Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace."

Finley Peter Dunne, 20th century
"Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th century
"Sorrow is one of the vibrations that proves the fact of living."

German proverb
"Joy and sorrow are next-door neighbors."

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You're welcome to use this resource in your congregation's Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

Hope Restored/Rejoice Always

Sunday, December 14
Third Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme
Hope Restored/Rejoice Always

Weekly Prayer
Merciful God of peace, your word, spoken by the prophets, restores your people's life and hope. Fill our hearts with the joy of your saving grace, that we may hold fast to your great goodness and in our lives proclaim your justice in all the world. Amen.

Focus Reading
Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126

When the God restored the fortunes of Zion,
  we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
  and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
  "God has done great things for them."
God has done great things for us,
  and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O God,
  like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
  reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
  bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
  carrying their sheaves.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
  because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
  to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
  and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
  and the day of vengeance of our God;
  to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion--
  to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
  the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
  the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
  they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
  the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
  I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
  and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
  and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
  that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
  my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
  he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
  and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
  and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
  to spring up before all the nations.  

All Readings for this Sunday

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Focus Questions

1. On this Gaudete Sunday, what are the sources of our joy, even in the face of trying circumstances?

2. What freedom, what new or rebuilt life do we long for?

3. On what promises do we rely, and in what do we rejoice?

4. What are signs that our society has come to accept the idea of a permanent underclass, here and abroad?

5. As we prepare for the coming of Jesus, who identified his own call with this passage, what is the deep hope within us for the world?

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

While First Isaiah warned of God's impending judgment on an unfaithful nation, and Second Isaiah spoke words to comfort God's people during their captivity in Babylon, Third Isaiah addresses the dire situation of the exiles after they've returned to their devastated homeland. The glorious homecoming in last week's reading from Isaiah 40 was beautiful and inspiring, but the reality of rebuilding their lives in the wake of such destruction was overwhelming. And it was complicated, too. Not everyone had been carried off into exile: perhaps only the "flower" of their leadership in religion, learning, and the arts were taken. But what better way to break an entire people than to leave them leaderless and without inspiration? And what happens when the exiled leaders inevitably find a very different situation when they return home?

Even with its "shouts of joy," the psalm reading is actually a lament, a cry for help in the midst of terrible circumstances. The psalmist remembers what God has done for Israel in the past, and what it felt like: on the ancient foundation of the promises to Abraham and Sarah (many descendants and a land of their own) and the memory of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, there was, more recently, homecoming, return from exile in Babylon, freedom at last. The psalmist also remembers how they shouted with joy and laughter on their way home. Years later, however, the first rush of joy is over, and they are struggling. The rebuilt Temple, the centerpiece of their worship, is not as magnificent as the one built by Solomon, but there are even greater problems facing them. Return is not the same thing as restoration, as anyone knows who has tried to heal a relationship, or to rebuild a community after a natural disaster. Think, for example, of the long-term project of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Japan after the terrible earthquake and tsunami, or areas buried by volcanic eruptions or destroyed by wildfires. Whether a natural disaster or an act of human destruction, the leveling of a city, a nation, is devastating for its people. Just returning to their homes, or the pieces of their homes, is not the same thing as having their lives restored. That will require a much deeper transformation, and both an individual and a communal effort.

Who are the oppressed, and who are the problem?

Perhaps the exiles were in a similar situation. Beth Richardson describes a tension in the community that we may never have considered (one that surprised me when I first considered it during seminary studies), when the returnees found their homecoming not necessarily good news for those they left behind when they were carried off to Babylon: "The returning exiles are depicted as controlling those who had not been deported." Would that have made the people who had been left behind now the oppressed, broken-hearted captives, and the returnees a problem? Perhaps, but in any case, the infrastructure of their society, spiritually as well as physically, had collapsed, and everyone felt crushed.

A formidable task of rebuilding, then, lay before them. Walter Brueggemann suggests that the "they" who would rebuild the city were those "oppressed": "the speaker," he writes, "knows where to find the workers, the expertise, the energy and passion for the rebuilding of the city." That would address the physical rebuilding, but what about the spiritual rebuilding? That's why God sends prophets. Third Isaiah's task, Brueggeman says, was "to 'gospel' these defeated folk back to power and constructive action."

On this Third Sunday in Advent, we might share to some degree the challenges faced by Third Isaiah and his people. True, the people of Israel had suffered much longer than many of us, although there are countless others whose deep suffering has gone on much too long. There are systems and practices and attitudes that keep people down if not captive, trapped in poverty, hunger, disease, violence and war. Our nation continues its own long struggle with the consequences of the sin of racism, and we are divided in our response to events unfolding in our streets (indeed, in just the past few days, in a city park not far from our Church House in Cleveland). We're told the recession is over, but it seems that wealth has been effectively redistributed to the few at the top instead of strengthening the fabric of entire economies so that everyone has enough to live a decent life. I remember an episode of 60 Minutes that told the story of children living in trucks and cars because their parents have lost their jobs: perhaps the most disturbing thing is that these kids are "invisible," living in the shadows of our cities and towns, getting by without our even realizing they are there. And as another year comes to a close, the pain spreads as nations are divided in their response to the ongoing nightmare of terrorism and the brutalities suffered by refugees created by war and internal conflicts.

Set free from debt even in a season like this?

In the time of Isaiah, imprisonment was more likely for debts than for hard crime. No wonder folks needed to hear that someone had come to "proclaim release to the captives"! In our society, many folks feel trapped by debt, by "upside-down" mortgages and huge credit card balances, and they would love to be set free. Perhaps some of that debt is from our own spending on things we didn't really need, but there are plenty of us who have burdensome debt from our schooling, from health expenses, from the costs of raising children, from our need for food and housing. Many of us, then, can hear talk of jubilee, or a reversal of fortune, as good news, the cancellation of debt, freedom from worry. But the good news from a Stillspeaking God extends beyond our own lives to the life of the world. Ancient Jerusalem after the exile, damaged and in ruins, in need of being rebuilt, is a powerful symbol of our cities and towns today, and of the world beyond our borders, where nations are imprisoned by enormous debt that needs to be forgiven.

If anything, the global economy has brought home just how much we are connected to, and dependent on, one another. Our physical infrastructure is showing signs of wear and tear: the health system that takes care of our bodies is strained, and the very roads and bridges we travel on are cracking under the load of the cars we can't afford to drive. There's work to be done, needs to be met, and one piece of the good news is that there are workers to do the work. The ruins of our cities could be restored, if we truly experienced ourselves as a community and not as individuals looking out for ourselves and our own. Wouldn't that be good news and a source of joy? Wouldn't it be something to remember, and to sing about?

Both personal and communal sorrow

Awareness of our shared crisis looms in our minds as we read this text, but so does a sensitivity to the poignant personal sorrow of many in our midst. While we observe Advent, the world around us tells us to be joyful as we shop and clean and fill up our calendars. But all around us are also those who carry heavy burdens of grief, depression, loss, illness, and financial worries. The holidays make these problems even more pressing. Homecomings, whether they are to church or to family households, can be filled with expectation and met with disappointment. Cynthia Jarvis touches on these painful places in the human heart, "conditions...made acute by the culture's merriment: the relationships severed, the addictions hidden, the violence barely domesticated, the depression denied, the affair raging, the self-loathing cut deep into the flesh, the greed, the hatred, the fear." This Advent, I think of my friend, whose apparently healthy husband of 49 years died suddenly while far from home, whose grief is so fresh and overwhelming, as well as my good friend whose young daughter was killed in a terrible accident three years ago and who of course continues to carry the grief only a mother understands. How will they face the merriment of Christmas this year?

By now, one may be wondering, "Where's the joy?" We remember the promise of the psalm: "Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy" (v.6). Talitha Arnold reflects on the mystery of suffering turned to joy: "The natural power of God to turn seeds into grain would be miracle enough. But Psalm 126 makes an even greater statement. The seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy." We seek joy in this season, but perhaps we look in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: "This is no jingle-bells joy brought with a swipe of a credit card," Arnold writes. "The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night." Dennis Olson roots this joy in the confidence that God will keep God's promises: "Such joy is in contrast to the frantic pushing and shoving of a department store cash register line or the fatigue and boredom on the faces of those strolling down the shopping mall corridor. The true joy of this text is marked by song and dance, by concrete actions energized to 'build up the ancient ruins' and 'repair the ruined cities.'"

That day when all things will be whole

God is at work in every human endeavor that strives for peace and wholeness, even if that peace is partial and that wholeness only glimpsed. We are leaning toward that day when all things will be whole, not just restored but made new. And this promise isn't for just one nation but for all of God's children; Dennis Olson reminds us that God made promises to Abraham and Sarah about being a blessing to "all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:1-3). So the healing and compassion will encompass all those who suffer, and the rebuilding will make our social systems as just as our bridges will be made sturdy. When Jesus, the One whose birth we await this Advent season, began his ministry, he went to the synagogue and took out this scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and read these elegant and hope-filled words of promise. That is why we read Isaiah's "gospel" during this season of hope, and on this Sunday of joy, Gaudete Sunday. Olson calls Jesus' own ministry "the definitive sign of God's coming into the world in a new and definitive way" as "Jesus, Isaiah's Spirit-filled and anointed servant of the Lord." And this spirit continues, within the church, within us, in every act of justice and rebuilding, healing and hope.

Looking at the poverty and deterioration of our cities, we are perhaps reminded of the destruction of Jerusalem and the challenge before those who sought to rebuild it. For them and for us, "the energy and resources to rebuild the shattered city have as a prerequisite the rearrangement of economic power. This tradition would entertain no 'permanent underclass,'" Brueggemann writes. What does the concept of a "permanent underclass" say about a society (especially one that many claim as Christian)? How does God still speak to us today about our treatment of those of us who are poor, those of us who are most vulnerable and without voice? Who is speaking for the poor and the marginalized as we dream of rebuilding our own cities? Who is speaking for the poor in nations pressed down with international debt?

As we prepare for the coming of Jesus, who identified his own call with this passage, what is the deep hope within us for the world? What freedom, what life do we long for? In what ways do we see ourselves in this ancient anointed one, and in what ways do we identify with his call, in our own lives today? Can we, too, proclaim, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon us"? On this Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday, what are the sources of our joy, even in the face of trying circumstances? On what promises do we rely, and in what do we rejoice?

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For Further Reflection

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"You do not need to know p ecisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope."

M. Scott Peck, 20th century
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."  

George Harrison, 20th century
"With every mistake, we must surely be learning."

French proverb
"Hope is the dream of a soul awake."

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Latin proverb
"Dum spiro, spero: While I breath, I hope."

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 20th century
"The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof."  

About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You're welcome to use this resource in your congregation's Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, - 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is - 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

God With Us/Great Reversals

Sunday, December 21
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme
God With Us/Great Reversals

Weekly Prayer
Ever-faithful God, through prophets and angels you promised to raise up a holy child who would establish a household of peace and justice. Open our hearts to receive your Son, that we may open our doors to welcome all people as sisters and brothers, and establish your household in our time. Amen.

Focus Reading
Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

You're invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts at https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Focus Questions

1. What is God doing today, here in our midst, too wonderful for our imaginations or our words?

2. What is the deep hope of your congregation on this last Sunday in Advent?

3. What extraordinary and grace-filled things have happened in your life?

4. How do you define or describe true peace?

5. What is our role in the midst of what God is doing?

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey

Like those before her who have been informed of a most unlikely impending birth (Sarah and Abraham, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah), Mary is astounded by the amazing power of God. Luke the storyteller weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist's conception (and Elizabeth's recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary's interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat. There are, of course, significant differences between the two stories. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to that doorstep, with everyone together, and Mary singing that beautiful song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of trust in God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. (Zechariah the religious leader, of course, took a little longer to get to that place of trust.)

While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms ("righteous...living blamelessly"), Mary is simply "a virgin." Greeted by an angel of God as "full of grace," as "favored one," Mary is not described as extraordinarily holy but could be an ordinary person like each of us. She's a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. God, however, works wonders in every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, on the margins, we might say. Ashley Cook Cleere writes: "The tendency to think that leading unassuming lives in out-of-the-way places isolates us from the extraordinary is debunked by Mary's surprise visitor, just as it is dismantled by television broadcasts of school shootings and forest fires, or small towns that take pride in the accomplishments of members of their communities. Neither notoriety nor acclaim is confined to major metropolitan areas."

Not that being an "ordinary" girl in a small village means Mary is without spirit or strength. William Brosend sketches a somewhat different picture of the traditional Mary, meek and mild, suggesting "more fearless and less humble" as better words to describe her. When that angel appears before Mary, talking about God being with her and then assuming that she's afraid, Brosend notes that she has a right to be a bit perplexed (who wouldn't be?): "Give the girl a chance, Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel." (Who wouldn't need a few minutes to process that kind of information?) We read this account only once every three years in the lectionary, but it's a familiar and beloved story, even though it perplexes us, too. The dialogue is spare, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth's house.

A strange blessing

We might wrestle a bit with the question of Mary's acceptance, or is it surrender? And what is she accepting, an invitation, a request, or simply information about what's going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that's about to happen? In her lovely sermon on the text, "Mothers of God," Barbara Brown Taylor observes, "The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her." Gabriel twice recognizes Mary as "favored," but then offers what Alan Culpepper calls "a strange blessing." We thank God for our blessings, although many believe, Culpepper says, that those blessings constitute "a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God's favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God's blessing." Culpepper's claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary's life, rich in "strange" blessings.

In both of these stories of conception and promise, however, it's really all about God and what God is doing. John the Baptist won't preach his own message but, like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most High God. While many people, when hearing these words, turn to the Old Testament text of "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (Isaiah 7), William F. Brosend suggests that we really ought to look instead to the promise to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 18: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" Indeed, that part of the promise sounds very much like Gabriel's own parting words, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (v. 37).

Our part in God's story

And that brings us to how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel's astonishing announcement. We note that it isn't called "The Request," or "The Invitation," but "The Annunciation." And we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God's promises of old all on God's own; after all, nothing is impossible with God. However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): "God intends to draw Mary and all of us into what God is doing," Brian K. Peterson writes, "and God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation." And this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary's story our own, or at least it makes her story one that we might understand a little bit better.

Scholars help us to make this connection, to shine the light of this gospel text on our own lives, on the mysterious ways that God works. Ashley Cook Cleere finds intersection between Mary's story and our own: "Although the details are rarely readily apparent, God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception." This is a staggering thought, that we were in God's thoughts before we ever came to be. "The awareness," Cleere writes, "that we are not fully in charge of our destiny ebbs and is revived repeatedly throughout our lives." Our care for one another is enriched by this insight, that, like Mary, we need "time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God's magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query 'How can this be?' is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us...how much is hidden from us. The exclamation of these four words may well signify the nearness of God." In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of "the nearness of God," these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God's ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.

Saying yes to our lives

The great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor also addresses with great insight the question of Mary's "choice," her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Yes, Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn't ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, "whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could." We have a similar choice in our own lives, Taylor says, to say "yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not." You can say no to your life, Taylor says, "but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again." And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: "You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body." How are you bearing God in this world?

Trusting that all things are possible with God requires a leap of faith, not only for Mary but for us today. And, like Mary, we will still have questions. William Brosend, for example, wonders, "If nothing will be impossible with God, why does so much in the lives of the parishioners seem such a mess?" He responds, "That nothing is impossible with God does not mean that God will do anything and everything. On this Sunday it means that God will do this thing. Which makes everything else possible." So for us in the church, we understand Mary's words, "For nothing will be impossible for God" as "the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often," Fred Craddock writes, "not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion for reflecting on its own life, joy, and hope." Really, this little story contains two recurring biblical messages - "Don't be afraid," and "Nothing is impossible with God."

Joy, hope, trust

Joy and hope, and trust: the virtues of Advent, it seems. In this Advent season in particular, we're caught, suspended between fear and hope, on the edge of a new day but facing formidable challenges: war, poverty, persistent economic crises, harm to the earth...so many problems, and many of them mirrored in our own personal lives in broken relationships, ill health, money worries, troubled consciences. Kimberly Bracken Long assures us that even "the state of our warring world or the state of our broken lives," no matter how hopeless things may appear, can be healed. In fact, "it has already happened. Because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the holy continues to break into our lives, to bring us closer to the completion of creation and the already-and-not-yet reign of God." Where is the holy breaking into the life of your church, into the life of your community, into the life of the world? Where is the holy breaking into your own life?

In the midst of war, longing for peace as we do each Christmas, we might reflect on how we define or describe true peace. Does it appear that peace is impossible, whether between nations, spouses, friends, families, or next-door neighbors? Can you "cry peace" this Advent season? Is that our Advent message in the church?

Perhaps Dianne Bergant's reflection brings us most elegantly to the closing edge of Advent, longing toward Christmas and its own promises: "According to ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary's yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we. With Mary's yes, hope is enlivened and history is changed. There is an unimaginable future for all people, a future that comes from God....With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, and with Mary we behold it." So, let it be with us, according to God's will.

The Rev. Kate Matthews Huey serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For a preaching version of this reflection (with book titles), go to http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-21-2014.html.

For Further Reflection

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?"

Anne Lamott, 21st century
"Joy is the best makeup."

Jerry Van Amerongen, 21st century
"I feel like a tiny bird with a big song!"

Taylor Caldwell, 20th century
"I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses."

Rumi, 13th century
"When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy."

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 20th century  
"One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar."

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God." About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You're welcome to use this resource in your congregation's Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of ocal Church Ministri s of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, - 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is - 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

Long-Awaited Gift/Righteousness is Born

Sunday, December 28
First Sunday after Christmas

Focus Theme
Long-Awaited Gift/Righteousness is Born

Weekly Prayer
Ever-faithful God, through prophets and angels you promised to raise up a holy child who would establish a household of peace and justice. Open our hearts to receive your Son, that we may open our doors to welcome all people as sisters and brothers, and establish your household in our time. Amen.

Reign of Christ

Where will we find the followers of Jesus?

Expectant Choices

Risky living and risky giving in the journey of faith

Keeping Faith

Promises and warnings, caution and faith

God-Revealing Life

Can self-esteem and humility co-exist in a God-revealing life?

God's Story, Our Stories

Can we help others experience God?