Sermon Seeds: Reaffirm, Redeem, Rename
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Reaffirm, Redeem, Rename
by Cheryl Lindsay
Are you the same person that you used to be? We can often consider the ways in which our lives have changed, culture shifts, and the society around us evolves, but do we examine, on a regular basis, how our identities–collective and individual–change, shift and evolve?
The story of the last few chapters of Isaiah is one of hope given and hope received. “The announcement of salvation in chapter 61 is followed in chapter 62 by the announcement of the restoration of Jerusalem.” (Africa Bible Commentary) The people have lived through tremendous disruption and upheaval in their lives. Babylonia exile has taken them from their ancestral home and into a life of being the foreigner. They longed for a return to their home and the familiar. During the generations of exile, they experienced separation not only from their land, but that mirrored a separation from their covenantal relationship with God. That relationship experienced healing and repair as the God of their ancestors extended mercy toward them, and their circumstances changed as they returned to the land of the promise. Roland Paul Cox explains
The crucial point is that God communicated the blessings he desired to bestow upon his people. Hope for healing and restitution were imparted to the audience and the intent of God to give freedom and restoration was clearly received.
Yet, upon their return, they confront the disappointment of unmet expectations and the surprise that not only had they changed, but so had the condition of their homeland. Have you ever received just what you asked for only to find it deeply disappointing? Have you ever held onto the belief that if only you had a better job or made more money or lived in a different community or fill in the blank…things would be so much better? The promise of the different is an enticing allure but so is the promise of a return to sameness.
As I write this, the first vaccinations against COVID-19 are being distributed to health care workers around the United States. For many, it has been an emotional experience to witness what we may hope to be the beginning of the end of this pandemic unfold before us. Public health experts, however, warn us not to conflate a vaccine with a cure and caution us that we will still have to maintain the same safety protocols in order to overcome the pandemic in the coming months. Masking and physical distancing continue to be necessary acts of compassion and self-preservation. Yet, we have a hope born from the astonishing achievement of vaccine development and distribution in such a short period of time.
The returned exiles also had a hope that existed alongside their disappointment, and hope is worth celebrating.
The imagery found in our focus passage this week invites us to the anticipation of a marriage, the symbolic and ritual act that forges a covenant between two people. Throughout scripture, the wedding metaphor helps us understand the relationship between the Holy One and the people of God using a relationship that is already familiar. The prophet focuses on the anticipation of the relationship and the purely celebratory aspect of that. In this passage, we hear references to the bride and her groom getting ready by putting on the garments and accessories that will identify them as the participants in this new joining.
Even the language used in the text echoes the language of vows. “I will greatly rejoice” declares the prophet on behalf of the people. “I will not keep silent” promises the Sovereign God, who “solemnly vows never to rest in Zion’s cause. The [wording used here] does not denote silence per se, but rather refraining from action, inactivity” as Shalom Paul notes. A vow being a solemn and binding promise that transforms commitment into covenant. In this case, the covenant is not newly made but rather reaffirmed. The establishment of the covenants found in scripture rest upon the simple promise that God will be with the people of the covenant. God will be present, God will be at work, God will still be God no matter the change in circumstance or situation. Time after time, there is the exhortation to be strengthened, encouraged, and fortified by the knowledge that God will be with you. God will deliver upon the promises that God has made to the ancestors, but more than that, God will establish God’s shalom, causing “righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.” What has been broken, God will repair. What has been lost, God will restore. What has been held captive, God will release. What has been stolen, God will redeem. “Redemption is closely linked to [God’s] covenant loyalty or steadfast love….The concept of God as kinsman-redeemer has connotations of intimate kinship.” (Peter Lau) In this particular passage, that intimate relationship is presented as resembling the initial stage of a marriage or preparing for the wedding celebration.
Unlike a contractual relationship in which two sides join into an agreement for mutual benefit or advancement that is enforceable by law, the covenant revolves around and is empowered by love–God’s steadfast love–which endures forever. Perhaps that is why the covenants that precede this one and the ones to follow do not become obsolete or nullified. They may be broken, but they are not obliterated. Rather, the Faithful One makes all things, even the covenant, new.
Many years ago, I had a part-time job working at a bridal shop. Every so often, a couple would come in planning a vow renewal service that would take on all the characteristics of a brand new wedding. They had planned a church ceremony and a lavish reception. The attendants were expected to dress in matching outfits, typically chosen by the bride or at least with her veto power. And, the bride would choose her wedding dress with all the accessories. For many, this renewal would take the place of the larger wedding the couple did not have the first time around. Some couples did this a few months after an elopement. Others did this decades later to mark a significant anniversary.
On a few occasions, the couple would plan a vow renewal that was not necessarily as grand in nature and that omitted the attendants and even the reception. Sometimes, it was just for the two people and their officiant. But they still wanted to wear the attire, to adorn the symbols and drape themselves in the apparel of a new marriage. Those were the couples who were often looking to mark a fresh start, who had reconciled after a separation or who may not have been formally divided, but still recognized that what was once broken between them now had a new beginning. It wasn’t new–they were still married, but it had been made new, and they wanted a visible representation of an internal transformation. It was worth celebrating.
The returning exiles were like the person in the couple who had broken faith and were now being given an opportunity to get it right. They, and the relationship, were redeemed through the steadfast, faithful love of God. The covenant of their ancestors has been made anew for their time, and it was time to get ready to live into that promise.
When God is with you and at work, the results manifest. This would not be a private ceremony. “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” the prophet proclaims. It will be visible beyond their borders to friend and to foe. Part of that demonstration includes a new name.
I have lost count of the weddings that I, in some way, helped to plan, but I do remember each one that I have officiated. I think only one actually involved a name change. With each couple, however, I ask the question, are one or both of you changing your name? For some couples, they ask me to help them navigate the options, which include one person changing their name to the other, hyphenating or changing a last name into a middle one, creating a new name that both adopt, or no name change at all. Most of the couples I have interacted with have chosen the latter, including the first couple whose wedding I officiated. When we reached that point in the ceremony of announcing the new couple, I simply presented them as “married.” It was simple and joyful that I have continued that practice.
Names are about identity. The changing of a name reflects an altered status, relationship, or condition. It occurs, at times, when there is a change in citizenry. Think of scores of immigrants to the United States who “Americanized” in an attempt to fit into a new culture or the millions of Africans and their descendants who were stripped of their names as representative of their culture, identity, and personhood in the service of enslavement.
T. David Anderson shares the “social significance of renaming in Israelite culture.” The renaming of a people or their lands could also reflect the occupation of a foreign invader. This would have been particularly significant for the children of Israel. Renaming could also be used to mark and remember an important event in the life of the people. Finally,
Another type of renaming is connected with the establishing or confirmation of a covenant between the Lord and the person renamed. In so far as the covenant between Yahweh and Israel was similar to ancient suzerainty treaties, there may be a link between this and the giving of throne-names mentioned above….The names can thus be seen as a sign and guarantee of the covenant.
Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel. Jerusalem becomes Zion, who is the bride at this royal wedding. Zion is that place that reminds us that God’s promises are kept and that God’s presence is assured. Zion is the place that reaffirms that the kin-dom of God is meant for earth as it is in heaven. Zion reminds the people that they are chosen and loved with a love that is everlasting and will endure from one generation to the next, through pandemic and political acrimony. Zion proclaims that the Creator is not far off but still comes to us.
In this first Sunday after Christmas, Zion calls us to look toward her light as a beacon that cuts through the uncertainty and anxiety of the night as a homing signal. We too have a hope worthy of both our celebration and our participation. Notably, this passage is not a birth narrative. It’s a wedding. The intimate relationship elevated here is not of parent and child, it is of mutual, if unequal partners. God does the work, but has chosen to do it through people. We have a role to play in our own redemption and are called to reaffirm a covenant that is not imposed upon us but that we are invited to enter. The good news is that our (not-silent) Partner is with us, shares our burdens, loves us abundantly and will give us rest. Even as we wait in expectation, that is a hope worth celebrating.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Many congregations have statements that reflect shared values and commitments. These may take the form of mission and vision statements or even membership covenants. The gathered body may be asked to renew their commitment to these statements or to simply reflect upon their meaning and significance within the faith community.
Andersen, T. David. “Renaming and Wedding Imagery in Isaiah 62.” Biblica 67 no. 1, , 1986.
Cox, Roland Paul. “The Realization of Isaiah 61 in Africa.” Conspectus: The Journal of the South African Theological Seminary. Volume 28, September 2019.
Nsiku, Edouard Kitoko.”Isaiah.” Adeyemo, Tukunboh, General Ed. Africa Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Shalom M. Paul. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
10 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.
11 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.
62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
2 The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
3 Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.
6 He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
9 Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”