Weekly Seeds: Be Radiant

Sunday, January 2, 2022
Second Sunday after Christmas Year C

Focus Theme:
Be Radiant

Focus Prayer:
Radiant One, who gathers us from many places, cultures, and traditions, open us to your goodness, nourish us in your abundance, and make us glad in your energizing light. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Jeremiah 31:7–14
7 For thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O LORD, your people,
the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 31:7–14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:(1-9), 10-18

Focus Questions:
1. Where are you from? How does that location define you?
2. Where are your people/family/ancestors from? How does that shape you?
3. What is the story of your journey?
4. Where is God leading you now?
5. What do you need for the next part of your journey?

By Cheryl Lindsay

At the beginning of a new year, many people set resolutions to do something different or to be a different person. These resolutions may include long held goals or new aspirations and dreams. There’s energy and excitement with looking at one’s life and believing that something better is possible for you and in you. Naming a new resolution expresses a commitment in doing the work to make it possible.

Maybe you don’t set resolutions. A lot of people deliberately avoid doing so. Even if there’s a new goal that presses them forward to action, they intentionally do not call it a resolution. Those things don’t work, they say. Common wisdom agrees with them. Personally, I have not set a new year’s resolution in years. I’m not opposed to them, I have a different way of reflecting and setting new intentions. I choose a word of the year and create a vision board. It’s a different way of taking the same journey. It’s my way of reminding myself of what can be, what I’m striving toward, and letting myself dream of a different world and a better me in it.

Jeremiah 31 reads like a divinely-given vision board put to words and a resolution set by the Holy One for a people who may have forgotten how to hope, vision, and dream.

The text is replete with what God will do. It’s situated within the Book of Consolation, a section of the prophecy of Jeremiah that captures words of comfort, encouragement, and promise for a people living in captivity:

God’s connection with the people is at stake. When Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant, he is reviving the old one that seemed to have been destroyed by Babylonian rule. Here Jeremiah does not simply reimpose the old manner of relationship with God, but draws from it to revive and reimagine new life with God. (Kathleen M. O’Connor)

The words that open this chapter assure the children of the covenant that they are still a people–held together not by location, but by relationship to the One who formed them as a people. That One keeps them intact, makes them whole, and delivers them.

I wonder how the people felt upon hearing it. When experiencing grief, words that are meant to comfort often fail at their task. Part of that, I think, is that what one person may have found comfort in themselves does not translate to another person’s experience of loss. It may also be that what is comforting at one point in the process of grieving may not be comforting at all points. When I experienced one of the most excruciating losses of my life, a colleague who had the same type of loss a few months earlier told me, “It doesn’t get better.” It was the worst thing anyone said to me. She meant it, and in the moment, her words felt true in a way that the cliches and platitudes others shared with me did not.

But, a small voice whispered to me that she was basically in the same place in her grief as I was. It was still fresh and new. That voice reminded me that I’d had an equally devastating loss a few years before and that overwhelming grief can subside.

So, I wonder if the people who first heard these words, relatively early in the period of captivity after the fall of Jerusalem, would have scoffed. Would they have been afraid to believe in the promise of God? Would they have nodded their heads in apparent agreement while their souls resigned themselves to a life that would not change for the better?

When I was first reading this passage, it reminded me that this time last year, I was writing about a people in exile and equating that to living in quarantine. With the pandemic raging in a new way with yet a new variant, it’s easy and natural to get discouraged and to lose hope. I hear discussion that suggests that this pandemic life is the new normal…that we will be living with COVID forever even if it becomes more innocuous like the common cold. So many in our communities have become resolved, not to eradicating it, but to living with it. And, maybe that’s what we will need to do.

We have learned to live with so much. We have accepted the status quo and settled for less instead of believing that more is possible. It doesn’t take long for a fatalistic perspective to take hold during times of routine disappointment and even soul crushing despair. Recently, all the major hospital systems in the area in which I live took out a full page ad in the Sunday newspaper. The bulk of the ad contained a large white box with the single word, “Help,” at the center and a fuller plea at the bottom of the page. They have a coordinated social media campaign with the additional messaging. One of the messages says, “We need you to care as much as we do.” This cry for help is directed toward a community with COVID rates exceeding any other time during the pandemic a year after the introduction of a vaccine to treat this virulent disease.

I suspect that we have a belief problem as much as a care problem. Another message says, “This is preventable.” The vast majority of hospitalized persons have not taken the vaccine. There are those who can’t–children under five years old and those with health issues that make the vaccine intolerable. This messaging isn’t for those who can’t, however, it’s for those who won’t. Some believe debunked myths; others don’t believe it will make a difference.

This is only one example of how we, as a society, have learned to give up hope far too easily. There are recycling programs all over the country, yet only a small fraction of those items that can be recycled actually get processed. Human rights and civil rights continue to be endangered because we, as a society, lack the will to do the hard work to make everyone free. We can’t eliminate hunger and poverty in a world in which the richest and even not so rich throw away their excess of resources every day. I remember hearing, as a child, that it was a sin to throw away food because there were children across the world who were hungry. This was expressed in popular culture. We don’t hear about hunger much in our culture, not because we have eradicated it, but because too many of us have given up on the work against it.

I imagine that the original audience of Jeremiah’s prophecy had also reached that point of hopelessness. They had experienced a crushing defeat. Their land, resources, and community were overtaken by a powerful foe without compassion. Their way of life was destroyed, and their nation decimated. How can they hope? What dreams can stand up to this reality? Maybe we have the same questions today. The Holy One has a word to say about all that:

There is the consolation of God’s unfailing providence—God’s faithfulness—the assurance that, whatever the circumstances, God does not lose his grip on his people. If, like Jeremiah, we have ever worried about the condition of our nation’s character, if we have ever feared for the future of a people and a government who play fast and loose with those eternal forces of truth and justice that root in the very mind of God, who construct a politics of lies and deceit, whose political and religious leaders continually make exceptions of themselves in matters of personal morality, then we know something of the consolation of these words about the unfailing providence and purpose of God. (John B. Rogers, Jr.)

Not only is the Holy One faithful but so is God’s vision of beloved community:

Yahweh’s vision brings with it a series of reversals, showing again that, with God, all things are possible. The last and the least will become the first and the greatest. The scattered will be gathered. The lost and enslaved will be found and redeemed. Yahweh will exercise his great power to create a new world. This new world will be grand and glorious, causing Israel to sing and dance and make merry, finally giving God the praise God so richly deserves. (Robert Laha)

Centuries after these words of hope and encouragement were uttered, the people encountered another period of despair. During this time, God had seemed to have gone silent, to have forgotten the people, or turned their back on the children and the promises of the covenant. Another dominating worldly power, in the Roman Empire, held the people bound. Faith, hope, and belief were hard and heavy to carry.

In the midst of all that, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14a) The ultimate reversal was taking place, and it was glorious. The promise of generations was being fulfilled. God’s redeeming hand was at work overcoming the bleak despair of the day. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)

That light shines in us and through us. That light beckons a world to believe that a better world is possible and can also come into being. That light calls us home to our Creator, grounds us in their love, anchors us in their truth, and lifts us up. We too will be gathered and kept. We too shall be redeemed “from hands too strong.” (Jeremiah 31:11b) And, we too “shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion and..be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:12a)

In this new year, resolve to be radiant in the light of Christ. Cast God’s vision of life abundant and full before you. Be radiant with the newness and fullness of life. Be radiant and commit to a better world even if that can only mean a better you in the current world. Be radiant and believe that our mourning can turn to joy, our emptiness can be filled, our brokenness can be made whole, and our disease (and dis-ease) can be healed. Believe in it. Commit to it. Envision it. Become it.

Be radiant.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

For the season of Christmas 2021-2, these passages/pericopes were curated by Rev. Mark Koyama and Harriet Ward:

How do I talk to the flower? Through it I walk to the Infinite. And what is the infinite? It is the silent, small force. It isn’t the outer physical contact. No it isn’t that. The infinite is not confirmed in the visible world. It is not the earthquake, the wind or the fire. It is the still small voice that calls up the fairies. Yet when you look upon God’s beautiful world—there it is. When you look into the heart of a rose there you experience it—but you can’t explain it.

There are certain things, often very little things, like the little peanut, the little piece of clay, the little flower that cause you to look WITHIN—and then it is that you see the soul of things.
–George Washington Carver

For further reflection:
“Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, this it overflows upon the outward world.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne
“I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can’t possess radiance, you can only admire it.” –Elizabeth Taylor
“That though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight. Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower. We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” — William Wordsworth

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.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.

About Weekly Seeds

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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.