Weekly Seeds: Coming through Captivity

Sunday, February 7, 2021
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Focus Theme:
Coming through Captivity

Focus Prayer:
O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and cloth, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 40:21–31
21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? 
Has it not been told you from the beginning? 
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, 
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; 
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, 
and spreads them like a tent to live in; 
23 who brings princes to naught, 
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, 
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, 
when he blows upon them, and they wither, 
and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 
25 To whom then will you compare me, 
or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: 
Who created these? 
He who brings out their host and numbers them, 
calling them all by name; 
because he is great in strength, 
mighty in power, 
not one is missing. 
27 Why do you say, O Jacob, 
and speak, O Israel, 
“My way is hidden from the Lord, 
and my right is disregarded by my God”? 
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? 
The Lord is the everlasting God, 
the Creator of the ends of the earth. 
He does not faint or grow weary; 
his understanding is unsearchable. 
29 He gives power to the faint, 
and strengthens the powerless. 
30 Even youths will faint and be weary, 
and the young will fall exhausted; 
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, 
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, 
they shall run and not be weary, 
they shall walk and not faint. 
All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 40:21–31
Psalm 147:1–11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16–23
Mark 1:29–39

Focus Questions:

  1. Why do we forget/lose sight of the power of God?
  2. Who can we cultivate our spiritual memory?
  3. Who needs to be reminded/re-introduced to the God who renews?
  4. What is your hope for renewal?
  5. How would you introduce God to someone based on your testimony?

By Cheryl Lindsay

In presenting a speaker before an audience, there is a common phrase, “Let me introduce to some and present to others…” This form of introduction acknowledges that the audience has differing layers of familiarity with the featured speaker. Some may meet them for the first time, while others may have a history and familiar acquaintance with the person in question. In the passage from the book of Isaiah, the prophet assumes that the audience he addresses should know who he is talking about. His words are meant to reveal new truths. Rather, they serve as a reminder of what appear to be the forgotten characteristics of a God who seems distant from the audience. Isaiah comes to proclaim a word of encouragement with an underlining admonishment not to forget what they already know.

Given the circumstances of the people, they needed the reminder. They had cause for concern and reason to doubt. The “Book of Consolation,” as the second part of Isaiah has been named, provides a counter message and source of encouragement that circumstances can and will change. The repetition of rhetorical questions draws attention to their forgotten memory and helps reframe the thinking of the people:
The intent is not to demand answers of the audience but to assert the obvious. No one can be compared to YHWH. YHWH is incomparable. The author takes an argumentative or polemical tone. The defensive aspect of the polemic is because the other side of the issue is all too obvious to the audience. They have good reason to doubt. (Chris Franke)
It’s hard to hope beyond our lived experiences. For the Israelites, their captivity was ending and they would be restored in their ancestral and promised home. They were going home, to a place of comfort and increased freedom. The Assyrians did not have the Babylonia penchant for exiling conquered foes. A new day dawned before them, but hope does not come easily. They need encouragement for the transition and the new reality they face. And, with so many transitions, the moment will not likely meet their expectations. Their memories of home were pre-captivity and the reign of Babylon over their lives. That world was destroyed, and while much may be restored, the conditions of the past give way to the reality of the present and the impact of the experience that occurred in-between. They needed encouragement that they would be restored, but they would also need encouragement to withstand the pains of restoration.

When I served as an associate at Mt. Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland, we had a capital project restoring the old mansion connected to our Sanctuary. During the months of restoration, everything we used that building for was displaced. We used storage rooms for offices and moved some meetings off-campus. There was dust and debris that tracked beyond the boundaries of the renovation space into the narthex, social hall, and even the Sanctuary. I won’t include all the details, but suffice it to say, it was a challenging time for those of us who were there day by day.

But, once or twice a week, I would sneak up the back steps into the areas that were being renovated. I would see the supplies that were assembled–new drywall, paint, and eventually decorative items. I would see some walls come down and others go up. I could even smell the progression of the work. Each quiet foray into the space under development would raise my excitement about the end result and reinforce that an end was coming when I was in my storage room that was crowded, cramped, and always a little bit cold. Hope came easy because it was unfolding before my eyes.

But how do we hope for what we’ve never known? How can we hope for what we cannot envision?

Years earlier, I had a different experience with a construction project. One day, I walked home from school and the front porch of my house was gone, with the remnants of the debris littering the yard. The friend that I walked with turned to me in astonishment and horror, and asked, “Cheryl, what happened?” Stunned, I said, “I don’t know,” and I hurried inside. I entered the house and my mother was doing some routine thing, as if all is normal and well and the front of our home wasn’t missing. “What happened to the porch?” I asked. “Oh, we’re getting a new enclosed porch.” It would have been nice if someone thought to tell me. It’s a funny story now, and I laughed about it even that same day, but for a few minutes, I lived in fear.

The people in captivity lived their whole lives in the shadow of fear. How do you foster hope in a people who have lived in hopelessness?

How might my experience of that later renovation been different if I hadn’t had the memory of that front porch being rebuilt? If I didn’t know that what was torn down could take on new shape? If I couldn’t testify that you can lose what you treasure (I loved that porch) in order to make room for something that will be even better?

That porch project only took a few days; the mansion renovation lasted for months. Babylonian captivity extended over generations. Like so many Old Testament epic narratives and historic stories of oppressed, marginalized, and suffering people, the generation that sees the end wasn’t present for the beginning. Hope has to be passed on as a precious heirloom, an inheritance to be preserved for those names we will not know and faces we will never see. As J. Severino Croatto writes, in connecting the words of Isaiah to the political, economic, and social upheaval in Argentina:
Hope for Christian people is in the word of God, which does not substitute for human initiative but supports and strengthens it. The prophet we call “Second Isaiah” addressed a gloomy and distressed community. What did he proclaim to the captives?
What do we proclaim today in a world with so much gloom and distress? Issues with vaccine supply and distribution continue. Political divisions that did not begin with the ascendancy of one administration were not erased by its departure. Economic insecurity and the emotional toll of living in pandemic continue to weigh heavily upon us. The end is nearer than it used to be, but it’s projected arrival is unclear.

The people Isaiah addressed were like weary travelers who had booked a flight long ago only to find its departure perennially delayed. They are now being asked to get ready for boarding and need assurance that reason for hope has arrived. As Chris Franke notes:
Isaiah 40-66 is filled with a variety of images demonstrating [God’s] power and will to save. The long poem in 40:12-31 is the first of many such demonstrations. The prominent image of God in these verses is of a powerful, all-knowing, everlasting Creator.
The prophet describes God’s involvement, participation, and sovereignty in all humanity. God’s presence encases and encircles all creation. Again, the use of repeated Rhetorical questions is significant. They invite the hearers of the prophet’s words to consider who God is and what God has and will do in the lives of God’s people. Their God is not distant, indifferent, and uninvolved, but they need to be reminded of that truth. While they are coming through their time of captivity, there will be hard work to do. They will need a hope that will not only get them through until they reach their homeland; they will need a hope that will see them through the rebuilding of what has been lost and the reconstruction of a life and a community in a home that will, in many ways, be as foreign to them as their place of exile had been familiar.

In order to accomplish that plan, they will need to draw from a communal memory that has been transmitted to them from their ancestors and a vision for the future supplied through the prophet. They haven’t gotten there yet, these words before us serve as an announcement that the Architect has been engaged. This project is part of a cosmic design that has been carefully crafted by the Creator, who is still on the job. Now, the people have to ready themselves for their role in the construction of their new world.

Most of this passage focuses on the power of God, the manifestation of God, and the active presence of God. The last few lines turn attention to the condition of the people. The earlier assurance reminds them of the majesty of God relative to their existence. The closing remarks assure them on the one hand that it is normal to be affected by the conditions surrounding them. It’s not unusual to have to be reminded of what they should already know. After all, even the youthful and strong grow weary and weak at some point. But, on the other hand, they have a choice–a better option available to them.

They can choose to hope. The New Revised Standard Version begins verse 31 with the words “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” Other translations use “trust” rather than wait. Still others, interpret that word as “hope.” All three verbs could be considered as passive activities even if they are utilized grammatically in the active voice. We think of waiting as doing nothing until something changes that frees us to real action. Trust can be seen as a naive posture that looks for a hero to come in and save the day. Hope holds little more substance than a wish made when tossing a coin into a fountain of water or looking up at a star. Certainly, we can choose to view these terms in insignificant ways.

Or, we can choose to wait, to trust, and to hope. In these words of Isaiah, the prophet redeems the time that seems to have been lost, squandered, stolen, or wasted. Remember, that the pause between chapter 39 and chapter 40 of Isaiah was longer than a line in a book. Years passed with no prophetic word of encouragement or assurance of presence. The prophet says to the people, the time in exile has not been wasted. It was renewing the people for what was to come. The seeming dormancy was in fact a time to recharge and get their strength back. Going full throttle will exhaust even the young and strong, but if we embrace the wait with trust and in hope, then we can be made stronger. The people had to be restored before they could return home to their next building project.

In this time of exile at home, we too are given the opportunity to embrace that type of wait. Rather than fill every minute with the same meetings we had in person before COVID, or worse, exponentially increase what we do because of the seeming convenience of virtual gatherings, we should learn how to wait. Not to be patient or passive, but to take advantage of the opportunity that some of us have been given, if we will receive it, to slow down and to pause for the purpose of remembering, renewing, strengthening, rebuilding.

For further reflection:
“Searching my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea.”
–Edna St. Vincent Millay

Undoubtedly, our weariness is not based on the fact that we’re running. Rather, our weariness is all too frequently based on the fact that many of the things that we’re running from are the very things we should be running to.
–Craig D. Lounsbrough

Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.
–Shannon L. Alder

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
–Maya Angelou

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

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

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. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.