Weekly Seeds: Reaffirm, Redeem, Rename

Sunday, December 27, 2020
First Sunday After Christmas Year B

Focus Theme:
Reaffirm, Redeem, Rename

Focus Prayer:
Light of life, you came in flesh, born into human pain and joy, and gave us power to be your children. Grant us faith, O Christ, to see your presence among us, so that all creation may sing new songs of gladness and walk in the way of peace. Amen

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 61:10–62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4–7
Luke 2:22–40

Focus Questions:
     1. Think of a treasured celebration you remember. What made it special?
     2. What brings you hope?
     3. What are new ways of celebrating that you have developed during pandemic?
     4. How do you cultivate hope/manage expectations in the face of disappointment?
     5. What are you hoping for in 2021?

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 final Sunday of Advent, 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.

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

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (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.

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