Weekly Seeds: Recognize, Re-engage, Respond

Sunday, January 3, 2021
Second Sunday After Christmas Year B

Focus Theme:
Recognize, Re-engage, Respond

Focus Prayer:
Gracious God, you have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the first-born of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing, that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Jeremiah 31:7-14
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. What does it mean to be a child of God?
    2. How do you see hope coming in your future, your church, or your community?
    3. How does the spiritual practice of lament foster hope?
    4. Who seems to be left out of our communal/societal hope?
    5. What makes life normal?

By Cheryl Lindsay

What does it look like to see hope coming from a distance? Hope can, at times, be a distant thing that rests on the edge of our vision in the same way that the horizon shows itself as the line between what we can see and what is too distant for our physical eyes to grasp. It divides what is before us and what is yet is to come.

The prophet Jeremiah is largely known for two things–an arresting call narrative and complaints. The book begins with God telling Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” (v. 5a) These words lead to a dialogue between the prophet and the One who called him that concludes with the commissioning of Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (v. 10b) The call of Jeremiah is reflected in his writings, which address the coming of a new foe to the people of Israel.

The Babylonia Empire and the terror of its coming rule, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people of Judah, and the impact of that exile frame the overall structure of the book. As Robert Laha describes,
    The book of Jeremiah is difficult to understand. It is a long and complex mixture of poetry and prose that, historically speaking, seems to follow no particular order. It is both a dismal and hopeful work, displaying a creative imagination almost unparalleled in the whole of scripture. It juxtaposes images of death with images of hope, giving us a variety of voices to translate as we seek to understand its meaning in history and in our present time.
It would seem that the challenge in comprehending Jeremiah is found now only in its peculiar literary structure and lack of chronological flow, but is more rooted in its parallel messages of hope and despair. How do we hold both at the same time? For the prophet, most of the book does not attempt to do this. It embraces despair. If we include the book of Lamentations, we note that his reputation as a complainer arises from valid observations of the words attributed to the prophet. At the same time, the focus text for this week presents a compelling and compassion vision of a hope that is on the way.

The Divine imperative calls for rejoicing. Praise for the impending work of God stands independent from its manifestation. In fact, the text begins with a command sing aloud, which later repeats as a declaration of future response to the promised restoration. The biblical narrative can be seen in its entirety as a pattern of revelation and response. God reveals Godself or God’s purposes and plans, and the people respond. Just as the revelation may take varied forms, the response manifests in different ways.

Throughout the writings of Jeremiah, the prophet laments as a response to the decrees and actions of the Holy One. As Soong-Chan Rah reminds us:
    Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated.
Perhaps the words of assurance expressed to Jeremiah in his call narrative enabled him to lay his heart bare before the Sovereign God. Lament transcends complaint. The prophet engages in more than venting with God out of frustration and despair, although his words certainly reflect that. Lament does not coincide with hopelessness; in fact, it counters it.

The power of lament derives from its trust in God with our whole selves. It believes that the God who created us can bear our disappointments and discontent. Further, it contends that the Great I Am wants to be the one that the people of God turn to with suffering and trial. Lament hopes fiercely and freely believing that the God in whose image we are made also responds to us, to our condition, and to our feelings.

The events of 2020 invite us to lament. The impact of a global pandemic, the rise of white nationalism, and a contentious election in the United States, encourage us to recognize the suffering and struggles we collectively and communally face. The resistance to complying with public health guidelines during this time may arise, in part, from a desire to avoid confronting and contending with the pain of this moment–the isolation and loneliness, the uncertainty, and the many losses. And, the strong urge for a premature return to our church buildings may stem, in part, from the chance to escape from the realities of this new daily life. In this way, our sanctuaries, the primary places of our in-person gatherings, seem safe because we hide the realities of the world beyond those doors or at least we keep them carefully contained.   Rah continues to be helpful:
    The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.
Yet, the biblical text often exhorts us to remember. This passage of Jeremiah 31 alludes to the Exodus and wilderness narratives, reminding the children of the covenant of what God has done for them even as God promises new days to come. This passage also falls within what has been termed “The Book of Consolation.” It is a book within a book and distinguishes itself by a turn from despair to hope. “Set in the middle of the book, it can speak to those people who are still suffering and still attempting to survive in the face of what may seem like hopeless situations.” (Kelly J. Murphy)

Lament does that work. The words of promise derive their power as a result of having confronted the harsh realities of defeat, destruction, and exile. It is too easy to read these words from Jeremiah in isolation and try to cling to an easy hope that dangles untethered to the human condition. Rather, this hope offered here has been forged by relationship with a God who recognizes the suffering of the people, re-engages in progression of the covenant, and responds to the cries of lament from the prophet on behalf of the people. Examining the promise of these verses without situating them contextually allows them to be used as a temporary escape rather than an lasting assurance of covenantal love. Lament does that work.

Lament does not end in complaint. To frame Jeremiah as a whiner is another means of avoiding lament by diminishing and denigrating it. Jeremiah was a truth teller who exposed human emotion to divine response. The name Jeremiah means “God exalts” or “God is exalted.” The practice of lament does both because lament progresses from honest expression of current realities to hopeful declaration of future possibilities. The hope presented in Jeremiah 31, as well as the entire Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-33), garners its power by being fueled through a true and soul-baring lament.

Renita J. Weems makes the case that confronting suffering reflects communal strength and resilience:
    This is literature written to explain how an individual or a people found themselves as part of a catastrophic or traumatic event, and how they managed to survive whole. Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folks are contemporary books that fall in this category. Rather than trivializing their suffering or interpreting it away, the writers face their community’s suffering with courage and in protest.
Lament and hope both demand courage, confrontation, and trust. Both can serve as acts of resistance against injustice and an affirmation of the vision of God’s intended community and creation.

The possibilities presented are breathtaking, inclusive, and joyful reversals of the horrors experienced by the people. Things will be different. Circumstances change. The people and the land with its inhabitants will be restored. John B. Rogers, Jr. states it this way:
    Yet, with Israel little more than a century-old memory on the map of the ancient Near East, and with the judgment of Judah drawing ever nearer on the rising Babylonian tide, here suddenly is a word of hope pointing beyond the tragedy of conquest and exile to a future of healing and homecoming, of security, prosperity, and joy for the people of God. Weeping will give way for singing aloud and shouts of joy. Mourning turns to gladness. Sorrow becomes satisfaction. Hope emerges from despair:
    While there can be little doubt that the book of Jeremiah is primarily concerned with the downfall of Judah and the apparent breaking of the covenant between Yahweh and his people, it is also a book that dares to speak of [God’s] power to create new beginnings. It therefore serves as a stimulus for hope for [God’s] people then and now. (Robert Laha)
Hope that flows from a deep lament does that work. It re-engages both parties to the covenant. God, who initiates the covenant, stirs to compassion for the plight of the suffering experienced and expressed by the people, who are not to keep silent in the face of trauma or to glorify suffering, but to cry out to the God who is able to offer a new chapter in the story and a new beginning.

In recent days, I have seen a meme on social media that reminds us that in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu, the last global pandemic of the magnitude that we experience now that occurred a century ago, followed the roaring twenties. After a time of isolation and austerity came a period of intentional and relentless celebration. I confess that I never made the connection before that the response to that pandemic would be a period of what some have categorized as a period of excess. Seen in this new light, it should not surprise us that their sorrow turned to rejoicing as they received a refresh and restart.

A new beginning does not negate the past; it builds upon it. That beginning chronicled in Jeremiah 31 stands in the line of succession of all the beginnings noted since the very first beginning. The Gospel according to John tells us that the Word–the revelation of God and Godself–was that first beginning, and the Christian faith tells us that Word offered the ultimate new beginning made manifest in the world. That new beginning emerges like the faint light of the sun on the horizon at the break of day in the same way that a coming hope breaks into the shadows of a long night of suffering, trouble, and trauma.

We are reminded that the official beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere is actually when the length of the night begins to recede and the days become longer. While the fiercest winter weather likely remains ahead, the light of the day comes a little bit early and lasts a little bit longer each and every day until we find ourselves encountering the newness of spring. The promise of a new year inspires more than the opening of a new calendar, it reinforces the start of a new rotation around the sun, a new start, a new beginning, a new hope. The continued distribution of more vaccines for COVID-19 provides the potential for another new normal that returns some of what has been lost.

Hope comes into the world upon the light of Christ and the promise of restoration and flourishing. Hope comes into the world wanting to be received to the children of the covenant. Hope comes into the world with the sound of singing and shouts of joy. Hope comes into the world like the dawn of a new day, shining first from a distant horizon while moving ever closer and gathering those who were scattered back–safely and securely–into the Shepherd’s flock.

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.

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.

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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.