Weekly Seeds: Ancient Ruins…Everlasting Covenant

Sunday, December 17, 2023
Third Sunday of Advent Sunday | Year B

Focus Theme:
Ancient Ruins…Everlasting Covenant

Focus Prayer:
God of the Covenant, Tear open the heavens and remind us of your abiding presence among us. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 • Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55 • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 • John 1:6-8, 19-28

Focus Questions:
What is covenant?
How do we participate in the covenant of God?
What needs rebuilding for you, your faith community, and the world?
What tools to you have to participate in the rebuilding?
What hope do you hold for joyful restoration?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

I enjoy history and travel so I subscribe to an email list that shares historical travel destinations. Frequently, the content features sites of ancient ruins like Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island, remains of the Mayan empire in Tikal, Guatemala, and artifacts from the Kingdom of Aksum which prospered for a thousand years in northern Ethiopia concurrent to the reign of the Roman Empire. The structures point to advanced civilizations and invite us to marvel at their staggering architectural and artistic accomplishments. They also spark curiosity. Why did these structures endure? What happened to these ancient cultures that they could no longer sustain, maintain, and repair them?

The focus scripture from Isaiah comes towards the end of what is considered by some scholars to be Third Isaiah. In other words, the timespan and condition of the people during the book unified and labeled simply as Isaiah could be divided into three separate books. We know that the time horizon addressed within the full text spans centuries, and there was not merely one prophet Isaiah speaking truth to power during the entirety of the book. First Isaiah warns the kingdoms of Israel and Judah of the calamities to come; Deutero (Second) Isaiah is situated during the time after the fall of Israel and Judah (in that order) and Babylonian captivity; Trito (Third) Isaiah reflects the return to Jerusalem. (It should be noted that some scholars have also rejected the idea that Second Isaiah should be divided into a third section believing that the same prophet speaks…only his focus and location has shifted.) What remains consistent is the message calling for repentance and remembering while promising repair and restoration.

The promise is being fulfilled; the people return to their homeland. What they discover is a land in ruins. Because of the significant passage of time, those participating in the reunion were the descendants of those exiled from their territory. They do not have direct experience of the former glory or even the initial pain of separation. Rather, they carry memories given to them as gifts and inheritance. They hold an attachment born of hope and expectation nurtured and bequeathed to them by parents, grandparents, and elders who will not have the opportunity to taste and see the lands of their birth.

This is not the first time that children of the covenant have reached the land of promise only to find themselves confronting a major barrier to making it their own. When Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan after the death of Moses after the Exodus, they discovered the promised land already had inhabitants. In the same way, these returning dwellers would find their cities destroyed, their buildings leveled, and their structures demolished.

Why did the Babylonians leave the debris? Why, in all those generations that passed from conquest to liberation, had their enemy not disposed of the evidence of the destruction? Why live among the ruin?

When natural disasters strike, often the first action following identifying and tending to survivors is accessing the physical and structural damage followed by a clean up operation. It’s hard to repair anything when covered by debris. Clean up may involve throwing away unusable items, sorting what may be of service, and clearing paths and spaces for work to begin. The ruins are removed in order to make room for the rebuilding project to come. Even if the next iteration of the space does not resemble the original use, removing ruins is necessary for the next thing to flourish.

Leaving ruins in place may be a sign that no one was left to clean up the mess like the disappearance of the Mayan Empire. Alternatively, the ruins may remain as a testimony to an amazing achievement that cannot be replicated but deserves honor like the temples and pyramids of ancient civilizations who have long passed their life cycle. Another, less noble, possibility is that the ruins remain as a warning and threat from a triumphant adversary that their power has conquered before, remains, and may conquer again. The Babylonians, after all, took possession of the lands. They could have made them their own, and restored the ruins or removed the debris. That they did neither suggests that they wanted the evidence to stand as a witness to their power and might.

Instead, after generations of fragile, wavering, and despairing hope, the ruins greeted the returning people as a testimony accompanying their collective, transferred memory. But these are not destined to remain artifacts of a distant past without beneficiaries to claim it. The children have come home accompanied by a renewed covenant and purpose. Their task is to rebuild.

Given a new status, a new name with new powers, they are able to enter upon new activity. The picture, of course, is of the return from Babylon to face the task of reconstruction; the reality is the new life into which the Anointed One will bring his people (healed, 1de; comforted, 2c; clothed, 3a–g; rooted, 3h–j), bringing with it powers of reconstruction to mend every past breakdown, no matter how long-standing (ancient, generations).
J. Alec Motyer

Brokenness will be made whole. Disrepair will find new use. In reconstruction, old materials are utilized in the remaking of something that exists. They aren’t working with a new blueprint. God’s covenant lives, moves, and breathes in a continuum. These aren’t new terms made in a new place. The people are not resettled into a home that belongs to someone else. Nor will they create replicas of the past. They come back to the place that their ancestors occupied and make it their own as they hear the words of recommitment of God’s covenant. God will be with them in the rebuilding.

The words of the prophet are clear and relevant to their condition. As Shalom M. Paul notes, “God has anointed him to deliver a message of consolation to give hope to the disheartened, to expedite the release of captives, and to console the bereaved since their grief and mourning is about to be transformed into festive joy.” The rebuilding of the people in community takes priority; the land and its structures are secondary. All are included to satisfy God’s proclamation, “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” (v 8)

First, in bringing this world Israel into being, with all its transformed status and joys, {God} acts with the justice he loves. In ‘favour’ as well as in ‘vengeance’, the Lord is impeccably just. His ‘favour’ is not favouritism; it is the justice required by the just nature of his saving work. Secondly, he abides by his own standards: robbery and iniquity is an emendation from ‘I hate robbery in burnt offering’, an expression parallel to their due in faithfulness’. The burnt offering ‘held nothing back’ (Gen. 22:16), and anything less was robbing the Lord of his due. The Lord recalls this as he pledges that he will live up to his own standards: in his faithfulness he will hold nothing back when he ‘gives his people their due’…. his everlasting covenant with them, rather ‘for them’, to their advantage.
J. Alec Motyer

Sometimes, God’s favor is considered in terms of pitting one group against another as more beloved by the Holy One. Other times, we assume it’s earned by actions, attitudes, and allegiances. Both perspectives center the human condition and assert that God’s acts are divine responses to human initiative. Isaiah reminds us that humanity and all creation are responders to God’s initiative for God’s own namesake. God does because God is, and we are invited to participate as co-laborers and beneficiaries.

As the passage concludes, “The prophet describes Jerusalem’s salvation in agricultural terms, as springing forth from the earth.” (Shalom M. Paul) The turn to garden imagery would seem jarring or even out of place if the biblical narrative did not consistently turn to a garden. After the broad strokes of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, we turn to the garden in Genesis 2. Many more centuries after the events of Isaiah, another prophet by the name of Jesus would quote the opening words of this passage as he declared his public ministry after returning to his hometown. Later, his life would culminate in the garden of his humiliation followed by the garden of his resurrection. Lastly, the biblical narrative ends in Revelation with the re-creation of God’s beloved community anchored in a garden.

We live in a time when God’s beloved, which includes all humanity, are exiled and their homes destroyed. News reports do not even capture the violence, injustice, and ruin humanity visits on one another in every corner of the world. Hope, peace, joy, and love seem like unattainable goals at best and meaningless platitudes at worst.

One might imagine that those returning from exile might have looked at the debris before them and felt hopeless and overwhelmed by the enormity of the rebuilding project. Perhaps, they felt inadequate, ill-prepared, and even resistant as they faced the work ahead of them. Some may have turned away or even longed to return to the seeming simplicity of exilic life. A shoot emerging from the earth, by comparison to their task, seems effortless…until you realize all that was necessary for that to take place. For life to grow, a seed has to fall on fertile ground and be watered. It has to crack open for the life within to come out, and it has to be nourished, sustained, and protected from predators during the slow process of growth. Even what’s natural doesn’t come easily. Nevertheless, it happens in immeasurable instances because Creator crafted a plan for it.

And the Holy One has a plan for the children of the covenant to be made whole, to be restored, and to be repairers of the ancient ruins.

May it be so.

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.
In the ears of the world, Abraham Lincoln on the first of January, 1863, declared four million slaves “thenceforward and forever free.” The truth was less than this. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the slaves of those states or parts of states still in rebellion against the United States government. Hundreds of thousands of such slaves were already free by their own action and that of the invading armies, and in their cases, Lincoln’s proclamation only added possible legal sanction to an accomplished fact.
To the majority of slaves still within the Confederate lines, the proclamation would apply only if they followed the fugitives. And this Abraham Lincoln determined to induce them to do, and thus to break the back of the rebellion by depriving the South of its principal labor force.
Emancipation had thus two ulterior objects. It was designed to make easier the replacement of unwilling Northern white soldiers with black soldiers; and it sought to put behind the war a new push toward Northern victory by the mighty impact of a great moral ideal, both in the North and in Europe.
This national right-about-face had been gradually and carefully accomplished only by the consummate tact of a leader of men who went no faster than his nation marched but just as fast; and also by the unwearying will of the Abolitionists, who forced the nation onward.
W. E. B. DuBois

For Further Reflection
“Maybe there’s something instinctive in us, that we’re drawn to human habitation and can’t resist a ruin, the way newborn babies respond to a crude drawing of a face. These are the rarities in human history, the places from which we’ve retreated. These once-inhabited places play a different air to the uninhabited; they suggest the lost past, the lost Eden, not the Utopia to come.” ― Kathleen Jamie
“The stones here speak to me, and I know their mute language. Also, they seem deeply to feel what I think. So a broken column of the old Roman times, an old tower of Lombardy, a weather-beaten Gothic piece of a pillar understands me well. But I am a ruin myself, wandering among ruins.” ― Heinrich Heine
“There’s no such thing as ruining your life. Life’s a pretty resilient thing, it turns out.” ― Sophie Kinsella

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, 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 below this post 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.