The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 19 January 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
I Corinthans 1:1-9
St. John 1:29-42

Crosier from the Louvre, Paris

Background: The Lamb of God

This title, which is introduced in Christian literature in the Gospel of John (the Gospel reading for this Sunday) has links to the Hebrew Scriptures in its affinity to the Paschal Lamb described in Exodus 12.  What John and other writers do is to connect the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to the Paschal lamb, offered at the Passover, a type of the offering of Jesus.  The Lamb of God also appears in the Book of Revelation (5:1-7, 21:14), and in I Corinthians, where the author refers directly to the Hebrew tradition of the Paschal Lamb.  Most liturgical Christians will recognize this image in the hymn that is sung during the Great Thanksgiving, following the Fraction, The Agnus Dei.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!

The LORD called me before I was born,

while I was in my mother's womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow,

in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, "You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
But I said, "I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the LORD
and my reward with my God."
And now the LORD says,

who formed me in the womb to be his servant,

to bring Jacob back to him,

and that Israel might be gathered to him,

for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,

and my God has become my strength--
he says,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
"Thus says the LORD,

the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,

to one deeply despised,
abhorred by the nations,

the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up,

princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

Chagall, Call of the Prophet Isaiah
We are on the cusp of things here.  Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia from 559 – 530 BCE, and who would free the exiled people of Judah, is just coming on the scene and in the hopes of the prophet.  The over-arching question is the fate of Jerusalem.  Who will return to her?  Who will restore her glory?  What will her role be?  In the initial verses, which are a call to the prophet, we see a resemblance to Jeremiah’s call (Jeremiah 1:4-10).  Again the prophet is seen as a part of God’s designed anticipated in the womb of the prophet’s mother.  Just like Jeremiah, and Moses for that matter, the prophet objects, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength.”  God will have none of it.  Indeed God expands the expectation and role of the prophet – It is too little, (God) says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” We are left wondering, as we do when reading the other Songs of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4, 50:4-9 and 53), who is the servant?  Is it the prophet?  Is it the nation, or is it both?  What is more important here is the exact nature of the audience, for it is no longer just Israel, but rather – “Kings shall see…princes.”  The prophet inserts a note of incipient universalism here, for the very nature and scope of the religion of Israel has changed.  Like Jerusalem, however, both Israel and the servant need to be restored and made ready for such a mission.  In that respect, the city of Jerusalem becomes and image and symbol of both their condition and their destiny.  Having survived, God gives them as “a light to the nations.”  Simeon must have been a student of this Isaiah.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. When hearing the call to mission either from the Scriptures, or from the pulpit, do you hear a personal call?
  2. In what ways are you the Lord’s servant?
  3. How does God support you in that task?

Psalm 40:1-12 Expectans, expectavi

I waited patiently upon the LORD; *
he stooped to me and heard my cry.

He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; *
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.

He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God; *
many shall see, and stand in awe,
and put their trust in the LORD.

Happy are they who trust in the LORD! *
they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods.

Great things are they that you have done, O LORD my God!
how great your wonders and your plans for us! *
there is none who can be compared with you.

Oh, that I could make them known and tell them! *
but they are more than I can count.

In sacrifice and offering you take no pleasure *
(you have given me ears to hear you);

Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required, *
and so I said, "Behold, I come.

In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: *
'I love to do your will, O my God;
your law is deep in my heart."'

I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; *
behold, I did not restrain my lips;
and that, O LORD, you know.

Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance;*
I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation.

You are the LORD;
do not withhold your compassion from me;*
let your love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever.

This psalm has several aspects, both of thanksgiving and of supplication.  The initial verses, our reading for this day, encompasses the thanksgiving section.  In these verses we see the psalmist in the guise of a prophet.  Indeed, the first verses (1-3) seem to replicate, at least in tone, the call of both Jeremiah, and the latter Isaiah (see the first reading, above).  God rescues this nascent prophet from “the roiling pit” (Alter) or, in our translation, “the desolate pit – out of mire and clay.”  This is both call and creation language.  This new human is then set up to observe God’s victory in creation and to receive a new word to communicate to humankind.  The creation words recall the ordering of chaos, along with other reminiscences of the ancient creation stories.  What our translation supplies as “evil spirits and false gods” Robert Alter translates as “the sea monster gods and to false idols.”  The scope seems to be both wider and more particular using understanding of the Hebrew.

So what is the message “the scroll of the book”, that God intends for this new prophet?  First, things are put into a perspective of importance.  Sacrifices and offerings are not of primary importance.  In fact, the psalmist/prophet declares, “you desire them not.”  The same holds true for burnt offerings and sin offerings.  What follows is written deeply in the heart of the psalmist/prophet (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). The words that follow proclaim the new agenda that YHWH has in mind: justice, faithfulness, righteousness, compassion, and deliverance.  Such is the good news for which the psalm gives thanks.

Breaking open Psalm 40:
  1. How is God’s call to you written on your heart?
  2. What does it say to you?
  3. What does God want of you?
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thus we are introduced to the initial letter to the Corinthians, as Paul introduces himself to his readers, along with a co-worker, Sosthenes (Acts 18:17?)  Paul does not enter the situation as an interloper but rather as one “called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.”  He is quick to observe their status in Christ, as sanctified and called to be saints.  What follows then is a thanksgiving for what has gone on before, namely that they have heard the Gospel of Jesus and have been enriched by it.  They have received spiritual gifts, and they are patiently awaiting the coming again.  So Paul sets the stage for this on-going conversation with the congregation at Corinth.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians with bravado.  What gives him such courage?
  2. What attributes does he share with his readers?
  3. For what does Paul give thanks?

St. John 1:29-42

John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).

Grünewald - Isenheim Altarpiece - The Crucifixion
The fulcrum of these two paragraphs is the notion of the Lamb of God (see Background above).  Its connections with the Hebrew canon and especially the Torah give us a thematic background in which to place John’s exclamations.  It is not so much sacrifice, although those elements are there, that inform the identification of the lamb with Jesus.  It is the elements of freedom and liberation that are part and parcel of the traditions surrounding the Paschal Lamb.  These two paragraphs emphasize what the reaction might be, having experienced freedom in Jesus.  The first is John’s reference to the baptism of Jesus, where not only Jesus, but the Baptist also perceives the anointing by the Spirit.  Such an emphasis continues for us as a liturgical remembrance of last Sunday’s celebrations at the Baptism of Our Lord.  The issue is to be pressed on – how do we, the baptized, embody the Spirit, who has anointed us as well.

The second emphasis is that of the attraction of the Lamb, the temptation (if you will) to follow Jesus.  It is not just anyone that follows Jesus in John’s Gospel but Andrew, and then the first of the apostles, Simon.  John wants us to notice this.  We however should be astonished (to use a great Lucan verb) by the question that Jesus asks of them, when they seek to follow him.  It is a question that should give us pause as well.  “What are you looking for?”  As we begin in earnest to follow Jesus in his ministry during this Ordinary Time, it is an important question that we need to ask of ourselves as well.  What is it that we are really seeking here?  Jesus response, “Come and see” should also pull us into this season rehearsal of Jesus’ ministry and our response to it.  What would people see if we invited them into our prayer life, our study of the Scriptures, our sacramental life?  As Jesus indicated in his identification and knowledge of Peter, so this same Jesus knows us as well.  Will we still follow?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you recognize in Jesus?
  2. What attracts you to Jesus’ teaching?
  3. What are you looking for in Jesus?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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