SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Our gospel lesson for this coming Sunday follows an episode in which John the Baptist is interviewed aggressively by the religious authorities from Jerusalem. In response to persistent questions about his identity, John tells us a good deal more about who he is not than who he is. But John’s reticence evaporates when he “sees Jesus coming toward him.” Suddenly, John has plenty to say! He speaks at great length about what he has seen. John tells us that he “saw the spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.” He has “seen and borne witness” that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” How odd! How can you “see” the Spirit of God? What does the Spirit look like? How can you tell that the Spirit is “remaining” in any given space? Doesn’t Jesus tell us that the Spirit blows where she wills, that we hear the sound of her but know not where she comes from or where she is going? And what exactly did John the Baptist see to convince him that Jesus is the Lamb of God-whatever that might be? John doesn’t even try to explain himself. He simply points Jesus out to a couple of his disciples and says “Behold!” We don’t know what these two disciples saw in Jesus or understood about John’s witness. But what they saw and heard was enough to convince them to follow Jesus.
We put a lot of stock in our sense of sight. “Seeing is believing,” we are told. But our ability to process what we see is highly overrated. Study after study reveals that numerous factors influence both what we see and how we remember what we see. E.g. Lorenza, Sheena M., Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification, The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, vol. 6 (c. 2003 by Fisher Publications). Our brain does a good job of distorting our sight. When something we see does not fit with our internal narrative about the way things are, our brain “corrects” our vision. That is why proof reading your own work is so difficult. You know what is supposed to be on the page. For that reason, your brain fills in the missing comas, conjunctions and letters you inadvertently omitted from the text. You read right over your mistakes because you see what you know is supposed to be there instead of what is. That goes a long way toward explaining how racial stereotypes persist in spite of ample evidence debunking them, why we find ourselves judging people we have known for only seconds and why there are some people in our lives who take offense at everything we say, never appreciate anything we do for them and never respond to any friendly overtures. Once the mind is made up, the eye seems always to follow suit. Thus, you can have 20/20 vision and still be blind.
We would all like to believe in a world where the truth is crystal clear, where the line between good and evil is stark and plain, where everyone we meet falls into recognizable categories. I suspect that is why the press is one of our most hated institutions among people of nearly all ideological persuasions. A good reporter uncovers facts that expose the errors in our scripts, blur the distinctions we use to make sense out of our chaotic existence and present to us a world that is nuanced, complex and too big to fit into our religious, political, ideological paradigms. Contrary to our modernist creed, we are not rational beings. Neither are we capable of “objectivity.” We believe what we want to believe and the facts (at least the discomforting ones) be damned. Anyone who has ever had the unpleasant task of arguing with a racist (or “white nationalist” as they like to be called these days) knows what I am talking about. As Simon & Garfunkel so aptly put it, “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.” Perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe you can’t see truly until you believe truly.
From the very beginning, John’s gospel provokes us to question everything we think we see and know. In these opening verses from our gospel lesson, John propounds mysteries that will deepen and unfold as his narrative builds. There are “signs” in Jesus’ ministry that are more suggestive than definitive. Every time we think we have a fix on Jesus, he eludes our conceptual grasp and coaxes us deeper into the riddle of his identity. At the conclusion of the gospel, we find the disciples as confused and directionless as ever. Even after witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, receiving the breath of his Spirit and being sent out into the world by him as he was sent by the Father, they still can find nothing better to do with their lives than go fishing. But Jesus will not let them be. He appears one last time, calling them to leave behind the last ties to life as they once knew it and follow him. In the end, there really is no faithful response to Jesus other than to inhale the Spirit he breaths upon us and follow him deeper into the Trinitarian mystery of love between the Father and the Son. In the process, we discover the poverty of our vision, unlearn all that we thought we knew and so begin at last to see with new eyes.
“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud in this darkness. And if thou wilt busily travail as I bid thee, I trust in His mercy that thou shalt come thereto.” The Cloud of Unknowing, (an anonymous 14th Century English monk’s sublime expression of contemplative discipleship).
Here is a poem about the frailty of sight and the power of vision.
My vision isn’t what it used to be.
Time was when I could read signs
A quarter mile up the road.
I could make out the tree line
On mountain ranges, mark
The glacial frontier and the
Divide between ice and ice cold stone
With surgical precision and
Rock solid certainty.
Today, without specs,
I can barely discern the signs
In front of my face and wonder even so
If there is anything on them to be read.
Field and forest, ice and stone
All blend together into one
As life into death and I’ll be damned
If I can tell them apart from where I stand.
I squint at the horizon for signs of contrast,
Shape and defining form
But see only the blur of connectedness as,
It seems, did the great Monet in his declining years.
Yet lacking clarity, perhaps we see the more truly.
Once again the reading in Isaiah is taken from the second section of the book (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. For more specifics, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. This is the second of four “servant songs” in which the prophet sings both of his own calling and struggles and, more widely, of Israel’s calling to be God’s light to the nations. For a more thorough discussion of the “servant songs,” see my post of January 8th. As I noted last week, it is not always easy to discern where the prophet is speaking of himself and where he is speaking of Israel as a whole. For example, the Lord declares, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations.” Vs. 6. It seems likely that the prophet himself is the person addressed since he ministers to Israel. Most commentators seem to follow this view. I believe it is also possible, however, that the word is addressed to the Babylonian exiles whose return and restoration of Jerusalem will rally the “preserved of Israel” and so constitute a light to the nations. Again, these different interpretations are really a matter of emphasis. The prophet’s mission is inextricably bound up with that of Israel to the nations.
The first verse lets us know that the song as a whole is addressed to the nations: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and harken, you peoples from afar.” Vs.. 1. There are three stages of development according to Hebrew scriptural scholar Claus Westermann: 1) the election, call and equipment of the servant; 2) the servant’s despondency as a result of his perceived failure; 3) the servant’s new (or perhaps better understood) task. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66 (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 207. To the nations the prophet declares that he has been called to serve Israel’s God and Israel whose mission is to “glorify” God. Vs 3. Once again, the line between the identity and mission of the servant and that of Israel is necessarily blurry. The prophet/Israel is despondent because his life’s work/Israel’s history seems to have been in vain. Vs. 4. So far from glorifying God, Israel has become a despised refugee minority from a fallen nation.
In verse 5 the mood changes with the words “and now.” Though called to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, such a calling is “to light a thing” for the servant. God declares that the servant will henceforth be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Vs. 6. Verse 7 does not appear to be part of the song set forth in verses 1-6. But it follows naturally from the servant song nonetheless. Though now deeply despised, ruled by foreign powers and oppressed, the day will come when “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Vs. 7. Though perhaps uttered at an earlier time in more vindictive tones, within the present cannon this verse serves to emphasize how the servant’s and Israel’s faithful suffering obedience will finally bring the nations to their knees in adoration of Israel’s just and merciful God.
This and the other servant songs at Isaiah 42:1–9 Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 have been central to New Testament thinking about Jesus and his mission. It bears repeating that the biblical witness to peace and non-violence did not begin with Jesus. Note well how the prophet speaks of his/her call. God has made the prophet “a sharp sword” and a “polished arrow.” Vs. 2. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God’s weapon is God’s word, God’s voice, God’s speech. It is finally through persuasion that God reigns over humanity. Persuasion takes time, patience and a willingness to experience your efforts as “nothing and vanity.” Vs. 4. The way of the prophet foregoes coercion and the use of force. Such faithful suffering witness to God’s reign is, to use St. Paul’s words, foolishness. More precisely, it is the “foolishness of God.” I Corinthians 1:25. Yet this “foolishness of God” is wiser than human wisdom that seeks results, demands progress and resorts to any means to achieve what it views as the right end.
The lectionary folks might arguably have gotten it right in halving this psalm had they ended with verse 10 instead of verse 11. Verses 13-17 of the psalm are found nearly verbatim in Psalm 70. Thus, it appears as though Psalm 40 is a composite of at least two originally separate psalms. Verses 11-12 serve as a bridge linking together verses 1-10 and verses 13-17 into a single coherent prayer. For reasons I despair of ever understanding, the lectionary planners walked halfway across the bridge and stopped short. On the whole, I would have recommended including the entire psalm. It is important to understand that the psalmist uttering the words of praise in our reading is actually encompassed in “evils without number;” that his/her “iniquities have overtaken” him/her; that his/her heart fails him/her. The high praises for God’s past faithfulness and deliverance are thus a preface to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance.
Immature faith naively assumes that trust in God shields the believer from all harm. Growing faith laments, having discovered that covenant life with God sometimes plunges one into the depths of despair. Mature faith recognizes that evidence of God’s faithful intervention and salvation in one’s life stand side by side with indications of God’s absence. Neither praise nor lament can be permitted to exist exclusive of its seeming opposite. At all times both are called for. As Alfred North Whitehead has said, “the fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality-an Essay in Cosmology, (c. 1978 The Free Press) p. 338. This psalm binds both praise and lament together in a mature expression of faith in time of crisis. Though faced with numerous threats and challenges and seeing no obvious way out, the psalmist boldly cries out to God having recited God’s faithfulness to him/her throughout his/her life. I therefore recommend reading Psalm 40 in its entirety.
The reading is from the opening lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. It constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style, beginning with the name of the sender. That is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, the recipient would not know the identity of the sender until s/he had read the entire letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader knows from the start the audience being addressed.
Though clearly the work of St. Paul, the letter is also from Sosthenes “our brother.” He is not mentioned at any other point by Paul. Some scholars suggest that he might be identified with the Sosthenes who, according to Acts 18:17, was chief of the synagogue at Corinth when Paul was arrested there. While possible, there is no textual evidence for this assertion beyond the name which appears to have been a common one. As in his other letters, Paul introduces himself as an Apostle called by God. The body of the letter will demonstrate that some in the Corinthian church had been comparing Paul’s apostleship and teaching authority unfavorably to other church leaders. Paul is laying the groundwork for the defense of his apostleship to be set forth more particularly in I Corinthians 15:3-11.
As usual, Paul begins his letter with an expression of thanksgiving for the church to which he writes. He also expresses confidence that the testimony of Christ has been so confirmed within the Corinthian congregation that it lacks no spiritual gift necessary to sustain it until “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 7. Paul’s confidence is based in God’s faithfulness as indeed it must. For as we discover upon further reading, the faithfulness of the Corinthian church was more than a little shaky.
It is worth noting that Paul routinely gives thanks for his churches-even a church as compromised as the Corinthian church with all of its personality conflicts, doctrinal disputes and moral lapses. In my view, clergy often do entirely too much complaining about their churches and the church at large. True, the church is far from perfect. Yet it is worth remembering that Paul could say even of this dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Note that he does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ;” or “If only you could get your act together you might someday be the Body of Christ.” He says of this church “you are.” That is already enough reason to give thanks.
In this reading John the Baptist, who in previous verses has been reticent about his own identity and mission, now becomes quite vocal and explicit in testifying to Jesus. As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out, John unfolds through the speech of the Baptist a whole Christology. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one and the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel of John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29 (c. Doubleday, 1966) p. 58. The reading opens with what Brown identifies as an “encounter formula” frequently employed in the Book of Revelation substantially related to the Johannine literature. A messenger of God sees a person and says “Look” or “behold” followed by a description in which the seer reveals the mystery of the person’s mission. Ibid. A similar instance of this formula is found later in vss. 35-37. The construction has roots in the Old Testament as well. (See, e.g., I Samuel 9:17).
There has been much discussion over what is meant by the term “Lamb of God.” Many scholars argue that the meaning is grounded in a Jewish understanding of the lamb as a heroic figure who will destroy evil in the world. This meaning fits well with the synoptic depiction of John the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher of judgment and with the imagery employed by John of Patmos in Revelation. It does not fit quite so well, however, with John’s depiction of the Baptist chiefly as a witness to Jesus. Other New Testament scholars believe that John’s testimony was shaped by an understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant depicted in the “servant songs” discussed above. Especially pertinent is the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) in which the prophet states that “[The servant] opened not his mouth, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers.” Isaiah 53:7. This argument assumes that John (the author of the Gospel) made the connection between these prophetic oracles and the story of Jesus. Although specific textual evidence is sparse for such an assertion, many of John’s allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures are intentionally more suggestive than explicit.
Some scholars favor identifying the Lamb of God with the Passover lamb. As Brown points out, the Western Fathers favored this interpretation. Ibid, p. 61. In favor of this interpretation, the Passover lamb is a central symbol in Israelite worship, whereas in the servant songs the lamb is but one isolated image. Passover symbolism is common throughout the Gospel of John. The slaying of the paschal lamb and its protective blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites fits well into the parallel between Jesus’ mission and the Exodus narrative. The problem arises with what follows, namely, that the Lamb of God is to take away the sin of the world. The Passover lamb was not understood as a sin offering and thus the shedding of its blood cannot be construed as making atonement for sin.
I tend favor the apocalyptic interpretation as most consistent with the Johannine tradition over all. Nevertheless, I believe that the suffering servant theme and the Passover tradition are also instructive and very much in the consciousness of the gospel writers. The fact that Jesus was crucified (according to John’s Gospel) the day before Passover at just the time when the Passover lambs would have been slain in preparation for the meal is suggestive. It seems to me that the death of the Passover lamb that shielded Israel from destruction is not so very inconsistent with the death of the servant in Isaiah whose ministry took the shape of suffering. Nor are these understandings inconsistent with the slain Lamb of God in Revelation who nonetheless is the only one mighty enough to open the seals to God’s future. Revelation 5:1-10.
Finally, we have the call of the first disciples. Two disciples of John the Baptist, one of which was Andrew the brother of Peter, follow Jesus in response to John’s testimony. They ask Jesus where he is staying and they wind up going to Jesus’ place of abode and “remaining” with him. Recall that beforehand John reported that he knew Jesus was the Lamb of God because he saw that the Spirit “remained with him.” The Greek word in both cases is the same and seems to indicate that, just as the Spirit remains or abides with Jesus, so Jesus’ disciples abide with him. Through him they will also have access to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus will make that very point later on when he tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Again, the word translated as “abide,” is the same word translated as “remain” in our lesson. Abiding in Jesus seems to be all important. Perhaps that is why John’s gospel ends the way the Synoptics begin: with the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. See John 21:15-22.