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.
The Fourth Gospel gives us a very different picture of John the Baptist than what we see in Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John does not give us any of John’s preaching. Initially, we hear only John’s responses to the questions put to him by investigative agents from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. From his answers we learn a lot more about who John is not than about who he is. John is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not any other great prophet foretold in scripture or tradition. “I’m just a voice,” he says. John 1:23.
But when it comes to Jesus, John waxes eloquent. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1:29. For the better part of a century, scholars have been carrying on a lively discussion about what the term “Lamb of God” might mean. I will come to that under my reflections on the gospel lesson. What interests me, though, is the second part of John’s declaration, namely, that this Lamb of God will take away the sin of the world. How is he going to do that?
The Baptist of Matthew and Luke is clear about what it will take to purify the people: The Messiah will have his winnowing fork in hand to “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12. See also Luke 3:17. That is all well and good-except that separating the wheat from the chaff is often a dicey business as Jesus points out in his parable of the wheat and the weeds. Matthew 13:24-30. Sin is like a tumor on the brain stem. It is hard to kill it without killing the patient as well. Nothing illustrates that point better than the narrative of Noah’s Flood found in Genesis. God sends a flood to destroy humankind because “every imagination of the thoughts of [the human heart were] only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. This “flood” was more than a bad rain storm. God broke open the seals preventing the waters under the earth from welling up to swallow the land and broke open the windows of heaven allowing the waters above the earth to come cascading down. Genesis 7:11. The entire infrastructure of creation as described in Genesis 1 was beginning to unravel. But then, in the midst of all this carnage, “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. In the nick of time, God promptly pushes back the destructive waters, closes the windows of heaven and seals up the fountains of the deep. Genesis 8:1-2. In the end, God vows never again to bring such a cataclysmic judgment upon the world. “I will never again curse the ground because of [human beings], for the imagination of [their] heart is evil from [their] youth…” Genesis 8:21. Yet wasn’t it the evil imagination of the human heart that brought on the flood to begin with? As far as human beings are concerned, the flood hasn’t changed anything. Their hearts are just as prone to evil as ever. Dare we say that God’s judgment failed? One thing is clear: God has unilaterally taken the nuclear option off the table. God will not be a bully. God will not resort to violence to rid the world of evil. God knows that seeking to destroy evil by violent means results only in our destruction of the very things we seek to save. Violence turns us into the mirror image of what we most hate. God will not let wrath transform him into our image. Rather, God will employ steadfast love in order to transform us into his own image.
So how will the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world? The answer is almost too simple to believe. John sends his disciples to Jesus and they stay with him. John 1:39. Do not under estimate the importance of “staying” with Jesus. We meet that simple concept again and again throughout the gospel. It is best articulated in the fifteenth chapter of St. John:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:1-9.
To put this as simply as possible, “Sin is taken away when you hang with Jesus.” You are shaped by the company you keep. That takes time. The self-centeredness into which we were born must be broken by faithful habits of worship, prayer, fasting, repentance and forgiveness. Fruit does not appear overnight. It takes years of cultivation, a life time of careful pruning, nurture with preaching of the Word and breaking together the bread of heaven. Sanctification happens almost imperceptibly through lots of long, slow, persistent growth. It requires patience. Perhaps that is why the lectionary folks saw fit to give us one last blast of Advent in the reading from I Corinthians where Paul reminds us that we must “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 1:7.
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 12th. 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.