Lectionary Commentaries for January 19, 2020
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:29-42

Sherri Brown

The bridge from the prologue to the action of John’s Gospel is manifested in the human witness sent from God named John.

John the Baptist, introduced so strongly as the human witness sent from God (1:6-9, 15), opens the narrative as the first character in the story with dialogical force; that is, he is the first human character to speak, and in his initial dialogue he takes control and begins to teach the how of the good news.[1]

Since the narrator has placed the audience’s trust in John, this character, upon launching the story, becomes the one character who witnesses accurately to the Word made flesh, just as he was sent to do. He may not know everything about Jesus’ mission, but to what he does testify is true, thereby providing audiences the grounds to form decisions about the characters in the narrative, and about their own believing in the Word. Ultimately, John points two disciples to “the Lamb of God,” and the spotlight of the narrative follows his verbal index finger to land upon Jesus, where it will shine from then on. For his part, Jesus takes the (likewise verbal) baton of control of the dialogical testimony and (to push a metaphor to its limit) runs with it!

John 1:19-51 occurs over four consecutive days. During the first two days and the beginning of the third day, John gives his testimony; the detail of which parallels the pattern set forth in verses 6-8. On day one John declares he is not the light (verses 19-28), on day two he witnesses positively to the light (verses 29-34), and on day three people begin to believe through him (verses 35-36). As the day progresses, the two disciples John points on are welcomed by Jesus and bring Simon Peter in (verses 35-42). In their excitement, they all address Jesus with a variety of titles. As day four commences, Philip and Nathanael join the group (verses 43-51). They continue to heap praise upon Jesus by using titles of honor, and yet they remain within well-known categories of authority. These opening days culminate as Jesus responds to Nathanael with his first major teaching through which he cautions against a cheap faith based in being “wowed” (verse 50), then identifies the title which designates his ministry: the Son of Man (verse 51). 

The beginning of the body of John’s Gospel is thus delineated by temporal markers that push the story forward through a flurry of activity (verses 29, 35, 43; then John 2:1: “on the third day”). This structuring is often interpreted as the week of a new creation, which could very well be part of the evangelist’s plan, especially with the imagery from Genesis apparent across both the prologue and these first days (John 1:1-5). A primary motif of these early verses that plays throughout this gospel, however, is also revelation. Jesus, the incarnate Word, Christ, and Son of God makes God known (literally “exegetes” God; 1:18). He then gradually begins to reveal himself across these early days, culminating in the initial revelation of his glory at Cana that sparks believing for his disciples (2:1-12, esp. verse 11). Covenantal imagery is also introduced in the prologue and manifests across these early days (see esp. 1:12-18) that seems to coalesce with revelation. So, what is going on here?

If a cue is taken from Exodus 19:15-16, then the first four days plus the three-day narrative gap does not only point to creation but also directly references the revelation of God on Mt. Sinai that climaxes in God’s covenant with Israel. The Mekilta on Exodus is a work from later Jewish Rabbis that presents explicit instructions on how the people are to spend four days preparing prior to the three days of preparation for the ancient celebration of the festival of Pentecost, the commemoration of the gift of the Torah and the covenant-making event at Sinai. The first three days show John the Baptist living out everything claimed about him in the prologue; he thus accurately portrays his own role and points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. The gathering disciples then begin to heap titles onto Jesus, but none go far enough—they all remain in the religious and political categories within which the disciples are comfortable. Jesus constantly shatters comfortable categories and the titles that go with them. Thus, at the end of day four, Jesus rebuffs Nathanael and prepares them all for the revelatory process to come in terms of his own role as the Son of Man (verse 51) who reveals God’s glory in himself (John 2:1-12) in the same way that God revealed his glory through the Torah (the word of God) in the Sinai covenant (Exodus 19-20).

The tension sparked by the word of Jesus creates dramatic interactions through dialogue that actively moves his story forward toward its fulfillment on the cross that glorifies both God and the Son and produces a new community of God’s children who have received the Word. Just as the festival of Pentecost celebrates the revelation of God in the Sinai covenant, now Jesus, Christ and Son of God as the Son of Man, reveals God to all he encounters. He shares in the divinity of God, yet he has taken on the human condition completely: Jesus is the uniquely begotten Son of God who fulfills God’s earlier gift of the Law to Moses through the new gift of himself in truth. He is the Lamb of God who heals the broken, sinful relationship between God and humankind (thereby completing the role of the Torah), and the Son of Man who reveals God in the human story by challenging disciples and audiences of all time to “come and see” (John 1:39).


  1. That said, John is not referred to as “the Baptist” in this Gospel, as his role is to be “the witness” who testifies to God’s action in and through Jesus (1:6-9, 15).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7

Juliana Claassens

Soren Kierkegaard famously has said: “The door to happiness opens outward.”1

Something of this life in service of others is evident in our lectionary text for today that forms part of what traditionally has been called the Servant Songs. Together with Isaiah 42:1-7, Isaiah 50:4-9, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Isaiah 49:1-7 speaks of the Servant of God who is called to be a light to the nations; a source of salvation (Isaiah 49:6) to bring justice to those who are entrapped in situations of oppression: the poor, the needy, the imprisoned (Isaiah 42:6-7).

For a long time, the interpretation of this text was focused on the identity of the servant. Early New Testament writers drew a connection to Jesus of Nazareth who emerged as the ultimate Suffering Servant (see also Isaiah 53:3-5) who through his sacrifice on the cross bring healing and salvation for all. However, there are multiple interpretative layers associated with this text.

The Servant of God probably also could, and should, be understood as referring both to a faithful individual who is called to bring about healing and liberation for those in need, as well as to the people of Judah who as covenant community at this pivotal moment in time are recreated (reborn as in Isaiah 42:13-14; 45:9-10) in order to fulfill God’s original intention for them to be a “blessing to all the nations to ends of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Ambiguity of the identity of the servant is evident in the language of the poem itself. God clearly addresses the speaker in verse 3 as “My servant, Israel.” And in verse 6 the Servant is called to restore “the survivors of Israel” and once again “raise up the tribes of Jacob.”

Whether directed at an individual human agent who is called to a life of service, or at the fragmented exilic community who is given a newfound goal in life to care for others near and far, this call to service is not to be taken for granted. These words of Deutero-Isaiah were directed at a people who have been scattered to the ends of the earth themselves. They have been greatly traumatized by the unbridled display of imperial power when the mighty Babylonian army destroyed their homes and holy place, and forcefully removed thousands of people from their city, taking them into chains to Babylon.

This text assumes the reality of the exiles being displaced and scattered in the diaspora, and provides them with a new purpose in life, looking beyond their own self-interest and seeing their role as being of service to the many foreigners whom crossed their paths on a daily basis.

Central to this text, is the notion of God’s presence as profoundly transformative in nature. The speaker feels greatly disillusioned about the effectiveness of his mission thus far. In verse 4, he proclaims: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” And in verse 7, the speaker and the people as a whole are described as “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers.” Nevertheless, this text does its best to remind the reader that it is God’s presence from before the Servant even was born that ought to be seen as the source of his strength.

God is intimately involved in the life of the servant, having artistically formed the servant in the womb (verse 4, See also Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:13). God has called the Servant by name while in his mother’s womb (verse 1), together with the final words of this pericope, emphasize that this Servant is indeed chosen by God for this very special life of service. It is God’s presence that will enable the servant to do great things. In verse 2, God alternatively will cause the servant to speak with strength and eloquence (a “strong sword” and a “polished arrow”) as well as hide him away from any harm. Through the deeds and words of the servant, God’s name will be glorified (verse 3).

This text offers some important perspectives for many individuals and communities who may be experiencing hardship today. It is so easy in contexts of trauma to become overly obsessed with one’s own struggle for survival. Such an inward-looking mentality that may be coupled with a circling-the-wagons approach focuses just on me, my family, my people at the cost of the other. An extreme manifestation may even resort to scapegoating the other in order to solidify social boundaries.

However, it is a powerful perspective to not be threatened by one’s own experience of vulnerability, but rather to find ways in order to be a source of comfort and consolation to others who might be in an equally precarious situation. This means truly recognizing others as equals who are in need of care and comfort, standing with those who are hurting, and breaking the chains of those who are imprisoned by those forces and powers that impinge on people’s basic human rights.

Thousands of years after the original words of this Servant Song were spoken, God continues to call people to service, called to be leaders in church and society. The layered nature of the identity of the Servant in this week’s lectionary text, though, suggests that a life of service extends beyond just those who are working in official (ordained) roles in religious communities.

What a difference would this outward-looking mentality make when everyone, regardless of our own trials and tribulations, seeks opportunities to serve one another, to open up the doors of happiness by taking care of the many others with whom we share the world?


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 15, 2017.


Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11

Jerome Creach

The lectionary selection from Psalm 40 includes ten verses that express thanksgiving (verses 1-10) and one verse of petition for help (verse 11).1

The shift from thanks to plea represents a major problem of interpretation in this psalm. In Psalm 40:1-10 the psalmist recounts being delivered from trouble, established securely, and given reason to praise the Lord. Scholars typically classify this first portion of the psalm as a song of thanksgiving.2

Verses 12-17, however, have all the characteristics of an individual lament. This leads many to conclude Psalm 40 consists of two originally distinct psalms. Adding to this perception is the fact that Psalm 40:13–17 appears again in the Psalter as Psalm 70. Thus, it seems logical to conclude the psalmist borrowed Psalm 70 to form the present ending of Psalm 40 with verses 11-12 linking the two sections.

Whatever the history of Psalm 40’s composition, it makes sense to treat the psalm as a unity and verses 1-11 make sense as a lectionary selection. The subject of verse 11 is the Lord’s steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (aman) for which the psalmist gives thanks in verse 10: “I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.” The Old Testament presents “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” as central features of God’s character (see Exodus 34:6; verse 11 also adds “your mercy” [raham] that also appears in Exodus 34:6). The psalm gives thanks for these gifts and also pleads for more.

In verses 1-3 the psalmist recalls a past petition and the lord’s gracious response. The testimony, “I waited patiently for the Lord,” indicates the psalmist did what numerous psalms encourage (Psalms 25:3, 21; 27:14; 37:34; 39:7).3 “Waiting” is an expression of trust and reliance on God. For the psalmist, this faithful waiting leads to God’s salvation.

Through the experience of salvation, the lord puts a “new song” in the psalmist’s mouth, a song of praise that testifies to the lord’s goodness. By singing this song, the psalmist leads others to trust in God’s salvation (verse 3). The next two verses contain a beatitude (verse. 4-5) that exhorts trust in God as the way to live that yields blessing and contentment.

Verses 6-8 raise a question about appropriate worship. The thanksgiving section of the psalm (verses 1-10) could have provided liturgy to accompany a thanksgiving offering (see Psalm 30; Leviticus 3; 7:11-18). But verses 6-8 seem to reject such an offering: “sacrifice and offering you do not desire” (verse 6). The Old Testament elsewhere critiques sacrifice, but never rejects it outright (Psalms 50:7-15; 51:15-17; 69:30-33; Amos 5:22; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 7:22).

Verses 7-8 may intend to present an alternative to the sacrifice, namely, the psalmist’s written testimony in gratitude for deliverance: “in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is in my heart.” The “scroll of the book” is somewhat obscure, but it may refer to the psalmist’s testimony in written form, presented in the temple. The psalmist essentially presents himself as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1-2).4 Verses 9-10 advance the claim of this testimony in the congregation gathered for worship.

Verses 7-8 are important in the larger context of the book of Psalms. The word for “delight” (hapas) in relation to torah is the same word that appears in Psalm 1: 2 which says of the righteous that “their delight is in the law of the lord.” This combination of words occurs only in these two places in the Psalter.  Thus, Book I of the Psalter (Psalms 1-41) begins and ends (or nearly so) with this distinctive emphasis on torah-obedience as a sign of faithfulness to God. The one who speaks in Psalm 40:1-11 is one of the righteous, one who Psalm 1 describes and whose way of life it commends.

What about the shift to petition in verse 11? We should note that this kind of rhetorical development appears in numerous other psalms (see Psalms 9-10; 27; 44; 74; 89). The move from thanksgiving to petition is a reminder of the context of suffering that shaped the Psalter. Clinton McCann says it well: “whether individually or corporately, we always pray out of need, at least in the sense that no deliverance is final in this mortal life.”5 Indeed, the thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love in verses 1-10 appears appropriately in a context in which the psalmist still needs to call for hesed.

The Irish rock band U2 provides an artistic expression of McCann’s point about the move from thanksgiving to lament. On their 1985 album “War” they included a song called “40,” the lyrics of which they took from Psalm 40:1-3. The song begins with an adaptation of verses 1-2 which recount the psalmist’s wait for salvation (“I waited patiently for the Lord”) and Lord’s deliverance (“He drew me up from the desolate pit;” “he set my feet upon a rock”). It then goes to a chorus influenced by verse 3 (“He put a new song in my mouth”).

But then the song includes a line that is not part of Psalm 40: “How long to sing this song?” These words echo a line in the first song on the album, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” which laments a horrific day of violence during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland.6 The album ends in thanksgiving spoken with the awareness of continuing pain and suffering. This rendition of Psalm 40:1-3 is true to the psalm as a whole and to the Psalter as a whole. It is a song of thanksgiving that recognizes the ongoing trouble in the world and the need for salvation.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 15, 2017.
  2. Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Continental Commentary (trans. Hilton C. Oswald; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 423–424.
  3. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander Keck; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996): 4:842.
  4. James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), p. 168.
  5. McCann, NIB, 4:884.
  6. U2, “War,” Island Records 262051CID112, 1983, Album.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Jane Lancaster Patterson

It may seem odd to preach Paul during Epiphany, when the Church customarily focuses on the explicit gospel narratives of the revelation of God in Christ.

But the sequence of readings from the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians in Year A might help a congregation widen their sense of how Christ might be revealed, not only in the first century, but through the power of their life together now, the shining out of grace through a community of ordinary people called to holiness. 

Preaching vs. teaching

These opening verses of 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrate the need for a distinct approach to preaching as opposed to teaching.

  • In teaching 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, it seems obvious that one would point out how the major themes of the letter are all introduced here: Paul’s desire to dampen some of the community’s enthusiasms and to re-center them on Christ, the need for a renewed commitment to practical holiness, and the transcendent framework of God’s ongoing salvation of the world, of which their life together is one part.
  • But the demands of preaching bring out an equally significant aspect of Paul’s writing generally, that it is fractal-like: the whole of the gospel he wants to convey is expressed in each of the parts.

The meaning of the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians doesn’t lie outside of it, in fuller exposition of the themes; it’s right here, packed into the dense beauty of the opening greeting and thanksgiving.

The sound of salvation

There is a lot of sound in these nine verses.

  • They open with Paul’s declaration of his having been called by God as an emissary (apostle) of Christ; 
  • they continue with God’s calling of the church to holiness (“called to be saints,” verse 2);
  • with the sound of the church itself calling out the name of Christ;
  • and close with God’s calling the church into partnership with Christ (verse 9).

While some theologians used to make much of the theological import of the word ekklesia (translated “church”) as signifying a people uniquely “called out” by God (the literal meaning of the word), that view has largely been dropped as it became recognized that ekklesia was a widely used term in Greco-Roman contexts for a simple assembly of citizens or their representatives, what we might call a “town hall meeting.” 

Yet participants in such assemblies were customarily called out from their homes by the sound of a trumpet. Paul’s greeting to the “ekklesia of God that is in Corinth” retains within it that sense of sound reverberating from heaven to earth, calling Gentiles out from injustice, into a community of holiness.

Gentiles called into holiness

The shock value of verse 2 depends upon some awareness of the unlikelihood of Gentiles being called by God into holiness (“called to be saints”).

  • The shock is lost in a present-day North American context, where the term “Gentile” is basically synonymous with being Christian, as opposed to being Jewish.
  • In the first century, the definition of “Gentile,” to a Jew like Paul, was all that was other: people without a relationship with God, people without the guidance of Torah, and therefore people without a capacity for holiness and all that goes with it (justice, peace, fullness of life).

But here is the ekklesia of God in Corinth, a group of Gentiles from all levels of the social scale (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), called specifically—together—to a path of holiness in Christ.

  • I have heard many a preacher or teacher give the definition of holiness as “set apart.”
  • But that way of rendering the word into English is misleading. A more accurate definition might be “dedicated,” because holiness is not about putting a distance between oneself and others; it refers to being dedicated by God to a specific purpose in the world for the benefit of the whole creation.
  • That sense of being dedicated to God’s purposes for one’s whole community is seen here where Paul congratulates the Corinthians for the strength of their witness (martyrion) to Christ—not in words only, but in how they treat one another, how they come together as the ekklesia of God. Their actions toward everyone they encounter are a witness to God’s desire for all to know and live in accordance with God’s justice, peace, and fullness of life.

The spillover of holiness into the wider community is also echoed by the use of charisma in verse 7.

  • The NRSV renders charisma as “spiritual gift,” but again we run up against the challenges of translation. Neither the Greek word for spiritual (pneumatikos) nor the word for gift (dorea) is actually present here.
  • A charisma is, literally, a “grace-thing.” It is not a gift that becomes a person’s personal property; it is not some kind of special spiritual skill.
  • A charisma is the gracious power of God for fullness of life: on the move, seeking out every part of the creation where God’s grace-bestowing life is needed.
  • The Corinthian church has been dedicated and empowered by God for this purpose: to bring fullness of life to their part of the creation.

This is the purpose of every church, every ekklesia of God: to be a conduit for the powerful grace of God in their place and time.

“Communal participation” in Christ

Verses 8 and 9 establish the transcendent frame for the call to holiness and grace: partnership (koinonia) with Christ, or what scholar Anthony Thistleton calls “communal participation” in Christ.1

  • Interpreters of Paul often treat his letters as a compendium of ideas, and they lose the ways in which he is really always talking about and referring to experiences of God in Christ, experiences of the power of the Spirit.
  • The Corinthians know the faithfulness of God not as an idea, but as a physical reality when they gather together in Christ for the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and for prayer and song and counsel (1 Corinthians 14:1-33a, 37-40).

Today, as in first century Corinth, it is important for people to grasp the wide frame of God’s faithfulness, as we contend with issues that exceed our ability to solve in a generation: climate change, a culture of violence, division, competition for natural resources. Now, as then, our hope rests upon the concreteness of our daily partnership with Christ, our lively response to God’s call to practical holiness in our particular context, and our empowerment by grace to embody God’s love all the way to the end.


  1. Thistleton, Anthony. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, in
    the New International Greek Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
    2000). I commend this commentary as the ultimate guide to 1 Corinthians.