Lectionary Commentaries for January 20, 2019
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 2:1-11

Lindsey S. Jodrey

Wine often marks major life moments.

Wine often accompanies celebratory cheers, and it sometimes eases heartbreak and tears. In the second chapter of John, we find Jesus’ ministry inaugurated at a wedding, where he supplies an abundance of fine wine.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a unique class offered by Princeton Theological Seminary: Wine and the Bible. Rather than meeting on campus, we gathered together at the nearby Farminary, a small farm near campus that the director, Dr. Nathan Stucky, describes as “a garden of innovation” where students learn at the intersections of theology, ecology, and authentic community.1 Each week we experienced the joy of abundant wine together as we learn about ancient wine production and wine as a theme in the Bible.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Stucky invited us to read about wine as farmers (and then enjoy the wine). We started paying attention to things like the soil where the wine was grown and the weather conditions that affected the vintage. In short, we started paying attention. This perspective opened up our experience of the wine and offered us new categories to carry with us as we tasted it.

As I considered this passage where Jesus famously changes water into wine, it struck me that we could similarly read the Bible as wine-drinkers. Reading the Bible with wine in mind means paying attention to the subtleties and the layers as we read. It means carrying with us new categories and questions to facilitate a fresh experience of the story. I’d like to offer three “tasting notes” to pay attention to as we encounter John’s story of Jesus’ first sign:

  1. What cultural expectations surrounding hospitality sit in the background of this story, and what might that tell us about Jesus’ mission?
  2. What other texts might the audience think of when encountering this story, and how might that enhance our understanding of the story’s meaning?
  3. What power dynamics, social structures, and expectations are subverted by the story, and how might that challenge us to consider our own ways of being in the world?

Hospitality and Jesus’ mission

Given the climate, lack of clean water, large number of guests, and sustained duration of ancient wedding feasts, the lack of wine at this wedding was a serious problem. The inability to provide what the guests needed was a failure in hospitality that would bring shame on the wedding hosts. We may read the story and wonder why the family of the bride and groom failed to provide enough wine. However, it was ancient custom for guests to bring wedding gifts in the form of food and drink to share the burden of providing for such a large group. Thus, the family’s lack of wine may indicate a lack of community support in addition to their own lack of resources.

Jesus’ actions are that of a friend and faithful community member; the provision of wine is a sign of shared hospitality. Rather than serving mediocre wine near the close of the wedding (when celebrants’ senses were less keen), Jesus brings a surprising abundance of fine wine. We may draw parallels to God’s work in the world. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry marks the start of God’s work in the world that has been long-awaited. The story leads us to expect surprisingly good and abundant things to come as Jesus begins his ministry. Starting the story with a provision of wine at a wedding feast, we can see Jesus’ mission as continuing God’s work in the world that provides hospitality and a space of belonging outside of the existing honor/shame structure.

Messianic imagery and eschatological hope

The image of wine at a feast echoes “Wisdom’s Feast” in the Hebrew Bible and continues the presentation (begun in John 1) of Jesus as the Jewish figure of Wisdom (Proverb 9:1-6). Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations.

Speaking of God’s promise to bring justice to all in the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, Isaiah issues the invitation to enjoy wine without price. The invitation is accompanied by a declaration from God that the word that goes out from God’s mouth will not return empty but will accomplish God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:1-11). It’s hard not to see the resonances with the Prologue, where Jesus is described as God’s Word who is coming into the world to make God known.2

Reversal of Expectations

This story plays on the motif of insiders and outsiders and reverses expectations regarding who fits into those categories. This first sign of Jesus’ glory is revealed to just a few, and it is not who we would expect. We might expect the groom or the bride to play a key role here, noticing how Jesus has saved their family from shame — but they obliviously enjoy the wine. We might expect important guests to have inside information about where this good and abundant wine came from, but it is the servants who get a sneak peek at Jesus’ glory in this story.

Isaiah’s imagery of a free feast with an open invitation to all (Isaiah 55:1-2) reminds us that from the beginning, God’s work for Israel would be work for the world at large. While Messianic expectations often focused on political redemption and independence for the nation of Israel, God’s “love for David” (Isaiah 55:3) was intended to draw in other nations (Isaiah 55:4-5). After another famous act of hospitality where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, John famously commands that those who follow Jesus should “love one another” (John 13:31-35). The Gospel’s story shows that the goal of this love is that the whole world might be reconciled to God (John 17:20-23). God’s abundant provision of life goes beyond the anticipated boundaries.

Additional Resources:

  • Brant, Jo-Ann. John. Paideia. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2011).
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel according to John I-XII. Anchor Bible 29. New York: Doubleday (1966).
  • Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress (1998).

Notes:

  1. “Vision – Farminary,” Princeton Theological Seminary, http://farminary.ptsem.edu/vision-why-farminary/
  2. The LXX of Isaiah uses the word rema, while John uses logos.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 62:1-5

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

After the wonder of Christmas with the birth of the Savior, the hope of the new year, the inclusion of the nations in Epiphany, and the assurance of God’s activity in Jesus’ baptism, Isaiah gives us lamentation.

We should not dismiss this passage or the experience of lamentation. We might prefer the joyous scenes of birth, baptism, and gift-giving of the previous occasions. Even those, however, come in the midst of complications. The power play of the census surrounds Jesus’ birth, the intrigue of Herod surrounds the Epiphany, and the temptation awaits after the baptism.

Isaiah’s lamentation fits with the complications of life. After the joy of Christmas and the hope of the turn of the year have faded, we notice that life hasn’t changed. God still seems far away at times. Corruption and evil seem just as strong and intractable. The church seems as divided. Lamentation expresses the longing between what Advent and Christmas promise and the reality we encounter.

The situation in the passage grew out of the frustration between promise and reality. Encouraged, emboldened, and empowered by the eloquent words of the prophet scholars call II Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), the people had returned to the ruins of Jerusalem and Judah to begin again. God was doing a “new thing” among them (43:19). If the Babylonian exile felt like punishment for sin, the return to Jerusalem became God’s act of forgiveness (40:2). The prophet’s soaring words inspired the people. Nevertheless, when they followed the prophet back home, they encountered infighting, setbacks, and frustration.

Within that situation, the prophet scholars call III Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) expresses the pain of the people. The prophet not only gives voice to lamentation, he speaks with persistence, even defiance. He will speak up and continue to speak, refusing to rest. This bold, unflinching, unrelenting outcry enables the people to vent their feelings, but also reveals much about the divine-human relationship. If the prophet assumed that God did not care, he would not need to persist in speaking out. The passage suggests that the prophet assumes God will listen, if the prophet does not give up.

The passage moves from the daring lamentation of the prophet to beautiful promises. The prophet has progressed from giving voice to the grief of the people toward God to speaking on behalf of God back to the people. The prophet serves as a true intermediary. He (or perhaps she) communicates the raw emotion of the people to God and the promises of God back to the people. The passage represents a true dialogue. Dialogue depends on a continuing faith underlying the frustration.

The promises begin with the assurance that Judah’s vindication, salvation, victory, redemption (all possible translations of the two terms in the second half of verse 1), shall become abundantly obvious, shining out and burning. Part of Judah’s agony has been taunting (Psalm 137), derision and dismissal by the rest of the nations. The first two verses proclaim that Judah’s influence will shine out and that the people will know respect.

The new name likely indicates a change in status, as name changes often did in scripture (Jacob/Israel, Abram/Abraham). Several images follow that suggest how valuable Judah will be to God. They will be a “crown of beauty” and a “royal diadem.” God will delight in Judah. No longer will the people feel abandoned or forsaken.

The marriage imagery has difficulties in translation. The Hebrew term could be rendered as sons marrying a mother. Some commentators have suggested that the image is that of God as the one who built or formed Judah will become the husband (NRSV, but see footnote). The consonants for the terms “son” and “build” are essentially the same. The prophet would not imply a disgusting metaphor. Either builder is correct, or, as some scholars suggest, the term could indicate a young man. The underlying implication is that, in a good way, the people will enter into a healthy relationship with God.

As often happens, the lectionary committee has cut off the reading in the middle of the poem. In the verses given for today, the poet moves from lamentation to rejoicing. The poem moves from stubborn faith to fulfillment. The second half of the poem begins the theme of lamentation again, but in the verses for today, the reading describes a common faith experience of naming frustration, while moving to affirmation of hope.

With the movement from lamentation to hope, the passage fits well coming the day before the holiday for the birthday off Martin Luther King, Jr. Both the passage and the holiday acknowledge the gap between what ought to be and what is. Both the passage and the holiday express frustration, but cling to God’s future. Surely, the battle for racial and economic justice fits the image of one who refuses to keep silent. Nevertheless, the church holds tight to the promise that God will bring fairness and reconciliation.

Besides the holiday, the passage also speaks to other situations which evidence the gap between expectation and reality. The passage gives material to talk about the declining influence of the church. If the church feels forsaken by society, or wonders why God doesn’t work through the church, the passage speaks to that experience.

While avoiding self-congratulation, the preacher can help the church claim its beauty and value to God’s purposes in creation. Any situation in which the preacher identifies this gap can enter into dialogue with the passage: hopes for the new year, the struggles of an individual church, the ways in which we fall short in our personal spiritual growth. The gap between what is and what should be exists on many levels. This passage gives the preacher resources to speak to God’s longing to bridge that gap.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 36:5-10

Rebecca Poe Hays

As is often the case with lectionary readings from the Psalms, the preacher must decide whether she or he wants to preach only the specific lection or whether the sermon should include the entire psalm from which that lection is drawn.

In Psalm 36, verses 5-10 offer an image-laden portrait of God’s absolute steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness. Preaching on these verses allows both preacher and congregation alike to join with the psalmist in lifting up praise to Yahweh — who stretches wider than the heavens, who stands firmer than the mountains, whose understanding reaches to the depths of the earth, and who provides salvation, refuge, and fountains of life for all who turn to God. In a world plagued with uncertainties and loyalty only to self, the assurance verses 5-10 bring is rich indeed.

Including the surrounding verses (verses 1-4, 11-12) in a sermon on Psalm 36 presents at least two pastoral opportunities:

  • These additional verses paint a portrait of “the wicked” that makes the central image of God’s faithfulness stand out in sharp relief. Since the earliest days of Christianity, various traditions have emphasized human inability to describe God; instead, they suggest, we can only really describe what God is not (this is called “apophatic theology”). Psalm 36 gives us in these verses a negative comparison of what God is not like to help deepen our understanding of what God is like in the central verses of the psalm.
  • These additional verses acknowledge the reality of wickedness, hatred, deception, and other evils that harm the community. This reality exists, paradoxically and often troublingly, alongside God’s steadfast love and is a reality with which every Christian must wrestle. Avoiding troublesome aspects of the life of faith does no one any favors, and the psalmist here models a way to offer honest worship in the midst of a messy life.

The text

Psalm 36 refuses to be easily pigeon-holed into one of the standard psalm categories since it contains elements of wisdom, creation, praise, and petition. One way to understand the structure of the psalm is to see it unfolding in three major sections:

verses 1-4: Description of the wicked

verses 5-9: Praise to Yahweh because of Yahweh’s steadfast love and faithfulness

verses 10-12: Plea for Yahweh’s ongoing steadfast love in the lives of worshippers

The preacher who chooses only to preach on the lection text (Ps 36:5-10) can focus only on those verses as a statement of assurance or praise, or could treat verse 10 alone as the plea portion of the psalm (rather than including verses 11-12 in the petition).

The first section (verses 1-4) is reminiscent of Psalm 1 and its wisdom-shaped description of the wicked as contrasted with the righteous. This stanza of the psalm is the only one that does not mention Yahweh’s steadfast love — because the wicked don’t have anything to do with Yahweh’s steadfast love!1 They do not fear God (verse 1), and they do not reject evil (verse 4). The psalmist makes clear that what may seem to be personal decisions on the part of these individuals actually spills over into the experience of the whole community.

Transgression deep in the heart pulses outward as harmful words, as foolish actions (things we have done) and the failure to act towards neighbor in ways that are good (things we have left undone), as disturbances of the peace we should be seeking for others, and as a preoccupation with self as the ultimate authority. These verses are a much-needed reminder that the effects of our choices always reach beyond ourselves.

The second section (verse 5-9) makes a sharp turn from the hatred of the wicked to the steadfast love of Yahweh. This section moves from the general to the particular in its praise of Yahweh’s character. For the first time, the psalmist names Yahweh, and verses 5-6 are framed, in Hebrew, by joyful calls directly to Yahweh. The poetic imagery used here to capture a fleeting glimpse of Yahweh’s steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice draws from creation itself to show the magnitude, eternality, and even mystery of Yahweh’s character.

The end of verse 6 provides a transition to the more particular workings-out of Yahweh’s character in verses 7-9. Far from being a distant abstraction, Yahweh reaches down to save both animals and humans, to shelter them like a mother bird shelters her chicks under her wings (verse 7b), and to provide for them in every possible way (verses 8-9).

The psalm concludes with a plea for Yahweh to continue to act in accordance with the character the psalmist has described — a petition that results in salvation for the worshipper but judgment upon the wicked (verses 10-12). Prayer in the Psalms can occur because of who the pray-ers know Yahweh to be. Because the psalmist believes verses 5-9, she feels confident that Yahweh can respond favorably to verses 10-12.2 The prayer voiced here looks ahead to a time when the wicked who are wreaking havoc on the community (verses 1-4) no longer have the power to cause harm.

A subtle charge

By contrasting the characters of the wicked and Yahweh (and by revealing the ultimate failure of the former and eternality of the latter), the psalmist has implicitly offered worshippers a choice of paths to follow. We can set ourselves up as gods, flattering ourselves that we can live however we want without consequences to ourselves or others. Or we can choose to live in the protective — though sometimes demanding! — shadow of the One who is loving, faithful, righteous, and just.


Notes:

  1. Nancy L. DeClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 338-39.
  2. Walter Brueggemann and W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 179.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Yung Suk Kim

The Corinthian ekklesia (church) was a vibrant community where members received varieties of gifts from the Spirit.

But at the same time, the church did not have a consensus on, or a clear understanding about, spiritual gifts. Many of them were in rivalry with other members. Some claimed that they were better than others because of their special spiritual gifts. The problem is they did not ask what they could do for the common good or what the Spirit wanted them to do. This is the context in which Paul responds to the issue of spiritual gifts, as he writes in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

In 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, Paul seems diplomatic and does not begin with a direct, strong emotional charge against the Corinthians, saying something like: “You Corinthians are bad or wrong.” Rather, he says: “I do not want you to be uninformed.” He means they could know better. Thus, he tackles a matter of understanding rather than disgracing them directly.

To help them understand better about the Spirit and the spiritual gifts, he reminds them of their past, saying they were “enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak” (12:2). At the same time, he also reminds them that they now belong to a Spirit-ruled community and therefore that they can understand better about the work of the Spirit. With this reminder and optimism, he explains what the Spirit is and relates the Spirit with God: “The Spirit of God” (12:3-4), which means the Spirit is inseparable from God.

It is inconceivable that the Spirit does its own work apart from God. Furthermore, the Spirit of God also has to do with Jesus and confirms his work: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” All in all, the Spirit has to do with God and Jesus alike.

Having told the Corinthians of the importance of the correct understanding about the Spirit, Paul goes on to talk about the work of the Spirit and its various gifts necessary for the church (1 Corinthians 12:4-10). A few observations about this passage will follow. First, he states that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (12:4). He emphasizes both gifts and their origin, which is the Spirit. While there are many gifts, there is the same Spirit. The Spirit does not give only one kind of gift to all. The church needs diverse gifts and related works: “The utterance of wisdom,” “the utterance of knowledge,” “faith,” “gifts of healing,” “the working of miracles,” “prophecy,” “the discernment of spirits,” “various kinds of tongues,” and “the interpretation of tongues.” (12:8-10). But all these varieties of gifts come from the same Spirit, however diverse or different they may be. The implication is that members have to recognize other kinds of gifts and cooperate with one another. The Spirit does not promote excessive individualism or flagrant elitism that does not edify the whole community.

Second, while listing the various gifts of the Spirit, Paul places seemingly popular gifts later in the list, such as “various kinds of tongues” and “the interpretation of tongues.” What comes early in the list is wisdom and knowledge, which reflects his earlier gesture toward the Corinthians in 12:1-3 where he began with the importance of a correct understanding. Nevertheless, it is less likely that Paul arranges varieties of gifts here hierarchically. His point is that all gifts are different, yet they are from the same Spirit.

Third, in 1 Corinthians 12:5, Paul says: “There are varieties of services, but the same Lord.” Here, “services” is a translation of the Greek diakonia (singular: diakonos, which means a service or ministry). All works and ministry in the church are part of diakonia. Whoever does the work of the Spirit or whatever is done in the church must reflect the work of Jesus, who is the foundation of the church. His faithful life serving the weak and oppressed should be a constant reminder to all who work in the name of the Lord.

Fourth, in 1 Corinthians 12:6, Paul says: “There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” He talks about “varieties of activities” in the church and says that God activates them in everyone. Here, “activities” is a translation of the Greek energema, which means “deeds.” All deeds, personal or communal, must be informed and activated by the same God. This means that members have to test their deeds or works to see whether their works are based on God. Even if some people claim that their spiritual gifts are superb, their deeds should be tested by God.

Fifth, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 as a whole, Paul’s point is not that there is a separate work/domain of the Spirit, Jesus, or of God, but that all gifts, works, and deeds in the church are to be cross-examined in view of the Spirit’s purpose, God’s guidance, and Jesus’ work. Whatever works the Corinthians do or whatever gifts they receive from the Spirit, they must know that their works need guidance from God and Jesus.

Sixth, Paul makes explicit the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit, which is “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), which means gifts are not to be used for self-promotion or selfish reasons. Rather, they must be used for strengthening the community by taking care of the weak and the despised in society. For the common good, various gifts, as listed in 12:8-10, are given to the church by the Spirit.

Seventh, and last, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:11: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” This verse is a conclusion that all works in the church must be guided by one and the same Spirit. Therefore, they must test their works by the Spirit. The Spirit also chooses which gift to bestow on each and knows what gift is needed for each. Members do not receive gifts of the Spirit as they wish. The Spirit does not give one kind of gift to all members, either. The purpose of different gifts of the Spirit is to make the church stronger and useful to more people.