Lectionary Commentaries for January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:43-51

Jan Schnell Rippentrop

Something snapped into focus in this passage for Nathaniel that is not obvious to the hearer.

Event Jesus himself seems sort of surprised at Nathaniel’s sudden and absolute confession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49) Jesus seems surprised since he responds with possible humor, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” (John 1:50). It is not obvious to the reader how Nathaniel transformed from a lovely naysayer to spokesman of faith in a matter of moments.

Nathaniel seemed to approach life with a critical lens — a master of suspicion.

  • His friend says, “we found the man about whom Moses and the prophets wrote!”
    • Nathaniel doubts it, rationalizing that nothing good comes out of Nazareth.
  • Jesus greets him generously as a man in whom there is no deceit.
    • Nathaniel is suspicious, “Where did you get to know me?” (John 1:48)

Nathaniel is no Mr. Congeniality.

So when this guy, who tends to see the negative, effuses this overwhelmingly positive declaration of who Jesus is, after just meeting him, the readers’ expectations are toppled. What is going on here? Has Nathaniel really just uttered a statement with two exclamation points? Inexplicable!

The drama in this story counts on the fact that this character, Nathaniel, doesn’t tend to act in this positive manner. He does not declare false positives, so if Nathaniel, of all people, confesses faith in Jesus, you can trust him because he is not predisposed to effervesce. No, his faith has overcome suspicion about Jesus.

Nathaniel is not one of those folks whose faith developed gradually. He is one who was also himself startled when the reality of Jesus snapped unexpectedly into focus. There is something about that fig tree remark that made who Jesus is clear for Nathaniel. The reader does not get to be privy to what exactly transformed Nathaniel’s view of Jesus. What is clear is that epiphanies of the Christ come to different people in such drastically different ways that it can even be incomprehensible.

This text, which falls during the season of Epiphany, is an epiphany. Epiphanies tend to transform people. This is seen in Nathaniel’s change and in an epiphany-induced change that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s describes in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.1

Martin Luther King, Jr. was changed by this epiphany often referred to as his “vision in the kitchen.” Nathaniel’s epiphany, in which he suddenly could see clearly who Jesus was, changed Nathaniel, who, then, proclaimed Jesus as:

  • Rabbi: an honorific term appropriate to Jesus since he taught, debated, and gathered disciples.
  • Son of God: a term for one with a close relationship with God. In the Hebrew Bible, “Son of God” refers to someone commissioned with a divine task.
  • King of Israel: In John this is a positive term (although that is not true in all biblical books). This is a political term that implies ruling lordship.

All three of these terms have the potential to bring transformative change: Rabbis through teaching and leading, The Son of God by bridging the gap between heaven and earth, the King of Israel by bringing just rule.

An epiphany of God allowed something new to snap into focus for Nathaniel. That newness changed his life.


1. Martin Luther King Jr, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1st edition (Harper & Brothers, 1958), 124–125.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Valerie Bridgeman

Have you ever thought you heard someone call your name in a crowd; or turned around thinking you heard a voice, but no one was there?

I have. So I have no problem believing a young Samuel learning how to serve God “heard” a voice. This passage in the Second Sunday after Epiphany calls us to consider what it means to be summoned into God’s presence; to know the prompting of divine voice, and to listen intently for directions for our work in the world.

Samuel arrives on stage in a peculiar time and in a peculiar way. The tribal city-states with clan leadership have devolved more and more. “Everyone does what is right in their own eyes,” (Judges 21:25). The reason things are out of control, we are told, is because “there is no king in Israel.” As a result, religious lethargy has left the times devoid of divine animation. Visions were few; rituals were steady, but only rarely provoked a divine encounter: “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Samuel is born in these tumultuous times. He was the child his mother longed for in order to be blessed. A wife among wives, she was barren. In the ancient world, a closed womb was cause for grief, and Hannah, his mother had much sorrow, so much that when she prayed for him the priest Eli thought she was drunk (1 Samuel 1:12-14). His birth made her sing, and she sang a prophetic song that leads me to believe she was as much prophet as Samuel would become. His birth song was revolutionary (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and though she had asked God for him, she listened to an internal prompting that said he belonged to the nation-state and to God.

The story of Samuel, then, does not start with this voice nor with Eli’s training, but rather with the mother who suckled him; who cooed over him; who prayed for him; who sang over him; and who weaned him from her breast so that he would be free to learn how to minister to God. This prequel to Samuel’s call ought to be considered as we ponder our own call. God called from the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). Samuel was known and knew God before he ever entered the birth canal. We also have been known beforehand — and we have been brought before God through a series of relationships. If not our parents or families, along the way pastors, friends, youth leaders, strangers have shepherded and nurtured us into a place where we may hear God’s call and have an encounter. Who have those people been for us? Who have our Hannahs been?

The second thing that strikes me is that Eli is old, can no longer see, but he still is in service. I don’t want to miss that Eli mentors Samuel into identifying God’s voice. Sure, it took three times of Samuel running into Eli’s room in the middle of that night before Eli had an “a ha” moment. But as Samuel lay on his bed in the temple at Shiloh, near the ark of God — the icon that symbolized God’s presence — he was in a position to hear.

Was it a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12-13)? Was it a shouted whisper? The exclamation points added in most translations may prompt readers to think God shouted his name. But there is nothing in the Hebrew text that supports this notion. Small, imperceptible, barely audible sounds more like it.

And though the word had been rare (“precious,” is the old English word of the King James Version), Eli knew at least how to attend to that voice. “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And, sure enough, the voice of God called “as before” (verse 10). God’s persistence and Eli’s mentoring work hand in hand. Though no ordinary, off-the-street person, Eli’s role in Samuel’s calling does remind us that we learn how to discern God’s voice and call in proximity to people who have come before us. They help attune our ears and heart to hear from God. Who mentors us to listen for the voice, what Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine” that’s in all of us?1 How do we prepare to hear it completely in order to respond to it fully? Who are the Elis in our lives?

Finally, what Samuel hears is brutal. Eli knows it is God because Eli has heard that voice. God promises “to fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end” (verse 12). Ominous words. There will be no guilt or sin offering that can stop it (verse 14; Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 5:14, 15). Imagine being a young child, mentored by someone since your mother weaned you, and now you must speak condemning words regarding his leadership and his children.

We read over these words glibly, but Samuel’s first message is no small task. Really, God? Couldn’t you have begun with something less threatening? Couldn’t you have made that first word, that first sermon, that first call to action something pleasant? Easier? Not for the first one who nurtured us? Growing up as I did in a holiness tradition, I grew accustomed to harsh words against the culture. But I still can’t imagine being called to condemn my pastor.

This prelude to a long career that will lead Samuel to crown the nation-state Israel’s first king ends by telling us that God continued to appear to Samuel as he grew; Samuel spoke with confidence as he learned to trust the “word of the Lord” that came to him; and people learned to trust Samuel as a prophet (verses 19-21). He gained favor with God and people (to borrow a phrase from Luke 2:40).

I grew up in a tradition in which people often used the phrase “the Lord said to me.” And, in full disclosure, I have used it often myself. But to become trustworthy in our calls mean we nurture our ability to hear and trust God in the community of faith, just as Samuel did as he continued to serve at Shiloh in God’s presence. There are no guarantees that we will serve our call in easy days; on the contrary, every era has its own peculiarities and God-filled silences. We hear the call to each of us — and I believe each of us is called to be a prophet. That call is to continue to listen for the Voice, and then to speak what we hear.


1 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/582881-there-is-something-in-every-one-of-you-that-waits.


Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 139 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.1

In this genre, singers praise God for God’s goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations, such as illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc. Here, the psalmist celebrates the creative goodness of God in verses 1-18, and provides a glimpse of the oppression that occasioned the composition of the psalm in verses 19-22. It concludes with a plea to God to search for any ill-feelings towards others, presumably those who have so hurtfully oppressed. The singer seems to desire absolute innocence from any thought or inclination that might justify the sentiment of those who speak mischief and rise up in hate (20).

To begin, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the personal name of Israel’s God, Yahweh (1, 4). Second person pronouns occur ten times in the first six verses:  “you have searched,” “you know,” “you discern,” etc. In addition, the psalmist refers to self thirteen times: “you have searched me and known me,” “when I sit down and when I rise up,” “my thoughts,” “my path,” etc.

With this abundance of first and second person pronouns in the first six verses, Psalm 139 reflects the profound relationship of the “I” and “You” (or, “I” and “Thou”) in ancient Israel. Walter Brueggemann describes this relationship by saying, “The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter.”2  In a book titled Tales of the Hasadim, Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, offered these words concerning the relationship between God and humankind:

Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!3

The close relationship between the psalmist and God is not only emphasized in the language of “I” and “thou” in Psalm 139, but also in the repetition of the verbal root yada’ (to know), which occurs seven times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, and twice in 23). Yada’ is a rich word in biblical Hebrew, covering a whole range of meanings – from simple recognition to intimate sexual relationship. In Genesis 4, we read that Adam “knew (yada’) his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1). Elsewhere, God tells the people they will “know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 6:7, 13). Job adds, in 5:27, “See, we have searched this out; it is true. Hear, and know it for yourself.” Some form of this word occurs sixty times in the Psalter, emphasizing that the concept of “knowledge” is a critical element of meaningful relationship.  We are to know God, just as God knows us. As the psalmist says, “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (13).

The second half of our lection, verses 13-18, offers a variety of interesting, even problematic, translation options. In verse 14, “fearfully” is derived from the verbal root yara’. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. Yet yara’ encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (‘ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (‘abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. Thus, a better translation of the word in verse 4 might be “reverently.”

Also in verse 14, “wonderfully” comes from the verbal root pala’, which means to be different, striking, remarkable – outside of the power of human comprehension. The word is used repeatedly in the Psalter to describe the acts of God on behalf of humanity (cf. Psalms 9:2; 40:5), particularly God’s actions in the history of the ancient Israelites (cf. Psalms 78:4; 105:5).

The reference in Verse 15 to being shaped in “the lowest parts of the earth” echoes the creation story in Genesis 2, where we read, “then the LORD God formed the human (‘adam) from the dust of the ground (‘adamah)” (Gen 2:7).

The word translated as “unformed substance” in verse 16a is the Hebrew word gomli, which is found only here within the Bible. In Babylonian Aramaic, the word is used to designate a formless mass or an incomplete vessel. The Syriac word galma means “uncultivated soil.” To translate the word as “embryo,” as some translations do, is over-specific and misleading. And while verse 16 cannot be used to solve questions such as “When does life begin?”, the whole of Psalm 139 affirms the sacredness of life.

The second and third phrases of verse 16 (16b and 16c) are as puzzling as 16a.  A more literal, but less elegant translation could be:

and upon your scroll all of them were written,
the days that were meant to be, when not one of them was.

Other references to a scroll (or book) of God occur in Exodus 32:32-33 and Psalms 56:8; 69:28. However, we read in none of these passages about the numbering of the days of an individual life. Thus, the singer of Psalm 139 acknowledges that God holds all life in God’s hands.

Verses 17 and 18 form a doxological conclusion to the first sixteen verses. In verse 17, the psalmist marvels at the thoughts (re’ah) of God, using the same word as in verse 2b, where the psalmist says to God, “you discern (re’ah) my thoughts from far off.” God knows (yada’) humanity inside and out, and therefore discerns (re’ah) our every act and thought. God’s discernment and insight into the thoughts of humanity are at the same time disconcerting and comforting.

Each of us was formed and framed by God. God’s eyes beheld our unformed substances. Each of us was reverently, wondrously, strikingly, remarkably, differently made – in ways that are beyond human explanation. In any time, in any place where the faithful face wickedness, bloodshed, and deceit, the words of Psalm 139 provide comforting assurance of God’s sovereign creation of, and care for, each person.




1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 18, 2009.

2 Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 19095),34, italics original.

3 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasadim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), 212.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Israel Kamudzandu

What are the limits of Christian freedom in a world of choices and human rights — cultural or otherwise?

While the 21st-century global church is divided on issues of sex, Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 sets spiritual and theological boundaries on the extent to which Christians have to exercise their freedom. The message of this passage is clear: “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12b). The lifestyles of Jesus’ disciples are to be lived within the context of the Holy Spirit; and therefore, sex has to be done within the boundaries of the Spirit. In a world of rights and choices, the Apostle Paul teaches Christians that Christian freedom is lived in relationship to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of which harmony of the community or the body is maintained and nurtured.

Like in other Pauline letters, the message of Christian integrity, self-control, and virtuous living seems to be the central message of this passage. While Christians from various cultural and ethnic worldviews may argue for their cultural rights to sex and food, the entire global church is called to avoid immorality in all its forms and character. Setting the limits and boundaries on one’s rights is a Pauline way of glorifying God (1 Corinthians 6:20), in a world challenged by fornication and possibly HIV/AIDS, poverty, and female abuse. The message in this passage is not only directed to individuals, but it is a call to the entire Christian body whose new identity was purchased by the blood of Jesus for God’s glory. Interestingly, the purchasing part claims the community’s body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

The Corinthians as a Christian community and consequently the global church is summoned to a new way of life. Christian living in all its forms has to manifest God in ways that can be emulated by others who are seekers or the ones growing in their life of discipleship. However, the point of the passage is not a sudden departure but rather a believer must orient his or her life to living in a way that is in communion with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:17). It may be ironic to many Christians that the lives they live “in Christ” are not theirs; but in reality, that is Paul’s gospel in this passage, that Christian life is a gift of God. Thus, the Holy Spirit lives in us and therefore the life we live has to be aligned with the Giver. What is distinctive about this passage is that sex is to be revered and its context in Paul’s teaching is within Christian marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:4; Ephesians 5:22-33).

The point of “glorifying God,” individually or communally is Paul’s final message that human bodies belong to God. Theologically, Paul offers a new vision, one that builds the ecclesial community where individuals gather as the body of Christ. In a world where people are torn between rights and Spiritual faith, Paul calls believers to live a countercultural way of life — a life of discipline and discernment. The life being called for is one in which one ceases to be a free-range individual but one who submits to the authority of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Theologically, the passage has lessons for us in the 21st-century global and digital world. How should the church effectively minister to parishioners who are constantly taught that “they have freedom”? The ethical, moral, cultural, and global issues of our time can be informed by Paul’s reference to the human body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” of which God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, redemption and new life is possible. While resurrection may be thought of as a future event, the church has the duty to remind believers that baptism is an everlasting life-giving event. Baptism is an event whereby God unites the physical and the spirit. Thus, the life we live as God’s people is an eschatological one in which we have hope of redemption even when we fall short.

It may be difficult for all of us in a postmodern context to think of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, but Paul’s teaching in this passage is that an authentic Christian life must be one that honors God because God placed God’s Spirit in us (2 Corinthians 1:21). What we want as human beings is not what God wants; therefore, we should live in reverence to God, in whom our obedient faithfulness is enveloped. In this sense, our rights, preferences, freedoms, choices, autonomy, cultural, and ethnic ideals are called to submit to the authority of Jesus Christ.