Lectionary Commentaries for January 15, 2017
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:29-42

Audrey West

“It is not about me.” That is the message whenever people in the Fourth Gospel ask John the Baptist who he is.1

He is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the prophet, not even a man worthy enough to untie the sandals of the One who is to come: no matter what people think of his ministry out there across the river.

Again and again he points away from himself to this Other, whether responding to the religious authorities from Jerusalem (John 1:19) or to his own disciples (John 3:25). To many North American ears, John’s refusal to claim his own status is almost laughable. Hasn’t he heard about the need for good self-esteem or the importance of tooting one’s own horn? If John the Baptist had a social-networking page on the Internet, his avatar would be an image of a long finger, pointing away from himself, and every response to a comment from his friends would be something like, “Go on over to the Lamb’s place.”

Whenever he testifies, John is a witness for the defense. He tells others what he has seen, gives evidence on behalf of the one who sent him, points always toward the Lamb of God who gives up his life for the sin of the world. As is true today for pastors all over the globe, John baptizes with water, and his work is not for its own sake, but for the sake of the testimony about the light that comes into the world. Even when his own followers come to him, complaining that Jesus and his disciples are baptizing more people than he is (John 3:25ff; cf. 4:1-2), John continues to affirm the ministry of his supposed competition.

Questioning the Question

In this Gospel, Jesus’ first words appear in the form of a question, an ordinary question with extraordinary significance: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). English translations obscure the meaning of the Greek, which is better translated, “What are you seeking?” Jesus’ ministry begins not with a mighty command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew; and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God’s favor, as in Luke, but it begins with a question: “What are you seeking?” What are you looking for? What do you need? It is a question worth wrestling with — as individuals, as congregations, as communities — since our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there. What are you seeking? What motivates you? What is that you really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being? What are you looking for?

Jesus poses his question to two of John’s disciples, who, having just learned that Jesus is the Lamb of God, are determined to follow him. Before the story moves very far we will learn that others also are looking for Jesus, but for very different reasons. The crowds are seeking to have their bellies filled with a little more bread (John 6:26), while the religious authorities are seeking to kill him (John 5:18; 7:1; cf. 7:11, 19, 20, 25, etc.): one group seeks life, the other, death. These two disciples, for their part, want something different than either the crowds or the authorities. They want simply to be with Jesus. Like contestants in a television game show, they answer Jesus’ question with one of their own: “Where are you staying?”

Again, the English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability.  John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) upon him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides bread enough to satisfy a crowd, with plenty left over, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40).

When the disciples respond to Jesus’ query with their own question, they are not asking Jesus for the location of his tent, or the address of the guest house at which he is visiting; they want to know about the enduring, permanent, eternal, undying dwelling place of this Lamb of God. Where are you staying? Where can we find you? Where shall we go to be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we be in the very presence of God?

Jesus’ question is one the preacher might ask of the congregation: What are you seeking? In a culture dominated by the acquisition of things, for example, where a search for meaning can (supposedly) be satisfied by a search for “stuff,” the exchange of questions between Jesus and his would-be followers provides an opportunity to explore a variety of possible responses in different contexts today, as well as the answer that Jesus provides.2

Come and See

Note the many verbs for “seeing” found in this short pericope: blepo (1:29); ide (1:29, 36); theaomai (1:32, 38); orao/eidon (1:33-34, 39, ); emblepo (1:36, 42). The combined weight of so many references gives added emphasis to Jesus’ answer: “Come and see.” Indeed, this answer captures a primary message of John’s Gospel: If you want to know the word made flesh, come and see Jesus. If you want to know what love is like, come and see Jesus. If you want to experience God’s glory, to be filled with bread that never perishes, to quench your thirst with living water, to be born again, to abide in love, to behold the light of the world, to experience the way, the truth, and the life, to enter into life everlasting, . . . if you want to know God, come and see Jesus.



1. This commentary was first published on this site on Jan. 20, 2008.

2. Many of the ideas in this section are prompted by an unpublished sermon by the Rev. Dr. Frank L. Crouch, “What are you Seeking?”, preached at the occasion of his installation to the position of dean, Moravian Theological Seminary, October 22, 2001.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7

Juliana Claassens

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

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?


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).

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.1

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

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Mary Hinkle Shore

As he opens his letters, Paul commonly names others alongside himself.1

Among the undisputed letters of Paul, only Romans does not have a co-author or other senders named. 1 Corinthians begins by naming Paul and Sosthenes as those from whom the letters comes. The only other reference to a Sosthenes in the New Testament is in Acts 18:12-17, where a Jewish leader by that name in Corinth is beaten by a mob in front of the proconsul, Gallio.


There is no evidence one way or the other regarding whether the name, when it appears in Acts, refers to the same person Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians. Even though we do not know the precise identity of Paul’s co-author, it is nonetheless meaningful that he names one. Paul’s letters are community documents, both in their composition and in their reception.  


Thanksgiving sections in Paul’s letters usually introduce themes that will appear later, and this is certainly true of the thanksgiving from 1 Corinthians. Paul thanks God that the Corinthians “have been enriched” in Christ. He mentions specifically speech and knowledge among the Corinthians’ spiritual gifts. From the rest of the letter, we know that the so-called riches of speaking in tongues and having knowledge are among the ways that the Corinthians Christians are dividing themselves up, with some claiming superiority over others.


In the context of a community where spiritual gifts have become a way to claim rank and status over others, Paul begins his letter by framing those gifts as part of God’s work in Christ. A thanksgiving is different from a commendation or even a complimentary greeting to those receiving the letter. A thanksgiving is a prayer, and as such, it allows Paul to give credit where credit is due.


First, Paul thanks God for the Corinthians because God has given grace to them in Christ Jesus. At the end of the thanksgiving, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God, who is faithful, has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. In between, every verse of the thanksgiving mentions Christ.


The result is a more subtle form of the questions Paul will ask the Corinthians later, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). God is the source of their life together and the gifts manifested there and all of it draws them more deeply into fellowship with Christ.


Paul’s thanksgiving also corrects any mistaken impression that the Corinthians have attained the fullness of life in Christ. In the thanksgiving, Paul mentions that the Corinthians are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ and that there is a “day of the Lord” yet in the future. The effect is to relativize the Corinthians’s present experience, however remarkably spiritual it may be for at least some of them.


The body of the letter, with all its reports of conflict and claims to superiority over brothers and sisters in Christ, will confirm that there is still some distance between the state of the Corinthians and God’s intention for them. However much they may aspire to it, they do not yet see the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ “face to face” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).


It is impossible to come away from this text with the impression of Christian life as an individualized spiritual journey. Paul gives thanks for God’s gifts to the Corinthians as a group and names their community with Christ as the defining characteristic of their life together. What would it be like for those listening to a sermon on this text to understand themselves not so much as blessed individuals but as part of a community that has received gifts of God’s grace?


A sermon on this text could take the form of a thanksgiving to God for the community to which the preacher speaks. Paul certainly knew the Corinthian community was not perfect; in fact, it is as fractious and fractured as any community to which he writes. Yet he finds much to thank God for as he begins a letter to them. As a preacher, what would you thank God for about the people to whom you preach? What might their experience as a community be if they could hear you thanking God for them and their gifts?


Sometimes churches can be a little self-impressed. Our own virtues captivate us: we are friendly, or generous, or working for justice, or impeccable in our attention to the details of worship. Like the Corinthians, we are indeed “enriched” and, let’s face it, impressed by it. Writing to such a community, Paul thanks God first of all for the grace given to these people in Christ Jesus. Paul will soon introduce the reversal implicit in that grace when he says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).


What does it mean to give thanks for the grace of the Crucified One among a people? At least part of what it means is that God’s power in that particular place is manifest in ways beyond the things people like best about themselves, perhaps even in weakness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25 and other occurrences of “weakness” in the Corinthian letters). Without valorizing failure, a sermon on this text might call to mind ways that God is at work in unexpected, often unvalued people and places among us.



1. Commentary first published on January 19, 2014