Lectionary Commentaries for January 20, 2008
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.

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.1

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  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

Christine Roy Yoder

One week after the Baptism of Our Lord, the lectionary texts from the Old Testament sit us squarely in the promise and pain of servanthood.

Whether we accompany the psalmist (Psalm 40:1-11) or gather to listen to the servant of Second Isaiah in this second of the so-called “servant songs” (49:1-7; cf. Isaiah 42:1-9 [one of the lectionary readings last Sunday]; 50:4-9; 52:13—53:12), we encounter variously themes of divine calling, proclamation, suffering and failure, and faith amid despair. This text resumes Second Isaiah’s depiction of the servant, a complex and debated figure who the prophet often identifies with Israel (e.g., 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20) but occasionally, as here, described as an individual with a mission to Israel (esp. 45:1-2, 5-6; cf. 48:16). Many Christian readers may also be captivated by how the poetry is suggestive of the servanthood of Jesus Christ.

Whereas God called us to attention in Isaiah 42:1-9, the servant now steps forward to speak (49:1-4). Summoning an audience from distant lands (“coastlands,” “peoples from far away”)—terms that anticipate the reach of God’s salvation (“to the end of the earth,” 49:6)—the servant implores everyone to hear how God claimed and prepared him to serve God’s purposes. He opens with language reminiscent of Jeremiah’s call narrative: “before I was born…while I was in my mother’s womb” (49:1; cf. Jeremiah 1:5). The pairing of God’s work in the servant’s life with concealment continues as the servant describes God’s formation of him as a “polished arrow” with a “mouth like a sharp sword” that God kept hidden with God’s hand and tucked away in God’s quiver—ready for the right moment (49:2). By means of the servant, God prepares for the day when God will be glorified (49:3). The servant, in turn, is enveloped by the inescapable presence of God.

“God said to me…” (49:3) yet reverberating, the servant stammers “But I, I said…” and becomes despondent (49:4). In words laden with exhaustion and defeat, the servant laments that his efforts have already been futile: “in vain … for nothing … vanity.” Far from inspiring the coastlands to extol God’s glory, the servant’s cascade of negatives evoke emptiness (letohu, e.g., Isaiah 40:17, 23; 44:9; cf. Genesis 1:2), vapor (wehebel, e.g.,
Isaiah 30:7; Job 7:16; Ecclesiastes 1:2), that which is ephemeral and unreliable—in sum, utter weariness from laboring on God’s behalf in the world. Present-day readers, overwhelmed by global violence, war, economic oppression, and ecological devastation, may empathize with the servant’s discouraged grief. Yet, even with all that eludes him, the servant finds something to which he still holds—”yet surely, my cause is with the LORD” (49:4).  

As if on cue, God speaks, but not before the servant reiterates God’s claim on him in the womb and reveals his mission to “bring back…gather” Israel, to return Israel home from exile (49:5). Though the servant’s own strength is “spent” (49:4), his introduction of God conveys fresh vitality: “my God has become my strength” (49:5). When God speaks, however, the words are startling. The restoration of Israel is “too light, trivial” for “my servant”—it is but one small task given the servant’s role as “a light to the nations” (49:6; cf. 42:6) When we recall that Second Isaiah often identifies the servant as Israel (e.g., 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20), God’s claim insists the community look beyond their own release and restoration to that of the whole world.

The reading ends with a climactic vision that weaves together the servant’s suffering and the reach of God’s salvation to the edges of the earth (49:7). The one “chosen” by God—indeed, God’s delight (42:1)—will be “deeply despised” and “abhorred” by the very nations to which he goes as God’s light. The one formed by God as God’s “servant” will be a “slave” of rulers. The description intensifies the theme of the servant’s suffering that reaches its fullest expression in 52:13-53:12, the fourth “servant song” (esp. 53:2-9; cf. 50:6; 52:14). God assures the servant, however, that it is precisely because of the one God “hid” in the shadow of God’s hand that kings will one day “see.” The servant will startle the powerful from their thrones into postures of worship and respect. And this will be so because God is faithful. In the end, the servant’s vindication and God’s glorification is ensured not by human agency—as potent and faithful as that may be—but by God’s character.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Dwight Peterson

When we read 1 Corinthians, we are quite literally reading someone else’s mail–in this case, a letter sent in 55 A.D. by Paul to “the church of God that is in Corinth” from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8), a few years after he had founded the church (see Acts 18:1-17).

Corinth was a city strategically located on a high plateau at the western end of the Isthmus of Corinth, a four-mile wide strip of land that joined the mainland of Greece to the Peloponnesus, a big bulge of land that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea. In Paul’s day, it controlled trade conducted both on the road that passed by it and (especially) via sea at its two sea ports (one to its north, the other to its south). It was a thriving economic center inhabited by people from all over the Mediterranean world. Like port cities throughout history, the city also had a reputation for vice, so much so that some wag coined the verb korinthiazesthai, which meant “to fornicate.” While reputations can be overblown, it is probably the case that Corinth suffered from the moral challenges that characterize many port cities with lots of money and transient populations, many of whom were far from home.

The reading for this Sunday includes the salutation (1:1-3) and the thanksgiving (1:4-9) of the letter, both standard parts of ancient letter form. It is meant to set table for a letter intended to challenge the church at Corinth to live faithfully in the context of a city (and a broader culture) that made living faithfully before God difficult. Indeed, the letter addresses a variety of issues that were troubling the fractured church of God at Corinth. Divisions within the community were evident in many particulars of the community’s life, including, for instance, adherence to different human leaders (see 1:10-17), different judgments about what Paul saw as the scandalous sexual behavior of a significant person in the church (5:1-13), members of the church suing one another in public courts (6:1-8), the unequal treatment of people of higher and lower status at the celebration of the common meal (11:17-22), and different judgments about the gifts of the Spirit and practices in community worship (12:1-14:40).

At the beginning of what will turn out to be a sometimes difficult letter that deeply challenges his Corinthian audience, Paul reminds the church of things that God has done for them. First, God has called them. They have been “sanctified [by God] in Christ Jesus, called [by God] to be saints.” The words “sanctified” and “saints” (or “holy ones”) are related words in Greek, both of which refer to the theme of holiness that pervades scripture. To be “holy” is to be set apart from worldly things for a special, divine purpose. Holiness is practical, and shapes all aspects of the way “saints” live. Throughout the Old Testament, God desires that Israel be different from the peoples around them and engage in practices and locate themselves within a narrative that marks that difference. It’s the same in the New Testament, in which the church is called to be different from the culture that surrounds us. Later in the passage, Paul notes that the church at Corinth is called not only “out” of the world, but “into” community: they were “called into the fellowship of [God’s] son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). Faithfulness, it seems, is a team sport that requires the unity of the church.

Not only have the Corinthians been called to holiness and community, they have also been equipped extravagantly for the task. They have been given the grace of God (1:4). They have been enriched in Christ (1:5). The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them (1:6). They are not lacking in spiritual gifts (1:7, an ironic claim, given the problems Paul points out in their experience of the gifts in chapter 12). As can be seen in even a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians, being set apart for God and toward each other has been and remains difficult for the Corinthians. But God has given them the means to those ends. And Paul expects them to use that means.

A final important part of this passage is the context in which both the call and the equipping of the Corinthians makes sense: it is an eschatological context. That’s the point of 1:7, 8, in which Paul notices that they “(eagerly) await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and that God “will strengthen [them] until the end so that [they] may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul thinks that the common life of the church at Corinth makes sense especially when it is seen as pointing toward the eschatological presence of Christ, and that this eschatological hope has ethical ramifications for the church. In light of the approaching day of the Lord Jesus Christ, God strengthens them, helping them to be blameless.

The trick in reading someone else’s mail–in this case, that of the Corinthians–profitably, is finding points of contact between ourselves and those people in a far away place and long ago time. In spite of the obvious points of discontinuity between us and them (e.g., time, distance, culture, etc.), there are many points of continuity. The church in our day (or in our town), like that in Corinth, has been called by God. We, like the Corinthians, have been extravagantly equipped for faithful living. We, like the Corinthians, live in the midst of a culture that makes faithfulness a moral and intellectual challenge. We, like the Corinthians, are (or ought to be) committed to the truth and life-shaping power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which puts our lives in the world into a context that helps faithful living make sense. And we, like the Corinthians (sigh!), routinely fall short of the expectations of the Gospel and need to be called to greater and more difficult (and perhaps more creative) faithful living.
Today’s passage is a hopeful one that emphasizes God’s call and provision, and assumes that it is, indeed, possible to live a sanctified life in the middle of an unsanctified culture. This is a good message for the season of Epiphany, in which Christians celebrate the revealing of Christ to the world.