Lectionary Commentaries for January 17, 2010
Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)
Commentary on John 2:1-11
Roy Harrisville III
Commentary on Isaiah 62:1-5
I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent.
It will not be possible to make me shut up. I will talk and not stop talking, proclaim and not stop proclaiming, preach and not stop preaching. I will shake the skies with my voice. I will not pause. I will not rest, for the sake of the precious city God loved and left, and I will keep this up until every nation and king can see that Jerusalem has been declared innocent and lifted up to a place of glory and honor.
Who is speaking in this passage? There are two ways to read Isaiah 62:1-5, and there are solid arguments and first-rate scholars on both sides of the fence.
Some hold that the prophet speaks in the voice of God, vowing God’s unceasing speaking and acting on behalf of God’s beloved city. The vow to speak and not rest until the moment when vindication shines like the light of a new day, recalls imagery of creation and heralds the dawn of new creation for God’s people. In this reading, the passage expresses God’s determination in words that elicit hope, joy, and the certainty of salvation.
Others hold that the prophet does not speak in God’s voice but instead vows to act as intercessor for Jerusalem. Like the sentinels in Isaiah 62:6-7, the prophet promises to stand on the city walls and break the silence day and night in order to make God remember. The prophet vows to keep talking and preaching and proclaiming until God does what God has promised to do: restore Jerusalem, and make this holy mountain a crown of glory and song of praise to God.
Both interpretations can yield powerful sermons.
Yet as I examine the passage in light of the other lectionary readings for the second Sunday after Epiphany, I incline toward the latter. Psalm 36 is a petition. The psalmist begins with a lament concerning the ways of the wicked who plot and deceive (Psalm 36:1-4). Out of this dark meditation shines forth the praise of God — under God’s wings the innocent find refuge from evil, and God is the source of their light (Psalm 36:7, 9). The climax of the psalm occurs in the petition of verse 10: “Continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright.” The psalmist knows that God is the one source of life and abundance, feasting and delightful drink (36:8-9). In the Gospel reading, Mary knows it too (John 2:3-5). She instructs her son to provide the wine for the wedding feast at Cana, knowing, despite his objection, that he will listen to her voice and perform the sign that will reveal his glory (John 2:11).
In light of these readings, I see an incredible opportunity to preach from Isaiah 62:1-5 a sermon of intercession. God made extravagant promises to God’s exiled people. Earlier in the book of Isaiah, God promised to build up the barren and forsaken city of Jerusalem with foundations of sapphires, ruby towers, gates and walls of precious jewels (54:12). God promised to bring the exiled people home, and promised them the richest of feasts (56:2). Indeed they did come home. Around the year 539 Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaimed an end to the exile, allowing Judeans to return home to their native land, returning to them the sacred vessels and other objects from the plundered temple in Jerusalem, and even encouraging them to rebuild the temple with funds from the royal treasury of Persia.
However, the reality people returned to was far from glorious. The land seemed to them like a desert. It was true that the land was not empty: people had remained in Judah during the years of exile, and others had moved into the area, making a life for themselves in Jerusalem and in the surrounding countryside. But none were able to undo the damage done by Nebuchadnezzar and his army some sixty and fifty years before. And when the exiles returned, it was all they could do to secure homesteads for themselves and try to grow crops to feed their families. Times were difficult, and people were hungry (the book of Haggai gives an excellent picture of the challenges they faced). When prophets finally convinced them to rebuild the temple, it was clear that its glory could not match the glory of former days. Where were the glittering jewels? Where was the abundant feast? The land still felt like a desert. The city seemed forsaken, bereft of God’s sustaining presence. What could be the reason? Was Jerusalem still shadowed by God’s just punishment?
The prophet knows this is not true. The prophet knows that God has declared Jerusalem innocent. God said to Zion, yes, I left you, but now I return to you (54:7), and my love will never leave you (54:10). So now the prophet vows to hold God to God’s promises. The prophet will pick up right where God seems to have left off and make sure that God gets no rest until Jerusalem is built up, filled with her children, surrounded by fruitful fields, and shining with the continuous light of God’s presence.
The prophet promises newness, transformation, and new names signaling joyful union for Jerusalem and all the land around her. The prophet can only make these promises because God has made them. So now I think about preaching. I think about what it would mean to stand before God and gathered people and remind all who are present — including God — of God’s promises. I think about what it would mean to name out loud and unambiguously the concrete ways our congregations have experienced their own places and communities as Forsaken and Desolate. The preacher has an opportunity to meet the people where they feel God’s absence most keenly, where they most worry that God might not come through. And the preacher has an opportunity to call on God — out loud and without stopping — to do everything God has promised.
Commentary on Psalm 36:5-10
One could go in a variety of directions in preaching on this psalm.
The psalm is assigned to the Epiphany season and thus the “light” theme of verse 9 suggests itself, moving all the way to the “light of the world” metaphor in John 9. The lectionary also suggests using verse 8 of the psalm as a refrain and thus tying the “abundance” theme to the abundance of wine in the Gospel for the day. I suggest, however, dealing with the psalm on its own and as a whole, with a focus on the last line of verse 6: “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. “
Structure and Genre
The psalm falls into three parts:
- verses 1-4 describe human wickedness
- verses 5-9 focus on God’s steadfast love
- verses 10-12 ask God for deliverance from the wicked.
The psalm contains elements characteristic of a lament or call for help, with a complaint in the “they” form (1-4), an expression of praise and trust in God (5-9) and a cry for deliverance from the “wicked” (10-12).
Reading the Psalm
Verses 1-4 make clear the realities of the situation of those who are praying. They live in the midst of a godless people. There is no sense of the sacred, no acknowledgment that there is a God (verse 1). The wickedness of these people expresses itself in a me-centered life driven by deception and dishonesty, carried out in secret wheeling and dealing. They even plan evil while lying on their beds, when they should be sleeping (verses 2-4; see also Micah 2:1-5). The psalmist is a realist, aware of the opposition to God and the godly that exists all around.
Verses 5-9 express the heart of the psalm and the grounds for hope. In contrast to human wickedness we hear of the LORD’s amazing grace (“steadfast love”) and faithfulness. In contrast to secretive deceit and iniquity, we hear of God’s righteousness which is high as the mountains and deep as the seas (5-6). This amazing grace is not limited to those huddled in the safety of the sanctuary whether it be the people of Israel or the people of the Church. There’s a wideness to God’s love which extends to all peoples (verse 7). The old hymn has it just right:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty.1
The words of verses 5-9 are words of praise and of trust in the wideness of God’s mercy which extends not only to all peoples of the world but also to the animals (verse 6)! The imagery describing God here is imaginative and stunning: God’s steadfast love is “precious” (Hebrew, yakar, verse 7a) like a whole collection of precious stones (the same Hebrew word occurs in the listing of precious stones in Ezekiel 28:13); God is like a bird providing shelter for its young or like a host providing rivers of delightful drinks (verses 7b-8); God is a fountain that provides life (verse 9a) or God is the light in a world of darkness (verse 9; recall the description of that dreary world in verses 1-4).
Finally, verses 10-12 are a prayer for help. Such a prayer is an essential part of the psalms of lament. The one praying asks for God’s continued amazing grace (verse 10). The psalm concludes with another look at the wicked surrounding God’s people, asking God’s protection from them and even for their destruction (verses 11-12).
Toward a Sermon on this Psalm
The structure of the psalm could determine the structure of the sermon, as follows:
I. There’s plenty of evil in our “wonderful world.” (verses 1-4). As we look at our world, the words of Louis Armstrong’s song can come to mind: “What a Wonderful World!” Or of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art!” Or of Psalm 104.
But that’s not the whole story. The beginning of this psalm reminds us that all’s not right with the world. A glance at the day’s paper confirms just that: I see the report of the rape of a fifteen year old, a murder and suicide in a family with two children, and an ongoing tale of deceit and robbery by a prominent car dealer.
II. We have a wonderful God who loves all creatures of the earth, human and non-human alike (verses 5-9). But the psalm does not leave us wallowing in sin and sorrow. And this is a God who cares not only about us, God’s people gathered here. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy which extends to the peoples of the world and even to the non-human creatures (verses 6-7).
III. We ask God to continue to love us, and to help us to care for the earth and its creatures, human and nonhuman alike (verses 10-12). When we read through this psalm we note that God saves “humans and animals alike.” God’s care for the animals ought not come as a surprise. Remember that God declared to Jonah God’s concern for the one hundred twenty thousand citizens of Nineveh — “and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11 RSV). Recall also that according to Jesus, God cares about individual sparrows (Matthew 10:29). And remember Psalm 104 which praises God because God cares for all the creatures of the earth (especially 104:27-30).
In our day, we have learned anew the importance of caring for the earth which sustains us. We are called to till and keep it (Genesis 2:15) and to exercise responsible dominion, which means to exercise care over it (Genesis 1:24-31; Psalm 8).
Reflecting on God’s love for the non-human as well as human creatures may remind us that too often we have disdained and neglected these fellow creatures of the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-31), whom we should think of as our distant cousins. God, says this psalm, cares about all the creatures of this planet, human and nonhuman. We, as God’s people, are called to do no less.
1 From Evangelical Lutheran Worship, hymn 588.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Today’s lection begins a four-part reading through chapters 12, 13, and 15 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for the Sundays of Epiphany.
While the lectionary breaks up chapter 12 into two sections, the chapter consists of one unit on the nature of spiritual gifts. Indeed, the lection for next week provides the theological and metaphorical grounding for the claims Paul makes in the first part of the chapter. The Christian community is one body with many members that finds its unity in baptism and its diversity in the incredible variety that is the manifestation of the Spirit.
There is a certain irony in this topic barely a month past Christmas. One might even paraphrase Paul’s opening sentence to this chapter, “Therefore, since you have received many gifts, what will you do with them?” In this post gift-giving season, we are asked to recognize that the gifts we receive are the very grace-acts of God. The term that Paul uses for “gift” has the same root as the word for “grace.” In many respects, to hear these words in the after holiday bustle of gift return, acknowledgement, and even disappointment might be less than favorable, and perhaps even offensive. In the wake of tangible, palpable, and desired giving and receiving, it may be difficult to imagine such spiritual gifts, activities, and services to have any meaning or significance in the subsequent holiday slump.
It is helpful to remember that Paul’s letter to Corinth has in mind the common needs of the Christian community. One of the main critiques Paul lodges against the Corinthian congregation is their inability to live out the essential claim of a community founded in the Gospel. The ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ unite every congregation of believers, for the sake of God’s mission in the world, but also, for the sake of the building up of that particular community.
Immediately prior to the text for today is Paul’s concern for the abuses of the Lord’s Supper. If the community is not able to find unity in the most communal demonstration of its identity, what might that mean for other times when it comes together as a church? Paul first admonishes the congregation for its individualistic behavior at the meal itself, but then Paul does what Paul does so well. He does not stop at reprimand, but he calls the Corinthians to remembrance. In recalling Jesus’ words instituting the Lord’s Supper he re-centers the congregation in Christ and Christ alone.
In addition, Paul’s appendage, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26), ups the ante even more. The Corinthian congregation needs to be reminded that its birth, identity, and existence as a Christian community are grounded in the death of Christ, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). The very cross of Christ is at stake when a community of believers gathers without living out the radical equality of a power made perfect in weakness. We recall that the divisions and disagreements within the Corinthian church become the central purpose of Paul’s correspondence and spur us to necessary reflection on our own communal behavior.
Two additional issues arise from this text that might be worthwhile and generative for preaching during the season of Epiphany. A first question might be, “How do we deal with difference?” There is a strong pull from the secular world in the months immediately following the holidays toward a universal maxim for self-improvement. New Year’s resolutions abound, which are, if we are honest, less about self-enhancement and more about self-conformity; fulfilling a need to mold ourselves to the expectations of others.
Is there a way we can preach into this reality, not for a banal sermon about self-affirmation or self-esteem, but for the sake of the unique and extraordinary person God has called each and every one of us to be? Can these words from Paul help us to embrace difference, to look for difference, and to entertain the idea that cookie-cutter Christians are not whom God has in mind? That our like-mindedness is what we are able to claim because of what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ and not because of what we want to claim about God?
Recently, I was in Washington D.C. for the annual meeting of the Academy of Homiletics. One of the speakers was Mike McCurry, press secretary for President Clinton. He shared with the group of preachers his “Five C’s for Effective Communication.” His last “C” was Commitment, which he admitted he would have rather called “perseverance” but he needed a fifth “C.” McCurry argued that the church is really the last place where people of differing beliefs and backgrounds are brought together to converse, where conservative and liberal can sit next to each other in the pew.
In the midst of divisions, especially denominationally in my own church (ELCA), how do we talk about Christian unity? What happens when a community’s identity resides in a uniformity of commitments and not in the unity that God in Christ makes possible? Will the church be a place of building up and not tearing down, where we do not have to prescribe a paradigm of winners and losers, where we actually imagine and believe that Christ is truly present and listens in on our conversations? What would Jesus hear?
A second direction for preaching might focus more on what gifts given out of God’s abundant and amazing grace can mean. In the wake of the season of receiving that is focused on ourselves, “What did you get for Christmas?”, this text calls us to an awareness of what it means to receive for the sake of others, to accept the gifts God has so graciously given us with a “thank you” whereby the fullest expression of gratitude is worked out in the community of the faithful.
John begins his Gospel with the famous prologue, the appearance of the Baptist, and the calling of Jesus’ first disciples.
His baptism is not actually related by the evangelist, but rather told in third person by the Baptist. The calling of the first disciples is narrated and in much more detail. The miracle at Cana is Jesus’ first public event at which something miraculous occurs. John even points out to his reader the significance of the miracle.
Cana is not in Judea. It is in Galilee. Galilee was known for its thieves, rebels, and Gentiles. Herod the Great had to clear the area of brigands twice in his life. It was in Gentile territory that Jesus made his adult home and performed his first miracle in the Gospel of John. From the very beginning therefore, Jesus is portrayed as a trans-national figure in the Gospel. His life and work go beyond the boundaries of race and nation.
This is a private miracle, subdued and quiet. It is not some flashy show of divine power. Only a few people, including the reader, know what actually happened. Jesus was even reluctant to do anything at the event. It was not meant to happen, but the persistence of his mother led him to perform what has become one of the most famous of his miracles.
The hosts ran out of wine. The wedding celebration would have ended if there was nothing to drink. Mary mentions this to her son and he replies with a sentence that has puzzled scholars. Is it a rebuke? Is it a mild objection? Is Jesus being rude? If so, his mother doesn’t seem perturbed by it and tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. She was always a woman of faith who believed in her son.
Jesus’ hour had not yet come. His hour refers to his death, resurrection, and ascension in the Gospel of John. It was too soon for wondrous events in Jesus’ ministry. Yet, he still performs a rather large miracle. The stone jars at the wedding would have been huge containers capable of holding eighteen to twenty gallons of water each. There were six of them. Not only was there enough wine for the whole village now, it was better than what had first been served. It is at the end of the story that we read the meaning of it and the significance of timing, faith, and glory.
The head-waiter made the ironic statement that the good wine had been saved “until now.” Of course, this is a symbolic way of saying that Jesus is better than what had come before. He is the apex of God’s glory. In God’s own timing the Messiah had come. When the guests were getting parched and the host nervous, and there was no recourse but to shut the party down, it is at this point that Jesus quietly intervenes. It may not have been the most convenient time for the Lord, but because of the need of the guests and the request of his mother, he will do what must be done, for that is why he came.
God is responsive to people’s needs. He is not aloof to the human plight. Even if he is inconvenienced by the request, his heart is larger than the stone jars. Some have come to question the divine response to human suffering and have concluded that there is no God. But this quiet miracle belies that conclusion by suggesting that sometimes God does His work without taking out an ad in the paper.
Indeed, as we will discover throughout the New Testament, Jesus does his work in such a fashion that it is often misunderstood and misrepresented. God has in fact responded to human suffering in the suffering and death of his only Son. It’s just that many are not satisfied with the response.
Faith is the purpose of the miracle, as it is in all the miracles in John’s Gospel. Faith is the reason John wrote the book (20:31). Faith is why we preach. Sermons are not political essays designed to enlighten the rabble and produce enough guilt to get them to recycle their wine bottles, but to communicate faith in Jesus Christ. Good works are by-products of faith. Faith is not a matter of coercion but of wonder at the miracle of Christ. It is an overwhelming gift in which the Giver Himself resides.
Without that power, without the Giver in the gift, all attempts at recycling and good works would be for nothing for they would be based upon the wrong premise of utilitarianism, self-preservation, or the like. But with faith in Christ as the source and meaning of all good things, whatever we do will be done for the proper reason: out of thanks to Christ for filling our lives.
This quiet miracle is the manifestation of Christ’s glory. But no one actually saw it. Nor was there a thunder clap to herald the event. God’s glory is not what humans expect it to be. His glory is not for mere display, but has the purpose to fulfill his service to his creation. He buries Himself in a quiet tomb to do his work on Easter where no one can see or hear. As Martin Luther said, “God hides his pearls in a pile of dung so the devil can’t find them.”
In Christ, the very nature of glory is being redefined. It is glory with a silent purpose and aim, to create and maintain faith in Christ Jesus who responds to human need in ways that seem hidden and mysterious, but whose deeds are open to the eyes of faith.