Lectionary Commentaries for January 16, 2011
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:29-42

Jaime Clark-Soles

The Gospel of John is a dramatic, gripping narrative.

John 1:29-42 divides into two main parts: verses 29-34 and verses 35-42.

Act I: Background
The play has already begun at John 1:1, of course, with the great Prologue (1:1-18) in which John the Baptist first appears (1:6-8; 15). John the Baptist looms large in 1:19-28. The leaders of Jerusalem interrogate John, asking after his identity. John treads the path of via negative, which the Prologue has taught us to expect from him. The Prologue states that John was not the light, but was a testifier (from the Greek martyr whence we derive the English word martyr). Likewise, John triply confesses that he is NOT the Messiah (verse 20), he is not Elijah (verse 21), and he is not “the prophet” (probably a reference to Moses’ declaration in Deuteronomy 18:15).

Still, the leaders press antagonistically, demanding a statement, so John turns to Scripture and places his ministry in the context of words of the prophet Isaiah. They ask him about the meaning of his baptizing practices and he immediately does what he does best in the Fourth Gospel: he testifies to Jesus and his preeminence in the spirit of the words already mentioned in the Prologue at verse 15. And he makes a key observation about the Inquisitors: they do not know Jesus; here we should hear dramatic music or a gong or something of that sort since we are supposed to recall 1:11 at this point (“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”). John the Baptist and Jesus have not yet interacted in the narrative but we have been superbly set up for that pregnant imminent moment.

Act II: Jesus and John the Baptist Interact (verses 29-34)
The day after his run-in with the authorities, John the Baptist (JB) sees Jesus and testifies about his identity: “See the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Note the following:

1. Jesus takes away the sin of the cosmos (Greek: kosmos), not the church, just as in 3:16 we hear that God so loved the cosmos and in 4:42 the Samaritans recognize Jesus as the savior of the cosmos. Jesus himself declares in 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth [referring to his crucifixion], will draw all people to myself.” 

2. Try not to read the atonement theology that you are familiar with from Hebrews and perhaps Paul and certainly the Johannine Epistles into the Gospel of John. Jesus becomes a Paschal Lamb of sorts in that every holy metaphor, tradition and space dear to Judaism (and Samaritanism, for that matter) finds its fulfillment in Jesus according to the Johannine community, including the Temple (chapters 2 and 4), Moses, scripture (chapter 5:39ff), the manna in the wilderness (chapter 6), the various “festivals of the Judeans,” Abraham (chapter 8, especially verses 53-59), and so on.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the significance of Passover would in some way be fulfilled in Jesus for John. Indeed, in John Jesus is killed a day earlier than he is in the Synoptic Gospels. That is, by the time he is enjoying the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is already dead in John. In John, he is killed on the day when the Passover Lamb is sacrificed (for a helpful chart on this, go to http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Jesus-Death.htm ). 

But Jesus is never considered a ransom in John nor is he a “lamb led to the slaughter” whose death was a “humiliation” (as in Acts. 8:31-32). In fact, Jesus clearly and repeatedly states that he lays down his life of his own accord. He has the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again (10:17-18). No, John simply piles up metaphors on Jesus to impress upon you the significance, identity, and ultimacy of Jesus. He is simultaneously the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd (chapter 10) who knows his sheep and who asked Peter to feed his lambs (chapter 21).

In the rest of this Act, you find John the Baptist again testifying to Jesus, promoting Jesus, and demoting himself (cf. 3:30). Notice the emphatic, repetitive language. He sees (verse 32), he hears (verse 33), he moves from ignorance to knowledge (verses 32-33) by a revelation, and then he testifies: “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The whole Gospel of John was written for no other reason than to reveal Jesus to us, to provide a space for us to encounter him in his full identity. The author clearly tells you in 20:31 (probably the original ending of the Gospel): “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Act III: Come and See (verses 35-42)
The Final Act of John’s inaugural proclamation parallels the previous day. Once again John sees Jesus and testifies: “See the Lamb of God.” On the basis of hearing the testimony of another person, John’s disciples follow Jesus. It begins with Jesus directly addressing them: “What do you seek?” (Jesus always asks pointed, direct questions in John). He invites them to “Come and See.” They hang out with Jesus (Greek: meno, “abide”) which leads to their deep intimate encounter with him. This results in a rich, eternal-life-giving experience of their own with Jesus such that their faith is no longer derivative of someone else’s but is now based on their own intimate relationship with Jesus.

And so goes the pattern throughout John, as you see already in verse 41. Andrew has been found by Eternal Life and what does he do? He immediately testifies that Jesus is the Messiah (remember 20:31?) and invites his brother Simon to come and see/encounter Jesus for himself. An intimate encounter occurs and Simon follows. In the passage right after ours, Philip becomes a follower and immediately testifies to Nathaniel, using the same words as Jesus did: “Come and See” (1:46).

The Samaritan woman does the same thing in chapter 4. She hangs out and engages Jesus deeply, his identity is revealed to her, she is flooded by Eternal Life and she goes out to testify and to tell her fellow Samaritans to “Come and See.” They do come and they “hang out” with Jesus (verse 40) and they have a direct revelation of their own which leads them to testify: “They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

What are we waiting for? Let’s go testify for the sake of Abundant, Eternal Life!

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-7

Bo Lim

Isaiah 49:1-7 comprises the second of the so-called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), a designation that I indicated in last Sunday’s commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9 to be problematic.

Rather than be restricted to these select texts, the Servant theme appears throughout Isaiah 40-53.

A significant transition takes place in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) between chapters 48 and 49, such that chapters 49-55 could have been written in a different setting than chapters 40-48. Chapters 40-48 contain repeated references to Israel as Jacob, the Persian conqueror Cyrus, the fall of Babylon, and a way in the wilderness. Chapters 49-55 never mention Cyrus or Babylon, Jacob is no longer mentioned after chapter 49, and now the focus is on the ingathering of Israel from the diaspora. It is likely that the former chapters were written in Babylon and the latter were written in Yehud following the first phase of resettlement in Jerusalem following Cyrus’ decree. It appears a community did heed the call to “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea” (48:20), and the testimony of Isaiah 49-55 is this community’s legacy.

As chapter 48 draws to a close, the identity of the Servant remains open. Cyrus is no longer a possible candidate so the role of Servant defaults to Israel. At the end of chapter 48 the voice of an individual prophet emerges for the first time in 48:16b, “And now the Lord GOD has sent me and his spirit.” The Spirit that earlier anointed the Servant of Isaiah 42:1 now commissions an individual prophet to fulfill the role of the Servant. It will be this individual who will speak as the Servant of Yahweh throughout chapters 49-53 and will fulfill the role of the Servant spoken of earlier in chapters 40-48.

Both Isaiah 42:1-6 and 49:1-8 describe the Servant as ministering to the nations (42:1; 49:6), teaching the coastlands (42:4, 49:1), caring for justice (42:3-4; 49:4), and serving as a light to the nations and a covenant to the people (42:6, 49:6, 8). Just as 42:5-9 is a commissioning speech, so too 49:1-3 functions in the same manner. The one key development in chapter 49 is that the Servant, who is clearly identified as Israel (49:3), will now have a ministry to his own kin. The Servant is commissioned to “bring Jacob back to him” (49:5) and “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel” (49:6). His ministry is not merely to liberate the nations, but to revive and restore his own people.

Israel as God’s Servant has not been faithful to its role as God’s elect nation (cf. 48:1-2). Israel as God’s Servant is called to open the eyes of the blind (42:7), but is itself plagued with the same problem: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the LORD?” (42:19).

The prophet commissioned in chapter 49 is not a replacement of Israel as God’s Servant, but is commissioned to call Israel back to be faithful to its vocation as a light to the nations. God’s Servant is to be concerned for the local as well as the global. As important as it is to reach the nations, it is oftentimes the case that it is easier to reach out to strangers halfway across the globe than to one’s own family or neighbors. The people of God are never to neglect their own kin as exemplified by Jesus’ own willingness to go to Nazareth and Jerusalem.

It appears that the radical transformation announced as a new exodus in Isaiah 40-48 was not completely realized by the Israelites who returned home to rebuild their Temple following 538 B.C.E. Many Israelites refused to return, preferring their life in Babylon to the challenging task of rebuilding a desolated homeland. The prophet-Servant of Isaiah 49-53 is charged with the difficult task of persuading a reluctant and obstinate people to embrace a dangerous mission. As evidenced in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the returnees would face opposition and oppression from within and without the Judean community. Isaiah 49-53 captures the progression of resistance the prophet-Servant experiences. He first encounters an unresponsive audience, then experiences confrontations and insults, and eventually endures violence and death.

Second Isaiah makes clear that Servanthood involves prophetic ministry in the tradition of Jeremiah and the psalms of lament. Like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), the Servant is called to prophetic ministry while in his mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1). Unlike Cyrus who wields a literal sword and bow, the weapon a prophet employs is his preaching (Isaiah 49:2; cf. Hosea 6:5; Jeremiah 23:29). Like Jeremiah, faithfulness to one’s prophetic vocation may result in rejection and opposition, resulting in the prophet to question his call to ministry (Jeremiah 20:7-18).

John Goldingay observes that the lament of the prophet in 49:4 recalls the complaint of Israel in Isaiah 40:27-31.1 In that text Israel accuses Yahweh of disregarding the “right” or justice (mispaṭ, 40:27) of Israel and for this reason they have grown faint and lost strength (koaḥ, 40:29, 31). In Isaiah 49:4 the prophet-Servant complains to Yahweh, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength (koaḥ) for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause (mispaṭ) is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”

In contrast to this self-evaluation, Yahweh is much more positive in his assessment of his Servant. In 49:3 Yahweh states that he will be glorified in his Servant, such that in 49:5 the prophet can claim, “I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength.” Humans do not possess the means to properly assess their own ministries and achievements; only God can do so.

This text falls on the Sunday following the celebration of Jesus’ Baptism. The glorious event of Baptism is not a time to relish in victory. Baptism initiates God’s people into service for his kingdom which will result in experiencing disappointment and opposition. Yet faithful ministry is never in vain since reward and honor rests in God alone.

1John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2005), 370-71.


Commentary on Psalm 40:1-11

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 40, classified as an Individual Lament, consists of two seemingly distinct parts, verses 1-10 and verses 11-17, suggesting to many scholars that two originally separate psalms were joined at some point to form a single psalm.

In the psalm’s first ten verses, the psalmist recounts God’s deliverance from some life-threatening situation–described in verse 2 as “the desolate pit” and “the miry bog” (NRSV). The content of verses 11-17 resembles an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, which generally consists of three parts: (1) an Introduction, in which the psalmist declares the intention of giving thanks and praising God; (2) a Narrative, in which the psalmist tells what has happened that has prompted the words of praise; and (3) a Conclusion, in which the psalmist praises God for all that God has done (see Psalm 30 for a good example of an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving). For the most part, 40:1-10 consists of the Narrative of an Individual Hymn.

The lament portion of Psalm 40 begins with verse 11. Laments, like Individual Hymns of Thanksgiving, consist of distinct elements: (1) an Invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to listen (40:11, 13, 17); (2) a Complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong (40:12); (3) a Petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do (40:11, 13-15); (4) an Expression of Trust, in which the psalmist recounts what God has done in the past so that the psalmist has hope that God will help again (40:17); and (5) an Expression of Praise, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God (40:16).

In the lament portion of Psalm 40, the brief Expression of Trust (verse 17) states that the psalmist is “poor” and “needy” and that God is “my help” and “my deliverer.”  This commentator reads verses 1-10 as part of the Lament Psalm’s Expression of Trust and, therefore, as an integral part of the Individual Lament, rather than as a separate composition added to the beginning of the Lament. God, as “help” and “deliverer,” has brought this “poor” and “needy” one “up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog” (40:2). In addition, verbal parallels link verse 10 to verse 11, strengthening the case for the psalm being read as a whole. Verse 10’s two occurrences of “faithfulness” (‘emet) is echoed in verse 11, as the occurrence of “steadfast love” (chesed). 

Thus, let us explore verses 1-10 as part of the Expression of Trust of this Individual Lament, with verse 11 beginning the psalm’s Petition.

The reader learns in verse 1 that the psalmist has “waited patiently” (NRSV) for the Lord. The Hebrew verbal root here is qavah, which carries the idea of “hopeful anticipation” or “anxious waiting.” In addition, the syntactical structure of this verb in verse 1 is “Infinitive Absolute” plus “Perfect.” (Pull that Hebrew grammar off the shelf!) The Infinitive Absolute plus the Perfect emphasizes or intensifies the action of the verb. So, in Psalm 40:1, the psalmist is “actively, anxiously awaiting, with every fiber of the being” for the Lord. This is no quiet resignation–the psalmist is fully confident that God will come to the rescue.   

And God, indeed, rescues the psalmist from the “pit” (or, “well”–bor), the “bog” (or, “mire”–teet). A number of psalms use these words as symbols of death (bor–Psalms 7:15; 28:1; 88:6; 143:7 and teet–Psalms 18:42; 69:14). Thus, we may surmise that the threat to which the psalmist refers is not a minor life-event, but a serious situation in which the very being of the psalmist is threatened. 

God hears and sets the feet of the psalmist on a secure rock and puts a “new song” in the psalmist’s mouth. The phrase “new song” (sheer hadash) occurs six times in the Psalter (33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; and 149:1), but the best insight into its meaning comes perhaps in Isaiah 42:10 (the only place where “new song” appears outside the Psalter). Isaiah 42 is a song of celebration of the “servant,” discussed four times in the book (42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12). In the context of Isaiah 42, the “new song” marks a new beginning, a radical change from what has come before.  Psalms 96 and 98, classified as Enthronement Psalms, psalms which celebrate the kingship of God over all the earth, contain the same sentiment. Recognizing God as king establishes a new world order–no human king can surpass the power and majesty of Yahweh king. The singer of Psalm 40 celebrates a new beginning after being rescued from the “pit” and the “bog.”

Verses 4-10 address the outcome of the deliverance and the “new song.” The psalmist declares that those who trust in God will be “happy” (NRSV). The word translated in the NRSV as “happy,” and in the NASB and the NIV as “blessed” is ‘ashrey, from a Hebrew root that means “go straight, advance, follow the track.” It appears twenty-six times in the Psalter. While “happy” and “blessed” are acceptable translations for the Hebrew root word, a better translation seems to be “content.”  “Blessed” brings to mind the Hebrew word baruk, which carries cultic/sacred connotations. “Happy,” at least in our twenty-first-century context does not convey the full depth of the root word. A better translation is, in this commentator’s opinion “content,” which conveys a deep-seated sense of peace and feeling settled. 

The psalmist’s sense of contentedness (‘ashrey) comes not from listening to the words of the proud (verse 4), from pursuing things that only fleetingly offer satisfaction (false gods–verse 4), or from offering burnt or sin offerings–pious acts of worship (verse 6).  Rather it comes from trusting in God (verse 4). The word “trust” is derived from the Hebrew root batach, which means “to feel secure, be unconcerned, to totally rely on another.” When humans totally rely on God, they may not be immune to the exigencies of life–the pit and the bog, but they can see beyond the exigencies to a new vision–a new song, and summon all those around them to hear “the glad news of deliverance (verse 9). 

Thus, the faithfulness (‘emet) and steadfast love (chesed) of God is passed from one generation to the next (verses 10-11).

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Mark Tranvik

Letters typically begin with statements identifying the author of the epistle and the person or community being addressed. 

Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth is no different. Paul seeks to establish his own identity and the identity of the Christian community to which he is writing. Notable is Paul’s use of the word “call” as he seeks to underline his own authority (1:1). And the people of the church at Corinth are “called to be saints” (1:2), they “call on the name” of the Lord” (1:2), and they are “called into the fellowship” (1:9) of Christ. Given the prominence of this theme in our passage, it might be fruitful to interpret this text as a way of understanding what it means to be called. But first a word about the community at Corinth.

Corinth: A Holy Mess
Most preachers are aware of the challenge facing Paul at Corinth. The church is split by factions (1:10-17), charges of sexual immorality (chapter 5), questions about lawsuits (chapter 6), conduct at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), and the interpretation of speaking in tongues (chapter 14). And yet note that Paul does not hesitate to express gratitude for this community (1:4). He also reminds them (and us!) that they are holy (“sanctified”), which seems preposterous given the behaviors listed above. But this holiness is not something they have merited or produced. Rather it is a result of their relationship to Christ (1:2). He has made them holy and holy they remain, even if to outward appearances they appear to be something like sailors on shore leave.

Paul’s Call
In dealing with the situation at Corinth, Paul’s first move is to underline that he has been “called to be an apostle by the will of God” (1:1). Paul used similar language in addressing the church at Rome, where he immediately identified himself as one who is “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).  Paul is making an assertion about his identity in Christ. He is not appealing to his own human experience. Paul’s sense of call is not rooted in his education, though he was advanced beyond most in his understanding of Judaism (Galatians 1:14). Nor does it rest in his suffering, though he surely experienced trials far beyond that of the ordinary believer (1 Corinthians 4:11-12). As for status, Paul could claim the rights of a Roman citizen, but this is not relevant to his vocation.

Paul is remarkably modest when describing the incident behind his calling (see Galatians 2). While the events related in Acts are far more dramatic, Paul seems content to say that he was “set apart” (Romans 1:1; Galatians 2:15) in order to witness to Christ.

This might be a good opportunity for preachers to highlight the important role that baptism plays in the life of Christians. For Paul, this is when Christians are “set apart” by God (see Romans 6:1-11 and Galatians 3:27). There continue to be differences among Christians about what actually happens in baptism. However, few would dispute that our call in Christ is closely linked with our watery death in baptism. Like Paul, we can point to something outside of ourselves (namely God!) as the one who initiates, nurtures and sustains our life in Christ.

What Does It Mean To Be Called?
Our text also provides some hints about the shape of our calling in Christ. This is by no means an exhaustive inventory of the nature of Christian vocation. But Paul does suggest the following characteristics of a “called” community:

  • Think big, not small.
    Paul reminds the church at Corinth that not only are they “called to be saints” (1:2) but that they are linked “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2).  In other words, do not fall into the trap of thinking you have a monopoly on God’s attention!  Your issues and concerns might seem as if they are that matters. But in reality, not only is God much bigger than your problems but the church of Jesus Christ also extends far beyond the border of Corinth’s city limits.

Keeping the bigger picture in mind does not mean Corinth’s issues are minor. Paul’s passion to address the conflicts in church is evident throughout the letter.  However, severe conflict has the tendency to reduce our field of vision to a narrow tunnel. Paul seems to be declaring to the Christians at Corinth: You really are not that important! And…you are part of much bigger body.

  • You are a work in progress.
    One of the issues in Corinth was a faulty eschatology. That is, certain members of this remarkable community were given to “boasting” (see 3:21, 4:7). His words dripping with sarcasm, Paul says “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!” (4:8). In our text Paul acknowledges the church’s considerable spiritual gifts by noting that “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (1:5). But he also reminds the Corinthians that though they “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” they nevertheless “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7).

Paul has no doubt that the decisive event in the history of the world has begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this event is far from over! It continues until the Lord returns. This is the famous “already…not yet” quality of the Christian faith. Our calling is grounded in Christ, and we have Christ’s promise to strengthen our faith (1:8) until he returns. But we claim nothing for ourselves. We must be especially mindful of our tendency to see ourselves as a “finished product.” When we slip into this kind of thinking, there is a temptation to see ourselves as an island of light in an ocean of darkness. And self-righteous rigidity is sure to follow.