Lectionary Commentaries for January 15, 2012
Second Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:43-51

Paul S. Berge

In Lectionary Year B many of the texts are from the Gospel of Mark.  However, on this Second Sunday after Epiphany, we are suddenly blind-sided with a text from the Gospel of John.

This will happen frequently during this year so we need to spend a few moments to reflect on the surrounding context where this text appears in the Gospel of John. This is a marvelous text to proclaim in this season of Epiphany.

The Gospel of John opens with the familiar Prologue (1:1-18), which is followed in chapter one with four texts: (1) John’s witness to the Christ (1:19-28); (2) the first “next day” text identifying titles of Jesus by John (1:29-34); (3) the second “next day” text with the invitation and promise of Jesus (1:35-42); (4) the third “next day” text with the invitations of Jesus to Philip and Nathanael and the promise of the Son of Man (1:43-51).

Our text for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is the third “next day” text 1:43-51. This sequence of texts is significant for, following the Prologue, we continue to note identities of who Jesus is as the one who will be revealed throughout the Gospel of John. Prior to our text, Jesus is confessed as “The Lamb of God” (1:29, 36); “This is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33); “This is the Son of God” (1:34); and, “Rabbi” (1:38).

Following John’s confession of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God” (1:36), the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John are a question not only to the first followers but to every reader or hearer of the Gospel of John: “What are you looking for?” (1:38). This question will be responded to throughout the Gospel as Jesus is revealed to us as the one we are looking for. Jesus’ invitation and promise follows: “Come and you will see!” (1:39). In John’s Gospel these words of invitation (“come“) and promise (“you will see“) are spoken not only to the first followers but to everyone who hears these words. With this background in mind, we approach our text which continues the revelation of Jesus’ identity.

Our text begins in Galilee with Jesus inviting Philip with the familiar discipleship invitation: “Follow me” (1:43). A connecting link to other disciples is the note about Philip who is from the city of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter (1:44). Philip in turn finds Nathanael, who confesses to him who Jesus is, and links Jesus to representatives of the law and the prophets: “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).

The identity of Jesus not only fulfills the expectation of the Hebrew scriptures, but he is also the son of his earthly father, Joseph, from the city of Nazareth in Galilee. The reference to Nazareth in the hill country brings forth Nathanael’s questioning response: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip seemingly dismisses Nathanael’s assessment of Nazareth’s lack of importance with the invitation, “Come and see” (1:46).

The story line continues with Jesus identifying Nathanael: “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47). Nathanael is a person without guile; his words speak the truth. The exchange between the two now takes place with Nathanael perplexed about Jesus’ knowledge of him: “Where did you get to know me?” To which Jesus responds, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (1:48). An interesting note about the fig tree reference is that it traditionally denotes a place associated where Rabbis study the Torah. As a rabbinical teacher himself, did Jesus intend his response to reflect this?

However we try to puzzle on this, as does Nathanael, it really doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the confession of Nathanael that follows: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49). As noted in the previous verse, Jesus is not only addressed as a rabbi by Nathanael but is a rabbinic scholar of the Torah. To his identity as a rabbinic teacher, Nathanael confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, the same confession of John: “I myself have seen and have testified, ‘This is the Son of God'” (1:34). Nathanael’s confession continues as he identifies Jesus as the King of Israel. Jesus will be identified in the passion narrative as the King of the Jews by Pilate and the title he places on the cross.

Jesus returns to the fig tree identity and disarms any thought about his recognition of Nathanael under the fig tree with the promise that even greater things will be revealed: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” (1:50). These words of promise are only spoken to Nathanael as denoted by the singular “you.” I mention this because the English translation of the Greek pronoun does not distinguish between the singular and the plural “you.”

The final verse brings to completion the invitation and promise of the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John as we noted in the beginning of this study. Now the words of this verse are spoken to include you and all readers of this Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you (plural), you (plural) will see the heavens open, and the messengers of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51). This is the promise of the Gospel of John for all! The ascending and descending ladder recalls Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-17, and the naming of the place, “Bethel,” the house of God.

Jesus is the place where God dwells. Jesus is the Son of Man who will be lifted up (3:14; 8:23; 12:32-34) on the cross. The cross is the new “Bethel” (Gen. 28:12, 17, 19) where Christ completes the work of the Father: “It is accomplished/completed/finished” (19:30).

These opening verses of the Gospel of John lead us into the fulfilling promise of “Come and you will see” (1:39) throughout the Gospel of John and to Jesus’ death and resurrection.


First Reading

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

Callie Plunket-Brewton

The narrative of the calling of Samuel is replete with irony and foreshadowing.

The irony is bitter: Samuel thinks the voice calling him in the night belongs to Eli, but the voice belongs to YHWH, and the message is against Eli and his house. The oracle of doom for the house of Eli foreshadows the oracles Samuel delivers over the course of his life. A prophet’s call tends to set the tone for the prophet’s career, and Samuel’s call is no exception.

As the first prophet of ancient Israel in the period of the monarchy, Samuel exposes the threat of monarchs who are concerned with their own security and wealth rather than the well being of their people. He calls out against ruling families throughout his career, foretelling not only the end of the leadership of Eli and his sons but also the end of Saul’s kingship in 1 Samuel 13:13-15. Indeed, even in death he refuses to give any satisfaction to a desperate Saul (1 Samuel 28).

The oracles of Samuel are uncompromising and clear, and yet uncertainty and confusion cloud his first prophetic experience. 1 Samuel 3 begins: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli” and so emphasizes the youth of Samuel as well as the fact that he is under the authority of Eli. Both his youth and his social position relative to Eli would seem to present two serious obstacles to the delivery of this message. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (verse 1b) and “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (verse 7).

The narrator then adds a brief description of the state of Eli, noting that his “eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see” (verse 2). As if all of these things were not sufficient impediments to the coming of God to Samuel, the narrator adds one more. All of this happens before “the lamp of God had…gone out” and so establishes that this calling occurred during the night. (The lamp of God burned from evening until morning in the sanctuary, see Exodus 27:20-21.)

It might be tempting to see the description of Eli’s failing eyesight as a metaphor for a lack of vision in the aging priest, but Eli sees through all of the confusion of that night more clearly than does the young Samuel. He realizes that it is God calling Samuel in the night and instructs the boy in the proper response to a divine word (verse 9).

Indeed, he anticipates the content of the message — not surprising in light of 1 Samuel 2:27-36 which describes a similar oracle against Eli’s house by an unnamed prophet — when he urges Samuel not to withhold any part of it from him (verse 17) and then accepts the hard word against his family with the words, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (verse 18b). Eli’s eyesight may be failing, but his insight is sharp, and he responds to the oracle of judgment with dignity and humility.

In light of the very positive relationship that Samuel and Eli share, it is interesting that the reason for the judgment of Eli’s house is the relationship between Eli and his own sons. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, are blaspheming by eating the choicest parts of the sacrificial animals, the parts that are to be given to God (1 Samuel 2:12-17), and Eli has failed to restrain them. Even when confronted by those who are offering the sacrifice, the sons of Eli refuse to give the fatty parts of the animal to YHWH. Their appetites lead them to abuse their power, give insult to YHWH and put their own desires above the needs of the people they serve.

The tendency of the powerful to take advantage of the vulnerable is a chief concern of Samuel. When the people cry out for a king in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warns them against kings, who seek after their own good more than the collective good of their people. A king “will take the best” from his people and use it for his own betterment (1 Samuel 8:11-18). The ideal ruler of the people rules seeks only the good of the people and reflects the concern of YHWH for the poor and powerless.

It is significant that this book depicting the origins of the monarchy in ancient Israel begins with the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Hannah sings of the character of YHWH, a god who breaks “the bows of the mighty” and yet girds “the feeble” with strength (verse 4). This same God fills up the hungry (verse 5) and “raises up the poor from the dust” (verse 8). Just as the call of Samuel sets the tone for his prophetic career and foreshadows the oracles he will deliver against the human leaders of the people, the song of Hannah represents the central focus of YHWH’s leadership of the people: concern for the poor and powerless, and judgment of those who prey on the vulnerable and abuse their power.

While Samuel preached against a form of government that is less common in our day, his message, and the message of his mother, is still, sadly, pertinent. The poor and powerless are still at the mercy of the strong. Human appetite still destroys lives and livelihood. The task of the church is twofold: (1) to cry out against injustice and the abuse of power in the world, and (2) to hear and respond with humility to the message of judgment that challenges our own practices. There are some who would argue that the statement of 1 Samuel 3:1, regarding the rarity of visions in the time of Samuel, applies to our own time.

There are many voices competing for our attention and how many of us can say that we really know God well enough to recognize a word as being from God or someone else? There is one thing we can know, however. The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry. Perhaps the difficulty of this message is how easily it can apply to us. Are we in the position of Eli or, worse, his sons, eating our fill and denying both God and our neighbors their share?


Psalm

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

Fred Gaiser

In the conventional understanding, the Psalm in the weekly lectionary is chosen to meditate on the First Reading and, like that reading, to anticipate the Gospel.

In that case, the insistence that God has searched and known the psalm writer (the message and hope of Psalm 139, as noted by its use as a framework in verses 1 and 23) is used to reflect on God’s calling of Samuel and to point toward Jesus’ calling of Nathaneal.

Nathaneal quickly recognizes that Jesus’ knowledge of him is knowledge available only to God and immediately confesses this (John 1:49). The preacher on the Johannine text will rightly see Jesus’ access to divine knowledge (the knowledge confessed in our psalm) as another of John’s proclamations that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) — a true epiphany.

Psalm 139 combines praise of, appeal to, and wisdom meditation on this God who knows all and who encompasses all. The psalmist admits to God, in effect, “You know where I live,” which is to say, God can get at me as God wills and there is no place to hide. Normally, for us, the “I know where you live” line is seen as threat, and that certainly can be the case with God as well. Can this possibly be good news? The psalmist obviously hopes that it is, but only because he, like the lectionary, can draw this intensely personal plea into the whole story of Israel with God. This is precisely not the Athenians’ “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) — or any other generic deity, from whom we would almost certainly want to keep our address and phone numbers unlisted. Can you trust an unknown God?

The psalm is like others that understand God as a kind of final court of appeal to whom one can turn when unjustly accused (e.g., Psalm 7; 26; 69). This is not some claim of being without sin (see, e.g., Psalm 69:4-5), but rather a case-by-case insistence that those “wicked” who now accuse me of particular wrongdoing are simply wrong, or perhaps even unjust persecutors. So, “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23) — an appeal that can only be made out of trust in a known God, a God of justice, a God who liberates those wrongly held captive, a God of mercy and steadfast love.

Preachers should note that in order to understand the argument of this psalm they cannot limit their consideration to the verses chosen for the lectionary. The lectionary chooses verses for a particular purpose, but the preacher (if the sermon is genuinely to be on this text) must see those verses in their broader context. So, in this case, we really do need those unpleasant verses about hatred of the wicked.

The one praying is hemmed in by real enemies, real injustice, real “terrorists” — that is his claim — and the appeal is to a God who will not and cannot let that stand. Thus, search me and know me! Of course, on another day (or in another sermon) the psalmist and the listener might come to understand that the appeal to “see if there is any wicked way in me” (verse 24) might turn up things they would rather not have uncovered; but even then the God of this psalm is one to whom one could then flee in hope of mercy.

In Psalm 139, though, the psalmist must not flee to God, God comes to the psalmist. There is no place to flee (verse 7), and in these verses the psalm becomes a meditation on God’s amazing and incomparable “God-ness” (not unlike the meditations of Job) and a hymn of praise to the God who knows not only Samuel and Nathaneal but “me.” The psalm proclaims a relationship with God that is profoundly personal, but never private. God knows me, cares about me, seeks me out, formed me in my mother’s womb, knows me heart and soul, knows my anatomy inside and out — but this is not “my” God as in a God of my choice; this is Yahweh, a God with a name and a history, the God who chooses Israel and me, the God who sent Jesus, the God who calls me not only to look within but to look without to see others wrongly accused and to call them brothers and sisters.

This is a God whom the psalmist and we later readers and singers know within the “story” of the Psalter and of the Bible as a whole — that God — and the appeal to such a God will always be an appeal to draw me into the story and to make me new. The praise of that God will glory in the confession that God knows “all the days that were formed for me” (verse 16) without turning this poetic wonder into a wooden doctrine of predestination foreknowledge that robs me of the joy of being God’s fully human creature, a “real person to God,”1 the relationship that the psalm precisely means to praise so highly.

A surprising turn in the psalm is its insistence that even Sheol — the grave, death itself — cannot separate me from God. Elsewhere, the Psalter thinks it can (Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:4-6) — not because there is a limit to God’s power and grace, but because there simply is no “there” there — nothing with which God can relate. Death is death, so, prior to a doctrine of resurrection, I am just gone. Job, too, worries that even his “hope” will be lost if he succumbs to the invasive nothingness of death (Job 17:11-16); but our psalmist retains that hope. “God be at mine end, and at my departing,” he would be able to sing (almost certainly “he” in those days),2 anticipating the joy that comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5), where “neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

The psalm writer does not know all the details of Paul’s confession, does not yet know Easter, but he knows God — more, he knows that God knows him — so he is willing to open himself to wherever this God is taking him, confident that there can be no separation.


1James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 428.
2From “God be in my head” in the Sarum Primer (1538).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Frank L. Crouch

First Corinthians stands as a masterful example of a leader addressing a divided congregation and honestly critiquing the views of each side.

Prior to this passage, Paul repeatedly attempts to move people away from an attitude of “It’s all about me” to a focus on the one who calls and saves them.  He opens the letter with twenty references to God or Christ in the first ten verses.   He frequently reminds them of the source of their lives (1:28-31; 3:6-7, 11, 16, 21-23; 4:7) as he addresses a host of competing positions.

Various factions in the congregation label others as wise or foolish, weak or strong; fight over who was the best pastor before the current one; bring lawsuits against one another; argue over sexual morality, whether it’s better to be married or single, what makes a healthy marriage, what constitutes grounds for divorce, what are appropriate dietary practices; what is the correct understanding of resurrection and the afterlife; and on and on.  When conflict becomes that pervasive, no conflict management plans have any hope of succeeding unless the people involved can move beyond self-absorption, step back, and see a bigger picture of a higher calling.  Paul seeks to accomplish that.

This commentary will focus on two central elements of this passage.

“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial.  ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12-13).  Paul seems to be correcting a misinterpretation or over-application of one of his core ideas (see also Galatians 5:1, Romans 8:1-2).  Teachers and preachers often find themselves in the dismaying position of hearing a key point applied in ways they never imagined.  This particular idea, that Christ has set us free, lies near the center of the gospel.  But Paul begins to clarify its limits.

Christ does not set us free so that we can do whatever we want to do; Christ sets us free so that we can do whatever God wants us to do.  Paul’s message does not proclaim individual or communal license.  For example, Paul argues that over-indulgence in food represents a misunderstanding of who we are as people of God (verse 13a).

This is an alien concept in an American culture where over a third of adults are obese and we have the Food Network.  It’s not that eating things we like is bad (all things are lawful).  However, eating things we like without regard to larger considerations can be harmful to our individual health and harmful to the health of society (not all things are beneficial).  A third of the US adult population is obese, and almost a billion people on the planet live in constant hunger (see websites for Bread for the World or US Department of State, Office of Global Food Security).  This is as much as anything else a spiritual problem, individually and communally.

Paul notes one trap of focusing too much on our own freedom.  What we start to do freely (because we want to, like to, or just because we can) can become our master.  As the Eagles’ song goes, “these things that are pleasing you hurt you somehow” (from “Desperado”).  I can, freely, ignore a healthy diet, not exercise, start smoking, get drunk daily, take cocaine, buy on credit until I’m drastically in debt, and be mean to family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. 

Soon, what I chose freely — any one of them — can dominate my life.  I will no longer be free. The cosmos does not actually revolve around me.  God, by grace, can set us free from those dominations, but even though the power to be free will is immediate, the way back to health will still be long and hard.  Paul cautions us to choose our paths carefully lest the things we freely choose become our undoing or become an imposition on our neighbors and, collectively, foster suffering or oppression.

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).  Again, Paul’s words here have both individual and communal implications.  In the original Greek, the pronouns in this verse are plural.  Since he’s addressing a community his words should be understood both as addressing individuals (each of you in this community) and the entire group (all of you together). 

So, it is appropriate to understand this personally — “my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within me” — and communally — “this body of people, part of the body of Christ, is a temple of the Holy Spirit within us.”  What I do (or don’t do) in my body matters.  What we do (or don’t do) as a body of believers’ matters.

This takes us back to Paul’s over-arching purpose in this letter, to focus our attention on the fact that our lives originate in Christ (we were bought with a price) and that we live not for our own sakes but for the sake of God’s purposes.  My individual body is not mine.  It is God’s creation to be used for God’s purposes.  The body of Christ — congregationally, denominationally, and across the globe — is not ours.  It is God’s creation to be used for God’s purposes.

The fights, the desires, the pettiness, the selfishness that can consume us are all diversions from, perversions of that for which we were created.  We were bought with a price, to glorify God in our bodies. This remains true for both individuals and groups.  Paul calls the people back to the fundamental reality of their lives — it’s not “my” life and it’s not “my” church.  Only when an individual or a congregation gets that can they be free.  And, if they get it, the freedom is glorious for each individual, for the congregation, and for God.