The 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
I Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

The Servant of the Lord begins a mission to become a light to the nations.

Isaiah 49:1-7

The prophetic reading for this Sunday continues the Isaiah passages about the Servant of the Lord. Here the Servant himself speaks. He has now served for some time at his mission, but a crisis has been reached and he has received a new word from God, widening his mission.

The Servant has lived through the struggle to keep Israel on the righteous way, but has failed. “I have labored in vain, / I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity …” (verse 4, NRSV). Israel has persisted in stubbornness and received the devastating judgment upon faithlessness. The exile has happened. The Servant, therefore, relies on God for the future of this lost cause (verse 4b).

However, a new word has come to the Servant from God. The Servant is going to quote this new word, but first he recites his own résumé as determined by past relations with God. God “formed me in the womb to be his servant, / to bring Jacob back to him, / and that Israel might be gathered to him, … my God has become my strength” (verse 5).

The new word from God is a new assignment for the Servant.

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
          to raise up the tribes of Jacob
          and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
          that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (verse 6)

What came out of the long struggle of Israel for faith and righteousness is now to be the basis for an enlightening of the nations. Israel has proven by its experience that waywardness from God leads only to disaster. The way of truth about the one creator God and faith in God as the only source of salvation has been learned through Israel’s experience—with its prophets—and is now the message for all humankind. The Servant is the personal embodiment of that experience and that truth to the nations.

There is one final note. Israel’s earlier story led to disaster. Israel is scattered, imprisoned, despised. The Servant will also embody that experience. Precisely in that despised state, however, God has a word of assurance for his Servant.

Thus says the Lord,
          the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
          the slave [servant] of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
          princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
          the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (verse 7)

The Servant will be despised and will suffer terribly before the nations, but there will be a vindication, a manifestation that God is true to the Servant, even beyond death. The last of the Servant passages (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) presents the completion of that personal drama for the Servant.

Psalm 40:1-11

The Psalm reading is the Servant’s response to God’s mission.

First, he has experienced personal delivery from distress.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
          he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
          out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
          making my steps secure (verses 1-2, NRSV).

Then he proclaims what was learned by Israel’s experience with God.

Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
          to those who go astray after false gods (verse 4).

And especially, the servant commits himself to the mission God has assigned him.

Then I said, “Here I am;
          in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
          your law is within my heart” (verses 7-8).

I Corinthians 1:1-9

The Epistle reading presents another kind of beginning. It is the beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. Before this letter is finished Paul will have covered many aspects of the life of a new servant people, a people with a lively sense of the power and diversity of the gifts of the Spirit.

(Every year, the Lectionary assigns readings from I Corinthians to the Sundays after Epiphany, in year A selections from I Corinthians 1-4, later chapters in other years. In some years there can be up to seven such readings before Lent, and 2011 is a year in which Easter comes late enough to allow all seven of those readings.)

In his opening thanksgiving for the Corinthian believers, Paul strikes certain overall themes.

“…[I]n every way you have been enriched by him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (verse 5, NRSV). These Greeks and Romans of Corinth are fond of their wisdom (played upon by Paul in chapters 1-4).

They also esteemed themselves for their charismatic powers (addressed by Paul in chapters 12-14).

They enjoy these gifts, however, in an atmosphere of expectation, expectation of a consummation: “…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 7).

The now revealed Servant of the Lord, spoken of in Paul’s gospel message, has brought spiritual powers to his servants, and these gifts witness to the faithfulness of God the Lord. “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son…” (verse 9).

The work of the Servant is spreading through the nations.

John 1:29-42

(On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, every year of the Lectionary cycle, the Gospel selection is taken from the Gospel according to John, chapter 1 or the beginning of chapter 2. These readings are testimonies to the beginning of Jesus’ mission.)

The Gospel reading brings further testimony concerning John the Witness (he is never called “the Baptist” in this Gospel) and his relation to Jesus (continuing last Sunday’s topic). In this theologically driven account we hear John speaking very plainly—in the hearing of his disciples apparently. He declares Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” a distinctively Johannine phrasing, which we will not pursue here. (See the “Special Note on the Lamb of God” below.)

John further reports that he did not know Jesus’ real identity before, when he was baptizing in anticipation of the coming of the Lord. But now he has witnessed the descent of the Spirit as a dove upon Jesus—a feature upon which all the Gospels agree. For John, this coming of the Spirit indicates conclusively that Jesus is the Son of God (verses 32-34). John is here a Witness to what in other Gospels is spoken directly by the Voice of the Lord.

The second part of the reading (verses 35-42) moves from John to some of his disciples, who literally become followers of Jesus. John repeats his affirmation about the Lamb of God in the hearing of two disciples, who then take off and go after Jesus. One of these disciples we soon learn is Andrew, Simon’s brother. The other disciple remains unnamed, which is a very loud and meaningful silence in this Gospel. (He is often thought to be “the one whom Jesus loved,” see 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7 and 20.)

There is a striking pattern of details-with-mysterious-overtones in this passage. Various circumstances are mentioned in the narrative which seem trivial but which may be loaded with covert meanings.

For example, the disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying,” which sounds like a loaded question if one recalls that other loaded question much later in the Gospel, Where are you going? (see chapters 14 and 16). Then, to keep the story down to earth, “they came and saw where he was staying,” though we are told nothing of where that was or even what kind of place is meant. If nothing is made of “where” Jesus “stayed,” why include this kind of detail? As before, the seemingly simple statement invites further meditation. We are also told, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon [literally, “the tenth hour,” daylight time].” This time reference seems to play no part in the narrative—it is not getting especially late for travel, for example. Why is the time reference worth mentioning?

One may strongly suspect that there are several such “plants” in the story line which a skilled teacher would unpack with mysterious lore for the initiated—in private, not in the public recitation of the Gospel. (That is how the “Eucharistic” references are treated in 6:48-58, clear references to the Lord’s Supper for those who “know,” but bafflingly opaque for the uninitiated. The bread and wine elements of the Lord’s Supper are never described in the Gospel of John, and therefore the details of the meal had to be explained, or demonstrated, in non-public sessions.)

The passage concludes with Jesus’ ordination of Peter. In the course of his mission the Servant of the Lord will create many servants of the Lord to bear further powers of the Spirit of God. When this man—known elsewhere as a fisherman—comes into Jesus’ circuit, he gets a new name. He was known as Simon, an ordinary given name in the family. He will now be known as Cephas, the Aramaic word for Rock, and our writer explains that Rock, translated into Greek, is Peter.

The servants of the Lord are being recruited for the mission of one who is the light to the nations.

Special Note on “the Lamb of God”

John (elsewhere known as the Baptizer) sees Jesus and declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and a bit later repeats to two of his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29 and 36) The phrase “the Lamb of God” (the Greek for “lamb” is amnos) occurs only in these two verses of John and has no exact source in the Jewish scriptures or in other writings of the New Testament period. It is not used later in the Gospel of John, though a similar word for “lamb” (arnion) is used for the mighty risen Lord several times in the book of Revelation.

A long succession of discussions from B.F. Westcott (1881) to Dwight Moody Smith (1999) has sought the precise meaning of “the Lamb of God,” and what the source of the idea may have been. Discussions that are recognized as landmarks in these quests are C.H. Dodd (Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 1953, pp. 230-238); C.K. Barrett (an NTS article on “The Lamb of God” of 1954, summarized in his Gospel according to St. John, 1955 and 1978 editions); Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, I-XII, 1966, pp. 58-63); and Rudolph Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St. John, Vol. I, tr. Kevin Smith, 1968 [German 1965], pp. 297-301). Not often cited but suggestive also is Walter Bauer, Das Johannes-Evangelium, “Handbuch zum N.T.,” 1933, pp. 35-36.

A first question is whether we are seeking the meaning of “the Lamb of God” as some historical John the Baptist might have used it, or if we are seeking the meaning of “the Lamb of God” as Christians used it, up to the time of the composition of John’s Gospel. If we are seeking John the Baptist’s meaning of the Lamb “that removed the sin of the world,” we look for background in the Hebrew scriptures and apocalyptic literature of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE.

“Lambs” that are important in the Hebrew scriptures include:

  1. the lambs offered in the Jerusalem temple every day as a “continual” burnt offering morning and night—e.g., Exodus 29:38-42 [Greek uses amnos for lamb];
  1. the Passover lamb, sacrificed during the day before the Passover meal, which was eaten during the night commemorating the Israelites’ escape from the angel of death – Exodus 12:21-27 [Greek uses probaton for lamb];
  1. the Suffering Servant, in the critical passage about his sacrificial death, is said to be “like a lamb [probaton] that is led to the slaughter, / and like a sheep [amnos] that before its shearers is silent, / so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, NRSV);
  1. lambs or rams sometimes appear as symbols of messianic leaders in end-time struggles in Jewish apocalyptic writings, such as First Enoch 89:42-49 [arēn as lamb; krios as ram]; a passage in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Joseph 19:8, given by Dodd as, “there came forth a lamb [amnos], and on its left all the beasts and all the reptiles attacked, and the lamb overcame them and destroyed them” (Dodd, op. cit., p. 232), showing the lamb as a rather fierce warrior; and in the book of Revelation there is a Lamb [arnion] who on the one hand is sacrificed—“for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God / saints from every tribe and … nation” (Revelation 5:9)—but later in the book the Lamb also appears as a powerful warrior (17:12-14) and then as a bridegroom (19:6-8).

None of these sources is fully convincing as the origin of the phrase “the Lamb of God,” though most recent scholars think the phrase is a kind of amalgam or combination of at least the Passover Lamb and the Suffering Servant. (C.H. Dodd and G.R. Beasley-Murry [John, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 36, 2d ed.] urge the Messianic meaning as taken over by Christians from Jewish apocalyptic traditions.)

When one takes seriously that “the Lamb of God” is a Christian phrase (not from the historical John the Baptist), it begins to fit the larger world of the Gospel and of late 1st century Christianity. The Lamb of God sums up the heritage of sacrificial lore from Israel’s past and puts it in the mouth of John the Witness. After him, the new faith will move beyond it.

In that past heritage, the Passover overtones may be most important. Schnackenburg describes the environment for the Christian Passover theology reflected in the Gospel.

Once due attention is paid to the symbolism of the lamb, the context of the paschal lamb cannot be excluded, since it played such a part in early Christianity [I Corinthians 5:7; I Peter 1:19; and Luke 22:15-18] and was used in Jn 19:36 to bring out the significance of Jesus’ death. The paschal lamb of the N.T. dies, according to the Johannine chronology, just when the paschal lambs of the Jews are being slaughtered in the temple, and none of his bones are broken [a requirement for the Passover lamb, Exodus 12:46]. …[T]he actual setting would be the primitive Christian “Passover” celebrations which took the place of the Jewish Passover and gave it a totally new content. (Gospel according to St. John, I, p. 299.)

Walter Bauer added a note about this specifically Christian background. “It is certain that the conception of Christ as a lamb is rooted in the Old Testament. However, it is equally certain that it was current in the Christian community of the time of the composition of the Fourth Gospel (I Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 5:6, 12 and often in Revelation). Further, the whole expression most likely came from liturgical speech, and could indeed be a line from a hymn, a “Song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:3). (W. Bauer, Das Johannes-Evangelium, pp. 35-36, my translation.)

Having started in Christian liturgy, “the Lamb of God” was to have a long future in the musical and visual art of the Western world!

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