Epiphany 2A: Called by Name

DIGITAL CAMERAOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 49: 1-7

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This week’s Old Testament passage is the second of those writings known as the “servant songs” that we discussed last week. In this one, it is the servant (and not God) that is presented to the world. You can imagine him stepping forward and speaking as God once did. He tells of his calling, which has already taken place. This seems to be a calling that was made to a specific individual, rather than to the whole nation of Israel. But in verse 3, “Israel” is unmistakably mentioned. Some may think that rather than this intending to mean “Israel, my servant”, is may just as easily mean: “You are Israel. You are my servant.” But either way, Israel is called to follow God.

The servant here knows himself (or herself!) as having been called by God and accepts the role that God has laid out as the speaker to the nation. The servant understands himself as a “light to the nations”. This is the one time that the servant is depicted as an individual. In this case the “call” moves from a wider scope to a more narrow one, from communal to individual. But either way, the servant’s role is to lead the community toward God.

This passage begins with a reference to the nations, even to those peoples “far away”. So what God is doing here in Zion is meant to be witnessed by all. This is not a private affair. Essentially, the nations (all of them) are to be illuminated through the servant’s activity and existence. A light is not a focus of attention on itself, but serves to open eyes to something that was previously not perceived. So because of this servant and, then, because of Israel, all nations are called forth into the light of God. Here, “to be a light to the nations” does not mean necessarily going out and converting. It means, rather, to be faithful to God in such a way that others will notice.

The servant, as part of the acceptance of his role, asserts his true and total dependence upon God. He lays out that his whole life, even from birth, has been set with God’s purpose for this specific vocation. But the results still seem to be hidden and the servant becomes skeptical of the outcome. But, as the passage implies, being chosen is just that—it may not mean understanding everything but rather being open to following. The servant, chosen and named, has no escape from the task for which he has been summoned. The servant is well equipped for the work that he or she is called to do—gathering and being light.

a. What comes to mind upon your reading of this passage?
b. What does this image of the “light” to the nations mean to you?
c. What is the difference between “converting” and being faithful enough that others will be led to God?
d. What do you see it took for this servant to totally accept his God-offered role?
e. So what does this mean for us?

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

To read the Lectionary Epistle text, click here

Corinth is located about forty miles to the south-southwest of Athens on the isthmus that links that area to the rest of Greece. In ancient times, then, the city was very strategic commercially and, for Paul, religiously. Because of its location, it boasted a wide religious diversity. Politically, it was a colony of the Roman Empire, which assured a special relationship with Rome and the Roman government. It sort of had a reputation, then, of a seemingly wealthy community without a lot of depth to it. Many viewed it as having a lack of culture. Paul probably arrived in Corinth in 50 CE, after he had established churches in Philippi and Thessalonica. We learn in what we call “The First Letter to the Corinthians” that there was at least one previous letter, which we do not possess.

It seems that, in an attempt to follow Paul’s guidance in that first letter, there are members of the church that have tried to distance themselves from seemingly “immoral” people. So, in our “First Letter”, Paul reminds them that they are a community. To be a believer apart from the community is inconceivable for Paul. This is where we get the parts of the letter that talk about the different faith maturities and different gifts.

In the passage that we read, we once again encounter more “call” language. It is clear that both Paul and every member of the community is “called”. He affirms what they have done so far, but he also leads them to see that this is just the beginning of their own journey of living out their call. Once again, with the call comes complete dependence upon God and for that we are reminded to be thankful for that and for others. Paul’s relationship to other believers and his thankfulness to God are linked and is not based on whether Paul likes them or agrees with them, but on the simple fact that God’s grace is active in them. Paul reminds us that our lives in Christ are never just our own but always involve how we relate to those around us. Essentially, he begins to confront what is becoming a sort of growing “spiritual arrogance” for the Corinthian church or the sense of one’s own self-importance and “rightness” when it comes to the faith.

This whole idea of how we see ourselves as Christians takes us back to that “light to the nations” image. It confirms that none of us have “arrived” and that we are all still on the journey. It is again a call to “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention…” as we read in this week’s first passage. It is a call for us to always be open to discerning who and whose we are for those of us who call ourselves “Christian”.

a. What does this passage mean for you?
b. What for you is meant by Paul’s image of this call by God—dependence upon God as well as relationships with others?
c. In essence, Paul is claiming that the way we see ourselves as relating to God affects the way we see ourselves relating to others.        What meaning does that hold for you?
f. How do you think those images affect relationships with others?
g. Are there any that might contribute to that whole idea of “spiritual arrogance” that Paul warned against?
h. So what does the call to be a “light to the nations” mean after reading this passage?

GOSPEL: John 1: 29-42

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This passage is part of what is essentially the writer of John’s “prelude” to Jesus’ ministry. Verses 1-18 celebrate Jesus’ origins, even back to “the beginning” of Creation; Verses 19-34 narrates the initial witness of John the Baptist to Jesus; and Verses 35-51 depicts the gathering of Jesus’ first disciples.

So we begin in the middle of the John the Baptist section as John is shown as unafraid to speak the truth about his identity and his ministry. He boldly announces the truth to anyone who will listen. Verse 29 begins the highlight of John’s testimony and rather than just hearing “about” it, we get to hear the witness first hand. Jesus sort of stands on the sidelines at the beginning. John then identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He is pointing away from himself; he is pointing toward Jesus. Note that sin is singular here. It is talking about the collective brokenness of the world, rather than our individual sins. He is pointing to Jesus as the Savior not of us as individuals but of the world. And then John seems to step aside.

Then we switch to the beginning of the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Note here that two disciples follow Jesus as a direct result of John’s witness. John showed them the light. After this John simply disappears from the scene. The verb “to follow” has both a literal meaning, but it is also often used as a metaphor for discipleship. This is a distinctive trait of the writer of John’s style. The first two disciples are not both given names in this call narrative. This anonymity is reflective of the writer’s understanding of discipleship as a broader vision. (In essence, the “other disciple” could be us!) There is, for example, no formal catalogue of the twelve disciples in John. Discipleship is meant for all of us. And when Jesus calls us to follow, the answer is always “come and see”. You have to come and see for yourself.

Walter Brueggemann describes our response as “finding a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.”

“And what do you do?” we ask one another at a party. We get a list of accomplishments or a résumé, and sometimes we are caught off guard by the resigned description of a sad life. When that happens, we want to find another guest, one who follows the rules and says, “I’m in real estate. And you?” What if we asked more of one another in our introductions? What if we skipped the world’s definitions and moved instead to God’s? The guest responds, “I work in real estate, but what I really am is a creature that God knit together in my mother’s womb. My family wants me to move into commercial development, but sometimes I wonder if I’m an arrow God hid away in a quiver, and I’m about to be shot out into creation. The world tells me I don’t make enough money to get my monthly credit card bills down, but my faith tells me I could be a light to the nations.”

Isaiah wanders over from the canapé table and says, “I couldn’t help but overhear your words, and I know exactly what you mean. I have labored in vain, yet surely my cause is with the Lord.” “And our reward with God,” says the realtor. The party goes on around them, but they have been caught up in something new. Jesus hears John introduce him again. This time John is standing with two men who will turn out to be the first disciples, and John announces, “Here is the Lamb of God.” That’s enough to make the men follow him, but Jesus seems to want to clarify.

“Who are you looking for?” he asks. The disciples aren’t interested in the question. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they ask. The disciples are not looking for small talk, or more introductions. They are looking for a way of life. “Come and see,” Jesus says, as if to suggest that we do know one another not by titles or names but ultimately by how we live. How ordinary. Jesus has gone from being the Lamb of God to a guy having some other guys over to his place.

But then Simon Peter’s brother brings him to Jesus and says, “We have found the Messiah.” Is Jesus irritated with the grand introduction? Apparently not, for he responds by giving Simon an entirely new name. In the end, it is Jesus who makes the introductions and Jesus who gives the new life. (From “Grand Introductions”, by Lillian Daniel, in The Christian Century, January 2-9, 2002, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2256, accessed 12 January, 2011.)

a. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b. What does a “call” mean for you?
c. What does it say about our own call?
d. What stands in the way of our response?
e. What meaning does John’s “stepping aside” mean for you?
f. And how does this speak to the call to “be a light to the nations”?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The desire to fulfill the purpose for which we were created is a gift from God. (A. W. Tozer)

Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from a listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I’d like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. (Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 4)

The message of Jesus Christ demands a response of the hearer’s whole life. (Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Movement that Moved America)

Closing
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.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self evident, that all persons are created equal.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
Who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of [humanity]…I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds
And your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mount shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, I my God; your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
See, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of [unity]. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together…to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning—“my country ‘tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing;

Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me;

And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

Let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever. Amen.

(Compiled by Shelli Williams from the words of Psalm 40: 1-11 and excerpts from “I Have a Dream”, a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

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