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Introduction To The Scripture For The Second Sunday After Epiphany - Year A
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Second Sunday After Epiphany - Year A


ISAIAH 49:1-7            Israel's mission as God's servant people is
further elaborated in another of the four Servant Songs found in the latter
part of Book of Isaiah.  Here the mission is not only to return the
Israelites to their homeland after two generations in exile in Babylon, but
to bring the good news of God's redemption to all the world.  The once
humiliated and enslaved people have been restored and especially chosen
this holy mission.  


PSALM 40:1-11            The psalmist rejoices and thanks God for recovery
from a serious illness.  Rather than making a ritual sacrifice or a special
offering, telling others in the congregation of his deliverance will be his
way of expressing gratitude.


1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-9      Paul's first letter to the Corinthians  begins in
the normal fashion for correspondence of that time.  Sosthenes may have
been the scribe to whom Paul dictated the letter.  Scholar debate whether
he had also been the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth during Paul's
ministry there (Acts 18:17).  In his opening prayer Paul thanks God for the
faith of the Corinthians.  They have been greatly enriched spiritually and
strengthened to live Christ's way until he comes again.  Their reward for
faithfulness is a life of fellowship with Christ.  


JOHN 1:29-42             This little vignette differs from the baptism 
narratives found in the other gospels.  John recognized Jesus as "the Lamb
of God who takes away the sins of the world."  This statement of faith had
roots in the ancient Jewish Passover ritual of sacrifice which the church
later adopted as a part of the order of worship for holy communion.  Note
that this gospel never states that John baptized Jesus.  Two kinds of
baptism are described.  John says that while he baptized with water, Jesus
would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  It is also John, not Jesus, who saw
the Spirit descending as a dove.
     

A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS


ISAIAH 49:1-7   Israel's mission as God's servant people is further
elaborated in another of the Servant Songs found in the latter part of the
Book of Isaiah.  Here the mission is not only to return the Israelites to
their homeland after two generations in exile in Babylon, but to bring the
good news of God's redemption to all the world.
     
The whole chapter is a twelve strophe poem consisting of two parts (vss.1-
13; 14-25).  It introduces the remaining segment of the prophetic poetry
scholars attribute to Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55).  The general theme
of these several chapters is the redemption of Israel from exile.  This
reading contains only the first three strophes of the poem and describe the
prophet's call and mission.
     
The specific description complicates the question of whether the servant
was an individual or the nation as a whole.  Vss.1-6 read as if an
individual is intended; but vs.7 appears to change the focus to the nation. 
At the same time, vs.3 definitely identifies the servant as Israel.  The
concept of the corporate personality identified as an individual indicates
that both may have been intended.
     
Several metaphors in vs.2 seem to point to a military event as the
historical context of this poetic oracle.  Hence the prophet may well have
been drawing these metaphors from what he saw happening around him.  The
capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Mede was such an event which subsequently
had great significance for the exiled Jews.  Yet the prophet is discouraged
(vs.4) that his faithful witness has had little or no effect upon either
his compatriots or his captors.
     
The inspiration the prophet received, however, is that his work has not
been in vain.  Not only is Israel to be brought back to its rightful
master, Yahweh; but as Yahweh's servant, he and they are given a still
greater mission: to be "a light to the nations" that Yahweh's "salvation
may reach to the end of the earth"(vs.6).  The despised nation which has
been subservient to many rulers will be seen to rise and receive the
obeisance of kings and princes because this is the will of Yahweh (vs.7).  
     
In spite of being interpreted as a messianic prophecy which Jesus
fulfilled, there is nothing in this passage to indicate anything other than
the very specific historic context and the promise of Israel's return from
exile.


PSALM 40:1-11   This is the first part of a composite psalm which
originally existed as two separate entities.  Proof of this may be found in
Psalm 70 where vss.13-17 occur independently.  Vs. 12 is a transitional
bridge between the two parts.  In this first section (vss.1-11) the
psalmist rejoices and thanks God for recovery from a serious illness.  The
second is an appeal for help in the face of enemies.
     
The occasion for this hymn of thanksgiving appears to have been the
psalmists return to congregational worship after a near fatal illness
(vs.9).  "The desolate pit" and "miry bog" in vs.2 are metaphors for his
expected death.  Miraculously he did not die; hence his rejoicing and
renewed trust in Yahweh expressed so vividly in vs.3.  This new-found faith
contrasts with some alternative rites he may have been tempted to pursue
(vs.4).  But his persistent trust in Yahweh triumphed and brought him a new
sense of divine grace not only to himself, but to his fellow believers with
whom he now worships (vs.5).  
     
His return to public worship has given him an opportunity to express
himself publicly.  Was he, perchance, a leading member of the Levitical
choir whose absence had left a great void in their performance?  Rather
than making a ritual sacrifice or an offering, telling others of his
deliverance will be his expression of gratitude.  He has been given a
wondrous insight into Yahweh's ways and will, so he cannot but speak of
this rich experience of steadfast love (vss.9-11).


1 CORINTHIANS 1:1-9   Paul's letter begins in the normal fashion for
correspondence of that time.  Sosthenes may have been the scribe to whom
Paul dictated the letter.  For whatever reason, Paul seems to have had
difficulty writing himself.  (cf. Gal.6:11)  Sosthenes may also have been
the leader of the synagogue in Corinth who was publicly beaten while the
proconsul Gallio ignored the Jews attack on Paul as reported in Acts 18:12-
17.
     
The letter is addressed to "the church of God that is in Corinth."
Undoubtedly the believers there met in some kind of assembly, designated by
the Greek word "ecclesia."  The LXX used this word to translate the Hebrew
"qahal," which meant "the people of God."  It had become one of Paul's
favorite terms occurring no less than 22 times in this one letter.  It
expressed how he saw the company of believers as set apart by God for a
divinely appointed vocation. (Cf.  7:20-21)

Their being sanctified (Gk.= hegiasmenois) and called "saints" did not
necessarily imply moral perfection.  It did mean, however, that they had
responded to the gospel in such a way that their lives could never be the
same.  To "call on the name of the Lord" as Paul uses the phrase here has
the sense of confessing Jesus as Lord, not simply praying to him.
     
Paul moves from the salutation to an introductory thanksgiving.  While this
may be normal for ordinary correspondence, in this situation it may ironic
compared with what follows in the later parts of the letter.  Yet we cannot
deny that Paul had a sincere love for those to whom he had brought the
gospel.  As a wise and loving pastor, he could only have confronted them as
he did if he held them very much in his heart.
     
In his thanksgiving Paul states briefly the inestimable value of Christian
faith by telling the Corinthians that they have been greatly enriched
spiritually and strengthened to live Christ's way until he comes again. 
William Barclay identifies three outstanding elements in this seemingly
mellifluous phrases: a promise has come true, a gift has been given, and a
promise that the end of all things will come ("The Daily Study Bible: The
Letters to the Corinthians." Edinburgh:St.  Andrew Press, 1954.) 
     
The introduction ends with Paul's assurance that their Corinthians reward
for faithfulness will be - even now is - strength for life's struggle,
freedom from guilt, and fellowship with Christ


JOHN 1:29-42   Like so much else in the Fourth Gospel, this baptismal
narrative differs from the other gospel narratives of the same event.  John
recognized Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." 
This became one of the main themes of John's Gospel.  Characteristically,
he puts this - his own confession - into the mouth of the Baptist and
relates it to his introductory presentation of "the man sent from God... 
to testify to the light." (1:6-8).  

The term "the Lamb of God" had its roots in the Jewish Passover ritual of
sacrifice.  Alan Richardson pointed out that the reference may be to
Abraham's offering of his first-born son Isaac in Gen. 22:8.  This was an
underlying theme of the baptism in Mark 1:8-11 which appears to draw on the
LXX of Gen. 22:12.  There seems little doubt, however, that the whole
panoply of offerings of unblemished lambs in the temple came to John's mind
as he began his narrative of Jesus ministry.  ("An Introduction to the
Theology of the New Testament." SCM Press, 1958.)  Barclay estimated that
as many as two hundred and fifty thousand were slaughtered during a single
Passover.
     
This symbolism of the lamb was later adopted by the church as part of the
order for the eucharist.  John himself had this in mind too in his
correlation of the death of Jesus with the hour when the pascal lamb was
killed. (See John 19:31-36)  Richardson believed that Jesus himself had
"thought out this profound re-interpretation of the OT plan of salvation
(rather) than that the church should have done so a decade or two later."
(p.181)
     
As abhorrent as the whole idea of animal and human blood sacrifice seems to
us now, it obviously meant a great deal to the apostolic church.  Yet even
as we search for a different metaphor for the mission of Jesus, we must
also ask whether our abhorrence may not be due more to the incalculable
amount of innocent blood spilled in the past century and our grave
technological errors made in ignorance and in greed when using human blood
for ostensibly life-saving purposes.  
     
Note that this gospel never states that John baptized Jesus.  John merely
tells his disciples that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize
with the Holy Spirit.  Note also that it was John, not Jesus, who saw the
Spirit descending as a dove.  Is this the Spirit brooding over the waters
of the Jordan on the day of creation and Noah's dove searching for a place
to settle?  Christian art uses the dove to decorate baptismal fonts,
Richardson points out, "to remind us that our baptism is efficacious only
because Christ was baptized and that in our baptism, as in his, the inward
reality of the action is the descent of the Holy Spirit." 
     
The next day, two of John disciples left John and followed Jesus, first out
of curiosity, then out of conviction.  Surprisingly, it was Andrew, Simon
Peter's brother, who made the first confession that Jesus was the Messiah. 
If the gospel came from John, the son of Zebedee, we have here an
independent tradition perhaps more accurate than that of the Synoptic
Gospels.  How else would we know the nearly facetious nickname Jesus gave
in Aramaic to this most unstable "Rock?"

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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