Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 19, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 49:1-7 Psalm 40:1-11 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 John 1:29-42

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Last Sunday we talked about the mission of Jesus. We found especially in the Isaiah passage, an understanding of what the expected one was to do that fit Jesus quite well. We treated it from that point of view.

Today’s passage shows that whoever spoke these words in what is often called Second Isaiah, there was a strong sense of himself being called. The writer responds affirmatively to the call, but he is also struggling with it. The struggle is chiefly to accept his failure to accomplish what he feels called to do. He feels that God has not only called him but also equipped him, but still nothing happens.

Or, instead, we might say that the calling is deepened and extended. It was first, perhaps, a call to “raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel.” Now the call was to become a light to the nations. Further, God reassures him by affirming that although he is now despised by those to whom he tries to bring light, eventually they will serve the God of Israel.

In this passage, the content of the mission is less clear than the scope. It is almost certainly a call for all to recognize the God of Israel as the one true God. It probably has also the content explicit in last week’s passage of acting justly. This passage makes it clear that the expectancy expressed in some passages in the Hebrew scripture can be paired with others that express personal responsibility for actualizing the vision of universal justice.

If we read today’s psalm in this perspective, we find someone with whom most of us can identify more fully. Some of us feel strongly the call to save the world, but, for most, the content of the call is more personal and local. This is true of the writer of this psalm. He feels called to sing a new song of praise to God because of his own experience of grace. His mission thus, is to testify to the goodness of God and call others to orient their lives in service to God.

Although this mission seems far simpler and less controversial than “saving the world,” it also evokes opposition and hostility. The writer begs God for protection from these numerous enemies. There is for him a tension between his confidence in God, on the one side, and his experience of continuing threat. He asks God not to wait too long to act in his behalf.

We may wonder why testifying to his experience of God’s grace would arouse so much opposition. The passage gives us a clue. It is left undeveloped, but the clue is quite clear. In addressing God, he says “Sacrifice and offering, thou dost not desire.”

This is as standard teaching of the prophets. They oppose the idea that God is pleased by religious ceremonies. Elsewhere the positive statement of what God does require is explicit. It is justice and mercy. Both the negative and the positive sides of this message, which was presumably what the psalmist proclaimed, aroused anger.  

The negative side offended the religious establishment. “Burnt offerings” and “sin offerings,” which the psalmist also includes explicitly as not required by God, were central to the religious life of Israel as of many other peoples. Without them the religious establishment would collapse.

The positive side offended the political and economic establishment. They did what they needed to do to maintain their authority, power, and wealth. The prophetic call for justice was a direct and explicit attack on many of their practices.

If the psalmist had only testified to his personal experience of God’s grace, it is doubtful that he would have had many enemies. He could have invited others to open themselves to that grace without offense. The same is true today. That does not mean that such testimony is inappropriate. On the contrary, it is of utmost importance. We all need to experience that grace.

However, when this emphasis on personal experience is separated from a fuller understanding of God, it remains a place to begin and not the place to end. The prophetic dimension of Hebrew faith is its unique and invaluable contribution. But wherever it appears, it is threatening to existing authorities, religious and secular. Our scriptures make that clear. They also make it clear that those who respond to the call to participate in the prophetic mission should not expect to be shielded from the consequences. When we are too popular and too comfortable, we have to suspect that, from the point of view of the prophets, our understanding of God is truncated.

When we turn to the New Testament passages, we find much continuity, but a new focus. For the writers here, an event of world historical importance has happened. The dream, the expectation, the prophecy in which the prophetic tradition of Israel culminated has been fulfilled in Jesus. The expected one has come. Both Jews and Gentiles are now invited into the new universal community established by that coming.

Accordingly, Paul introduces himself as one who has been called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. He is writing to those who are “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of course, this raises a new question which affects both of our New Testament passages. The claim that someone fulfills prophecies is easy to make, but its justification is more difficult. Responding to this challenge is a pervasive feature of the New Testament. Even in this introductory passage of a letter, Paul refers to it. Paul writes: “the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you.”

Paul’s testimony may have been to the vision on the road to Damascus which was also his calling to be an apostle. The confirmation was experiential. The Corinthians found that they “were not lacking in any spiritual gift.” This basic pattern of justifying the claim to Jesus unique fulfillment of Hebrew expectation is still required. We, too, point to what happened in the origins that gave rise to this belief and to our experience. We also note what has happened in the intervening millennia.

Our formulations will necessarily differ from earlier ones. In the early church, that Jesus was a descendant of David, and was born in Bethlehem of a virgin mother, was an important indication that he fulfilled the prophecies scattered through the Hebrew Bible. Today it is almost meaningless. On the other hand, the prophecy that Jewish faith in God would be spread throughout the world by or through the expected one has certainly been fulfilled. Sadly, even when the nations have worshiped the God of Israel, they have often fallen far short of the justice and mercy with which the prophets associated that worship.

With respect to contemporary experience, there are hundreds of millions who testify that, for them, spiritual experience confirms that Jesus was indeed the one. And we can all point to great achievements in recent history that testify to him: Gandhi, King, and Mandela are but the special pinnacles of a large mountain range. Sadly, our collective experience is like that of the ancient prophets, those who serve God most faithfully are opposed, often persecuted, by the majority of those who also claim to be disciples of Jesus.

The gap between what has happened and the vision in the name of which it has happened is such that, from the beginning, the claim about Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy has been qualified. Paul points forward in expectation to “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as ancient Hebrews lived in expectation of a future fulfillment, so do those who believe a crucial step toward that fulfillment has already occurred. We are not likely today to think of what we hope for as “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but in the name of Jesus Christ we still hope that, out of the chaos and self destruction of our history, we can work with God to bring about the peace and justice of the ancient prophecies.

The gospels all contribute to this kind of thinking. The gospel passage we are now reading deal with one specific form of the question of whether our focus should really be on Jesus. They testify to the fact that Jesus appeared in the context of an important spiritual revival led by John the Baptist. His baptism by John made him a part of that movement. There were others in the movement who took pride in what Jesus did, but identified it as one part of a larger movement led by John the Baptist. No doubt for many, this seemed the reasonable interpretation of events. The followers of Jesus did not want to disparage John, but they did believe that it was Jesus and not John who constituted this turning point in history.

The synoptic accounts make this argument quite briefly. The fourth gospel belabors it. After the prologue, the first words are “and this is the testimony of John. “ He denied that he was the expected Messiah. Instead he described himself as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” He understood his own role as preparing the way for Jesus. Therefore, of course, those who followed John should share his emphasis that it was not he, but Jesus, who is central.

Today all of this argument between followers of Jesus and of John seems quite irrelevant. But there remain serious questions about why Jesus should be singled out. We are now more aware than previous generations that there have been other great spiritual leaders. Why follow Jesus rather than Confucius or Gautama or Mohammed?

We can learn something from this passage in John. The focus on Jesus does not minimize appreciation for John. The Gospels everywhere speak highly of him.  Jesus is reported to have said that “among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Mt. 11:11)

But exalting another does not diminish Jesus. To single out Jesus as the one we follow does not require that we belittle Confucius or Gautama or Mohammed. In other respects not directly relevant. It deals with the historic relation of two people who were closely allied, sorting out just what that relation was. When we ask similar questions today we are dealing with quite independent events. We can still seriously ask historical questions about what other great spiritual leaders did, what the effects have been, and what the potential for the future may be. Our decision about whom to follow can be based, as in the case of John, on the judgments to which we come. If I decide, as I do, that I am called to follow Jesus, that decision does not mean that I cannot learn from others. Nor does it mean that I fail to respect different decisions on the part of others. At the same time, it does not mean that the decision is unimportant or that I will not share my reasons for following Jesus and even try to do so persuasively. I believe there are excellent reasons for being committed disciples of Jesus today.