Sermon Seeds: Listen, God is Calling

Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scriptures:
Isaiah 49:1-7
John 1:29-42

Weekly Theme:
Listen, God is Calling

Reflection on Isaiah 49:1-7:
by Karen Georgia Thompson

Call and vocation in ministry lie at the heart of this week’s lectionary texts. Here, on this second Sunday after Epiphany, there is more revelation and expectation as the text points us toward the unknown servant of Isaiah 49:1-7. This is the second of four Servant Songs from Second Isaiah written during the exilic period. This prophetic address puts the servant in dialogue with God, even as the prophet confronts human failings in the midst of desire to fulfill the calling of God which was determined in his mother’s womb. The unknown servant in the text brings an address which identifies a call to the nation of Israel and “you peoples from far away” (Is. 49:1).

The text brings its fair share of challenges this Second Sunday after Epiphany. Among them is the unknown identity of the servant in the text. Scholars have spent their fair share of time trying to determine who this servant is. The servant is named as “Israel” and later sent by God to Israel. Walter Brueggeman identifies the challenges of the text especially in the unidentifiable servant: “It is characteristic that Jewish interpretation identifies the servant as the community of Israel. More classical Christian interpretation (as in John Calvin) has found here anticipatory allusion to Jesus, whereas standard historical criticism has sought to identify a nameable, known historical character….The question of identity is at the present time an enigma beyond resolution” (Isaiah 40-66 Westminster Bible Companion). Brueggemann and others suggest attending to the text rather than trying to identify the servant.

Traditionally, Christian interpretations of this Hebrew narrative attempt to own the servant of Second Isaiah as a type of Jesus. Here coupled with the Gospel text with John identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God, certainly this text too could point us in the direction of contemplating Jesus’ ministry within the call and context of that of the servant. “It may turn out that Second Isaiah’s servant is not only a type of Jesus,” Gene Tucker writes, “but may also be a model for understanding the vocation of the church” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). Yet, there is merit to the message in its time, a message brought to a people in exile. There is also relevance for us in the call of the anonymous servant struggling with call, who is then invited to embrace an even larger mission.

The servant speaks (vv. 1-4), first addressing coastland and people (v.1), then identifying the call that came prior to birth, while in the womb (vv.1-3), in the same vein as the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5). The main theme at the beginning of the pericope is the servant’s declaration of being called by God to a specific task. Tucker notes that “the passage is like prophetic vocation reports found in other prophetic books (Isa. 6; Jer. 1:10-17; Ezek. 1-3; cf. Isa. 40:1-11)” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). These are familiar passages of prophetic call where God calls and in all cases the prophets deem themselves unworthy for various reasons. The servant here is no different. While stating firmly the call of God, the servant states frustration with the call – “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…” (v.4).

The message of hope the servant brought to the people in their time of exile was probable not well received. Andrew H. Bartelt points to the outrageous and even ludicrous nature of the message to the people: “Cui bono might well have been the question of the exile as well as of Isaiah himself and his successors, who only saw their prophetic warnings unheeded and God’s people fall deeper into the abyss of their sin and God’s judgment. And if a message of judgment would go unheeded, then certainly words of joy and restoration would fall on deaf ears (49:4)” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).

This is the beginning of another year in the life of the Church. What is the message for our congregations? What is the mission to the community around and what do we anticipate will be the response to that message?

There are those like the servant and the prophets of old who find themselves with a message, one of hope in the midst of hopelessness, crying out for justice where there is injustice. Many are experiencing their own sense of frustration with the on-going lack of response and the myriad of justice issues that need attention but go unattended.

Epiphany brings with it themes of light and mission. The light of God comes to shine forth through the darkness. The expectation of Advent yields to the revelation that is the light. With the light comes the mission of ministry, even as we read accounts of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this season. The mission of the servant is perplexing and twofold. The servant is first sent to Israel, but after naming frustration in v. 4 is told, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (v. 6). Do we have a sense of ministry and mission this second Sunday after the Epiphany? What do we do with the frustrations experienced in the midst of yielding to call to ministry?

This Sunday holds much promise in community as it is also the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It seems rather fitting to be dealing with the words of the servant and the struggles of accomplishing the work of ministry where call by God is recognized and accepted. The on-going struggle for racial justice is frustrating for many. Even as legislative strides are made, there is change in civil discourse around this issue. The message goes forth that there is more work to be done, yet that message seems to fall by the way. Bartelt notes: “Yet God’s plan looks beyond what is seen and behind what may seem all too futile to that which is unseen and unexpected. There is something even greater yet to come” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).

“Modern hearers of this passage may find it possible to identify with any or all of the human parties,” Tucker observes. “As individuals and as a church, we experience vocations and may experience unworthiness or frustration as well. In such cases, there is the divine assurance in verses 4b and 5b. As servants of God, we may hear a call to set captives free and to make the reign of God visible throughout the world. We may recognize ourselves in captive Israel, and then for us there is the proclamation of the message of release, the good news that God intends restoration (vv.5-6a). Or we may even be able to see ourselves in those other nations, to whom the good news comes” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

God’s plan requires our willingness to be participants in the world around us. God’s plan requires that we give all that we are to make a difference in the world around us. How do we bring this message of call to vocation in ministry and call to do justice to the world around us? Like the servant, the message moves beyond local community and is a call to the world in our day. What is the message that we bring for this Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the United Church of Christ Office of General Ministries.

Reflection on John 1:29-42:
by Kathryn Matthews Huey

Testimony. Witness. Evangelism. Many of us in the mainline churches admit to a measure of discomfort with such words. And yet we’ve entered the season of the Epiphany, which is all about manifestation and revelation, and the powerful, authentic experience of revelation of God’s love and God’s deeds naturally leads us to want to share it with others. Our reading from the Gospel of John is about revelation, and testimony, in a way that’s very different from last week’s text from Matthew about the Baptism of Jesus. Last week, the sky opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice of God testified about who this Jesus is. This week, we move from divine words to human testimony, the “fragile and vulnerable testimony” of John the Baptist, who admits that he didn’t even know who Jesus was at first. Charles Campbell has written movingly about the fragility and vulnerability of witnessing: “That’s the way of testimony. It is always a risky venture, which can offer no ‘proofs’ beyond what the witness has seen and heard” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Now the testimony will be lives lived in faithfulness to Jesus, not just two thousand years ago but just as much today. When people look for those who “walk the walk and the talk” and not just “talk the talk,” they’re looking for authentic witness and testimony, rooted in truth and lived out each day. What good is a truth that doesn’t change our lives? And if our lives are changed, how can we not talk about it?

When John identifies Jesus, he calls him “the Lamb of God,” which many have interpreted as a sacrifice for sin; however, Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen have pointed out that lambs weren’t used for sin sacrifices but only for the Passover sacrifice, which remembers the liberation and deliverance of the people by God. “As the Passover Lamb, Jesus liberates the world from slavery to sin by bringing the world into new and fresh contact with the presence of God, so that human alienation from God can end” (John, Westminster Bible Commentary). How this liberation and deliverance from alienation happen is the story of the Gospels and the heart of the gospel message.

If you read a Gospel straight through, from beginning to end, you get a much better sense of the cluelessness of the disciples, which can be amusing at times. Today’s conversation with Jesus is an example: when Jesus asks the two seekers what they’re looking for, they ask him where he lives. “Asked a momentous, life-challenging question by the one proclaimed as the Son of God, the followers reply by asking for Jesus’ address,” Campbell writes, and he continues with a beautiful reflection on what it means to seek and follow Jesus, and how the disciples may not have missed the mark after all, whether they realized it or not. Rather than losing themselves in endless disputes of fine theological points or complex and abstract questions, they are seeking a person, Jesus himself, “to be with him, to know him, and to follow him….Their simple question,” Campbell writes, “challenges the church today to examine what we are seeking – Jesus or something else.” When we sit quietly and think about our deepest longing, or right in the midst of a long church meeting, we might ask ourselves what, and whom, we’re really seeking, what we’re really hoping for. As much as Christianity is about a person, Jesus Christ, we have mostly turned it into those complex, abstract theological questions and overloaded it with burdensome moral restrictions.

The answer Jesus gives is no long-winded sermon full of obscure theological truths, but just three simple (and familiar) words that could provide a theme for our best evangelism efforts: “Come and see.” Campbell writes a similarly beautiful reflection on Jesus’ response, which is both invitation and promise of what they can experience if they will, as Jesus promises in the other Gospels, “Follow me.” But Campbell’s insight about the order of the three little words is also moving: rather than first understanding who Jesus is (we might call this “having it all together”), and then setting out to follow him, Jesus’ tender invitation brings these seekers close to him, in relationship, to “where he lives,” and knows that being in that relationship will transform their lives. Along the way, we slowly come to understand better who Jesus is and what it means to be faithful to him. And the more we understand and see and live in faith, the more we’ll want to witness in our turn, Charles Campbell claims: “In the power of the Spirit, which Jesus has breathed upon us, we offer our fragile and vulnerable testimony to Jesus, backed up by the faithfulness and integrity of our life together. At a time when the church is tempted to become just another appealing commodity for middle-class consumers, the text from John poses a significant challenge to our communities of faith. Do our words and deeds bear witness to Jesus? And when we invite people to ‘come,’ will they be able to ‘see’ Jesus in our congregations?” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Revelation, then, is no simple matter. It happens in many different ways, in many different settings, and thinking of our life together in the church as one way that God is continuing to reveal God’s love for the world may be something new to us. (Who was it who said that “Revelation is an ongoing event”?) The United Church of Christ says that God is still speaking words of hope, compassion and justice, still revealing God’s justice and compassion, through the shared life of our congregations. That’s how we witness to what we are experiencing in the transformation of our lives. But revelation is not something we cause or control, Charles Cousar writes: “Whether as a steady progress of illumination like the dawn scattering the shadows of the night or an instantaneous flash like the lightning bolt, [revelation] occurs to bring recognition and witness. However and whenever revelation ‘happens,’ it results not from the perceptive powers of the human mind nor from the ability some people have to be in touch with reality nor from a keen intuition. It is a sheer gift of grace” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

It seems that people are often looking for the sky to open and listening for the voice of God to provide dramatic and clear instruction, but maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking around us. This passage, when the crowds listened to John’s “fragile and vulnerable” yet powerful testimony, illustrates the call of the followers of Jesus to listen carefully, live faithfully, and tell the story of what God has done in the midst of their own transformed lives.

John the Baptist is a model for preachers and witnesses today. In this reading from the Gospel of John, he points toward the One who is salvation rather than drawing attention to himself. He even watches two of his own disciples leave him and follow Jesus. Most of us would have to admit that one of the challenges of discipleship is not to lose sight of the true center and focus of our ministry: Jesus. Especially in the life of the church, it’s easy for “it” to become “all about us”…or all about the building, or all about the program, etc. Above all, it is not about loss, right? We want to grow, to gain, to expand. And yet, we hear, and feel, that discipleship costs. What losses are we willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel? Are we willing to forego recognition and popularity when we so easily enjoy both in the life of the church? When John says more than once that he did not himself know Jesus, does it remind you of times that you have missed Jesus, missed God, missed the point? How has revelation come to you? To your congregation? What is your story of “meeting Jesus?”

Often, a new member of the church will say that they finally visited after being asked repeatedly by a friend to “Come and see” their church. Sometimes, it’s hard to describe just how wonderful your church is, and you want the person to “come and see” what words can’t describe. Many folks today, however, especially in mainline churches, are uncomfortable with following the example of Andrew, who went out and found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus. Are you comfortable with inviting those who ask questions about your church to come and visit? If they do visit, what will they “come and see”: what will they experience when they get there, and will it change their lives? (It would be good to give this question a little time, and try to answer from the point of view of the visitor rather than an “insider.”) John’s two disciples were clearly seekers. How do we respond to the persistence and enthusiasm – or pain – of those who are seeking a new church home? Who might be out there, waiting for an invitation?

On the other hand, we could put ourselves in Simon’s place. How would you feel if you were Simon and your brother came to “drag” you to hear this sensational new preacher? What about this preacher would have intrigued you? How would you then feel if this preacher/prophet/healer gave you a new name? What do you think God would be saying to you in that moment? Do you feel that you have been given a new name as a Christian and a disciple? Does it affect your everyday life, or the “big picture” of your life?

In these Epiphany texts, the identity of Jesus as God’s revelation is emphasized. What kind of God does this Jesus reveal? What is Jesus about? How “accessible” is this God?

Speaking of this still-speaking God, what does today’s Isaiah text say that may challenge and even scandalize many church-goers today? Are we limited in our vision when we think of how God wants us to be in mission? Do we ourselves limit God’s mission (which we are about) to our own families, friends, congregation, neighbors, and folks we feel comfortable with? Who are those children of God today – “the nations” – who are beyond our borders, not just geographically but socially and psychologically, those we haven’t included in our plans? Whom would we prefer to exclude, or whom do we unconsciously exclude – “I myself did not know him”? What are we missing, and what revelation should we be praying for? In what ways are we “a light to the nations”? Are we willing to serve and welcome and reach out even to those who will never become members of our own community of faith, but who need our presence in their lives, who need our support, our prayers, and our active pursuit of justice?

In Texts for Preaching Year A, Charles Cousar speaks of the enlarged vision of God’s concern for humanity and calls this text from Isaiah “crucial” because it is one more story in the Old Testament that “breaks ethnic limitation and witnesses to the largeness of God’s rescue.” He then compares the prophet/servant to Martin Luther King, Jr. (a timely comparison this week), whose vision of justice for people of color in the United States expanded dramatically to include issues of peace and economic justice. “He [MLK, Jr.] knew that the question of rights is a humanity-embracing question. This poet in our passage already knows that God’s powerful will for homecoming has no ethnic limitation.” A “humanity-embracing question.” Isn’t God a “humanity-embracing” God?

For further reflection:

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 20th century
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Annie Dillard, 21st century
“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”

Stephen King, 20th century
“If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”
Brennan Manning, 21st century
“Everybody has a vocation to some form of life-work. However, behind that call (and deeper than any call), everybody has a vocation to be a person to be fully and deeply human in Christ Jesus.”

“God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.”

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
   pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
   while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
   in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
   in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel,
   in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength— he says,
“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.”

Thus says the Lord,
   the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
   the slave 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.”

Psalm 40:1-11

I waited patiently for God;
   who inclined to me and heard my cry.

God drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
God set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure.

God put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in God.

Happy are those who make God their trust,
   who do not turn to the proud,
     to those who go astray after false gods.

You have multiplied, O God my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards 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.

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.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance
   in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
   as you know, O God.

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
I have not concealed them
   from the great congregation.

Do not, O God, withhold your mercy from me;
   let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
   keep me safe for ever.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Liturgical notes on the readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.