January 19 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Theme: Hmm, I'm not sure we have any obvious candidates this week. There is a sense in which this week provides the finale to the whole Advent-Christmas-Epiphany revelation – a sort of summary and conclusion, so that we can then get down to business with the "launch" of Jesus' mission. So perhaps something like "And So, To Recap"; or, for the thespians among us, "Act II, Scene 1". A more theologically correct choice might be "The Lamb of God"; or what about "Evangelism 101"?
Introduction. Once again the menu has a familiar look about it – a taster from Isaiah, a consommé from St Paul, and a main cour featuring John the Baptist. About 700 years before St Paul revealed God's secret hidden until his time, Isaiah published his scoop: salvation is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Meanwhile St Paul shows us how to write a letter giving the recipients a right shellacking – begin on a positive note! And then our gospel passage gives us another opportunity to reflect on the life, meaning, and mission of Christ through the witness of John the Baptist.
Background. Once again we are shown the importance of reading our Sunday readings as small extracts from one large and complex story – rather than separate items as they so often seem during a service. For weeks now the Church has encouraged us to reflect on the Incarnation and all it means for us. In Advent we started that process, as we heard and pondered four variations on the theme of God's coming among us in Christ – a continuing "process of coming", first made manifest to us through birth in Bethlehem, continuing through his ministry and death, continuing again in his Spirit, and finally coming to fulfilment at the end of the age. Advent, as it were, gave us the big picture. At Christmas we zoomed in on one particular aspect of that coming, both in physical terms (Matthew/Luke) and in spiritual terms (John). With the Magi we saw the first signs of the drawing power of Christ as these representative Gentiles journeyed from their distant homes to pay homage to the new-born Christ. Then last week we saw the mature Jesus entering upon his new life in baptism, receiving affirmation of God's love for him and empowerment through the Holy Spirit for his work and mission. Add all this up and we find that the Church in its wisdom invites us to spend a period of 8 weeks reflecting on the Incarnation, roughly the same period we spend from Holy Week to Pentecost reflecting on Christ's death and resurrection.
So let's not be in too much of a hurry to "get back to work": Christ's ministry and mission – and therefore our ministry and mission – arise from, and can only be understood as, the fruit of the Incarnation. Take that away, and Christ becomes what Geering, Ian Harris & Co portray him to be: a good, wise, loving man who has not been well served by his spin doctors (a.k.a. the Church) who have turned him into some sort of highly-skilled magician by attaching to his name spectacular miracle stories. Take that away, and our ministry is reduced to random acts of kindness.
All that said, there is an important element that needs to be drawn out from today's gospel passage, and that is the importance of testimony or witness. It is not new, of course - it is one of the themes that have been running through our readings throughout the last eight weeks; but now, to lead us into the calling of the fishermen to be his disciples next week, the whole idea of John as a witness to Christ takes centre stage.
Notice first how the author of this text avoids any simple statement that John baptised Jesus, as we get from the other three gospels. Today's passage follows the interrogation of John by officials sent from Jerusalem to check him out: who was he and by what authority was he teaching and baptising? That passage ends with John telling them that "among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me". Today's passage starts with the words "The next day", and then describes John pointing to Jesus and saying, "This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'" Whatever this means, it was considered so important by the author that he quoted it verbatim in the Prologue (1:15).
And then we get John's testimony that I quoted last week; and notice two things. First, John does not say that what he saw happened when he was baptising Jesus, although that may have been the case. Secondly, it has already happened: verse 32 is in the past tense. The important point in this gospel is not whether or not John baptised Jesus, but that John had been alerted by God to watch for this particular identifying sign and he had seen it in relation to Jesus. At that point John the prophet becomes John the witness: "I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." Last week, the message to us was to reflect on our own baptism in the light of the baptism of our Lord. This week, having realised what we ourselves have received in baptism, our challenge is to follow John's example and testify to others.
The second half of today's passage starts with the same phrase "the next day", so here's a wild thought to chew over. Has the author deliberately framed the "testimony of John the Baptist" as a three-day event? Day One (verses 19-28) – who is John the Baptist in relation to Christ? Day Two (verses 29-34) – who is Jesus in relation to God? Day Three (verses 35-42 – now evangelise!
In John's gospel things happen on the third day (the wedding at Cana, for example: see 2:1). Talking of which, what are we to make of his expression "the Lamb of God" in verses 29 and 36; and what on earth would those disciples have made of it if John the Baptist really had used it that day? For me it makes much better sense to assume that the term was put in John the Baptist's mouth by the author of the gospel to reflect the understanding of Christ's sacrificial death that had arisen by the time the gospel was being written. Doubtless the expression has the Passover as part of its genetic heritage – and the ram given in "substitution" for Isaac – and perhaps "the lamb to the slaughter imagery of Isaiah's fourth Servant Song – and quite possibly a whole lot more – but it is surely no coincidence that this expression appears in this gospel (and nowhere else in the whole of Scripture) where the Passion timetable has been "adjusted" to make clear that Jesus is the Paschal Lamb.
Isaiah. Last week we had the first of the four Servant Songs in which this mysterious servant of the Lord was introduced to us. This week we have the second song, outlining the Servant's mission; and here we have, at the heart of Isaiah's prophetic revelation, the great proclamation that the Messiah will bring salvation to all peoples, Gentiles as well as Jews. That this astonishing truth is so hard to grasp was shown in Jesus' time by the constant criticism that he kept the wrong company, and, of course, by Peter's struggle to believe the vision he was shown one day at noon-time prayers on the roof. God really does not show favouritism – but...
Taking It Personally.
- In verses 1 and 5 the servant is said to have been called by God before he was born. Reflect on that idea. Do you believe that God has had a purpose for your life since before you were born? How would you describe that purpose?
- Ponder verse 6. Remember that from Jerusalem we could be at "the ends of the earth" mentioned in this prophecy. How do you feel about that? You are one embodiment of the fulfilment of that prophecy, aren't you? YES YOU ARE!
- Finish with verse 6. Repeat after Isaiah, "I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength." Repeat, until you are sure you believe it.
Corinthians. Not the greatest passage ever to come from the pen of St Paul; and not likely to hold our attention for any length of time (unless you are into genealogical research in which case you might want to Google "Sosthenes" and see where that leads you.) But look ahead at the next passage and see what St Paul is up to. The Corinthians are a smug and boastful lot: in fairness, they are very new Christians with all the self-belief that can sometimes go with that. They have been blessed in the Spirit and some of the more "spectacular gifts of the Spirit have been manifested among them. Instead of receiving such gifts in awe and humility they have used them for self-glorification and boasting, which, inevitably has led to rivalry and contention. St Paul is going to give them a well-earned blast for that; but notice how he starts off. He does not deny the reality of what they have been given: indeed he paints a very positive picture of the blessings they have clearly received from God. He does not dismiss them as over-excited neurotics (modern translation, "weirdos"). God is with them alright; now they need to respond more appropriately.
Taking It Personally.
· What lesson is there for you in St Paul's approach? Are you inclined to be dismissive of people manifesting spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues? Why?
· What spiritual gifts have you received? Are you more likely to deny their reality or boast about them? Are you thankful for them or embarrassed by them?
· Focus on verse 5 and 6. Have you been "enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind"? Are you lacking in any spiritual gift?
· Remembering that this letter is addressed to the community of faith rather than to one individual, reflect on this passage as it applies to your local community of faith.
John. I have already said all I need to about the first part of this passage; but there is more in this second part that is worth noting. First, John points to Jesus and the disciples immediately start following (literally) Jesus. They move from interested observers to searching participants. They want to know more, but what about? Jesus comes out with one of those great questions he so often asks: "what are you looking for?" (Remember when he asked the people a similar question about going to see John in the wilderness.) They respond in a way that sounds a little strange to me. Perhaps, rather like Peter at the Transfiguration, they didn't know quite what to say. Or perhaps they were really expressing an interest in becoming live-in disciples. And Jesus again gives the classic response: not his address, but the words "come and see (for yourselves)", classic spiritual teaching. Follow your questions until you see the answer. And then, go find your brother, sister, neighbour or friend, and bring him/her along for the journey with you. But notice the reference to the time of day. This is a real event in real time. (Incarnation, again!]
Taking It Personally.
· The second part is a classic passage for prayer with your imagination. Put yourself in the scene. (Be the other disciple with Andrew.) Hear John say "Look, here is the Lamb of God." Look around you. What do you expect to see? Are you puzzled by what he says? Now look at Jesus walking away. See yourself walk after him – following him. Now he turns around and asks you: "What are YOU looking for right now?" Take as long as you need to answer him. What is your answer? Jesus invites you to "Come and see." As you hear those words, what are you feeling?
· Take your time. Ponder deeply. Then watch Andrew recover his senses and set off in search of his brother. Who are you going to fetch and bring to Jesus this year?