Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-12; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE great Epiphany theme of the revelation of Christ to the nations has as its central image the three kings from distant countries, whose study of the stars had predicted that a greater king was to be born in Bethlehem. Their symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh look towards the final events of Jesus’s earthly life (Matthew 2.1-12).
Their presence at the manger is an even more powerful symbol of the acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah, and of the eventual submission of all the peoples of the world to Jesus’s kingly authority.
The kings embody our hope for a world that looks towards God in loving and joyful obedience; but their gifts do not include a programme. The task of realising the vision in which they play a representative part becomes ours, as we set the treasury of scripture and worship in dialogue with the reality of our own times.
How this might be done is modelled clearly in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January), which falls during the Epiphany season. In a few days, the Christian Churches across the world will embark on this journey again. This year, their inspiration comes from the German Churches, who are asking their questions about Christ and the world, as they receive refugees into their communities.
Some of the newcomers will be members of Christian Churches less familiar in the West; others will be members of other faiths. All participating Churches will be focusing on 2 Corinthians 5.14-20, and considering how they ought to act in the light of its opening and closing verses:
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. . . So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Here is a mandate to seek reconciliation by every means we can think of, urged on by the love of Christ, who comes to us so that we might go to others. It stands appropriately alongside the interest in a faithful God who calls and commissions, which stands out in Sunday’s readings.
Isaiah’s Servant (Isaiah 49.1-7) is, Walter Brueggemann writes, “at the present time an enigma beyond resolution” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998). While there are clues suggesting that the Servant should be identified with Israel (Isaiah 49.1, 3), verse 6 contradicts this. The promise of a saviour is there, but to attach this to Christ is to go beyond what the passage offers.
Brueggemann advises turning away from the search for historical identity, and concentrating on the poetry of the verses, as they work out God’s promise of freedom and liberation — not just for Israel, but to all the nations (Isaiah 49.6). This promise will be realised in history for two reasons: because the Lord has chosen the Servant, and because the Lord is faithful and will support the Servant (Isaiah 49.7).
The next of Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 52.13-53.12) is the one that has been most eagerly seized on by Christian interpreters. This is the reference point for John the Baptist’s announcement: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as Jesus returns the day after his baptism (John 1.29; Isaiah 53.3-5).
Later on, the same image will inform the way that the writer of the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus before Pilate and on the cross: tortured and silent before his tormentors (John 19.1-3, 9-10). The other source for that picture in the Passover lamb (Exodus 12.1-10) belongs to another discussion. What is significant about the Lamb of God who now walks unassumingly with John and his disciples is that he is present and, furthermore, that he has come to stay.
Studies of this Gospel point out the repetition of the Greek verb menein: to stay or remain. The Spirit remains on Jesus at his baptism, and will remain with him throughout his ministry (John 1.33). The two disciples of the Baptist who follow Jesus ask where he is staying, and stay with him for the rest of the day (John 1.38, 39).
In that extraordinary time of seeking, finding, seeing, and being seen (John 1.38, 39, 41, 42), three curious men become disciples, and one of them, Peter, receives a new name for a new calling (John 1.42). Peter will fail first, before he goes on to become a leader of stature in the movement that gives birth to the Church.
He would not have read the Letter to the Corinthians, but his new-found power to proclaim and convert could have come only from full, personal realisation that “God is faithful,” and has called him “into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1.9, Acts 2.14-36).