Isaiah 49:3, 5 – 6
As we return to Ordinary Time, this Sunday we will hear the second of the four “Servant-of-the-Lord” oracles (over the years, we have heard the First Song – 42:1-4; Second – 49:1-7; Third – 50:4-12; Fourth – 52:13-53:12). Since it is found in chapter 49 of the Book of Isaiah, we know that it is from Deutero-Isaiah which dates to the time of the Babylonian Captivity. As I have explained in the past, these servant songs never name the servant and, as we will see in this one, it is often rather confusing. In verse 3, the servant is identified with Israel. But, verses 1 and 5 appear to speak of an individual and use the same language that we find in Jer 1:5, leading some scripture scholars to conclude that the servant in this song is Jeremiah. This second Servant Song addresses the Gentile nations and presents the Servant as another Jeremiah: he is called from his mother’s womb (cf. Jer 1:5); he has a vocation to the Gentiles (Jer 1:10); he brings a message of both doom and gladness (Jer 16:19-21). It is filled with references to other scriptural passages so we can see that it embodies a message found throughout the Bible.
Although we will hear only vss. 3, 5 and 6 on Sunday, they make better sense when vss. 1, 2 and 4 are included so let’s read from vs. 1:
1 Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant peoples. The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
from my mother’s womb: God sets his chosen ones on the way of their vocation even before their birth (cf. Lk 1:15-John the Baptist; Lk 1:31-Jesus; Gal 1:15-Paul).
Gave me my name: designated me for a special office (cf. Jer 1:5), or perhaps, made me renowned (cf. Psalm 45:18).
2 He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.
a sharp-edged sword: (cf. Eph 6:17) – The Servant was made ready and fit for the preaching of God’s word, but it is his weapon will be his tongue, not a sword or arrow.
3 You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Israel: the Servant is identified with the people of Israel as their ideal representative; however, since Isaiah 49:5, 6 seem to distinguish the Servant from Israel, some regard the word “Israel” here as a gloss (a gloss is a marginal or interlinear note, of a technical or unusual expression in a manuscript text).
4 Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, Yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God.
Like Jeremiah, we hear Isaiah despondent over the apparent failure of his prophesying.
5 For now the LORD has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, That Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him; And I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength!
6 It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
I will make you a light to the nations: The Servant’s vocation will be not only the restoration of Israel but the conversion of the world; cf. Gn 12:3; Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47. One of the remarkable truths about God that we discover in the Bible is that he does not call us to succeed – just to try. Notice that, even though the servant had failed in turning Israel back to God, God is giving him the task of converting the whole world!
John 1:29 – 34
Whereas the three synoptic gospels recount Jesus’ baptism, John’s Gospel does not directly speak of it. It does seem to imply it, however, as part of an extensive report of the encounter between John’s and Jesus’ disciples. We will hear only a few verses of these encounters on Sunday. For complete background, however, let’s read all of chapter 1 as well as 3:22 – 4:3. As we read chapter 1, notice how John’s Gospel uses the creation account in Gn 1ff as a foil to speak of a new creation that Jesus brings about (cf. Jn 1:1, 1:29, 1:35, 1:43, and 2:1).
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Lamb of God: the background for this title may be the lamb that was substituted for Isaac or the victorious apocalyptic lamb who would destroy evil in the world (Rev 5-7; 17:14); the paschal lamb, whose blood saved Israel (Exodus 12); and/or the suffering servant led like a lamb to the slaughter as a sin-offering (Isaiah 53:7-12). However, the phrase “Lamb of God,” which is so familiar to us because we recite it at every Mass just before we receive our Lord in Holy Communion, is found only here and in vs. 36 in the entire Bible.
30 He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’
He existed before me: possibly as Elijah (John had denied being Elijah – cf. John 1:21); for the evangelist and his audience, Jesus’ preexistence would be implied (see the note on John 1:1).
31 I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”
I did not know him: this gospel shows no knowledge of the tradition (Luke 1) about the kinship of Jesus and John the Baptist. Yet, his express purpose for baptizing had been to prepare men for the Messiah’s coming.
The reason why I came baptizing with water: in this gospel, John’s baptism is not connected with forgiveness of sins; its purpose is revelatory, that Jesus may be made known to Israel.
32 John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him.
Spirit: John the Baptist probably did not have the Christian revelation of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person in the Trinity (cf. Acts 19:1-4). Rather, he probably understood the Spirit in the OT sense, as signifying God’s vital power (cf. Gen 2:7; Is 11:2). And yet, the readers of John’s Gospel would be aware of this Trinitarian aspect of the Spirit since that revelation is stressed in the second half of John’s Gospel.
Like a dove: a symbol of the new creation (Genesis 8:8) or the community of Israel (Hosea 11:11). It was only when he baptized Jesus that John came to recognize him as the Messiah. Notice that John presupposes the Synoptic story of Jesus’ baptism without detailing it himself.
Remain: as you will read in your footnotes, this is the first use of a favorite verb in John, emphasizing the permanency of the relationship between Father and Son (as here) and between the Son and the Christian. Jesus is the permanent bearer of the Spirit.
33 I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’
34 Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
The Son of God: as you will see in your footnotes, this reading is supported by good Greek manuscripts, including the Chester Beatty and Bodmer Papyri and the Vatican Codex, but is suspect because it harmonizes this passage with the synoptic version: “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). The poorly attested alternate reading, “God’s chosen One,” is probably a reference to the Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 42:1). Again, remember that the term “Son of God” has many OT references, which do not speak of divinity but rather a favored relationship with God (cf. Dt 32:8; Wisdom 2:18; 18:13).
The historical John the Baptist was probably very differently understood. For many years after his death, he had a following who considered him the Messiah. But, here, we see him deny that he is the Messiah and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
1 Corinthians 1:1 – 3
(1-9) Paul follows the conventional form for the opening of a Hellenistic letter (cf. Romans 1:1-7), but expands the opening with details carefully chosen to remind the readers of their situation and to suggest some of the issues the letter will discuss. This letter, written some time in 56 or 57AD, about five years after Paul had established the Corinthian community, is intended to help the community – living in the midst of a multi-cultural, commercial city – to recognize who they were.
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,
Called . . . by the will of God: Paul’s mission and the church’s existence are grounded in God’s initiative. Paul identifies himself as an apostle, called by the will of God. We find that Acts 14:14 refers to both Paul and Barnabas as apostles, but it appears to be Paul who expands the traditional understanding of that category to include himself. God’s call, grace, and fidelity are central ideas in this introduction, emphasized by repetition and wordplays in the Greek. This authenticates Paul’s claim to be an apostle, for his is a divine call, just as the other apostles.
Sosthenes: apparently a Christian well known in the Corinthian community, although probably not the Sosthenes of Acts 18:17, since nothing suggests his conversion. Sosthenes was a common name at that time.
2 to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
the church of God: this harkens to the assembly of the Lord (cf. Dt 23:2-4) and reminds the gathering (remember, ekklesia simply means gathering) that this is no ordinary assembly or club. It is a gathering that has been established by God and belongs to God. They are more than a simple aggregate of individuals who look toward the same goal. They are called by God into communion.
sanctified in Christ Jesus: incorporated into Christ by baptism. Christians are made holy through Jesus Christ just as Israel was made a holy nation through election by God.
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Notice that the grace and peace come not only from God the Father but also from the Lord, Jesus Christ. This addition distinguished the followers of Jesus from their Jewish brethren as it recognized the divinity of Jesus.
This week’s readings lead us into the season of Ordinary time with a reflection on who we are called to be as Christians. They remind us that, like John the Baptist, we are called by God to make Jesus known to the world. And, like ancient Israel, being a Christian is never a solo performance. We are called together, formed by the Word of God to become a light to the nations. Like John the Baptist, we are called not for ourselves, but to point out the Lamb of God to others. When we know and accept that vocation, we can call ourselves the Church of God.