Jan 15, 2017: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

i-will-make-you-a-light-to-the-nations

1st Reading – Isaiah 49:3, 5-6

The LORD said to me: You are my servant,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
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!
It is too little, the LORD 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.

This week’s first reading is the second of four passages (42:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) traditionally known as the Servant Songs of Isaiah. (Last week’s first reading was the first servant song.) They describe poetically the person (or nation) that will bring people to an awareness of God’s power, justice, and love. This second Servant Song deals more with the “call” of the servant.

The LORD said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Although Christians see the fulfillment of these prophecies in Jesus Christ, the actual identity of this servant is quite mysterious. The explicit mention of Israel creates a difficulty for those who interpret the Servant as an individual.

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;

This use of Israel creates a difficulty for those who interpret the servant as a nation. How can the servant nation have a mission to itself? Because the servant is said to have been formed as a servant from the womb, which is reminiscent of the call of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), some think the servant is Isaiah himself. Since the precise identity of this individual is — at least for now — unknowable, we can only concentrate on his mission.

And I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength! It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob,

The twelve tribes of Israel were named after the sons of Jacob (who himself was renamed Israel by God in Genesis 35:10). It was these tribes who settled the Promised Land after the exodus from Egypt.

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.

The mission of the Servant is not only the gathering and restoration of the dispersed people of Israel, but also the conversion of the world. It is noteworthy that a people struggling with its own survival because of its defeat at the hands of a more powerful nation should envision its God as concerned with the salvation of all, presumably even the nation at whose hands it suffered. Yet this is precisely what “light to the nations” suggests.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:1-3

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
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.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each year in the span of Ordinary Time between Christmas and Lent, the Church embarks on a study of 1st Corinthians.  This year, in Cycle A, we will study the first four chapters.

In Paul’s time, Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaia and the seat of the Roman proconsul. Julius Caesar built it (44 B.C.) on the ruins of a Greek city of the same name. It had two ports, one on the Aegean Sea and one on the Gulf of Lepanto. Its excellent geographical position soon made it a prominent center of commerce, with a much higher standard of living than its neighbors. Like many prosperous port cities, it was also a place of moral degradation.

Saint Paul established a Christian community at Corinth during his second missionary journey (A.D. 50-52). He preached the Gospel there for a year and a half, aided by Silas and Timothy.

Saint Paul was in Ephesus when influential Corinthians brought him a letter in which they and others asked for guidance on matters they found problematic. The messengers likely explained and expanded on the information contained in the letter, asking him to go quickly to Corinth. Saint Paul delayed going to Corinth, in order to give everyone more time for reflection and repentance; this is why he wrote his first letter shortly before Easter 57. Unlike his letter to the Romans, it is not a doctrinal treatise, but an acknowledgment of their letter and answers to the various concerns they presented.

In dealing with the various moral and practical issues, Saint Paul imparts invaluable teaching about Christ as the Wisdom of God, the Church as the body of Christ, and the gifts of the Spirit in the Christian community.

In today’s reading, Paul follows the conventional form for the opening of a Hellenistic letter (see also 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.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

Paul is establishing his credentials; he is an authentic apostle, like the twelve, by virtue of his divine call. The word “apostle” means one who is sent by another. Strictly speaking, an apostle is more than a disciple or follower — one who is sent with the full authority of the sender.

Note that Paul’s mission (and the church’s existence, actually) are grounded in God’s initiative. God’s call, grace, and fidelity are central ideas in this introduction, emphasized by repetition and wordplays in the Greek.

In a very real sense, this official greeting is a proclamation of faith by Paul.

and Sosthenes our brother,

“Our brother” indicates that Sosthenes is a Christian well known to the Corinthians. It may or may not be the Sosthenes of Acts 18:17, but nothing suggests his conversion and the name was quite common.

to the church of God that is in Corinth,

Paul uses the Greek word ekklesia (“assembly”) to designate a local church, denoting unity. The Septuagint used ekklesia to translate the Hebrew qahal, a term applied to the assembly of Israelites, particularly in their desert wanderings (Deuteronomy 23:2). Although they constitute a local church, as part of the ekklesia, they are part of a much larger congregation, an assembly consisting of all those who profess faith in the name of Jesus, the Lord.

In other words, the Christian community is beginning to transcend local barriers; the Church is outside and larger than just Corinth.

to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus,

That is, those who have been incorporated by baptism into the Body of Christ.

called to be holy,

Christians are the Body of Christ and therefore called to holiness, just as Israel was a holy nation by divine election (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9).

with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

Again, the Corinthians are not the only Christians — they are members of a much larger body. Paul is nudging them gently to exercise humility, as we will see later in his letter.

Grace to you and peace

“Grace and peace” is a combination of Greek and Jewish greetings. Grace means “blessing” or “gift”; peace (shalom in Hebrew) is a wish for all good things.

from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

An expression of faith, acknowledging that all good things come from God, whom Paul calls Father, and from Jesus who is Lord and Christ.

Gospel – John 1:29-34

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
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.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

In each of the three cycles in the lectionary, Ordinary Time begins with a reading from John’s gospel. In each case, John the Baptist directs discipleship away from himself and toward Jesus. In this reading, John gives an account and interpretation of Jesus’ baptism. The gospel writer assumes that the reader knows the synoptic baptism story (which were written years earlier) because he doesn’t recount it, he only refers to it.

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Catholics recognize this verse from the Communion Rite during Mass. John is the only gospel writer that refers to Jesus as “the Lamb.” While the background for this title may also be the Passover (Paschal) lamb, whose blood saved Israel (Exodus 12), the statement that he “takes away the sin of the world” favors the primary interpretation of the Lamb of God as the Servant of the Lord, who was led like a lamb to the slaughter as a sin offering (Isaiah 53:7-10). The Passover lamb had no connection with sin, but rather protected the Israelites from destruction.

It’s possible that both meanings (Paschal lamb and Isaian servant) are implied.

He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’

Some Jewish traditions claimed that the Messiah was created by God at the beginning of time and was therefore pre-existent (see Micah 5:2[1], Psalm 110:3). This corresponds with our Christian understanding of the pre-existence of Jesus (John 1:1-5).

I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”

John certainly knew that Jesus was his cousin, but he had not known that Jesus was the Messiah, even though the express purpose of his baptizing had been to prepare men for the Messiah’s coming.

John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him.

This testimony confirms that the theophany (appearance of God to man) at the baptism was an objective event and not merely a private experience of Jesus.

Note that the Christian revelation of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person in the Godhead had not yet been received — John the Baptist understood the Spirit in the Old Testament sense, as signifying God’s vital power in the new creation (Genesis 8:8) or the community of Israel (Hosea 11:11).

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.’

It troubled John that he hadn’t immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah, as evidenced by his twice stating “I did not know him.”

How did John eventually recognize Jesus? His enlightenment was of divine origin, when the Holy Spirit revealed it to him and he saw heaven pay its tribute.

Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

John the Baptist’s testimony is honest, humble, sincere, and direct. Later in John’s gospel, we see his response in word and action: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Connections and Themes

Testimonials to Jesus. Each of today’s readings provide a kind of testimony of Jesus. Although the precise identity of the servant in the first reading is not known, the early Church looked back to these servant songs of the Old Testament and began to see how clearly they defined the life and death of Jesus.

In the introduction of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes a proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ. Note that he never uses Jesus’ personal name without also identifying him as the Christ, the anointed one. He further professes that Jesus is the source of grace and peace. In three short verses, and right from the start, Paul provides a basic outline of his christology.

In the Gospel, John the Baptist is a powerful witness for Jesus. He bestows four titles:

1) The greater one — he “ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (v. 30).

2) The vehicle of the Spirit — God revealed to John that one upon whom the Spirit would descend would himself be baptizing with the Holy Spirit (v. 33). As stated earlier, John’s experience pre-dates our Christian understanding of the Trinity; the Old Testament prophets had foretold an outpouring of the Spirit in the Messianic age [Joel 2:28f (3:1f in NAB and NJB), Isaiah 32:15; Ezekiel 39:29; Zechariah 12:10], and John is testifying that such an outpouring has occurred.

3) The Lamb of God — the impact of this beautiful symbol is often lost on modern Christians, as most of us have little knowledge of sheep. But this image immediately captured the imaginations of early Christians, who were very familiar with the gentle affection and playfulness of young lambs. It conveys innocence, fragility, whimsy, and tenderness. Our Savior, the Lamb of God, surrenders his life to nourish us, his people, in love, in innocence, and at his own cost.

4) The Son of God — John was a witness to the voice from the heavens saying: “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17).

Another call to ministry. We continue last week’s theme of being called to discipleship, which will be an undercurrent throughout Ordinary Time. In the first reading, Isaiah points to an ideal servant who was called (or formed) as a servant from the womb.

In the gospel reading, John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the servant that Isaiah described, the Messiah. He also references his calling to baptize with water and Jesus’ calling to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

In Paul’s letter, he identifies himself as being “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus,” and notes that “you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus” are “called to be holy.”

Today, we are called to be rigorous witnesses to Jesus, as Paul and John the Baptist were. It’s tempting to elevate Jesus to the point that we relegate him to another era, like eternity, or another place, like heaven — but as apostles of Christ, he dwells within us. We are to carry forth the gospel here and now, in our present time and place.

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