Tag Archives: Isaiah 49:1-7

Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 14-20) in Year A (Mundahl)

We Are Home.Tom Mundahl reflects on the community of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

 Readings for the Second Sunday in Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

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

As we considered the prologue to John’s Gospel in our comments for Christmas 2, it was suggested that its communal nature not be forgotten. The evangelist makes it clear that this new divine venture is profoundly social: “the Word became flesh and lived among us;” “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). We claimed that because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation, in part, by forming a new community of faith.

The assigned reading from John not only continues the baptismal theme, it describes the beginnings of this new community. The very newness of this movement is made embarrassingly clear by the response of two of John the Baptist’s disciples. After hearing John testify to the significance of Jesus for the second time in as many days, these disciples take their teacher at his word “and followed Jesus” (John 1:37). When Jesus saw them following, he uttered his first direct speech in this Gospel: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38).

Just as Jesus’ first words in Matthew revealed the obedience which shapes that evangelist’s understanding of new community, so this short phrase uncovers an important theme in John’s Gospel. The simple question, “What are you seeking?” underlines the basic need of humankind to turn to God. That is, human beings need to “dwell” or “abide” with God in order to escape the terrors of insecurity, always looking for something or someone that is trustworthy (Raymond Brown, John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 78). If humans constantly seek a community to belong to, a secure home, a “nest,” we may reflect “otherkind” more than we would admit.

And in this reflection, we may conclude one of the most important outcomes of faith is to learn to be at home. This should not surprise us. The author of Colossians describes Jesus this way:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, visible and invisible . . . ” (Colossians 1:15 -16a).

Perhaps, then, to answer the question “What are you seeking, or looking for?” we need to be disarmingly honest and respond: “We are looking for a community to identify with, a community that can be part of making it possible for “all things in heaven and on earth” to be “at home” (see Shannon Jung, We Are Home: A Spirituality of the Environment, New York: Paulist, 1993, pp. 54-69)

But it is only when we are “at home” in God’s creation that we are free and secure enough to open our doors and make our ‘walls’ into windows. This is certainly the strategy of the community described in our reading from Second Isaiah. Even if many of its most important leaders remain in exile, the prophet delivers a startling message. Going home is not enough. The impact of this new word extends beyond traditional borders, from “coastlands” to “peoples far away” (Isaiah 49:1).

This places the prophet squarely in the center of the post-exilic debate between those who would build the walls high to prevent outside cultural influence (Ezra and Nehemiah) and those whose notion of God could not be so limited (Jonah and Ruth). This text makes it clear that Second Isaiah stands with those who would not limit the aspiration of this people only to becoming a “safe” and “pure” religious enclave.

But this is not only the prophet’s view; it is the word of the LORD, a word that “called” this people to servanthood before birth (Isaiah 49:1b). This is no half-cocked, vague internationalism, but divine purpose that has been determined beforehand (that is, before the foundation of Israel and/or the birth of the prophet). Since a sharp distinction between individual and community is alien to Second Isaiah’s thought, we can only conclude that the servant Israel (49:3), or the prophetic word bearer who becomes the “heart of Israel,” bears this task given in much the same language as the prophetic call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5).

Despite the language of lament with which people-prophet respond to this extraordinary universal charge (49:4), the call stands. Once more we have what amounts to a “messenger formula” directed to the whole people: “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant . . . . ”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 the Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6).

This task of being a “light to the nations” is invested in a complaining, rather unreliable people. By going beyond parochial limitations, however, even this bunch “glorifies God” (49:3). And this seems to be, according to Isaiah, the way to build a strong community, by sharing the LORD’s “cause” (mispat) with the nations of the world. (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 129).

This “scandal of universality” is completely understandable, however, when we recall that it “stems from the inseparability of creation and redemption in the thought world of Second Isaiah.  Since the compass of God’s redemptive activity is the entire created world and its scope is the restoration of all that exists to wholeness, the nations are included in God’s plan” (Hanson, p. 130). And, of course, so is the whole of creation!

What makes a strong community of faith today? How are God’s people to be “at home” in creation? There are certainly those who would argue that getting ‘dirty hands’ from anything other than what we narrowly construe as “religious activity” is the only safe path. But that certainly is not the direction these Epiphany texts send us.  This is not the way to reflect light for the world.

A local congregation I know well works very hard on caring for one another within the context of responsible worship and fine music. But hearing God’s word and sharing the meal in weekly assembly has strengthened this community to open its doors. Not only has it welcomed everyone regardless of background, race, or sexual orientation, it has given its land over to 24 community gardens, a restored prairie, and maintaining an urban micro-forest. This has created new friends in the neighborhood and helped to restore creation.

But the gifts of this community have not stopped there. Surprising connections have been made with Circle of Empowerment in southwestern Nicaragua, a health and education “ministry” that promotes bottom-up development. Whether it is financial sponsorship of students in the seven-village school, purchasing a new “used” bus to transport these students to school, or building a medical clinic, this has been a crucial part of “building community” in this small congregation. The more that has been given away, the stronger this congregation has become!

Or, the more “at home” with itself a community can be, the freer it is to share. And the freer it is to share, the more “at-homeness” it will experience. Wendell Berry calls this “the cultivation of a sympathetic or affectionate mind” (“Two Minds,” Citizenship Papers, Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003, pp. 90-91). This “mind” differs from the “economic mind” in that “it refuses to reduce reality to the scope of what we think we know; it fears the mistake of carelessness more than it fears error; it seeks to understand things in terms of interdependent wholeness rather than isolated parts; it appreciates that a cultural landscape must grow up in faithful alignment with the natural landscape that sustains and inspires it . . . .”(Berry)

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

The Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 14-20) in Year A (Schade)

Droplets of Paradox: The Ripples of Our Baptismal Calling  –  Leah Schade reflects on the “foolishness” of creation care ministry.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

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

The texts assigned for this Sunday originate from different times, different authors and out of the midst of different communities.  Imagine them as droplets falling into the still baptismal font on Sunday morning.  The ripples of each drop merge with the others, creating movement across the surface, stirring the waters of our faith.

The tension in Isaiah 49:1-7 is palpable.  The speaker is held taut between his call to prophetic ministry and feelings of frustration in seeing nothing come from his work.   For those answering the call to Creation-care ministry, this text speaks to the kind of tension we experience as well, caught between two poles of paradox.  At one end is the undeniable call to preach to every nation from coast to coast, calling for people to heed God’s message of justice, reconciliation, and restoration for our planet.  At the other is the undeniable experience of utter despondency because either not enough people are heeding the call, or the response is happening too slowly.  Especially for those of us who have felt “deeply despised” for attending to this call, the announcement that “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” (v. 7) seems like a pipe dream at best, and a cruel lie at worst.

Charles Campbell and Johan Cilliers talk a great deal about paradox in their book Preaching Fools:  The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly (Baylor University Press; Waco, TX, 2012).  “Paradox could be described as holding together irreconcilable opposites in order to create and sustain liminality,” they explain (185).  Liminality is “the experience of being and moving in between spaces and times,” (39), and, for preachers, involves actually creating that in-between time and space so that people can come to experience the transformative work of God.  They note that is exactly when the church’s existence seems ludicrous that the foolish message of the preacher is needed.  Especially “during periods when the church has power and accommodates to the political and social structures,” preaching fools are necessary. They are needed to “interrupt the status quo by unmasking and deconstructing the structures of the day,” (154).

Campbell’s and Cilliers’ words resonate strongly given the way in which many church leaders have either acquiesced or actually thrown their support behind the incoming president who has threatened to derail much of the progress that has been made toward protecting God’s Creation.  From appointing pro-fossil-fuels leaders to the highest positions, to vowing to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement to curb carbon emissions, to calling climate change a “hoax,” it can feel as if all our work on environmental issues is being derailed, undermined, and erased.

It is into this kind of fraught time that Jesus came a-wadin’ into the baptismal waters to be baptized by John.  The Baptist was one of those prophets who drew the ire of the political leaders.  He was not afraid to use his powerful proclamation to create a liminal space, critiquing the abuse of power, and calling people to repent of their selfish habits.  He must have known his ministry was bound to meet a violent end.  So to see the One who was at once timeless and “right on time” stepping into the waters of the Jordan must have been an answer to fervent prayer.  The ripple effect of that baptism would indeed reach the furthest coasts, “to the end of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6).

Campbell and Cilliers remind us that we stand in a long line of “preaching fools” from St. Francis of Assisi to Desmond Tutu, who have “emerged in times when the church (or significant parts of it) has settled comfortably into the status quo and adorned itself with power.  The church, in fact, cannot do without the curious character called a fool, who prospers in times of liminality, as well as in times of stagnation and accommodation,” (155).  So as much as you may feel caught in that tension of paradox, or unsure whether to preach in a way that creates liminality, I would encourage you to hold steady and watch for what God is doing.

You may try asking of Jesus the same question posed by the two disciples who began following him, “Where are you staying?”  In other words, where can we find you, Jesus?  Where have you located yourself?  And then we must keep our eyes and ears tuned to the answer: “Come and see.”  Because it is likely that we will find the Lamb of God in the most unlikely, but nevertheless, life-giving places.

For example, the Preaching Fools authors relate a story told by Barbara Lundblad who described visiting a neighborhood in the South Bronx, New York: a neighborhood marked by poverty and violence, with numerous ‘shrines’ painted on the sides of buildings in remembrance of young people gunned down on the streets. ‘Picture after picture after picture, until we could not bear another,’ Lundblad comments after viewing a slideshow of these shrines.  But in the midst of this neighborhood, Lundblad is shown some brightly colored church doors: ‘The doors, once covered with graffiti, had been transformed into gospel doors by youth of the parish.  Almost every week, teenage artists paint a new scene, their interpretation of God’s good news for their community.  I wish you could have seen the painting on those doors!  On the left-hand door, a young boy had opened up a fire hydrant – a New York City ritual on stifling summer days.  Water was gushing out in a cooling stream that flowed in a wide arc from one door to the other.  When it reached the right side, the water splashed into the baptismal font, making one continuous stream from the font to the street and back again.  Beneath the flowing water, a table was set: a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, along with a whole roasted chicken and a quart of milk – sacraments of life in the midst of the city.  I knew we were in the South Bronx.  The sign on the corner said Prospect Avenue and 156th Street, but we had come to Galilee.  Jesus was there in the doorway, very much alive.  As usual, he had gotten there ahead of us.’ [187, quoting Barbara K. Lundblad, Transforming the Stone:  Preaching Through Resistance to change (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001) 27].

Where are the droplets of baptism falling around you?  What are the signs that justice is still stirring the waters in the midst of political upheaval? That grace is flowing even over seemingly impenetrable stones of hatred, poverty, xenophobia, misogyny, white privilege, and environmental destruction?

As Campbell and Cilliers remind us, “God’s weak power humanizes, gives back, and enhances life.  Christ, the powerless One, gives life in abundance.  In God’s compassion lies God’s power – the foolish power of God’s compassionate weakness,” (58).  Claim that power, and proclaim that abundance.  Let your own droplets fall into that font and stir the waters!

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)