Todays readings for: The Second Sunday After Epiphany - Year A 2017 Isaiah 49:1-7 1 Cor 1:1-9 John 1:29-42 ff.
Last week we talked about Epiphany- the revelation of God for us human beings and the fact that we are a covenant for the nations. So I want us to hold those two thoughts in tension with this week’s readings. If the theme of advent is “prepare” for the coming Lord, and the theme of Christmas is “God with us”, then the Epiphany or revelation can be summed up in Jesus’ invitation, “Come and See”.
“Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord says to me… I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” This is simultaneously a prophecy of the coming one, Jesus, and in perpetuity, a word for us who are now, the body of Christ. Jesus is revealed as the light to the nations very early on in the gospel of John the Evangelist. And we are to be a light, always burning, for the nations.
In the prologue that precedes the passage we read today, John the Evangelist describes Jesus as the light that has come into the darkness, echoing Isaiah’s language. John the gospel writer describes John the Baptiser who makes it very clear that he is the herald, but not the Messiah. In fact when he is asked John, in the words attributed to him by John the Evangelist, says, “I am not the Messiah.” Then when he is asked if he is Elijah again says, “I am not.” This, in the context of this gospel with its echoes of Old Testament theology, is a very direct reference to the name of God. When Moses asks God, “who will I say has sent me?” God replies, “Tell them ‘I AM who I AM’” and then further, “’tell them I AM has sent me!’” This becomes the Hebrew word, or really non-word as it is never said, that we translate as YAHWEH. So John the Baptiser is making it perfectly clear that he is not the Messiah and that by contrast Jesus is not only the Messiah but he is “I AM” as well. We have tended to conflate the two ideas but the Messiah was the anointed one and the saviour but not necessarily God incarnate. Jesus is the Messiah, but Jesus is also the Word made flesh, as John has told us in the Prologue.
However, when John the Baptiser is confronted with the person of Jesus he recognises a different aspect of God’s nature. John the Baptiser says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Now, this is another complex image. From Cain and Able to Abraham and the near sacrifice of Isaac, through the Levitical law of sacrifice, atonement and scapegoating, to the Passover, a lamb is a deeply significant symbol in Hebrew terms. I could talk for hours about the symbolism of sacrifice but let me just look at the Passover for a moment. The Passover, which becomes the most important event in the whole of the religious system, is in the context of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt. Moses is asking Pharaoh to allow the enslaved Israelites to go to sacrifice to their God, in order, of course, for them to escape. God sends the ten plagues upon them and the last plague is the death of every “firstborn”, both human and livestock. Now the fact that it is the firstborn is deeply significant as the firstborn son is the inheritor. To be saved from this terrible curse the Hebrews are to take a lamb, a one year old male without blemish, and the text says it could come from the sheep or the goats! It is slaughtered as sunset and the blood smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the house and then the lamb roasted and completely consumed. As they eat they are to be ready for action with their sandals on and their loins girded, and their staff in their hands! And that is the ‘Passover’, as the angel of the Lord passed over those houses smeared with the blood of the sacrifice and did not kill their firstborn. As we know, Pharaoh lets them go, though of course changes his mind and they escape through the Reed Sea. This story of salvation and escape becomes the narrative of their nationality and they repeat the story over and over again at all times in their subsequent history. Indeed the story is still told every Passover festival in Jewish households to this day, as if it is occurring right now. It is what defines the Jewish people. So when Jesus is called the Lamb of God, it immediately evokes the history of both sacrifice and salvation, and more than that, the seminal story that makes them who they are! We read over this very lightly but to the Jewish hearers it must have been like a bomb going off. John the Baptiser says it not once but twice in the text that John the Evangelist has recorded. John the Baptiser also reveals what he has seen at the baptism of Jesus, which is the Spirit of God descending and remaining with Jesus, to testify that he is the ‘Son of God’. So if Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ and the Passover Lamb, simultaneously first born and sacrifice, so that the first born will live and indeed so that the whole nation will survive. So we have a complex set of images about the salvation of the world, all tied in John’s narrative into the concept of being the light. This is deep and complex stuff and hard to read and understand. John’s gospel is poetry, full of metaphor and allusion, rather than narrative, and even when it is telling the story it is much more like an epic than a newspaper report.
So here is Jesus, the Lamb of God and the disciples, who have been John’s disciples, follow him. Jesus turns to them and in a deeply charged question, asks them what they are looking for. The answer to this is very complex of course. They are looking for the Lamb, the firstborn, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, the light for the nations, the Word made flesh. How do they answer? They ask Jesus where he is staying! Now, that is how we have it translated here, but it is a complex word. What they actually ask is where is he “tabernacling, or pitching his tent”, where is he abiding. And this Greek word, meno, becomes one of the most important words in John’s gospel. Jesus uses this idea of “abiding” over and over again. He will talk about it for hours in the farewell discourse at the end of the gospel. At this early moment in the story, however, he responds with a very simple invitation, “Come and See!” God is revealed in Jesus and they are invited to come and to see him. This is their epiphany, and of course it is a long journey for these disciples who walk with him to the cross.
So the revelation of Jesus is something that becomes seen in abiding with him. And in abiding with him more and more is revealed, seen and understood. This is experiential. It is believed in the process of undergoing the revelation. This epiphany with the dual emphasis of a light shining for the nations, that is the Lamb of God, the sacrificial saviour, is understood in the life of abiding.
What does this mean for us? Well we live in this revelation. And the revelation is for us experienced in community. We read the very beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians today which is the great epistle that concerns how we should live in community. That is where we abide in God, in the body of Christ, in the community of faith. And together we share the gifts of revelation. Paul says to the Corinthians, that the grace of God has been given to them in Jesus Christ, so that they are not lacking in any spiritual gifts as they wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. So here we are together, with every spiritual gift that we need as we undergo the revelation of God. We share together the gifts that allow God to be revealed to the people around us. We together, are the light for the nations. My friends, in the common life that we share, we need to shine in our community. Jesus tells us that if we hide our lights under a bushel we have defeated the very purpose of our being.
We are beginning a new year, a new season in the life of this church and we have new opportunities to minister both to one another and to our community. I pray that as the light of the world is revealed to us, as we abide in Christ, that we might like Jesus, invite others to “Come and See!”