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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, I Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

This week’s lectionary readings are rich in their ability to trigger images or associations for me.  There are so many lines we could go down.  One set of images had me thinking about navel gazing and star gazing and other related gazing.  In fact, I tried to find a creative way to include the word “gazing” into the title of this blog entry.  Didn’t succeed!

The word “gazing” appears in our English translations of scripture, sometimes interchangeably with the word “looking.”  Some of the references seem to imply that we are looking in the wrong place.  When the women come to the tomb “two men in dazzling clothes" ask, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  (Luke 24:4-5)  When Jesus ascends into heaven, we read, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”  (Acts 1:10-11---The King James Version with which some of us grew up, asks, “Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”)  Now, in this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?”  (John 1:38)  Sometimes the questions asked are the most important things to notice in scripture.

Reading the lectionary texts made me think of “navel-gazing” and “star gazing.”  While some have applied “navel-gazing” in a positive way to spiritual meditation, it is most often used in a derogatory way, defined as “the activity of thinking too much or too deeply about yourself, your experiences, your feelings, etc.” or “useless or excessive self-contemplation.”  Is that what’s going on in Isaiah 49:4 when the servant seems to be wallowing in self-pity?  “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity . . .” 

The term “star-gazing” has a more positive history referring to the activity of studying and enjoying the stars.  The Magi were among the star-gazers of history.  Nevertheless the term has also sometimes been used in a more negative way, defined as “daydreaming.”  Maybe it’s a little like looking into the heavens when the place of God’s work is nearer at hand.

I don’t want to dismiss the power of meditation, the beauty of the heavens, the importance of self-examination and the inward journey, but scripture, including today’s readings seem to call us outward in our journey of faithfulness.

Another series of associations, from my seminary days, came to me after my initial readings of these passages.  After extensive internet research, my memory was not enhanced, but the basic insights are important enough (although not particularly startling today) that I’m going to wing it.  Early in the life of the World Council of Churches there were discussions about the relationship of the church to the world.  The discussion started with the popular notion that God’s avenue for mission to the world is through the church.  The sequence is God-church-world.  The mission of the church is taking God into the world.  These World Council of Churches' discussions upended things, saying that God is already at work in the world.  God’s mission is going on out there already.  It is our job and the church’s job to notice where God is at work and join God there.  The sequence is God-world-church.  I remember a series of books made available in the U.S. through the National Council of Churches, most prominently one entitled, Where in the World?  It was one of a series by a known theological name of the day, which I cannot pull up anywhere.  I believe one of the others was What in the World?  Other titles may have asked Who, How, and/or Why in the World?  Despite my limited memory, you get the idea.  The World is where we are to look, to gaze, to engage in mission.

The reading from Isaiah is one of a series of chapters with images of a “suffering servant.”  Christians through the ages have applied them to Jesus.  Others, at various times, have applied them to an expected Messiah, kings at their inauguration, prophets, etc.  Here the servant is named:  “Israel”  (Isaiah 49:3)  The nation (and by extension, the church?) is seen as God’s servant.  For me, at least this week, the central verse is number six.  The Lord says to Israel, “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 Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.”  Stop your wallowing in self-pity.  Longing for restoration from exile is not even a big enough vision.  Look outward, beyond your narrow boundaries.  My mission isn’t just about you and your comfort.  It’s about all nations and all peoples.

As I’ve noted before, the idea of being “a light to the nations” has been misused as an excuse for imperialism.  If we can look beyond the misuse, perhaps we can hear a call to turn our gaze outward and join God in mission in the world.

In our discussion this morning, Psalm 40:8, which speaks of God’s law “within my heart,” reminded some of us of another verse from the Psalms, memorized during our childhood:  “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”  (Psalm 119:11)  We got into a brief discussion of things hidden and things revealed, puzzling over verse two from the Isaiah reading: “ . . . in his quiver he hid me away.”  (For those who want more, further research placed this phrase in the context of the mouth of the servant being “like a sharp sword,” speaking of the power of the servant’s message which is like “a polished arrow.”  Read the verse again.)

The thing that is particularly noteworthy in the Psalm is its reversal of the hiddenness.  “I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness . . .”  (Psalm 40:10)  God’s love is not something to be stored away for our private contemplation; it is to be released into the world.  In fact, that is where God’s love is to be found, at work among the outcasts and oppressed and needy of the world.  The call is to join God there, and in so doing, love is multiplied.

To treat the epistle reading fairly would probably change our direction and subject.  It is a typical Pauline greeting at the beginning of a letter.  He introduces himself and his mission and gives us a summary of his theology.  He speaks of “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift . . .”  (I Corinthians 1:4-7)  If we were to examine other Pauline writings we would see that being gifted and equipped by God is important to his understanding of mission.  We have been given what it takes, strengthened “to the end.”  (vs. 8) 

The Gospel lesson follows up on the baptism of Jesus which was the focus last week.  Just before today’s reading we find John out there baptizing.  (John 1:19-28)  The writer of this gospel does not specifically record the actual baptism of Jesus.  Jesus comes walking toward him and John starts talking about him.  “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” (vss. 29-30)  He seems to recall Jesus’ baptism, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”  (vs. 32)

The focus of the reading for this week is on the next day when Jesus again walks by.  (vs. 36)  Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus.  (vs. 37)  The exchange which follows is rich and deep.  “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks them.  “Where are you staying?” they respond.  Jesus says, “Come and see.”  (vss. 38-39)  Is it too much to think of this as an exchange about where God is at work.  Jesus wants to know where they are looking.  They want to know where they should look.   Jesus says, “You have to come with me, go where I go, join me in mission along the highways and byways of life.”  They do go with him, staying the rest of the day.  Somebody must have been paying attention to the time because we are told that “it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”  (vs. 39)

Many have commented on the revealing ending of this story, the reason it perhaps was included.  One of the two was Andrew, Peter’s brother.  (vs. 40)  We’re not told who the other one was.  We are told what happened next.  Andrew went and got his brother, whom Jesus immediately names “Cephas” or “Rock,” Peter. (vss. 41-42)  If Andrew had just reveled in this experience, hugging it closely to himself, Peter might never have become part of this new movement.  His vision was bigger than that, as is the vision to which God calls us.  God is always calling “Come and see!”


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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