Old Made New: The Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Old Made New: The Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Epiphany January 10, 2016

 

See the post for a description.
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Isaiah 62:1-5

What It’s About: The land is married–what a metaphor. This is a jubilant passage, exuberant about the changing fortunes of the people and the land they inhabit. This is the prophetic tradition at its most hopeful.

What It’s Really About: The book of Isaiah, as we have it today, is a composite composition. It is usually divided up into three parts: first, second, and third Isaiah. This passage is third Isaiah, which was probably written after the edict of Cyrus allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. This is a celebratory passage, then, describing the redemption of the city, the land, and the people. It is written, probably, as stones are being set in place on the new temple, and as the city of Jersusalem is alive with the kind of life that would have been unthinkable in earlier parts of the book of Isaiah.

What It’s Not About: Forgotten are the woes and tribulations of the earlier part of the book of Isaiah. Earlier in the book, the people and their God are at odds, and the relationship seems to be nearly unredeemable. Enemies were at the gate (or inside the gate), and there looked to be no possibility for recovery. But here, it seems that all is forgiven. And not only that, the metaphor of marriage–between God and the people, and between God and the land–signals a new kind of union and a new kind of faithfulness.

Maybe You Should Think About: This part of Isaiah is reminiscent, in some ways, of the end of the book of Job. That book, like this one, caps a long and painful struggle with a triumphant ending, in which we are to understand that all has been forgiven. But with Job I have always wondered about the human cost of the story–the stuff that isn’t covered in the “happily ever after.” What about his wife and kids, and about all the collateral damage along the way? The same holds true for this part of Isaiah. In all this talk of vindication and lasting bonds, what about those who remain in exile? What about those who never left, and have now had their worlds upended? What about those who died in the siege or the war? Happily ever after is all well and good, but there has been a cost to this newfound union.

 

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

What It’s About: When Paul gets on a roll, there is no more lyrical author in the New Testament, and in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is on a roll. This is an exposition on spiritual gifts, which apparently were dividing the congregation in Corinth. Paul takes this opportunity to point out the ways individual gifts enrich the communal whole community, and declares that all the gifts come from God.

What It’s Really About: I am convinced that 1 Corinthians chapters 11, 12, and 13 must be read together as a unit. This is especially true of chapter 13, which is forever taken out of its context and used in weddings, where it absolutely does not belong. In this section (and really the whole letter) Paul is addressing the question of unity, and each of these chapters builds upon the last. Take a running start on chapter 12, and see what chapters 11 and 13 have to say to it. When read this way, the three together become a passionate plea for unity in the face of internal division, external distractions, and the natural inclination of people to bicker. It’s no accident that Paul begins this movement with a meditation on the common table (and abuses at it), and then moves through spiritual gifts, and finally ends up by telling his readers to love each other.

What It’s Not About: Notice how casually Paul acknowledges people’s individual gifts. There is no argument here about which gifts or callings are appropriate or not. Paul notes that they all come from the same Spirit, and moves on. It is not people, with all their uniqueness, who cause problems, but it is our reactions to people that do. This ought to be evidence for anyone arguing for full inclusion of people in the church (and note the close proximity of the “body of Christ” section); Paul, here, is assuming that whatever eccentricities people have come from God, and that God must think them useful.

Maybe You Should Think About: Many contemporary churches wouldn’t recognize the list of gifts Paul includes here. We have things that Paul wouldn’t have known about–to one is given the gift of social media management–and others have fallen out of favor in certain communities. But the pattern still holds, doesn’t it? Paul’s words are just as relevant today, it seems to me, when we are constantly bickering over whose personhood is valued in church. Paul’s first-century answer was that everyone is equally of God, in whatever gifts they bring.

 

John 2:1-11

What It’s About: This is the first “sign” in the gospel of John, Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. In John, this serves to inaugurate Jesus’ public ministry, and begins to draw attention to him as a miracle worker. It also includes a tense exchange with Jesus’ mother (who doesn’t get a name in the gospel of John, probably to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature), in which he calls her “woman.” Don’t try this at home.

What It’s Really About: The gospel of John doesn’t deal much in miracles. Instead, it talks about “signs,” of which there are seven. The first of these is this one, at Cana, and it is supposed to point beyond itself to something more. So it’s not really about the wine or the water, but it’s about Jesus’ power, and the prefiguring of the resurrection that is implied in the whole story. In fact, in the illustration for this blog post, I’ve included a photo of a gold glass from Rome (probably 3rd or 4th century), depicting this sign along with the raising of Lazarus–meaning that at least some people in antiquity interpreted them together. Everything in John points to Jesus as divine and powerful, and this story is no different.

What It’s Not About: People like to point to this story as evidence that Jesus liked to party. And, while I do get the sense that Jesus enjoyed an evening with friends and good wine as much as anyone else, I don’t think this story points to that at all. John is always trying to depict a dignified, in-control, and holy Jesus, and that’s what this story is about: Jesus whose power works signs in spite of himself.

Maybe You Should Think About: The lazy way to think about this story is to take verse 6, with its reference to Jewish purification rites, as evidence that we should interpret this is as being about Christianity overcoming Judaism. Don’t do that. The water is not meant to stand in for Judaism, and the wine is not meant to stand in for Christianity. If anything, such water would have served to heighten the sanctity of the sign (though scholars struggle to guess what that large quantity of water would have had to do with purification rites). So don’t read this part of John as anti-Jewish; read it as a sign of Jesus’ power.

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