1Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 2He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. 3And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ 4But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’ 5And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6he says, ‘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 srael; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ 7Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘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.
This morning we celebrate the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany. Yet, aside from the gospel text from John that we’ll hear later on, our readings have us jumping all over the place. Last week we delved into the baptism of our Lord and though it was a jump from the birth story, it made sense as the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus was born and for the first 30 years of his life there were no major revelations about who he was and what he was capable of doing. Finally, in his 30th year, Jesus’ cousin plays an important role of revealing Jesus as the Son of God through the waters of baptism. Jesus could no longer live a life of obscurity. He had to start behaving like the Son of God once he was baptized. He had to start healing and teaching and forgiving and saving. Jesus could no longer be the person he was before he was baptized, at least in the sense of being an unknown. Suddenly, Jesus was someone. He was no longer that quiet carpenter’s boy, he was someone. He was someone with great responsibilities. He was someone with a calling. He was someone with a purpose.
And what was Jesus’ purpose? Why was Jesus sent to us by the Father? There are many ways we could answer these questions but at their core lies one fundamental purpose for his coming to us: to fulfill prophecy; to satisfy the hopes and longings of all those who have suffered throughout history. Contrary to the beliefs of those around him, Jesus didn’t just come out of nowhere. Prophets had predicted the coming of a Messiah for hundreds of years. I would imagine the predictions go as far back as the fall of Adam in the garden of Eden. For as long as man has suffered, he has longed for someone who could justify his suffering…not take away his suffering but simply acknowledge and sympathize with his suffering. We long for someone to know our suffering and to walk with us through our suffering. We long for someone who will suffer alongside us. We long for a Messiah. And we’ve longed for a Messiah for a long, long time.
Perhaps this is why we begin our readings with this passage from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet gives us a first-person account of the thoughts of a Messiah. He himself was not the Messiah but he had the gift of conveying the thoughts of the Messiah. And he conveyed these thoughts hundreds of years before Jesus even came on the scene! Long before Jesus began his earthly ministry, the prophet was aware of the thoughts of the Messiah and was able to pass them along to us. When we listen to Isaiah’s words, we hear them as spoken by the Messiah. We hear Jesus’ very thoughts about his calling and purpose through Isaiah: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.”
Psalm 40: 1-11
1I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. 4 Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. 5You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted. 6Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required. 7Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. 8I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’ 9I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. 10I 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 from the great congregation. 11Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe.
Just as we heard the thoughts of the Messiah through the prophet, Isaiah, we again hear his thoughts through the psalmist. Jesus’ purpose and calling was not an easy purpose and calling. As much as the world longs for a Messiah, as much as the world needs a Messiah, the world doesn’t know how to handle a Messiah. The world wouldn’t know what to do with itself without suffering. In many ways, the world is regulated by suffering. Suffering keeps the world humble. Suffering keeps the world aware of its limitations. Suffering keeps the world honest and true. Because the world doesn’t know how to regulate itself without suffering, the world didn’t know how to handle Jesus. Ultimately the world was afraid of Jesus. It was afraid that the reality he taught and lived was one without suffering so it did what it does best—it made Jesus suffer. Jesus suffered and not because he tried to avoid suffering. Jesus suffered because the world specializes in suffering. If he was to be of the world, then he was to suffer.
In our psalm for today, we hear David giving thanks to God for having heard his suffering. He waited patiently in his suffering and the Lord heard his cries. So, too, did Jesus wait in his suffering. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was mocked and ignored. He was ridiculed and shamed. He was insulted and condemned. There was nothing easy about his calling to save the world. The world wanted to be saved and yet it didn’t want to be saved. It wanted to go on sinning and suffering.
But both Jesus and the psalmist are a testament to how God eventually hears us in our suffering. If we wait long enough, if we put our complete trust in God and God’s ability, then He will eventually save us. Sometimes He saves in ways we expect. Most times He saves us in ways we’d least expect. Regardless of how He saves, God saves those who place their whole heart in him. This is the gift we receive through faith.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord* and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my* God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of* Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
God does listen to us in our suffering! God sent the Son to be with us in our suffering, to suffer as we suffer. Eventually the suffering of the Son came to an end as God the Father heard his cries. But the Son didn’t leave us when his suffering came to an end. No, the Son merely took on a new body—the body of the church. We are the body of the Son, the body of Christ, and have been since those early years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ disciples were sent out into the world to build up the body of Christ and on occasion there were some who weren’t his disciples who were called for this purpose. The apostle Paul was one of those people. He wasn’t one of the original twelve disciples but had an encounter with Jesus that compelled him to spread the gospel all the same. Paul did more than simple spread the gospel. Paul worked at building the body of Christ by establishing congregations throughout the Middle East. His earliest congregation was established in the city of Corinth.
Establishing a congregation is a difficult thing to do, especially when you don’t have a solidly defined personal theology. Paul didn’t have a solidly defined personal theology when he established the congregation at Corinth. In many ways, he was working out his understanding of Christ and what it means to be the body of Christ through the good people of Corinth. They understood their own suffering but needed Jesus to understand it. Paul understood this need and was constantly reaffirming and encouraging the congregation. These opening verses of his letter to them serve this very purpose. He reaffirmed and encouraged them: “I give thanks to my God for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” and a little later on, “…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul loves his congregation at Corinth and doesn’t want it to suffer in any way. Paul is dedicated to helping it understand Christ’s reality…to helping it know that Christ is walking alongside them in their suffering. Christ doesn’t remove suffering. Christ acknowledges suffering and in so doing, justifies it. The people of Corinth are representative of all people. They needed their suffering to be heard and justified and Paul helped satisfy that need. The closing verse of our passage is a great assurance: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” God is faithful in hearing our cries and wants to bring us into fellowship with the Son.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*). 42He brought Simon* to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter*).
And so we hear John’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Whereas the other three gospel writers are more concerned with simply relaying the elements of the baptism (i.e. the Jordan river, John the Baptist, dove, voice from heaven), John flushes out the event a little further. Jesus’ purpose is clearly outlined: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus came to take away the sin of the world; in essence, to take away the suffering of the world. Without sin there would be no suffering. A mighty tall order to place on Jesus’ shoulders! An unrealistic order at that! Remember, the world wouldn’t know what to do with itself without sin and suffering. The world wouldn’t know how to regulate itself. The world needs sin and suffering if only, at the very least, to motivate change. The world is in a constant state of change. The world wouldn’t be the world if it never changed. Sin and suffering and change are deeply intertwined in this world.
John not only exposes Jesus for who he is as the Lamb of God but he reveals Jesus’ sole purpose for being here: to take away the sin of the world. But it is an unrealistic purpose. Does Jesus take away the sin of the world? Does Jesus take away the suffering of the world? Of course not! There is still sin and suffering in our world today. Indeed, there will likely always be sin and suffering in our world. But what he does do is acknowledge the sin and suffering. He not only acknowledges them but frees us from slavery to them. He shows us the way to be freed from our slavery to sin and suffering and death. How? By being fully aware and accepting of these qualities of life. Once we accept sin and suffering and death, we live fuller, more joyous lives. We live life the way life is meant to be lived–without fear. Fear is a great limiting agent. It limits our abilities and opportunities. When we rid ourselves of fear, our futures become a great, wide open space of joy and satisfaction. God wants us to realize that space here, in this world. Not only in the world to come but here…now…always. We aren’t rid of sin and suffering and death, we’re simply living in reality that isn’t limited by fear of these three realities. What a gift and blessing!
As we go through this season of Epiphany, let us be mindful of the freedom that Jesus gives is through his ministry, death, and resurrection. Let us be thankful for his justification of our suffering. Perhaps most importantly, let us be glad that he is the light of our world.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.