Psalm 72, Isaiah 49: 1 -13 and John 1: 19 – 34
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. Psalm 72: 7
(The Lord 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 Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Isaiah 49: 6
The next day (John) saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘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”.’ John 1: 29 and 30
O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Epiphany is the season following Christmas that the prayer book describes as the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Reading the passage from Isaiah 49, and in particular verse 6 quoted above, always intrigues me. It is as if God the Father is saying it is too simple for the One He will send just to save the tribes of Jacob. Why not make the task harder to enable all the Gentile races to be saved as well? Isaiah is inspired to write down a conversation between the Messiah and the Father. Chapter 49 begins with the Messiah speaking of his calling and his servanthood, but through whom God would be glorified. He entrusts his cause with his Father, even when the cause seems to be lost (verse 4). The rest of our reading consists of the Lord’s response, not shying away from the fact that the Messiah would be despised and abhorred by the nations, yet would become a light to all nations before whom princes would prostrate themselves. At precisely the right time in history the Messiah was to be sent (a time of favour, on a day of salvation – verse 8), as a covenant to the people. In other words, Jesus was to come as a new promise from God, who would bring liberation, giving springs of water in a parched land, with the fruits of salvation coming from all points of the compass. Not surprisingly, this would be cause for the heavens and the earth to exult, and for even the mountains to sing because of this comfort and compassion for those suffering under the yoke of sin.
This passage from Isaiah is a less well-known portion of the Servant Songs which occupy chapters 42 – 55. The title hints at the obedience and humility that are hallmarks of the Messiah. We have seen in today’s passage that the Messiah would be treated like a slave. How could this be that the Son of God would ‘come in great humility’ rather than in glorious majesty? This is another of those mysteries known only to God, but brings us to John chapter one and John the Baptist’s description of the man walking towards him as being the Lamb of God. The answer lies in the entire period of the Old Covenant and the system of animal sacrifices introduced to atone for the sins of the people. (We see this is in a humble way in a month’s time at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, where Joseph and Mary offered a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.) John the Baptist, to quote today’s collect, perceived that Jesus was indeed the Messiah sent to be the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This paradox lies at the heart of the Christian faith, that the very Son of God emptied himself, took human likeness and the form of a slave, and was obedient to his Father, even to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2: 5 – 8). The title ‘the Lamb of God’ symbolises the victimhood, humility and helplessness of a sacrificial lamb being led to the slaughter, as depicted in Isaiah 53: 7.
My final comment is to draw attention to Jesus walking towardsJohn. We see many times in the gospels the incidental details of Jesus arriving or leaving somewhere, or simply passing by. John, the gospel writer, is clearly noting the deliberate action of Jesus coming to John the Baptist. This part of the first chapter in John’s gospel is about the transition from the preparations the Baptist was making for the arrival of Jesus, when his own work would be complete. Now Jesus comes, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In verse 29, the gospel writer is introducing the Baptism of Jesus (inferring readers will know about this) and John the Baptist witnessing the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus to empower him for his public ministry that was now beginning.
As we progress through the season of Epiphany, may we be reminded that the next time Jesus appears on earth it will be in glory and power, as we were remembering in Advent. But he is always walking towards anyone who is looking for him, always ready to offer forgiveness and hope to needy souls, and giving us grace and power through the Holy Spirit.