2nd Sunday after Epiphany

January 20, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 49:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 40:1-11
Reading 3: 
I Corinthians 1:1-9
Reading 4: 
John 1:29-42
By Bruce G. Epperly

The Isaiah reading integrates call and response, and providence and vocation. While the passage can be read as an example of divine election in the most absolute terms, that is, God has a clear plan for everyone established before her or his birth, it can also point to God’s careful, gentle, and contextual providence that guides and inspires us in partnership with our own personal decisions and plans for the future. No doubt, the authors of Isaiah had a strong sense of God’s presence in their lives and in the unfolding of history. During his mystical experience in the temple, narrated in Isaiah 6, the prophet hears one of angelic figures proclaim that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Process-relational thinkers also have a strong sense of God’s presence, albeit in non-coercive and open-ended ways. God is luring us in each moment toward the beauty, health, and self-affirmation that will contribute to our short and long-term well-being and the well-being of our communities.

Isaiah 49 continues the theme of personal vocation in terms of the interplay divine omnipresence and omni-activity. God is present within our DNA, in fetal growth, and our evolving sense of self and vocation. God’s vision for our lives inspires the unfolding of the present moment as well as the unfolding of our gifts and personality over a lifetime. Still, neither Isaiah nor ourselves are divine puppets. Isaiah’s own agency is revealed in his confession, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” God’s inspiration grounds and energizes, rather than determines, our personal creativity. Though he perceives his own efforts as fruitless, or falling short of God’s call, Isaiah also knows that God is still working in his life and that God’s presence calls him to responsibility and ownership of his own actions.

In the midst of his experience of failure, Isaiah also experiences the call to a vocation of greater stature and impact. He has set his sights too low, focusing merely on his own ethnic community. He must now think globally as well as locally. He is called to reveal God’s light to the nations. His own vocational enlightenment will give life and light to others. In an interdependent universe, fulfilling our own divinely-inspired vocation enables others to discover and fulfill their own vocations.

Isaiah challenges persons and congregations to look beyond the moment and the neighborhood. His experience is an antidote to the apathy and powerlessness many of us feel as we consider our planetary future, whether in terms of the ecological, political, or economic crises that threaten us. While we may not be able do to much alone, joined with others, we can inspire new values and behaviors that will bring life to the world.

Corinthians follows the same theme of call and response. Paul reminds this contentious community that they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Perhaps, their conflicts over theology, worship, ethics, and economics are a reflection of their sense of isolation and scarcity. They clutch at what they have, whether doctrinally, sexually, or financially, because they do not recognize that God is ceaselessly working in their lives and in the Corinthian community. They have the seeds of abundant life, but are settling for the poverty of individualism.

Paul’s words join personal and communal fulfillment. His affirmation, “you have all the spiritual gifts you need to flourish,” is not just a “self-help” platitude but a call to imagine where our gifts fit within the “body of Christ.” We can neither grow nor find true happiness without the giftedness of others. Vocation is, accordingly, a social phenomenon as well as personal achievement. The pastor can challenge the congregation to ponder its unique spiritual gifts as well as God’s abundant giftedness in the life of each individual.

John’s narrative of Jesus’ calling the first disciples continues the theme of call and response, and inspiration and vocation. John the Baptist attests to Jesus’ uniqueness as God’s beloved and inspires his own followers to seek to know this unknown, but unique, new prophet.

The dialogue between Jesus and John’s followers further reflects the dynamic interplay of call and response in discerning our spiritual gifts and personal adventures. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. This question is at the heart of spiritual formation, “What do want? What is your goal in life?” The disciples’ response, “Where are you staying?” describes the quest to discern one’s vocation. “Where can we find what we are truly looking for? Among the many paths of life, which one will truly fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts and allow us to live out our evolving vocation?” “Come and see,” Jesus responds, as if to say, “If you follow this pathway with me, and are open to God’s vision for your life, you will see what you truly need in order to experience wholeness, vitality, and purpose.”

“They remained with him.” Spiritual growth requires time and practice. For persons today, these future followers of Jesus are reminders that we need to “practice discipleship” through a commitment to the disciplines of community and spiritual formation. Our congregations are called to be laboratories of spiritual and relational transformation, deepened by prayer, contemplation, healing arts, and service to the local as well as global community. Only a commitment to “remain” in community can nurture the spiritual maturity that we seek.

Finally, Andrew shares the good news with his brother Simon Peter. Our personal experiences are intended to nurture our souls and enable others to experience God’s lively and life-transforming presence. Witness and evangelism are highly personal in nature. Andrew shares what he has experienced without threat or coercion and, then, provides a way for his brother to meet Jesus. Evangelism honors our experience and the freedom of the other, even as it facilitates new life in the ones to whom we witness. While we cannot claim to know God’s call in another’s life, evangelism – in the spirit of Isaiah and John’s gospel – invites the other to experience God’s calling in her or his life. Healthy evangelism is an affirmation of our experience of God and community spirituality in light of our perceptions of God’s movement in the life of others.

Healthy evangelism is, as Psalm 40 proclaims, a proclamation of “glad news of deliverance…of God’s new song in our lives…of God’s steadfast love.” These scriptures as whole challenge worshippers to discern God’s providence, awaken to God’s larger vision, and imagine those persons with whom they are called to share God’s vision. They also challenge worshippers to a “spirituality of epiphany,” to practicing spiritual disciplines that awaken them to God’s calling in their lives and in the world.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.