Isaiah 49: 1 - 7
40: 1 - 11
1 Corinthians 1 : 1 - 9
John 1 : 29 - 42
Old Testament: Isaiah 49: 1-7
This passage is set in the context of exile; God’s people are alienated from their land and their temple has been destroyed. It is a time of questioning faith and all that has been promised in deliverance. The broader context of Isaiah 49 speaks to God’s encouragement of God’s people. The passage is entitled ‘The Servant’s Mission’ and is the second servant song. The servant is revealed and portrayed as a prophet of justice to restore all things to God (some have compared this as a form of Old Testament Great Commission – “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v6)). This refers to the coming of Christ, Jesus with some interpretations also connecting this with the wider mission of the people of Israel. A core theme of this passage is the idea of unlikely servants, called by the Lord in the womb (a repeated frame in Old and New Testament) but often hidden in the eyes of the wider community. We read also of the frustration of the servant and at the same time an understanding of the wider perspective of God to which their mission contributes – “I have laboured 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” (v3-4).
Psalm: Psalm 40: 1-11
This psalm, believed to be written on David’s deliverance, speaks to joy and praise. We read of the surrender of David to God. In verses 6-8 we read of David’s understanding that God was not seeking physical offerings such as burnt offerings of sin offerings, instead God was seeing willing servants: obedient and open to listening to God’s call which we can see demonstrated in the refrain: ‘here I am’. This psalm speaks to delight in willing obedience to God.
New Testament: 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9
At the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read his (and his co-author Sosthenes) salutations. Paul begins in thanksgiving to God for the church in Corinth. The salutations also act as an introduction introducing themes that are later picked up again in the letter. Here Paul notes the spiritual gifts of speech and knowledge that Christ has strengthened in the Corinthian church. He is reminding and re-centering these gifts as spiritual gifts from God and for God.
Gospel: John 1: 29-42
The gospel reading narrates John the Baptist pointing Jesus out to the world and of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. We hear of a world that did not recognise Jesus. In verses 32 and 33 we read that even John would not have recognised Jesus (“I myself did not know him”) and that he relied on God revealing this through the Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove. John is testifying to Jesus being the Holy, chosen one and is pointing Jesus out to his followers. We read of John repeatedly turning others to Jesus. We see the result of this in the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. In this passage we consider Jesus’ position and visibility in society. It was one that required John to point Jesus out and testify to him being the “Lamb of God” (vs 36). It leads to a questioning of whether if Jesus was here today whether we would notice and know who Jesus was or whether he would pass us unnoticed and unrecognised?
Our passages speak of unlikely servants as a means for God to be revealed to the world. We read a little of what struggles and joys this might bring for the servants themselves as well as how they may be perceived (or not perceived!) by wider society.
The gospel reading notes of how God’s greatest and most willing servant, Jesus Christ, was not recognised. John the Baptist was required to testify to both Christ’s presence and holiness. In some respects, this suggests that to society Jesus may have looked rather unremarkable – someone who could be missed when walking down the street. John relied on God to reveal Jesus by the Spirit. Pointing his followers to Jesus, however, allowed him to be recognised as Messiah by others.
In our Old Testament, Psalm and New Testament reading we can explore what being a servant of God might entail. In Isaiah we read of an unlikely servant (a prophet gifted with a “mouth like a sharpened sword” (vs2) that do not recognise themselves as such as they are not able to see the results of their toil and labour. Yet at the same time this is put in a wider context and timeframe (“yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand and my reward is with my God” (vs4)). The prophet understands that they are part of a wider story of God’s restoration of all of creation to God and that one might not see the results of this. A common agricultural metaphor used to illustrate this is that in participating in God’s mission for the world some are called to sow seed, others to water and tend, others to reap the harvest. We may not see the whole process of which we may only be one part. Paul also speaks to this broader perspective, reminding the Corinthians that their spiritual gifts are gifts from God. Our psalmist reminds us to bring joy, praise and thanksgiving to these roles as willing and obedient servants.
As we consider this in light of the climate and ecological crises I wonder where we may see or not see the servants of God who are pointing us to the harmonious and reconciled relationships between people and planet that is part of God’s plan. We must start to look in unlikely places. It may be that our servant leaders are not those in the public sphere or in positions of power and authority. Some of the greatest leaders come from some of the most unexpected places. Think of the leaders among our youth, Vanessa Nakate (Ugandan climate activist) or Greta Thunberg. Do we expect our servant leaders to be school children? Think of indigenous peoples (and I recommend the four ‘Prophetic Indigenous Voices on the Planetary Crisis’ videos from across the Anglican Communion for further context) often marginalised or oppressed who live and demonstrate life in harmony with creation – do we see them as our unexpected servant leaders? What about women who tend the land in many agricultural communities who are less represented in decision making spaces (https://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/downloads/Women_and_Climate_Change_Factsheet.pdf) – are they our servant leaders?
Alternatively, maybe these passages resonate as individuals or communities who are already active and committed to care for creation in words and deeds. Maybe the frustration of the servant prophet in Isaiah speaks to you or your community. In a crisis as large as the global ecological crises (climate change, biodiversity and pollution) it is easy to think that our actions are lost. We cannot see the impact of our practical actions and advocacy due to the scale of the ecological crises in both time and space. Yet we have to trust that our intentions are contributing towards God’s plan of restoration and recreation, and to be challenged to take our role as willing servants with joy and praise.
Rebecca joined USPG in 2016. Prior to this she worked as Refugee Response Facilitator for the Anglican Church in Greece (Diocese in Europe), coordinating an ecumenical group of agencies responding to the needs of displaced peoples across Greece and coordinating the combined ‘Rapid Response’ of the Diocese in Europe and USPG. She also spent a year volunteering with the community development arm of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (E-CARE) through USPG’s Journey with Us scheme. Rebecca read Geography at Girton College, Cambridge for her undergraduate degree.