Monday, 29 January 2018

Readings, hymns and sermon ideas for Sunday 4 February 2018

Pages from Saint John’s Gospel, the first complete hand-written and illuminated Bible since the Renaissance, in the recent Holy Writ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday [4 February 2018] is the Second Sunday before Lent. This is Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary, when the readings are mainly from Saint Mark’s Gospel. The for next Sunday offer two options:

Option A, Creation: Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31; Psalm 104: 26-37; Colossians 1: 15-20; and John 1-14;

Option B (Proper 3): Hosea 2: 14-20, Psalm 103: 1-13, 22, II Corinthians 3: 1-6, and Mark 2: 13-22.

The Revised Common Lectionary provides for a different set of readings for the Sunday between 4 and 10 February as the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 40: 21-31; Psalm 147: 1-11, 20c; I Corinthians 9: 16-23; and Mark 1: 29-39. However, in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England, these should not be used when the Second Sunday before Lent falls on this date (see The Book of Common Prayer 2004, pp 32-34; Common Worship, Lectionary, p 550; RCL, pp 438-444).

You we will find these choices difficult and puzzling at times, but it shows you how important it is to plan your readings and sermons, and therefore the hymns and intercessions, well in advance so you can avoid last-minute panics.

The readings in context:

The Season of Christmas comes to an end not at Epiphany [6 January] and the end of the 12 days of Christmas, but 40 days after Christmas at the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas, the great feast which falls next Friday [2 February 2018].

The time between Candlemas and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday has no season, and is known as Ordinary Time in the calendar of the Church. However, the two Sundays immediately before Lent have special themes, Creation and the Transfiguration, to help us prepare to mark appropriately the 40 days of Lent.

Option A:

Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31:

The theme of the readings on Sunday next, 4 February 2018, the Second Sunday before Lent, is Creation. The Old Testament reading (Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31) reminds us that our own creation, the beginning of my own life, is irrevocably linked with the very beginning of Creation, as Wisdom rejoices: ‘I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’ (verses 30-31).

Colossians 1: 15-20:

This link between Christ, the beginning of creation, and God’s plan for humanity within creation, are emphasised by Saint Paul in the New Testament reading (Colossians 1: 15-20):

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Introducing the Gospel readings:

The Prologue in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel is Greek mystical poetry of the highest quality

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ … this is one of the most dramatic opening lines in any great work of literature. And for, the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel According to Saint John, is one of the great works of literature, apart from being my favourite book in the Bible.

The author of this Gospel was identified by Saint Irenaeus as Saint John the beloved, Saint John the Divine, or Saint John the Theologian, who lived in Ephesus until the imperial reign of Trajan (ca AD 98).

As a boy, Irenaeus had known Saint Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, near Ephesus, and who is said to have been a disciple of John. Ever since then, the tradition of the Church has identified this John as the author of the Fourth Gospel.

The narrative translations with which we are so familiar often miss the poetic and dramatic presentations of this Gospel. We are all familiar with the dramatic presentation of the Prologue to this Gospel as the Gospel reading on Christmas Day. But the Prologue is first and foremost poetry. It is a hymn – a poetic summary – of the whole theology of this Gospel, as well as an introduction to it.

Raymond Brown has presented a translation from the Greek of the Prologue in poetic format:

1 In the beginning was the Word;
the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
2 He was present with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
4 That which came to be found life in him,
and this life was the light of the human race.
5 The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness did not overcome it.

(6 Now there was a man sent by God, named John 7 who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might believe – 8 but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light.)

9 He was the real light
that gives light to everyone;
he was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world was made by him;
yet the world did not recognise him.
11 To his own he came;
yet his own people did not accept him.
12 But all those who did accept him,
he empowered to become God’s children –
those who believe in his name,
13 those who were begotten,
not by blood,
nor the flesh,
nor human desire,
but by God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
And we have seen his glory,
the glory as of an only Son coming from the Father,
rich in kindness and fidelity.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ ... a recent winter sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

John 1: 1-14:

The first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John can be divided in two parts: the Prologue (verses 1-18) and a second part (verses 19-50) that shows that John the Baptist was preparing for the coming of the Messiah.

The Prologue is an introduction to the Gospel as a whole. It tells us that the Logos is God and acts as the mouthpiece (Word) of God ‘made flesh,’ sent to the world in order to be able to intercede for humanity and to forgive human sins.

The Prologue is of central significance to the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Prologue can be compared with Genesis 1, where the same phrase, ‘In the beginning …,’ first occurs along with the emphasis on the difference between the darkness and the light.

In the opening verses of each of the four Gospels, we are given initial clues to the interests that will govern the evangelists’ respective accounts of Christ’s life and ministry:

● Saint Matthew’s opening genealogy identifies Jesus as the descendant of both Abraham and David, as well as supplying his credentials as the Messianic king.

● Saint Mark’s opening is the most compact, recounting Christ’s baptism in order to establish his identity as the Son of God.

● Saint Luke’s introduction sets a detailed account of the announcements and actual births of both Saint John the Baptist and Jesus against the backdrop of the wider Roman world.

● Saint John’s makes the most dramatic use of the prologue form in shaping the contours of a particular Christological emphasis. This is probably one of the most profound passages in the Bible. As simple as its language and phrases are, its description of Christ as the Logos has had a lasting influence on Christian theology.

The prologue prepares the reader for the rest of the Fourth Gospel. Important themes are signalled and Christ’s identity is established at the very outset through the use of Christological titles, divine portents or the manner of his birth.

John’s is the only Gospel to speak of Christ’s pre-existence as the Logos and the only Gospel to include a poetic prologue.

The prologue provides a profound and highly developed theological summary that has a structural integrity of its own, while also introducing many of the key themes of the Gospel account that follows.

Section 1: Verses 1-5

Verses 1-2:

While the focus of the Prologue is on God in relation to humanity, rather than God in relation to Himself, the first two verses are the closest to an intra-Trinitarian description in this Gospel.

The ‘Word’ here is difficult to separate from the language of Genesis 1, with its echoes of ‘in the beginning’ and a creative ‘Word’ which calls all things into being. The phrase ‘in the beginning’ could also combine both a temporal sense – in the beginning of history – and a cosmological sense, ‘at the root of the universe.’

The opening verses leave little doubt that the Logos is identified as being equal in divine status to God, and is fully God, so that what will be said about the Logos will be said, in the fullest sense, of God.

Verses 3-5:

The remainder of this first section (verses 3-5) is introduced by πάντα (panta), a Greek word that figures prominently in several other New Testament hymn-like passages (see Romans 11: 36; I Corinthians 8: 6; Colossians 1: 16). These passages – all of them Pauline – describe the comprehensive character of Christ’s work of redemption. The phrasing of verse 3 is best seen as an expansion of the activity of the Logos in creation, with the restatement in verse 3b emphasising the all-inclusive character of the involvement of the Logos.

The word ζωὴ (zoe, life) is one of those terms in John that is laden with meaning. Although the sense of ‘eternal life’ may seem difficult to apply here, a consideration of the creational basis for this concept makes it quite acceptable, for the Logos is from the beginning and the source of all life (see Genesis 2: 7, 9; 3: 22; and Revelation 22: 2). There is a close connection between life and light in the giving and sustaining of life (John 8: 12; see Psalms 13: 3; 27: 1; 56: 13; 89: 15).

How should verse 5 be translated? The NIV translates the verb καταλαμβάνω (katalambáno) as ‘understood’: ‘and the darkness has not understood it.’ However, the NEB, Brown and others speak of ‘mastering’ or ‘overcomin’” the darkness. Despite the fall, the work of the Logos did not end but instead continued.

Section 2: Verses 6-13

Verses 6-9:

Are these verses out of place here? Do they disrupt the poetic flow?

Many commentators, including Brown, see these verses as an explanatory insertion that should be placed after the Prologue and before verse 19. Brown says one of the main purposes of the Fourth Gospel is to counter a sectarian group that regarded Saint John the Baptist as the Messiah, or at least as being equal to him – an intention emphasised in these verses, and further developed later in this chapter.

Verse 9 also draws attention once again to the theme of ‘light.’ Although the description of the light as ‘true’ (ἀληθινόν, alethinon) may seem puzzling at first, as there is no reference in the Fourth Gospel to a ‘false’ or ‘lesser’ light, there is a well-established tradition in Judaism in which the Torah is symbolised by light, with which the writer may be contrasting the final and true, real and eternal revelation of God’s light.

Verses 10-13 (verses 10-12b):

Verses 10 to 12b have been understood in different ways. If the passage is read as referring to the Old Testament presence of the Logos among his people (whether in the Torah or through prophets and leaders), it forms a chronological bridge between the Creation strophe of verses 1-5 and the Incarnation reported in verse 14. Yet such a reading would interrupt the chronological sequence of the Prologue, since John the Baptist has already been mentioned in verses 6-8.

CH Dodd argues that the Old Testament sometimes identifies the people of Israel as the ‘children’ or ‘son’ or ‘sons’ of God (see Deuteronomy 14: 1; Psalm 82: 6; Hosea 1: 10; Hosea 11: 1).

But this could also be an initial reference to the career of Jesus of Nazareth, so that verses 10-12b parallel the career of Jesus, providing a short summary of both the Book of Signs (chapters 2-12) in verse 11, and the Book of Glory (chapters 13-20) in verse 12.

It could be argued that the writer has a dual purpose, referring at on e and the same time to both the relationship of the Logos with creation and Israel, and to its Incarnation in the ministry of Christ.

The word κόσμος (kosmos), first introduced in verse 9, is now explained further, in a resumption of the staircase poetic structure from verses 1-5. The word is repeated three times, in order to explain that the creation in verse 3 (particularly the human domain of that creation) painfully and inexplicably rejected the Logos on his appearance. This lack of recognition, not ‘seeing,’ by some in Jesus’ audience, is an important theme later in the Gospel (see John 9: 35-41; 11: 9, 40; 12: 37-45; and also 1:14).

Verses 10-13 (verses 11-13):

The remainder of the middle section expands on this theme and narrows the focus of the ‘rejection’ motif. The term ‘his own’ (ἴδια, idia, idioi) is used in two senses: the first reference in the neuter plural (‘his own things,’ NRSV; ‘that which was his own,’ NIV) refers in a general way to the place which he has made, the creation; and the second use is in the masculine plural – ‘his own (people)’ – either humanity (verses 3, 4) or, more specifically, Israel – who were brought into being through him (II Samuel 5: 2, Psalm 33: 12; Isaiah 1: 3; Jeremiah 31: 33).

But Christ’s coming will not be met with complete rejection. The section concludes on the note of hope, emphasising the possibility for those who believe to be born anew and recreated through the same God who brought all of creation into being. The triple negative construction in verse 13 (‘not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man,’ NRSV; ‘not of human descent, nor of human decision, nor a husband’s will’) heightens the contrast between conventional, natural processes of the created world, and the newness which Christ’s ministry brings into the world (see John 3: 3-8).

The term ‘believe in,’ πιστεύουσιν εἰς (pisteuein eis) in verse 12, is typically Johannine and appears almost 40 times in this Gospel, most often in connection with Christ (31 times), and usually in reference to saving faith. Those who believe in the Son will form a new community of people who will be ‘his own,’ in contrast to those who – although they were already his own – did not recognise or believe in him.

Brown and others see verse 13 as an editorial expansion of the original hymn. They point to a differing style and its focus on the believer, in contrast to the Logos-centred emphasis of verses 1-5, 10-12 and 14.

Section 3: Verses 14-18:

The reading for Sunday next continues into the first verse of the third section of the Prologue, verse 14.

Verse 14

The final section of the Prologue draws together the different elements introduced up to now. Attention now shifts to the centrality of the Incarnation and its implications. For the first time since verse 1, the term Logos is restated, emphasising the movement from its cosmological dimensions in verse 1 to the temporal experience and conviction of the present Johannine community.

This movement is also apparent in the writer’s use of the verb ‘to become’ (γίνομαι, ginomai) in place of ‘to be.’ In this way, he signals that the Word has taken on a new form in a dramatic way.

This language could be flat rejection of any sort of Docetism.

Paradoxically, the Word that was fully God is now completely ‘flesh’ (σὰρξ, sarx), but both are equally true. There is a similar parallel between ‘was with God’ (in verse 1b) and ‘made his dwelling among us’ (verse 14b). The verb used here – ‘to make one’s dwelling’ (σκηνόω, skenoo) – draws on the Exodus traditions of a God who once lived among his people in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 33) and made his glory visible to his people there (Exodus 40: 34; see I Kings 8: 11). This theme was continued in prophetic literature, including Joel, Zechariah and Ezekiel, and is a theme in the entire story of God’s covenant with Israel.

The important concept of ‘glory’ (δόξα, doxa) is introduced here. This is another of the special terms in the Fourth Gospel, where it occurs 35 of the 185 times it is found in the New Testament. It is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew concept of kabod embodies the dual sense of God’s ruling divinity made visible through observable actions of great power.

For John this glory is visible in Christ’s statements and signs, many of which fulfil or supersede important elements in the Old Testament. But it is most evident in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

There is a close link here between σκηνόω (skenoo) and δόξα (doxa): ‘the Word … dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.’ This may allude to the fulfilment of the ‘new covenant’ promises regarding the coming nearness of God to his people in a way that will replace both Tabernacle and Temple.

The word μονογενοῦς (monogenous) has long been translated ‘only begotten,’ an expression linked closely to Trinitarian procession theology. Recently, it has also come to be seen in terms of Christ’s unique relationship with the Father, emphasising obedience and faithfulness to his purpose.

The couplet ‘grace and truth’ (χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας, charitos kai aletheias; also in verse 17) echoes the Hebrew pairing of ‘steadfast love’ and ‘truth,’ which are central in the covenantal self-disclosure of God in the Old Testament. For a third time, the writer is using terminology that has important significance in Exodus (see Exodus 34: 6) and that is used throughout the Old Testament covenant. He is telling us he is going to present Christ to the reader as the fulfilment of God’s previous revelation to Israel and of the hope of a second Exodus revelation.


The Prologue lays the foundation for the development of the ‘realised eschatology’ of the Fourth Gospel. When Saint John speaks later of life in the sense of ‘eternal’ life, the Prologue has already established that from the beginning in Christ the eternal God and source of life is present and is among men and women for that purpose. In Christ, God enters into all the ambiguities, difficulties, and trials of human life. He comes to live among his people as one of them, revealing God at first hand, and offering new life as the source of life from the beginning.

The writer relates the Logos in turn to God (verses 1, 2); creation (verses 3-5); the world and its response (verses 6-9); his own people (verses 10, 11); his children (verses 12-13); a specific circle of disciples and witnesses (verse 14); and later in the Prologue to a particular historical person, Jesus Christ (verse 17). Finally, in verse 18, the intimacy of the relationship of the Logos to the Father is re-emphasised in language similar to that used in John 13: 23-25 to describe the intimacy between ‘the beloved disciple’ and Christ himself.

The Prologue is a model and a summons to us to think carefully and deeply about the implications of the Incarnation and to apply this concept in all its comprehensive ways to our life and our world. For all its broad, cosmic scope, the Prologue presents a direct and personal question to readers of all times: will the one who reads believe, and share in the fullness of grace given by the One who has come from the Father to dwell among us?

Option B (Proper 3):

Empty tables waiting for the wedding banquet … Hosea compares the new covenant to a new wedding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hosea 2: 14-20:

The prophet Hosea uses marriage as a metaphor to describe the relationship between God and Israel, in which God is the husband and Israel the wife. She has succumbed to worshipping Canaanite gods, including Baal, and has come to see these pagan gods rather than God as the source of basic necessities (verse 4).

So, God will take the fertility of the land away from the people. Israel will be shown to be the whore she is, and she will be punished for worshipping Baals (verse 13).

However, this is not God’s final decision. He will ‘allure’ her back to the wilderness (verse 14), a place where she can again make contact with him, as he did during the Exodus. He will care for her, and he will again bless her with good vineyards or harvests (verse 15). Israel will again he fruitful and will be rejuvenated. On that day, she will become his partner and will no longer be in servitude. God will remove the temptation to worship pagan deities, will make a new covenant with all living things and abolish warfare, and so protect his people.

This marriage will be forever, and the signs of the dowry will be righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy and faithfulness (see verse 20).

Psalm 103: 1-13, 22:

The psalmist praises God for all he has done, and he gives thanks for the healing that is a sign of God’s forgiveness and the restoration of a good relationship with God. God is just to the oppressed, merciful and loving to all who fear him, is slow to anger and is forgiving; he is like a father who knows our frailty, who loves those who are faithful to him; he rules over all, so we should honour the Lord and all he has created.

II Corinthians 3: 1-6:

Because the Apostle Paul has not visited the Christians at Corinth as they expected, their trust in him has diminished. He seeks to restore this trust. He reminds them that they need to realise that, unlike other preachers, he does not use God’s word for financial gain, but offers it freely, with sincerity and as an emissary of God.

But Saint Paul is cautious, and he reminds them that they are no longer dependent on the old law but are in a new covenant, and that living in the Spirit leads to eternal life.

Waiting for dinner … Christ dines with people whose trades that made them social outcasts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 2: 13-22:

Christ is in Capernaum, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He has told a paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, but some religious authorities doubt his ability to do this, saying only God can forgive sins. He has proved that he is from God by also healing the man.

Tax collectors were considered unclean ritually, they worked for the occupying power and they were suspect financially. As with Peter and Andrew, Christ sees Levi the tax collector beside the sea, and he responds immediately to Christ’s call to follow him. Is this the same person as Matthew (see Matthew 9:9), the author of the first Gospel?

Christ dines with people whose trades that made them ritually unclean and social outcasts. When the religiously powerful question his actions, Christ replies that he comes to call and to invite into his Kingdom those in need of repentance, not those who think they are righteous in God’s eyes.

In his answer, Christ uses the metaphor of marriage between God and his people, which we came across the reading from the Prophet Hosea. Christ is the bridegroom and his followers are the wedding guests. The feast is in progress, so this is a time for joy, while after his death it will be a time for fasting. He insists that the old way of being and the new way he brings are separate, even if both are to be valued. New material stretches more than old. When wine ferments, it expands. Soft new wineskins expand with the wine, but old ones do not.

Christ uses the metaphor of marriage between God and his people, in which Christ is the bridegroom and his followers are the wedding guests (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: Green (Ordinary Time).


Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
Teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit
reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart
of the earthly paradise,
and the Bread of life at the heart of your Church.
May we who have been nourished at your table on earth
be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s Cross
and enjoy the delights of eternity;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Suggested hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested for the Second Sunday before Lent in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

Option A, Creation:

Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31:

84, Alleluia! raise the anthem

Psalm 104: 26-37:

346, Angel voices, ever singing
42, Good is the Lord, our heavenly King
356, I will sing, I will sing a song unto the Lord
357, I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath
6, Immortal, invisible, God only wise
305, O Breath of life, come sweeping through us

Colossians 1: 15-20:

643, Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
220, Glory be to Jesus
160, Hark! the herald-angels sing
522, In Christ there is no east or west
94, In the name of Jesus
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
303, Lord of the Church, we pray for our renewing
7, My God, how wonderful thou art
103, O Christ the same, through all our story’s pages
306, O Spirit of the living God
675, Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?

John 1-14:

146, A great and mighty wonder
84, Alleluia! raise the anthem
87, Christ is the world’s light, he and none other
259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning
160, Hark! the herald-angels sing
427, Let all mortal flesh keep silence
195, Lord, the light of your love is shining
172, O come, all ye faithful
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten
491, We have a gospel to proclaim

Option B (Proper 3):

Hosea 2: 14-20:

528, The Church’s one foundation

Psalm 103: 1-13, 22:

1, Bless the Lord, my soul
686, Bless the Lord, the God of our forebears
688, Come, bless the Lord, God of our forebears
349, Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
33, O Lord of every shining constellation
366, Praise, my soul, the king of heaven
365, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation
660, Thine for ever! God of love
47, We plough the fields and scatter
374, When all thy mercies, O my God

II Corinthians 3: 1-6:

382, Help us, O Lord to learn
306, O Spirit of the living God

Mark 2: 13-22

218, And can it be that I should gain
608, Be still and know that I am God
549, Dear Lord and Father of mankind
417, He gave his life in selfless love
418, Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face
94, In the name of Jesus
584, Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult
130, Jesus came, the heavens adoring
605, Will you come and follow me

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