- January 19, 2020
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for 19 January 2020 (Epiphany 2 Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-12; John 1.29-39
Title: The Lamb of God
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29).
My dear friends, we are back into the green season, into a brief period of ordinary time before Lent begins. And on this Sunday, the lectionary sends us on a brief detour into the Gospel of John.
As an aside, remember that there are FOUR Gospels in the Bible and only THREE years in the Lectionary. So that makes for some interesting math!
Right now, we are in Year A in which we read through the Gospel of Matthew. Year B is focused on the Gospel of Mark. Year C is centered on the Gospel of Luke. So…what about the Fourth Gospel?
John’s Gospel gets sprinkled here and there throughout the three years at particular spots. Today is an example of that. For this one week, we jump into the Fourth Gospel and then back to Matthew.
Because we don’t spend a lot of time in it, it’s helpful to remember that the Fourth Gospel is very different than the other three – the ones known as the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic means to see together – think of the word optic for sight. Seeing together. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the same basic story of Jesus’ life, with their own particular emphases.
But John’s Gospel tells an entirely different story. There is no pretense to sharing historical information, like the Synoptics. John’s Gospel is written from the perspective of the end of the story, the end of time. Some have called it the Gospel of Glory, because from the very beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus acts and speaks, not like the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, but like the glorified and risen Son of God.
And so the Fourth Gospel can point to Jesus and say, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as if that has already happened.
That would make no sense in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, because the Lord’s Passion had not yet taken place.
But John’s Gospel dispenses with any sense of history. The redemption brought by the Lamb has already happened, even here at the very beginning of the story. From the very start in this Fourth Gospel, Jesus walks around as the crucified and risen and glorified Messiah who is redeeming the world.
But what about the words in today’s reading, this famous phrase, the Lamb of God? It sounds familiar, right? But that’s only because we’ve heard it a thousand times in church!
Let’s start with the first word. “HERE is the Lamb of God!” If you were with us a few weeks ago on Christmas morning, you will remember that we talked about that word, so familiar in the classic Christmas reading, when the angel speaks to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy!”
Behold, here. There is this little Greek word (“idou” is how it’s said) that we really struggle to figure out how to translate into English. The point is to get people’s attention and to direct that attention to something important. Something worth being noticed. Something that should not be missed.
“Behold” doesn’t cut it anymore. No one says, “Behold, the Patriots scored a touchdown!” Today, we would say something like, “Check it out! Yo, look! Listen up!”
Our text just says, “Here is the Lamb of God.” But that’s not quite right. It is more forceful than that. John sees Jesus walking across the way, then he points and says, “Yo! Look! It’s the Lamb of God!” With an exclamation point.
Beyond the first word, the rest of the phrase was not common at all at that time.
In fact, when the Gospel of John was written, and when people heard it read aloud for the first time, this was the very first time ever that these words were spoken.
Think about that for a minute. As far as anyone can tell, never before had these words been spoken!
“The Lamb of God”. The phrase is found only here in John’s Gospel, and only in the Revelation to John at the very end of the Bible. That’s it.
You see, this is John’s idea. It was a brand new idea. Revolutionary, in fact! Although it seems so commonplace to us today.
Before this phrase was written here, there was no such thing as “the Lamb of God.”
So where does this idea come from? Where did John get this idea? There seems to be two different sources for it.
First there is the Passover Lamb. Do you remember that part of the Exodus story? The tenth and final plague to strike Pharaoh and the Egyptians was the death of all firstborn males, human and animal. But the houses of the Hebrews were to be marked, so that this plague would not touch their homes. The mark on the houses that saved them was made with the blood of a lamb, a year-old lamb without blemish (Exodus 12.5-7). The Passover Lamb. We will come back to this in a minute.
The second reference seems to be the scapegoat set apart each year to take away all the sins of the Hebrews (Leviticus 16.20-22). This was done by the priests who laid hands on the head of the chosen goat, confessed all the sins of the people over it (I wonder how long that took?), and then sent it out into the wilderness, set free to run into the wilderness and bear away all the sins of the people.
But this was always a goat, the scapegoat. Never was there a LAMB that took sins away. But notice that the goat was not sacrificed. Its blood was not shed.
The Passover Lamb was different. The Lamb was not intended to take away sins, but it WAS sacrificed. Its blood was shed. And what may be even more compelling is that the body of the sacrificed Passover lamb had to be eaten by all those who were being saved.
The body eaten and the blood used to save the people from suffering and death. Now what does that make you think of?
Yes, the Last Supper. The Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion. John’s Gospel makes the most explicit claims about Jesus as the Body and Blood of the new Covenant. It is here that he says, “I am the bread of life….Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6.35,56).
Clearly, this is sacramental language, and it is powerful. It connects directly with our experience and the experience of that early community gathered around John.
But let’s not move on too quickly. What exactly does it mean for Jesus to be the new Passover Lamb of God who functions like the priestly scapegoat? And who is now taking away not only the sin of the Hebrew people, but the sin of the whole world?
The Passover Lamb is supposed to be a one-year old unblemished little animal. Can you picture it in your mind? A cute, soft, cuddly little lamb. Isn’t that an odd thing to call a fully grown middle-aged man with a beard walking around the hills of Galilee?
But in one sense, the appellation fits. The lamb is non-violent. The lamb cannot defend itself. The lamb IS defenseless
You see, Jesus chose to be the lamb of God, the defenseless, innocent one who laid down his own life for his sheep. He is the embodiment of the way of love that redeems through nonviolence.
Of course, this is the way of love that inspired Dr. King, whom our nation remembers and honors tomorrow. “Nonviolent resistance,” Dr. King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, Stride Toward Freedom, p. 80).
Here is the most important part of today’s story. The Incarnate One, the Redeemer of the world, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – this one courageously confronted evil – and overcame it! – by the power of love. The sacrificial love of God. Pure goodness was at work in him, and his sacrifice opened a door to a new life that is available to every single person on earth.
This was something entirely new and different – just like those words, “the Lamb of God”. Changing the world, not through power or force, not through bigger armies or more powerful weapons – changing the world through the power of love alone.
And this is why, my friends, we need to return to the Body and Blood of the Lamb over and over and over again, week after week. Because this old and tired and angry world still functions on the basis of force and power and control. We live in that broken world every day and it is easy to forget that something new has come! God’s way is a different way. It is the way of sacrifice, the way of love.
My friends, here is the good news! We stand among those who are redeemed and made new by the Body and Blood of the Lamb.
So can you join the Psalmist who bursts out with joy when considering all that God has done?
“He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God! Many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the Lord!” (Psalm 40.2).
Let it be so among us, today and always. Amen.