This sermon was preached on Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at St. Matthew’s Anglican church in Riverdale. Here is a link to the readings for the day.
“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Living God, in John’s baptism you reveal Jesus of Nazareth to be your beloved Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! May we like sheep who have gone astray follow the Lamb who has led us once and for all out of slavery to sin and death and into the new country which you have prepared for us in advance. Amen.
During my first semester of seminary a friend of mine, a graduate student in the philosophy department, called me up and wanted to get together for lunch. He had some questions about the atonement, that is, Christ’s work on the cross. I was rather chuffed with myself that he had thought to call. As a first year seminary student, clearly I had something to say about the atonement. The brief synopsis of our conversation over burritos is this: He was hung up on the notion of sacrifice that is attached to the death of Jesus. Why the sacrifice? Why the blood? Why not some other means? As it happened, I was ill-equipped at the time to answer these questions. My friend did not say as much, but in hindsight I am curious if it was really the notion of sacrifice that he could not get around, so much as what Jesus’ sacrificial death might mean for him, a sinful human creature, dependent entirely on God for life and for freedom from sin and death.
I suspect this is at one time or another a problem for many of us. Indeed, atonement theories, following in the wake of St. Anselm for example, that highlight the penal nature of the cross, that is, the punishment of sin that is laid upon Christ in our place, are out of fashion these days. I wonder if this way of thinking about the cross makes us uncomfortable, at least on some level, because we don’t like to think that the overcoming of sin would require the shedding of blood. We don’t like to think that it was our sin that led Jesus to the cross. This brings to mind notions of guilt, and guilt means that something is expected of us, and we do not take kindly to the sort of expectations that might hinder the self-directed expression of our own wills and desires. To be fair, these theories are not without their problems, but my point here this morning is that John, in fact, draws a clear connection between Christ’s death and our sin, and he does so by holding up Jesus as the Lamb of God: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The very heart of Christ’s sacrifice, said Karl Barth, is the overcoming of sin, both in its character as our rebellion against God, and in its character as the ground of our hopeless destiny in death. In pointing to Jesus as “God’s Lamb” John is indicating, right here at the start of the gospel story, how things are going to end, and why. Jesus is going to die a sacrificial death for the sin of the world, to judge sin and to free us from it and its power which is manifest in all forms of death, including eternal death. Indeed, by the end of the story the meaning has been made clear. John has the death of Jesus take place on the afternoon when the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple (19:14). Let us now look towards the Old Testament that we might better understand what John is trying to tell us.
The Passover is a Jewish feast that celebrates the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and their being spared from death by smearing the blood from a spotless lamb on the frames of their doors. This event developed into a ritualized meal providing the occasion for celebration, reflection, and the formation of community identity. The lamb, once slaughtered, was then roasted and shared by the family with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (12:8-11). This shared household meal provides the context for the head of the family to explain the nature of the observance to the children (12:25-27). Gathered together, the youngest would ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” To which the oldest member of the community, seated before the sacrificed lamb, responds by telling of the exodus of the Jewish people, of their departure in the middle of the night under the guidance of the Lord God Himself, present in the pillar of cloud and of fire. He would tell of Moses stretching out his staff over the Red Sea, the waters splitting in two, and of the great passage of Israel between the walls of water. He would tell of the waters coming crashing down on Pharaoh and his armies as the Lord delivered the Hebrews once and for all from their Egyptian oppressors. The “remembrance” of Passover is combined with the “retelling” of the story in such a way that the events of the past are actualized for every Israelite in the context of the meal. Each family member is caught up in the story, it is their story. As such, Passover came to celebrate not only what God had done in the past but also what God is doing in the present.
After the Hebrews are brought out of Egypt they wander through the desert for 40 years before finally entering the promised land. There, Joshua leads the Hebrews across the Jordan where they stop at a place called Gilgal, and do you know what they did? They celebrated the Passover (5:10-12) and, say the Scriptures, “On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain,” (5:11). Thus, Passover not only marks the exit from Egypt, but also marks the entry into the land of promise. Is this not what Isaiah in his own way signifies when he says that the glory of God is made manifest in the servant who is a light to the nations and who spreads the salvation of God to the ends of the earth? Is this not what John the Evangelist means to tell us when the Lamb of God, upon whom the Spirit descends like a dove at his baptism, immediately gathers disciples and who by the end of the gospel will breath on these disciples that they may receive that very Holy Spirit themselves? Indeed it is!
When John begins his gospel with the proclamation that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” he does so to call all of this to mind. Let me suggest to you that the reason he does so is because John wants us to understand the events concerning Jesus as a new, and better, Exodus story: “Just as God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, so God was now bringing a new people out of an even older and darker slavery,” (N.T. Wright). The new exodus moves out, wider than just Israel, to embrace all people. This is hinted at already in the Prologue to John’s gospel (1:12-13). Everybody who receives the Word, who believes in his name, can become a newborn child of God. John the Baptist came to testify to this and he did so by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out int he wilderness…” (1:23). Let us then hear the word of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah from this mornings’ reading. Speaking of the servant of the Lord who would suffer and die he 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,” (49:6). Who is this servant that will bring the salvation of God to the world? It is the “lamb that is led to the slaughter,” (53:7) who was “cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people,” (53:8). That Jesus is the Lamb of God means not only freedom from our slavery to sin and death, it means also that a new future opens up to us right here in the present, in which we are united to God and receive from Him the life which He gives and the light which comes from Him as we are born anew in the Spirit.
This Holy Spirit whom we have received, like the Passover, and like the Suffering Servant, gathers and forms a community. Are we not a testimony to that here this morning and in our common life? The old humanity which created enmity between human creatures and between humanity and God, ruled as it was by sin and sin itself was taken and killed and buried in and with Jesus on the cross. One person, Jesus Christ, has made an end of us as sinners and therefore has made an end of sin itself by going to death as the One who took our place. Should we believe this, should we believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God as proclaimed by John the Baptist, and should we follow him like John’s disciples, then we are joined to him and he to us, for God has established a New Covenant, by the blood of his Son rather than by the blood of an ox. And he has given us His own Spirit, rather than the Law. “He put a new song in my mouth,” says the Psalmist (40:3). At the time of the Former Covenant, Moses alone went up into the holy mountain and his face was illumined with divine light (Exodus 34:35). But with the New Covenant, the veil of the Temple which separated the Holy of Holies from the place where the faithful were assembled is torn in two and all who believe have access to the light of the holy mountain (John 4:20-26), for the blood of the New Covenant was shed for “many for the forgiveness of sins,” (The Living God vl.1).
At the end of John’s gospel in accordance with the Old Testament prophets, rather than Jesus’ legs being broken to hasten his death as he hung on the cross, a soldier pierced his side with a spear and out flowed blood and water. When the Lamb of God is portrayed in artwork it is often with blood and water flowing out of a wound in the Lambs’ side and into a chalice. In the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, all of what we’ve been talking about this morning comes into focus. As we approach the table in a few moments don’t just follow the words on the page as Fr. Ajit prays. Make that prayer your own because it is the prayer of the whole church. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” writes John in Revelation (19:9). Who is invited? What is the bridal feast of the Lamb? Let us seek out the Lamb that comes to us from Moses, is illumined by Isaiah, indicated by John the Baptist, and recognized by John the Evangelist in the thrust of a spear. Let us seek out the Lamb of God and run to his bridal feast. Or rather, may we see that he sought us out before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Let us prepare ourselves to partake of it. As St. Paul exhorts the largely Gentile church in Corinth: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).
God has done that which is sufficient to take away sin, to restore order between the Creator and His creation, to bring us in as new creatures reconciled and therefore at peace with Him, to redeem us from our exile in death. God has done this in Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain for the sin of the world. Because of this, our forgiven sin is an old thing—the essence of all that is old, something which is past and done with, which is only the past, which is not the present and has no future (Barth). This is what it means to be made a new creature: “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Let us keep the feast. May we rejoice and be glad, may we continue to tell the story, and continue to live the story as our lives are caught up into the ongoing work of Jesus, the light of the nations. Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who has gone to prepare a feast. May we follow him today and may we find others and invite them to do the same. Amen.