Jan. 17 “Behold the Lamb”
Isaiah49:5-7 John 1:24-36
In our typical 21C. image, a lamb is a sweet, innocent, cute baby sheep. They are what we know from petting zoos, grandma’s farm, and from those cuddly, stuffed animals our children have. When I was a little girl, a little shepherd you might say, my grandparents had sheep. During my stay, a lamb was born, and for reasons I could not comprehend the mother was gone. Grandma put a nipple on a coke bottle and sent me out to feed the lamb. The next thing you know, the lamb had name, and I had a pet. But one day grandpa put my lamb in a trailer with some other lambs and took them away. I didn’t get that either, but my heart was broken. How could he be so cold hearted and take my lamb away to market? My little lamb didn’t deserve that. My little lamb never hurt anyone. Maybe if we’re of the right age we remember Sherri Lewis and her puppet Lambchop. Who could resist? Our 2nd thought from the Bible narratives, is of this innocent lamb being killed. And we’re not really into the sacrificial thing. So, what did the phrase “Lamb of God” mean to John the Baptist hearers?
There are only two places in the bible where the phrase “lamb of God” occurs and both are in our passage today. As Christians we bring a lot of tradition to the phrase, most of which comes directly from John’s announcement. But what would it have meant in its original context? It’s pretty clear the first use of the phrase on the lips of John the Baptist relates to sacrifice—”who takes away the sins of the world.” It causes us to remember the words in the Old Testament where lambs or sheep are the common sacrificial animal. In Genesis 22, Isaac speaks of the animal for the sacrifice of the lamb: “Behold, the fire and the wood. Where is the lamb for the whole burnt offering?” he asks. And Abraham’s response implies the same understanding: “God himself will see to it/provide for himself the lamb for the whole burnt offering.” The same Hebrew word for lamb (amnos) in Genesis is used in the story of the Passover in Exodus. Each household is to kill a lamb and rub some of its blood over the doorpost and lintel so that the death angel will pass over the household. The lamb is the sacrificial lamb. And so, it is in Isaiah 53 where the same word is used: The Suffering Servant is described: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like the sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
So, which one is John the Baptist referring to when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Is it the lamb sacrificed at Passover, the lamb slain and blood smeared on the doorpost so the death angel would pass over? Yes. Is it the lamb led to slaughter in Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant? Yes. Is it the substitutionary lamb in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the lamb sacrificed in the place of Isaac, the ram of God himself provided? Yes. All those images come together in the word picture John the Baptist uses. All would have been familiar to John’s listeners.
And yet none of those images of the lamb fully completes the message of the baptizer. Why? Because the lamb-ram in the Abraham-Isaac story was a substitute only for Isaac, not for the sins of the world. And the lamb of Passover only substituted for those within the household. Every household had to sacrifice their own lamb. Even the substitutionary suffering of the Servant in Isaiah 53 was only for God’s people, for many, yes, but in the mindset for many in Israel: “stricken for the transgression of my people…The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities…because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many. But John the Baptist’s message took on a new scope. The lamb of God was not just a substitution for one person—an Isaac. Nor was he just a substitution for a single household like the Passover lamb. Nor the suffering servant for the people of Israel. John could see quite clearly what Isaiah meant—that this suffering servant was the sacrifice for ALL God’s people. God’s people were not limited just to Israel. The many became all in John’s message. The word here is that this lamb takes away the sins of the world. Not just the sins of some, but the sins of all, of all the world. Later in the same gospel of John the Evangelist speaks concerning Jesus the Christ: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believe in him, that all who believe in him, anyone, everyone all who believe—will not perish, but will have everlasting life! Quite a promise. Quite a lamb!
Think about the scene. John the odd character is preaching. It took a lot of courage to preach his red-hot anger against sin, but he was beginning to penetrate the conscious of the people. They flocked from all over to hear him; they listened with intensity; they were moved by the comfortability of their souls. They knew what he said was true; they grew sick of themselves, and wanted to be different than what they were. John had a way with words. He had a way to convict people of their sins. You could say he put a “guilt trip” on them.
Now Martin Luther was a man who really struggled with his sins. Before his break with the Catholic Church, he went to confession every day and was so guilt ridden by his sins he would have almost gone every hour. On most nights Luther slept well but he even felt guilty about that, thinking, Here I am, sinful as I am, having a good night’s sleep. So, he would confess that. One day the priest said to him, “Martin, either find a new sin and confess it, or quit coming to see me!” To say the least, Martin was convicted and discouraged by his own self infliction of sin.
The people who came to hear John the Baptist were discouraged. In our Isaiah passage there comes an astonishing answer to these discouraged servants—and additional load, if you will. They wanted things to return to the way they were, the glory days of Israel and Jacob. But now the Lord says, the responsibility is the nations, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” This pretty sentence conveys the sounds of psychology. Lesser troubles are forgotten when one thinks of a bigger undertaking. What Israel had complained about is tossed off as trivial— “too light a thing.” We can relate to this. For example: our small anxieties vanish in the presence of peril. Our own individual cares seem nothing when war menaces a nation. The prophet is saying, try this on. How about taking on the conscious of the world and the things of the past and present will seem small. The servant says: “My God has become my strength.” As he labors with as much as is in him, he is astonished to find how strong he is. I think this is true of us all. We never know God’s power until we take on something so much beyond our abilities so that God has the chance to reveal his energy in us. The same parallel between command and promise is the Great Commission: As the church goes, making nations disciples, she becomes aware of the divine presence working through her. If God becomes incredible and unreal its because we are not engaged in the purposes in which God can attest to his partnership with us. A church disheartened in its work for its immediate community, needs the larger horizon of the world mission.
So, John’s audience crowds in to be baptized. They could see those going before them being plunged beneath the water, the person being disappeared forever— (that was the idea) and a new person rose up to make a new life and new beginnings. Not that there is anything magical or mechanical about the sacrament. God’s grace is the sacrament itself.
A party of clergymen were attending a conference in Scotland. Several of them set of to explore the district. They came to a river spanned by a temporary bridge. Not seeing the notice that read, “Unsafe,” the began to cross. The bridge keeper ran after then to protest. “Its alright,” said one of the pastors, not understanding the reason for the man’s haste. “We’re Presbyterians from the conference. “If ye dinna get off that bridge,” he replied, “you’ll all be Baptists!”
And in the crowd one day there came Jesus of Nazareth to be baptized by John. Holy and pure and separated from sin, he insisted that he too be baptized. Why? He was taking our sin upon himself in a tremendous act of self-dedication to God, committing himself to the unthinkable task of taking away the sin of the world; of making an end to it whatever the cost might be. Yet we must remember, even in Christ’s baptism, what Christ himself did was not the central thing, but what God the Father did. It wasn’t what the lamb of the Passover of Isaac or Isaiah did, but what God did.
A new era in history was opening. The sin of the world was doomed. What exactly was in the mind of the Baptist as Jesus made his way toward him, he said in his words that have been imbedded in the human consciousness. “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” We can’t know with any accuracy how it all works. That Christ takes away the sin of the world is one thing. How it leaves one’s mind satisfied and another unimpressed is another thing. But the fact is he does take it away with certainty. To be sure, it’s a slow business. Look at the world now. Look at Christ whose sad eyes on the cross sees only this after the passion of 2021 years. Yet look at how much has been accomplished! If Christ had not come, what a different world this would be.
One September morning in 2001 Frank Silecchia laced up his boots, put on his hat and headed out the door of his New Jersey home. He was a construction worker and made his living making things. But as a volunteer at the World Trade Center wreckage, he just tried to make sense of it all. He hoped to find a live body. He didn’t. He found 47 dead ones. But in the carnage, he stumbled on a symbol, a 20-foot steel beam cross. The collapse of tower one created a crude chamber in the clutter. Through the dust, Frank spotted the cross. No wench hoisted it; no cement held it in place. The steel beams stood independent of human help. Standing alone, but not alone. Other crosses rested randomly at the base of the big one. Different sizes, different angles. All crosses. Several days later the engineers realized the beams of the larger cross came from two different buildings. When one crashed into another, the two girders bonded into one, forged by fire. A symbol in the shards of the debris. A cross found in the crisis. “Where is God in all this?” people asked. Right in the middle of it all.
Can the same be said of our tragedies? When our children have accidents, or disease ravages our friends, when the economy takes our retirement or a two-timer takes our hearts. Can we like Frank, find Christ in the midst of our crisis? You see the presence of trouble doesn’t surprise us. The absence of God does.
Passover foreshadowed the Jewish Messiah as the true Passover lamb. Isaiah spoke of the Messiah in terms of the Passover lamb and of the greater redemption that he would bring. He would be the innocent, pure lamb upon whom the judgment of God would fall in place of people. He would be the one who with great bitterness of suffering and death, would shed his blood to provide the greater deliverance from sin. Today the lamb still cannot be separated from the Passover holiday. There is no question that Jesus is the Passover lamb. Scriptures record it. History echoes it. Yet one final Passover question remains, and it’s the most important of all. “Is He your Passover lamb—have you placed your trust in the Messiah and his sacrifice as your only hope of heaven? Even as the ancient Israelites were required to each one apply the blood to the doorpost, so too, men and women today must individually make a decision concerning the Lamb of God. There is still no deliverance without the Lamb. Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Eternal God, Great Shepherd of the sheep, we look to you for all our needs. You provide our food and drink, the warmth of friendship, our health and strength, and human understanding and forgiveness. And when all these blessings are scarce, you give us courage to go on, patience to wait, and love that will not give up on you or on those who doubt us. In the best of times we rest in you and find peace that passes all understanding. We thank you, even in the moments when we face testing. May we be kept on the right paths by your guidance and care. Father you know those for whom we have concerns and the names that are written on our hearts. We put our trust and faith in you alone, that your will shall be done in all circumstances. Comfort the people who are hurting, bring strength to the weak, and solace to those who grieve. Protect the peacemakers and give wisdom to those who seek it. Lord you are our shelter in time of storms, our shepherd when we are lost, our strength when we are tired. Restore us to the hope of our salvation for you are our lamb who rekindles the fires of our love today. We pray in the name of Jesus the Christ who taught us to pray the prayer, Our Father…
Jan. 24 “Gone Fishin”
Jonah 3:1-5 Mark 1:14-20
Jan. 31 “Speaking With Authority”
Deut. 18:15-20 Mark 1:21-28
Feb. 7 “God’s Power, Our Response”
2 Kings 5:1-14 Mark 1:40-45
Feb. 14 “Changed”
2 Kings 1-3, 9-12 Mark 9:2-9
Feb. 17 Ash Wednesday “The Sign of Jonah”
Jonah 1:1-3 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Feb. 21 “Body Language”
Ruth 1:15-18 Mark 1:41-45
Feb. 28 “Profiting From Faith”
Gen. 17: 16-22 Mark 8:31-38