The Lamb of God
Advent Moravian Church Jan. 19, 2014
John the Baptist; John the Prophet
Our lesson from the Gospel of John is about one of those significant transition points in history and the changes caused by one person. In many ways, the first chapter of the Gospel of John is about the transition from the religious world of the Old Testament, which was a world of prophets, priests, and kings, to the world of the New Testament. Before Jesus began his ministry and long before the Gospel was preached by his followers, there was a prophet in Israel by the name of John.
John started his ministry before Jesus and was much more famous than Jesus in those days. Crowds of people viewed John as a holy man sent by God, a man whose words and life were a witness to God. John was a prophet like the prophet Elijah of old. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practiced virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. … Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising.” Like many prophets who challenge political corruption and call for justice, John lost his head.
Prophets do have a tendency to anger those who have power and wealth. Prophets, like John, tend to die violently. We say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never kill me,” but if that is true, why do repressive regimes worry so much about the words of the prophets? Why do repressive regimes try to control the press and intimidate them into not speaking the truth? Why do tyrants want to listen in on private conversations in order to intimidate people from sharing their thoughts with friends and family?
It is because words are dangerous, and the truth is dangerous. Those whose eyes are accustomed to the darkness, who work in secret and spin webs of deceit, are frightened when the light appears. John the Baptist was beheaded because a tyrant feared his words. As the Gospel of John puts it, the darkness feared the light but could not overcome it. Although John was just a voice crying out in the wilderness, people in power feared his preaching and his call to righteousness and justice.
The Lamb of God
According to the Gospel of John, one of the things that John the prophet proclaimed was that a young man from Galilee was the Lamb of God. Twice he said, “Behold the Lamb of God” when Jesus walked by. We aren’t told how the people responded to this strange statement. I imagine that many of them were a little confused and put it down as one of those strange things prophets say and do. Pointing at someone and saying “Look there goes a lamb” might have seemed as odd as wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts. We expect prophets to be a little odd and to say things we don’t understand. My hunch is that this statement about the Lamb of God still strikes people today as a little odd.
This is one of those passages in the Bible that reminds us that we should be cautious about reading the Bible too literally. Based on this passage, we could “prove” that Jesus was really a four-legged animal with white wool. I’ve known several children, including my own, who were confused when singing about Jesus as the Lamb of God in the church because he doesn’t look like a lamb. That brings to mind the old joke about the new pastor giving the children’s sermon. She asked the children what is gray, furry, and gathers nuts for the winter. There was a long pause, and then one of the children said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” I know Jesus is the Lamb of God, but he looks more like a Messiah to me.
The Lamb in Jewish Symbolism
It is interesting that John did not point at Jesus and say, “Behold the Messiah” or even “Hey, look it is Jesus.” He used a very meaningful metaphor and we should pay attention to it. In John’s day, people were familiar with lambs, but we do not see them much in our world today. I’m curious, how many of you have ever held a lamb in your arms? Even though most of us are less familiar with lambs than with dogs or cats or pigeons, we still use the word “lamb” to indicate innocence and gentleness. March comes in like a lamb and leaves like a lion. The least warlike animal I can think of is the lamb. Even the noble sloth is more dangerous than the lamb.
In describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, John was drawing on Jewish symbolism, and we need to have some understanding of this symbolism to make sense of his Gospel. One of the other places in the Bible where Jesus is called a Lamb is in the Book of Revelation. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we have learned that many Jewish writings in the time of Jesus mention a Lamb who was to appear during the final days of this age of history in order to destroy evil. The Lamb is the one who conquers and brings peace to this troubled globe. The Lamb of God in Jewish writing was an intentionally paradoxical image: the peaceful and innocent Lamb destroys unrighteousness and the enemies of God.
By proclaiming that Jesus is the Lamb of God, John the Baptist was pointing out from the beginning the essential peacefulness and gentleness of Jesus. Though he would be the victim of violence, Jesus will not be the agent of violence. Though he will be killed, his death brings life to others. Though he is the Word of God who has divine knowledge; he is innocent. The sin he takes away is the intoxication of violence and hatred. Keep this in mind when you look at our Moravian seal with the picture of the Lamb who Conquers. We are the people of the Lamb who conquers without violence. We follow the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world rather than adding to the violence and hatred that consumes people.
The Lamb of God is also related to the Jewish Passover. In the Exodus, you may remember, God rescued the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt with a series of devastating plagues. The final plague was the death of the first-born. The Angel of Death passed over those homes that had the blood of a lamb smeared on the doorframe while slaying those who benefitted by oppression. The blood of the innocent lambs was able to protect the Hebrews from Death. The connection between Jesus and the Passover Lamb is made explicit later in the Gospel of John when Jesus is executed on the same day that the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple for the Passover sacrifice. We use this imagery in our Moravian communion liturgy when after drinking from the cup we pray to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This draws a connection between our observance of Holy Communion and the Jewish Passover. Jesus is the Lamb whose blood saves the children of God from enslavement and eternal death.
A lot of theologians, pastors, and lay people I know do not like this image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. We do tend to focus on the violence of the image – that an innocent lamb is slaughtered, and we are right to be bothered by this notion of a sacrificial victim. But the early Christians focused on the idea of the victory of the Lamb to celebrate the reality of our forgiveness and the radical change that Jesus makes in the world. The early church joyfully remembered and repeated John’s statement “Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” And they looked with hope to the dawning age of peace.
Notice that John does not say, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the repentant or the righteous.” He does not say, “Behold the Lamb who blesses the pious and prosperous; the judgmental and stern.” He says, “the Lamb takes away the sin of the world.” The last prophet of Israel proclaimed that Jesus was this true Pascal Lamb; the final sacrifice for the sins of all humankind; the victim who conquered and brought an end to the age of violence and sacrifice. A new age of the world was beginning by the waters of the Jordan River, and John sent some of his own disciples to learn and follow the new way of Jesus.
What are you looking for?
In our lesson for today, we see two disciples of John who decide to follow Jesus because of John’s witness. These are the first who try to follow the path of Jesus rather than the preaching of John. They left their master and teacher to follow a new path. We are told that one of them is Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, but the other is anonymous. He may be the Beloved Disciple whose teachings are the basis of the Gospel of John, but we do not know. I think these two disciples represent all of us who hear the good new of Jesus and must decide whether we will listen to his truth and follow his way.
Jesus sees them following him, literally, and he speaks for the first time in the gospel. The first words of Jesus are a question. “What are you looking for?” This is quite different from the other gospels where Jesus emerges from the wilderness and proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God. In John’s version, Jesus’ first words are a profound question. “What are you looking for?” Perhaps we should ask more questions in church rather than loudly proclaiming answers. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves when we enter the doors of this sanctuary is the question Jesus asked 2000 years ago. What are you looking for?
What we find in this life often depends on what we are looking for. Are you looking for wealth, prestige, and worldly honors? Then you probably will not find Jesus. Are you looking for power, victory over your enemies, and security? Then you probably will not find Jesus.
Are you looking for forgiveness, love, and the peace that passes all understanding? Come and see, Jesus says. Are you looking for what is good, true, and beautiful? Come and see. Are you looking for a teacher who shows you the path of true life? Come and follow.