The Rev. Richard Elliott
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
January 15, 2017
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
“The Lamb and the World”
John the Baptist has been our constant companion on our journey through Advent and into Epiphany. First, it was his task to make ready the way of the Lord. Next, it was his privilege to baptize Jesus in the River Jordan. Now, it is his purpose to bear witness to Jesus’ identity. [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward Him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Because salvation is about restoring our relationship with God, do you all agree with that? The reason I ask is because I know, as I am sure you know as well, people, who, in response to the question, “What is salvation?” often respond with, “Salvation is going to a place called heaven when we die.” However, the New Testament, in a variety of places, defines salvation as a relationship with God. For example, the Apostle Paul proclaimed that “God was in Christ reconciling (i.e., bringing back into relationship) the world to Himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.” After we die, this restored relationship God in Christ gives us by grace through faith is fulfilledand completed.
Because salvation is about restoring our relationship with God, which then enables us to heal our fractured relationships with our loved ones, friends, strangers, and even our enemies, and because sin is understood in the NT primarily in terms of broken relationships, we could translate this declaration of John in this way: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the broken relationships of the world!” Jesus does this by His death and resurrection. As the Lamb of God on the cross, Jesus restores our relationship with God and one another. The emphasis is on our sinfulness, rather than on our individual sins. Sinful acts are the consequence of our sinful condition. We commit sinful acts because we are living in a sinful condition of broken relationship from God and our neighbor. To restore this relationship is why God sent His Son as the Lamb of God to die on the cross. We receive this as a gift through faith. And this is why John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” rather than the sins of the world! This is an important distinction.
“Lamb of God.” What an odd title for the One who would take away the sin of the world. If we had been naming Jesus, we would have most likely chosen a much stronger image. We would likely have said, “The LION of God,” or “The EAGLE of God.” We would have chosen a power image. After all, it is a Herculean task to take away all the sin of the whole world. We would want to invest Jesus with the power to accomplish that. But John said of Jesus, “Here is the LAMB of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Israelites longed for a powerful Savior. They wanted their Messiah to be a great warrior like King David. But the Prophet Isaiah told them about the Lamb of God. In Isaiah 53:7, the prophet said of the One who was to come: “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent.” It was a strange saying, but a familiar one. Isaiah was telling Israel that the Messiah would, by His own sacrifice, redeem His people. Many of our pop culture so-called Christian beliefs in our contemporary society run counter to what Isaiah was saying, and what God is declaring in our Gospel for this morning. This isn’t the way many Christians in our society today would have done it! Frankly, it isn’t the way the Israelites would have done it! But God’s ways are not our ways! We should allow God to be God, and not try to fashion God in our image. So John said of Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The writer of the Gospel of John, from which our Gospel Lesson for today is taken, also wrote the Book of Revelation. The declaration of John the Baptist, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” is also the central message of the Book of Revelation. Why is it that so many refuse to see that “Lamb of God” is the central image in the Book of Revelation?
When John identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, he is, of course, using a metaphor or symbol. John has reasons for depicting Jesus as a lamb – “Lamb” underscores Jesus’ vulnerability and innocent suffering, and it links Jesus to the Passover Lamb that saved the Israelites in the Exodus story.
The Lamb is an amazing and yet wonderfully disarming vision. As the Apostle Paul stated so clearly in his first Letter to the Church in Corinth, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1Corinthians 1:18) In the face of Rome’s ideology of Victory, the victorious Lamb of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation looks out of place. It doesn’t seem to fit in.
How are we to understand John’s words that we have repeated and sung so many times? The reference of Scripture to the Messiah under the figure of a lamb is most clearly contained in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, verse 7, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent.” The Lamb of John’s Gospel and Revelation became the victor, not by militaristic power and slaughter, but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, John’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians where God emptied Himself and became a servant, being born as a human being. Lamb theology is the whole message of John. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence, but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.
Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer, not by force and violence, but remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love. “Lamb power” is a new way of life, a lifestyle oriented around Jesus’ self-giving love. “Lamb power” is the power of vulnerable but strong love to change the world. It is the power of nonviolent resistance and courage in opposition to injustice; it is the power of solidarity and forgiveness. In all things, large and small, personal and political, the power of vulnerable love can bring healing. Living by “Lamb Power” means we accept the cross as the ultimate expression of love. At the very heart of God is the slain Lamb who has somehow conquered.
We are called, beginning with our baptism, to become followers of God’s slain Lamb, Jesus, and to participate with Him in God’s new world. In every way, John wants us to be grasped by a new and wonderful vision of Lamb power – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The slain Lamb’s victory through suffering love is the heart of the message of the Book of Revelation. This message, this counter-understanding of victory in the Lamb, is more relevant today than ever. In the face of terrorism and the glorification of war, we need the vision of “Lamb power” to remind us that true and lasting victory comes in our world, not through aggressive military action, but through self-giving love. Revelation’s conquering Messiah is the slain, but standing Lamb, the very opposite of Rome’s victory image. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus conquers, not by inflicting violence, but by accepting the violence inflicted upon Him in crucifixion. In the face of terrorism and the glorification of war, we need the vision of “Lamb power” to remind us that true victory comes in our world not through military might but through self-giving love. This is the opposite of the OT view of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth retribution theology that perpetuates violence and war. Jesus rejected this view encouraging us rather to love even our enemies.
In our Gospel this morning, [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” Those in our culture who believe that the Book of Revelation is about the rapture and predicting the end of the world, do not seem to believe the Lamb has truly “conquered” or won the victory when He was slaughtered. Of course, they preach, oh yes, they preach, the saving power of the blood of the Lamb in Jesus’ crucifixion, but it is not quite enough saving power for them. Oh no! They need Christ to come back again with some real power, not as a Lamb, but as a roaring lion. Jesus has to return so he can finish up the job of conquering. The cross was not enough! There is still more conquering to do!
But there is no indication that John, the author of both our Gospel and Revelation, ever wants to call upon Jesus to return as a lion. John very deliberately replaces the lion with the Lamb in chapter 5 and never again refers to Jesus as a lion. Only evil figures are identified as lion-like in subsequent chapters of Revelation – the locusts have teeth like lions in chapter 9, and the horses of death have heads like lions.
So where do the fundamentalists and the religious right get the idea for Jesus to return as a lion? I believe they fabricate this lion-like Jesus because they have a problem with the Lamb’s weakness and vulnerability. They crave the avenging Jesus who will return as a lion and show His true power and fury: This is no weak-wristed, smiling Jesus who comes to pay earth a condolence call. Oh no, for them a loving Jesus is a wimpy Jesus.
So many in our culture seem to prefer exclusion, rather than inclusion, of those they wish to blame for our problems, sometimes even using the political rhetoric of hate and violence. This was often the case during our recent and continuing political battles. This kind of rhetoric seems to be what really works to get people elected.
This symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God is in keeping with the Old Testament emphasis on the importance of sacrifice as an atonement for sin. But we should note in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah also describes the Messiah as the One who identifies with all that is human in the form of a suffering servant. The Word became Flesh in order to share our humanity and reveal who God is in humanly understandable terms.
It is this life, with its sorrows and griefs; its heavy burdens, its lack of hope, its discouragements and despair, that the Lamb of God shares with us. The vision of the Lamb is of One who, in that identification with our sinful human nature, unites us with the presence and power of God. This is Luther’s Theology of the Cross, where we meet God where God chooses to find us – in our sorrow, our pain, our weakness; where we hear God’s gracious Word manifest in the death of Jesus on the cross; where we follow Jesus in His death and resurrection. The vision of the Lamb of God is of One who brings us salvation and hope and joy and peace in the midst of this life and this world.
But John’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God was not confined to that of solidarity with our humanity. In those well-known words, John proclaims that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” (John 3:16). John continues, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved (i.e., brought back into relationship) through Him.” (John 3:17)
It is God’s love that binds us all together in interdependence and interrelationship, each and every human life, and every living thing, animals, fish, plants, trees, the oceans, the mountains, the plains and the valleys, the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. Everything in all creation is purified and made infinitely precious by the redeeming power of that love made manifest in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. For as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “in Him all things were created in heaven and on earth…and in Him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:16-17)
This often repeated Biblical theme of a universal love, which joins together and unites all things in the created world, is one that shapes the way we live and act in our daily lives. It causes us to look askance upon every form of flag-waving pride which calls itself ‘patriotism’, but whose sole purpose is to turn us against other groups, and designate them as enemies to be destroyed at all costs, rather than accepted as fellow-human beings, dividing rather than uniting. God’s love in Jesus Christ motivates us to reject every appeal to separate ourselves from those fellow human beings by reason of our skin color, or social standing, or religion, or even politics. There is, of course, a legitimate purpose for flag-waving pride, but it should not be to instill in us rejection and even hatred toward those different from us. It should not be to create enemies! Easier said than done, of course, because there are real enemies with real power who will revile and persecute those who love. But Jesus offers a solution: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:43-45).
The magnificent vision of John the Baptist, who was somehow enabled to see in Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” tells us a great deal about who we are, and what our place is in the whole scheme of things. In her book, Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor laments the loss of the language of sin and salvation within the mainline church. She says, “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience (broken relationships), alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”
John the Baptist testified to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Therefore, we are not left speechless. We are not left speechless!