As with all other sermons from St. B’s, the audio can be found on the St. B’s website.
- First reading
- Second reading
“The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
When my brother and I were growing up we were involved in 4H and FFA. Our father had grown up on a ranch in central Texas and wanted us to have some experience beyond our suburban DC setting. My brother, being older, led in most areas and so he was the first to get a lamb one spring to rear through the summer, halter train, show at the county fair, and then sell at auction. It wasn’t long though before I also had a lamb each summer. I remember one Shropshire ewe in particular. I called her “Kathy” after a friend who was flattered, but never realized it was because Kathy the lamb was as recalcitrant as Kathy the some-time girlfriend.
Sheep and lambs are found throughout the Bible and have all sorts of uses and meanings. Like bread and wine, sheep and goats were staples of life in the ancient Mediterranean. A sheep can produce wool for soft clothing, leather for shoes, armor, and parchment for writing, milk for drinking and making cheeses, and meat for eating. They were one of the most valuable possessions a person could have and so were also one of the most common sacrifices God asked his people to make.
This morning we hear John the Baptist tell us that Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It is a phrase we hear and use a lot in our liturgy and worship, but what sort of lamb did John the Baptist have in mind? I don’t mean what sort of breed of sheep, of course, but what does it mean that Jesus is “the lamb of God”?
As odd as it may sound, in the time of John the Baptist one image of the lamb was as a figure of God’s judgment who trampled and destroyed evil in the world. After all, John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matt. 3:2) and the coming of the kingdom of heaven is the coming of God’s judgement of the wicked and justice for the righteous. This image of the Lamb of God as trampling on the beasts of wickedness might well be in the mind of John the Baptist as he looks up and sees Jesus striding towards him. Certainly the Book of Revelation understands the Lamb as the one who conquers: Rev. 17:14 “they [the kings and the beast] will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
This may be what John the Baptist has in mind, but he says something more about the Lamb he sees before him. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This might call to mind the imagery from Isaiah of the suffering servant who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,”
Isa. 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
That might be brought to mind, but certainly one would think of all the different sacrifices in the Law that required a lamb. Every day—twice daily–lambs were offered as sacrifices at the Temple (Exod. 29:38-46) and when a sin offering was needed a female sheep without blemish would do (Lev. 4:32). The sacrifice that is most often called to mind, certainly for Christians, is the Passover sacrifice since it was during that festival that Jesus was executed and Paul declares “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us!” (1 Cor. 5:7-8) The curious thing about Passover is that the lamb was not technically a sacrifice. That is to say, while it was killed to save the Israelites (you will recall that while the family ate the lamb, the blood was spread over the doorposts so that the Angel of Death, the last plague on Egypt, would pass over their homes) it was not an animal offered up by the priests to God. And it certainly was not a sacrifice for the sin of Israel or the world.
I will return to this in detail at Easter, why it is that Jesus offered himself up at Passover rather than at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which is the festival at which sacrifices are offered for the sins of the nation. Suffice it to say now that Paul’s quote from 1 Corinthians, Hebrews 2:15 (Jesus came “to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”), and the declaration of John the Baptist make it clear that the Lamb of God, Jesus, offered himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the whole world.
This is what we might call a “hard saying” for many. This core and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, that Jesus came, took the form of a man in order to offer up his own life as a sacrifice for the sins of those who believe in him, is offensive to so many, even those who are devout and faithful Christians. The primary concern is that it seems so barbaric and offensive that God should demand a human sacrifice. And it is offensive! It should be offensive to us. But rather than attempt to rewrite or ignore what the New Testament says we should consider why God would have done such a thing.
The rabbis have a wonderful phrase לשון הקודש לשון האיש, “the language of God is the language of man.” It means that God speaks to us in language that we can understand; he meets us where we are. Throughout most of history humanity in all regions, countries, and cultures understood that in order to show your obedience to your god you offered up sacrifices, you gave up something you value deeply to show your god that you are faithful. Correspondingly, when crimes had been committed it was understood that they were not just to the individuals harmed, but to the gods as well. So in addition to any fines and restitution to be offered to the injured party, one also had to offer sacrifices to the gods.
When God gave Israel the Law, he was speaking to them in a language they would understand, the language of sacrifice. The biblical legal system was advanced in many ways. While “an eye for an eye” (Lev. 24:20) might seem harsh to us, this concept of equivalence kept people from demanding that a life be given for the loss of an eye. And in practice, rather than requiring an actual eye when you put out another person’s eye, one could simply pay them for the value of that eye. (Our legal system is essentially still the same. We have simply removed God and the gods from the equation.) In addition to the various laws that governed their day-to-day lives, Israel also was to show their devotion to God by offering sacrifices of Thanksgiving and devotion, for purification and restitution. The first fruits of the harvest and the flocks were given over to God in thanksgiving and recognition that all good things come from God. Even when a human son was born, a lamb was offered in place of the child, a sacrifice to redeem the child (Exod. 34:20). Over the centuries individual prayer and the study of Scripture developed in parallel with Temple worship, but every day, throughout the day, sacrifices were offered to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. For the ancient Jews this was the language of man and God.
So when John the Baptist tells his disciples “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” they may have thought about the conquering eschatological lamb or perhaps even the servant who would suffer for the iniquities of the nation, but there is little doubt that the daily sacrifices offered for the expiation of sins would be the first to come to mind. At that moment I don’t think even John the Baptist would have fully understood what his own words meant, but they knew that the Lamb of God was present and the Kingdom of God was near.
While most do not need to learn Hebrew or Greek in order to understand the Bible, we all need a greater appreciation for the language of sacrifice if we are to understand what Jesus did for us and asks of us. If the notion of Jesus as a human sacrifice for you, for me, and for the world is abhorrent to you, it should be! It is not a new offense. After all, Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, just a little beyond our reading today, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles!” So even in the first century, even in the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection, people found it a hard concept to accept. Since we no longer live in a world that operates with daily offerings and sacrifices of animals and grain, it is appropriate to consider other analogies that can help us to better understand and explain to this modern world what Jesus’ offering means. What we cannot change is the work of God in Jesus on the cross. Translating the language of sacrifice does not change its meaning, it makes the message comprehensible to all the world.
This is the vital work of the church because it is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This isn’t just about Israel anymore. As God declared through Isaiah (49:6) “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.”
God, in ways that are unknowable in detail but not in result, made himself human in the form of Jesus in order to teach us, to live with us following God’s Law, so that he could offer himself as the one true and final sacrifice that would abolish the sacrificial requirements of the Law even as he baptizes us with the Spirit.
When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “behold, here is the Lamb of God!” His disciples went and followed Jesus, they pursued him to see where he would lead them. They did not yet fully know who Jesus was and so when Jesus turned and met them and asked what they wanted, they asked where he was staying so that they might listen and learn from him. And Jesus said, “Come and see.” When they had spent simply one day with the Lamb of God they knew that he was the one anointed by God to deliver Israel and the world and they could not help but go and tell those they loved that they had found the Messiah.
By the very fact that we are here this morning, we each are walking after Jesus to see where he might lead, to learn more about who he is and why he has come into this world and our lives. Perhaps you have already come to know and realize that he is the Messiah in which case our task is to go and bring others to him. Perhaps you are still just curious. To all of us at all times, Jesus turns and meets us where we are on the road and says, “Come and see.”
“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.”
 See The Testament of Joseph 19:8. May be Christian interpolation.