15 January – John the baptizer and the Lamb of God

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Epiphany 2

Isaiah 53:1-7
Psalm 40
John 1:19-51

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben

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.  Isa. 53:7. NRSV

The next day, [John the baptizer] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’             Jn 1:29 NRSV

Our two readings this morning are linked by a single vivid image, a lamb waiting at an abattoir. It is John the Baptist who makes the link and today’s Gospel follows on from last week’s.[1]

You may remember Matt Julius’ arresting title, ‘The wrong baptism’ where he rightly drew our attention away from Jesus’ baptism (which St John does not actually describe) to the baptism of Jesus on the cross. [Since we will talk about two Johns this morning, the gospel writer will be ‘St’ and the other, mostly ‘the Baptist’]

John the Baptist, named for his profession not the denomination, is such a strange figure. He has already opted out of normal society, an ascetic, perhaps connected with some of the communities we know lived in the desert beyond Jerusalem. He also stands between the biblical Testaments, the last prophet – and, as St John makes him – the harbinger of a new chapter in God’s dealing with humankind, the Forerunner (as Orthodox Christians call him).  He reached back into the Jewish tradition to quote the prophet Isaiah and his moving four poems or songs about another strange figure called ‘the suffering servant’. He too was cast out, and as the fourth song (today’s reading) says,

cut off from the world of the living, stricken to death for my people’s transgression’ (Is. 53:8)

You can see why the first Christians, all raised in Judaism, saw a close portrait of their crucified Lord. The figure of the ‘Lamb of God’ is its focus.

St John began his Gospel with the image of the ‘Word’, the ‘Logos’, but he now takes up the Baptist’s ikon and repeats it no fewer than three times – but what does it represent?

If you read all of chapters 42 to 53, you will find no single answer. The Servant of God, of which the Lamb is one image, is seen as a representative man, a leader perhaps, a messiah, perhaps, or a remnant of the faithful Israel, guided by God’s promises, or a kind of ambassador to other nations on God’s behalf (which, by the way, is a common task of a biblical servant, as it is of a deacon). Modern Judaism, I learned from reading commentaries by modern rabbis, choose the communal image, God’s chosen people, Israel. In Isaiah’s time, they were an exiled nation with its temple in ruins and its culture cut off from its sources. The Servant is not one man, he is Israel.

We heard from St John this morning about the interrogation by some pharisees from Jerusalem, to whom the Baptist denied that he was the Messiah, nor Jeremiah who would return to announce the messiah, nor a prophet – like Isaiah. The John verses are the Baptist’s attempt to distinguish himself and his ministry from that of Jesus.

There is a subplot here which need not detain us. Both Johns are addressing two communities – the followers of the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. The Christians were wary that the baptism story looks as if their Lord Jesus submitted to John and was thus somehow less than him. But John was executed and in time his disciples chose to follow Jesus or withered away.

And there were two baptisms, John’s in water, Jesus’ with fire and the Holy Spirit.  St John is careful to add the Baptist’s testimony that he saw the Holy Spirit ‘remain’ over Jesus at his baptism (1:32).

The next day he sees Jesus in the street and proclaims to the crowd, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ quoting Isaiah – and we will sing it again before this service is over.

Now, Christians believe that it was the mission of Jesus to ‘take away the sins of the world’. But Isaiah’s servant was to take away the sins of Israel. The revolution announced in the Second (or New) Testament is that God’s promises are open to all humankind, to the ‘Gentiles’ as well as to God’s beloved first people.

But what happens when we name Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’?

St John believed that Jesus’ death on the cross took place on the day when the lambs were being killed for Passover. No other gospel makes that connection. St Paul calls Jesus ‘our Passover Lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). I asked myself what the Jewish tradition thinks of the lamb of isa. 53. They insist that the Passover Lamb was not a sacrifice. It is the story of origins for Jews. On the eve of Exodus, the whole nation prepared itself for a hard and dangerous journey from slavery to freedom. The lambs were for a meal to sustain them, to be eaten in a hurry.  Blood was sprinkled on their doorposts as a sign to protect them. None of this is ‘sacrifice’ in its normal meaning.

The other major penitential event in the Jewish Year is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In its background story (Levit. 16:7-22), two goats were selected; one was sacrificed, and its blood poured on the altar; the other, over which the priests listed the sins of Israel, was driven out without further ceremony into the desert where it died, hence our ‘scapegoat’.  But the goat associated with Israel’s sin was not the goat which was sacrificed.

Sacrifice is a word in the Christian vocabulary, but it needs to be very carefully used. Jewish sacrifice, for ordinary people like Joseph and Mary, was concerned with such things as doves and pigeons; the more serious, national rituals took place in the Temple, and with its destruction in AD 70, all animal sacrifice ceased, and since then Jewish understanding of sacrifice has been spiritual and ethical. They are horrified at the thought that the death of a human being could achieve these purposes.

From the earliest centuries, philosophers have offered ’theories of Atonement’ – to make sense of death of the innocent Jesus. The most popular for Protestants – though there are Catholic equivalents – is called ‘the Penal Substitutionary’ theory, which holds that the primary purpose of Jesus’ death was to satisfy God’s justice. It was a brutal payment to God for others’ wrongdoing. Many modern Christians reject this theory because it is morally offensive. And something of it remains in other theories and is kept alive in conservative Christianity. (This was the doctrinal dividing point between the Student Christian Movement and the evangelical Union in the 1960s.)

I should now solve all these mysteries for you, but I cannot. This sermon is an unfinished symphony.

Certainly, our present era has a major challenge in articulating our faith in categories both true to the biblical tradition, and meaningful in our contemporary contexts. We cannot follow our mediaeval ancestors in wholesale but uncritical borrowings from either Testament. It is a task we preachers attempt every time we speak, and in the end, we stand dumb before the ‘Mystery of faith’.

Let me add some comments which need to be explored if I were to complete my sermon (some of these have been added post-preaching!).

The image of the lamb of God appears elsewhere in the scriptures. Some (e.g. Calvin) have seen Jesus’ silence before Pilate and Herod as a parallel to the Lamb/servant‘s innocence. In Revelation, the lamb is also a lion overcoming God’s enemies; the martyrs are dressed in white garments ‘washed in the blood (!) of the lamb’ (7:14). In eucharistic and liturgical history, the bread is called ‘the lamb’, and the Agnus Dei is sung while the bread is broken after the Great Prayer and before Communion.

Are any of these uses tied to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus? Well, yes, but not in a penal substitutionally way! Christ died for us, yes, but is its meaning to be found in the blood of his execution, or from the whole of his incarnation, teaching, healing and in his constant communion with and obedience to the Father? The hours in Gethsemane seem to be a critical point here. The Lamb of God image has anchored our attention on the death of Jesus. In Isa. 53:7, after the lamb is mentioned, the parallel analogy is of a sheep before its shearer, i.e. not faced with death. I do not wish to remove death and suffering from Jesus or his work of salvation, but I want to release it from a narrow interpretation.

The graphic on today’s order of Service is of a mosaic of the 6th C AD in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It is situated at the top of the vault in the dome, supported by four angels and the background is of stars and flowers of paradise – but there are no wounds or blood.  That is the main way Christian artists have portrayed it. There is another strand where the lamb is pierced in the breast and blood spurts out in an arc, sometimes into a chalice; obviously that comes of a catholic piety and goes beyond the meanings I believe are justified.

We believe that Jesus/the Lamb rescued us from the debt we owe God. I want to take ‘on the cross’ as a summary of his whole ministry. His ‘work’ is done, but ours is not, and we live and work through the hope based in Jesus’ unique victory: as a human being in communion with his Father, he broke through the barriers which prevent us from being who God wants us to be. That was the otherwise impossible task the Lamb was prepared to take on.

We need to live within the paradox set for us by John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus but knew there was another baptism.  That baptism, which we share, makes us members of the body of Christ and heirs of his promises, ‘through the water of rebirth and the renewal by the holy Spirit’ to life eternal in Christ.

[1] I also chose the Fourth Song from Isa. 53, which is where the image appears.