29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)
Lamb of God
Years ago in a former church, I did several stints as Vacation Bible School director. My favorite VBS curriculum was one written by Reverend Norm Arrington. It called for the recreation of a 1st century Jewish village complete with marketplace stalls and live animals. It was a lot of work but very effective. For obvious reasons, we didn’t bring in the live animals until the final day. But as the week went on, excitement grew. When were the animals coming? When is the petting zoo? What the kids most wanted to see was a lamb. And I confess, I wanted to see the lamb, too.
I anticipated a snowy white little thing about the size of a standard poodle, something the kids could pet and even cuddle. We all stood in the parking lot as the farmer backed his truck into the church yard. He climbed out, opened the trailer, and tugged on a rope to get his “lamb” to come out. What appeared was a mangy critter standing about 3 ½ feet tall, with dirty wool and a runny nose. The farmer called it a “one-year-old lamb.” It wasn’t cute or cuddly or snowy white. I don’t know who was more disappointed – the kids or me! Nevertheless, while I stood beside this big goofy sheep to thank the farmer for bringing her, the thing hauled off and gave a big sneeze. She sneezed all over my summer dress, my legs, and sandals, and the kids erupted into laughter. From that point on, that was the best lamb ever!
Well, as you can tell, I don’t know much about sheep other than what I’ve been told. How many of you have heard more than one sermon about sheep? I bet it went like this: Sheep are really very stupid animals, they can easily wander off. They are so docile that you can lead them anywhere – even to slaughter. So dumb and passive are sheep that you have to put some goats in the herd to keep the group together. Now, while those things may be true, what I saw come off that truck was not docile. It was pretty darn stubborn!
So why all this talk about sheep? Because this morning’s text from the Gospel of John is a poetic passage in which John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” To his own followers, John says, “Behold, here is the Lamb of God.” Why does John call Jesus the “Lamb of God”? For the teachers in the room, that is our essential question this morning: Why the “Lamb” of God?
Now to be clear, the lamb or the sheep is a very old symbol found throughout many cultures in the ancient world. The Phoenician God Hermes was often represented carrying a ram, and Zeus, on at least one occasion, appeared wearing the fleece and head of a ram. The Hindu God Brahma is derived from a word meaning ram. And in Latin, “Aries” meaning lamb – became one of the strongest of the 12 zodiac signs. Only two years ago, an almost perfect stone statue of a lamb was uncovered in an archeological dig of Christian-era relics in Caesaria. In the early years, Christians did not depict Christ in human images. He was always depicted in symbols, often animals.
But to set the scene for today’s text, John, this wilderness prophet, has just baptized Christ, and he says, 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” . . . . “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. . . 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” [John 1: 30-34]. He recognized Jesus as God’s anointed. Surely, JOhn is not likening Christ to an animal that is dumb, passive, or innocent. No, in calling Christ the “Lamb of God,” John is drawing up all kinds of other associations.
First of all, John’s gospel uses symbols to underline the basic message that Christ existed with God from the beginning – in the beginning was the Word –and that the Father sent the Son – the Messiah — to overcome evil and darkness. The symbol of a lamb – or more accurately said, a “ram”— came to be associated with the triumphant messiah during a time of civil conflict among the Jewish people. The prophet Daniel had a vision of a ram with two horns, likely a symbol of the powerful kings of Midia and Persia. The Book of Revelation picks up this symbol when it hails Jesus as the lamb, even as the slain lamb. “Then I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne . . . .He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. And in a loud voice, they sang, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.” (5:6-12). So this image of lamb/ram is one of triumph and strength, and glory.
But someone coming from thoughts about Jewish sacrifices and feasts might think instead of the Passover lamb. Of the four gospels, only John locates Jesus’ crucifixion at the celebration of Passover –the time when the Passover lambs were killed. As you remember, Passover celebrated the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. The Lord told the people, through Moses and Aaron, that on the tenth day, each household was to slaughter a year-old lamb, to roast and eat the meat, and to mark their doorposts and thresholds with the blood. When God sent the angel of death upon the Egyptians, the Jews who had the markings of the lamb on their doors were spared. So, with this image, the lamb became the sign of deliverance, salvation, and even life.
And, of course, there was the everyday sacrifice of lambs – not just at Passover. For centuries, a perfect lamb was sacrificed in the temple every single morning and every single night for the sins of the people. Animal sacrifice was the both the ritual and the business of the temple – remember Jesus throwing out the money-changers for their greedy practices – and sacrifice was so ingrained in Hebrew law that it would have been hard to imagine life without it.
Many faiths still observe sacrifice. Generally, Hindu converts do not need someone tell them what the animal sacrifice is about. The ritual killing and offering of a goat, buffalo, hen, or duck to the shrines in the temple is not something new to them. Animal sacrifice was a means by which to appease the gods. They would purchase or produce a sacrificial animal without any blemish, one that had never been injured or wounded before. And it would become a consecrated offering for the remission of sin.
My adopted “sons” from Nepal – Sishir and Basant — spoke of visiting the Hindu shrines, always taking with them an offering of fruit or rice. (And having to watch out for the monkeys who would swoop in and grab it from their hands.) Hindu pilgrims would actually throw the food on the statues or idols of the various gods and goddesses. By “feeding them” so to speak, they believed they could garner divine favor. So in this context, the lamb becomes a symbol of atonement – of taking on and “paying the price” for the sins of the world.
But that is still not all: There is the very old story of Abraham and Isaac. As a test of Abraham’s obedience to God, Yahweh issues a startling command: Take your son, our only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Now, this is the son Abraham and Sarah had waited years and years and years for, the son who was born to them in their very old age, the son whose name meant “laughter.” And now God is asking Abraham to sacrifice him, to give him back to God. We hear the innocent voice of Isaac saying, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” To which Abraham replies, “God, himself, will provide the lamb, my son.” And, as this well-known story goes, God sees Abraham’s obedience and, at the last minute, says his hand. And Genesis reads, “Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son….” [Genesis 22: 2-13]. So, here, the lamb – the sheep—becomes a substitution for Isaac, one who dies in place of another.
So the phrase “lamb of God” does not point to a single meaning. It is a very rich symbol with many associations. In the image of the lamb, we see (1) a triumphant ram reigning in glory, (2) a deliverer who has given himself to free us – our families, our children, our souls– from slavery, (3) an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world; and (4) a savior willing to die in our place. But, know that Christ laid down his life not because God demanded it, but because he chose to do it. He understood that it was his to do. With his death, he said, “No more. No more sacrifice. What the Lord demands of you is not blood but obedience. You have been saved. Your response is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your strength, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And in the words of Micah, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
So, when John says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” he calls up all of these meanings, and centuries of Jewish history and experience. On the front of your bulletin is the image of Christ and lamb in stained glass. What do you see there? What meaning can we read into this depiction? Is the focus on the lamb or on Christ?
What I see is the good shepherd – which is the other symbol so often associated with Christ. Christ appears to have rescued the lamb – one of his flock, has lifted him up, and now carries him gently on his shoulders. The figures are on the same plane – one not higher than the other, and the halo encircles both figures. Christ inclines his head toward the lamb, and notice that the lamb nods toward Christ. What is the artist’s message? What I see is a mutual love of shepherd and lamb, and both covered by the light of God.
In our hymnal is a beautiful hymn called “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd.” Could you turn to page 274 with me? I’ve asked Suzanne to play it once through, and then we will sing the first and last verse. As you sing, listen for the lyrics that capture both the strength of the shepherd and the sacrifice of the lamb. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Nancy Rockwell: (Children’s sermon)
Do you have any nicknames? SHARE (Me: Kel, BooBoo, Mims, I think Chuck and Dru have some nicknames for me!). Jesus loved to give people nicknames. He gave his disciple Peter a nickname. Peter was sometimes flighty and way too excited, but Jesus called him “the Rock.” And Jesus called his friend Mary “Magdala,” which wasn’t about what town she came from, the name meant tower – a strong tower. That’s odd because Mary probably wasn’t a very large or strong woman. Jesus had two other disciples, James and John, who rarely said anything, but he called them the “Sons of Thunder.” I think Jesus was being a little but funny or sarcastic by giving them nicknames that were the opposite of what they were! Kind of like calling a Chihuahua “Bruiser” or calling your old beat up car your “Cadillac.” But I also think that Jesus gave people nicknames that they could grow into, that would inspire them and make them become better people. You know, Peter really did become the solid founder—the rock– of the church, and Mary was Jesus’ tower of strength, and James and John probably turned out to be strong preachers who sounded like thunder.
Did you know that Jesus gave us a nickname, too? He did. He called us the children of God. Wow! I certainly don’t feel like I can live up to that name, but I sure will try. How ‘bout you. Will you grow up to be better and better children of God? Let’s pray.
Children of God, go now and grow into your nickname.
May the beauty of God
be reflected in your eyes,
the love of God
be reflected in your hands,
the wisdom of God
be reflected in your words,
and the knowledge of God
flow from your heart,
that all might see,
and seeing, believe. AMEN