BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON JANUARY 16, 2011
St. John 1:29
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
In today’s Gospel, we have St. John’s account of the Baptism of Jesus. Actually it’s not a description of the event, but a report of what John the Baptist said about it. Interestingly, this account of Jesus’ baptism is sandwiched between two specific occasions when John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God.
This is significant – and it is important to remember how this fits in with the beginning of St. John’s gospel. The gospel begins with his great theological discourse about the incarnation, which has, at its center, the declaration “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.
He has no description of the birth of Jesus, no stable, no star, no shepherd’s, no Kings. In fact, there is not even a reference to Mary, nor to Jesus as a child. Just the wonderful statement “The word was made flesh”. Then immediately this gospel moves 30 years to the Jordan, where John the Baptist is baptizing.
Here, John Baptist is confronted by the authorities, who ask if he is the Christ. John declares that he is not the Christ – he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.
And so we come to verse 29, and St. John’s comment: ”The next day he saw Jesus”.
The evangelist is pointing us to Jesus, and so is John the Baptist. “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sins of the world.” It is a message for us, as well as to those who stand there at the banks of the Jordan.
In these first 30 verses of the Gospel according to John, we are taken from the Word made flesh, the one in whom we behold God’s glory, to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who is the sacrifice who takes away the sins of the world. This is a great leap in thinking, but theologically, it is all bound together. The Incarnation leads to the Lamb of God.
We have gone from the Word, in whom was the light of men, to the Lamb of sacrifice.
From light to lamb.
Jesus is the lamb who came to bring light in the darkness.
Later on, in John 8:12, John records Jesus saying “I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Light is, in fact, one of the great themes in St. John’s gospel – and the beginning of his gospel is full of it. In chapter 1, in reference to the Word made flesh he says “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it “.
We use the word ‘darkness’ to indicate something bad or wrong or evil.
Sometimes we think the darkness has overcome the light. The Star Wars series of movies talked of the ‘dark side’. And in that movie, it was a choice that someone made. But, so often it is not a matter of choice, nor of light and dark being opposed to each other.
In truth, in our lives, there is often light and darkness mixed together.
There certainly is in our society, this dark and light together, as we saw so tragically in Tucson last weekend.
There is an English author named Susan Howitch, famous for her series of Starbridge novels. These novels portray English church life in a 20th century cathedral city called Starbridge. She later wrote a book on Christian healing, in which the healing ministry of a priest goes terribly astray, off the rails.
When she was interviewed about this book, she said the following:
“I thought it was important that I should present an example of corrupt healing in a book alongside the example of Christ-centered healing. The dark side of creation consists of the failures, the things that go wrong, and one can’t ignore the dark side, any more than one can ignore God’s ceaseless attempts to redeem the damage and heal the brokenness.”
Which brings us to the Lamb of God…and John the Baptists declaration: “Behold the Lamb of God”.
The Lamb of God was the sacrifice offered to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Which was their experience of the dark side, which became for them a great act of God to free them from slavery. From then on, every year, the Passover lamb was sacrificed in commemoration that God had saved them.
When those standing around the Jordan that day heard John the Baptist say “Behold the Lamb of God”, they knew what he was referring to. But it must have been puzzling. How could John the Baptist refer to this man, Jesus, as the Lamb of God, which was an animal sacrificed year by year in commemoration of God’s great deliverance?.
The answer to this question came on the first occasion that John the Baptist said this. He said “Behold the Lamb of God – who takes away the sins of the world”.
Now the Lamb of God is not just a sacrifice for freedom of slavery, but it is a sacrifice to take away the sins of the whole world.
Yes, Jesus is the light of the world who has come to take away the sins of the world – to free us from darkness. He is not a bloody sacrifice – at least not yet. That time will come.
It came in Holy Week – and that is why St. John records that Good Friday was the day of preparation. That is, it was the day when the Passover Lambs were killed, because the Passover was the next day.
So when Jesus died on the Cross, and blood and water flowed out from his side – at that same moment, blood flowed from the Passover lambs that were being sacrificed. The connection was deliberate and symbolic. At that moment, Jesus was both figuratively, and truly, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
John Baptist, at the Jordan, points to Calvary and Jesus. Jesus is the Passover Lamb who brings light to take away the darkness. And thus in our Episcopal liturgy, when the Priest breaks the Host before communion he says those words of St. Paul: “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us”.
What the evangelist is saying is that the Incarnation leads to Salvation. That Salvation was won for us on the Cross. Now the Cross is eternal, and endures forever – so Salvation is always being made present in the world.
We know this to be true every time we come to Mass. When the Priest invites the people to receive the Blessed Sacrament, the very Life of Christ, he says those same words of John the Baptist: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him that takest away the sins of the world.
Jesus is present and is still taking away the sins of the world. And, at that moment, what is our response? “Lord, I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed”.
These are not just appropriate words of humility, nor even of hope. They are actually a version of words said by a Centurion to Jesus when he asked him to heal his servant. The Centurion was a Gentile, and it was enough for this Centurion that Jesus would just say the word and his servant would be healed. And so he says, “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” He didn’t expect Jesus to actually come physically and heal the servant – he had faith that Jesus could heal by word, even from a distance.
Such faith in Jesus must always be our response. For we know that he is the Lamb of God who brings light into the darkness.