Behold the Lamb of God

From Ghent Altarpiece, Jan Van Eyck (1431)

Epiphany 2 2020
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 49:1–7, Psalm 40, 1 Corinthians 1:1–9, John 1:29–42

Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

John the Baptist speaks of the coming of Jesus almost like a cataclysm. The word cataclysm is rooted in the image of a deluge of water coming down, of a flood. It speaks of a flood that reshapes the world or of an event so dramatic that all things are altered.

If we stayed glued to the 24-hour news cycles, we would be convinced that a cataclysm is always just around the corner: economic disaster, world collapse, environmental disaster, life-ending meteor. The phrase “breaking news” now occurs on a daily and even hourly cycle.

Sometimes we only really see cataclysm by looking back as we realize certain natural or social events really did reshape everything. That’s true in our own lives. We can look back on certain events that reshaped our lives in ways we could have never anticipated. It might be dangerous to speak of marriage as a cataclysm, but it certainly does reshape our world. Health problems, the loss of a loved and even the loss of a job can set in motion action that reshapes our thoughts and our actions.

I’ve had a variety of interesting job losses in life and some were more life-changing than others. The first church I worked at, laid most of the staff off with a letter. I was meeting with our youth leaders and went to the mailbox on the way into the meeting. As I walked toward the house, I found out that I had been laid off. One company I worked for in graduate school laid me off two different times. I knew it was a lay off day when a security guard was sitting in the lobby. In the 2008 recession, our company started laying people off every week. I knew my days were numbered. One day while I was at lunch with a friend, my cell phone rang, and the secretary said that the boss waiting for me. I told my friend that I need to go because I’m getting laid off. And I was right. Times like these can feel devastating and can result in dramatic life changes, but they are nothing compared to the cataclysm of Jesus Christ coming into the world.

As we listen to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we hear John the Baptist sounding an alarm. He cries out in the wilderness of someone who is coming and bringing a world-shaking cataclysm. In Luke 3, he declares, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John’s dramatic warnings seem a bit hyperbolic when we behold Jesus Christ. He does not have an ax in his hand or a winnowing fork. He does not call down a flood of fire from heaven. He does appear to overthrow any governments.

This morning we consider these dramatic images of Jesus’ coming alongside a very different image in the Gospel of John. John the Baptist declares, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The next day, John the Baptist declares again, “Behold the Lamb of God!” Instead of the dramatic and even violent images of an ax laid to the roots of the tree, a winnowing fork, or a baptism of fire, John points to an almost gentle image of the Lamb of God.

We are so familiar with this language of lamb that we can quickly think of lamb images throughout Scripture. We may think of the Passover lamb in the Exodus story, the sacrificial lamb in the burnt offerings, or even Isaiah’s language of the Suffering Servant who is pictured as a lamb led to the slaughter. In some ways, each of these images capture aspects of John the Baptist’s statement and yet they are incomplete. All of these images are passive images of lambs being sacrificed.

John’s declaration is not passive but active and present. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

In these earlier images, the lamb is a victim, but John gives us a picture of a victor who takes away sin. Also, in these earlier images, the lamb plays a specific kind of role. In the Passover, the blood of the lamb covers the doorposts and the lintel of the house. This protects the occupants of the house from the death angel that passes through Egypt. But this is not a magical charm against evil powers, which can be found in Egypt and other early cultures. The blood of the lamb is not used to ward off evil.

It is a sign of covenant. In Exodus 12:13 we read, “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. Much like the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant not to destroy the world again through flood, the blood of the lamb serves as a sign of the covenant between God and his people. In this story, the blood of the lamb does not take away sin but covers the occupants of the homes in covenantal protection.

One interesting aspect of the Passover meal is that the people must consume the entire lamb. If one family cannot eat an entire lamb, they must join with another family. They consume the entire lamb as family. The family is brought together in the act of eating a covenant meal together.

When Jesus comes, He raises up a new family of Jew and Gentile, and He is the Lamb of God to be consumed.

In John 6, Jesus says that he is the true manna from heaven and then he merges images of the lamb and the bread from heaven together by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58).

In this instance, the blood is not poured out on an altar or put on the doorposts and lintel but it is consumed. Jesus himself is food and drink. Jesus himself is bread and wine. Jesus is not simply a spotless lamb, but the Spotless Lamb. There is no other. The Lamb has come. Once he comes, Passover is complete. Once he comes, the sacrificial system is complete. The Lamb has come not simply to cover sin, not as a daily or yearly offering for sin, but once for all. He has come to take away sin. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.

In our Isaiah reading this morning, we heard the Lord say,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6)

When the servant of God appears, when the Lamb of God comes, he does not simply take away the sin of Israel, he takes away the sin of the world. This Lamb has come not as passive victim but as active warrior. He life is not taken but offered. He gives himself freely in love to conquer the powers that hold us captive. Thus we read in 1 John 3:5, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” And in verse 8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

He is the cataclysm. The fire of love that has cut down the ancient powers and established the Kingdom of God. Though our world passes from one war to another war, from one conflict to another conflict, from terrifying storms above and fires below, His kingdom shall not pass away. And He has gathered us into this Kingdom. We have been adopted into a new family that bears his image and reveals His healing and redeeming love to all nations and all powers in heaven above and earth below. Even as He called to exiles in Babylon in Isaiah 43, we hear Him calling,

I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
                    bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
                  everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
                  Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
                  All the nations gather together,
and the peoples assemble.

We are the deaf and the blind who have known the dark struggle of a world in sin. We are the weary who have been called into His family of love. We have heard His call and seen His glory in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And we are becoming a song of praise in this world and in the world to come. For we join with all of heaven who falls down before the Lamb and proclaims,

       “Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

We worship Him even now. Even today in the midst of our world’s struggles and maybe even in the midst of our own life-altering challenges, we gather to celebrate God’s covenant with us. We gather around the throne with all of heaven. We gather to worship, to eat, to drink, and to be merry in Him who takes away the sin of the world.

Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

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