Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Here is the Lamb of God - recognising Christ

“Look! Here is the Lamb of God,” says John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (John 1.35-42). Actually he says it twice.

First he sees Jesus coming towards him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And from that he goes on to speak about the Baptism of Jesus - how the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus at his Baptism shows him to be the Son of God. John has seen it for himself - and he wants to tell people about it.

And then John says it again the next day. “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” This time Jesus is walking past while John is standing there with two of his disciples. John points out Jesus and the two people with him decide to find out more. They leave John and follow after Jesus.

What does it mean to you to hear those words, “Here is the Lamb of God!”? We use them Sunday by Sunday, even day by day at the Eucharist. It’s the invitation which we normally use in this church to come to the altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood - and we are reminded “Blessed are those who are called to his Supper.” Blessing is to be found by recognising Jesus and knowing him for who he is.

Perhaps though, we hear those words so often that we just take them for granted. Or we’ve never really thought through what they mean. On altars and in stained glass windows you’ll sometimes see a depiction of a lamb holding a cross. It can look cutely fluffy and pretty innocuous. But look more closely and you might see blood flowing from the lamb’s neck and into a chalice. This is about the lamb as a sacrificial victim, its blood shed and offered for a purpose.

There’s something new about the “Lamb of God” pointed out by John. Lambs and sheep were not the obvious offering for sacrifice in the Jewish Temple. Bulls and goats were offered to take away the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. Offerings of grain and other fruits of the earth could be made especially at Harvest-time. Incense was burned as a sacrifice declaring that earth is joined with heaven in the praises of the Temple. The sacrifice of a lamb was something else - and for Jews sacrificing a lamb was not about taking away sin. It was about people and their place before God. Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, makes a sacrifice of the first-born of his flocks of sheep - and his offering is approved by God, whose lack of favour shown to Abel’s brother, Cain, leads to the first recorded murder. Abraham is turned by an angel from sacrificing his son Isaac instead to offer a ram in his place. And the Book of Leviticus made it a law that every first born son should be redeemed by the offering of a ram - though in the case of poor families like that of Jesus it could be replaced by sacrificing two doves.

Each of these sacrifices is about a personal offering - and one where the lamb stands in for an individual. The whole person needs to be redeemed before God. Except there is one particular time when the sacrifice of lambs meant something more. It's at the time of the Feast of the Passover. Lambs were offered and their blood smeared above the door of Jewish households as a sign of God’s love for his people, his care and rescue of the Israelites as he freed them from slavery in Egypt before leading them to their own Promised Land.

Now John the Baptist points out Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God!” God is doing something new for his people - and in the course of things we will discover it’s not merely another Exodus, God’s care for people of one particular race and nation. It’s a new Passover which shows God’s redeeming love for the world - for all its people. “Here is the Lamb of God!” Are we going to recognise how God is at work in Jesus?

You can miss it through a sense of familiarity… “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We sing about that every Sunday before we come to Communion in the words of the Agnus Dei 

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace. 

Do we take in what we are saying and singing?

For some people, talk about “sin” is a bit of a turn-off. Its reality escapes us. It’s something we might see in other people rather than ourselves - or it gets associated with sexual wrongdoing, and these days pretty well anything between consenting adults is reckoned to be OK. Problems that many people have in recognising what is entailed by talk about sin have led to proposals for some changes in the Baptism service. Predictably some parts of the media (notably the Daily Mail and Bishop Michael Nazir Ali) have started shouting about the Church getting weak about its own convictions through the proposal to drop the word “sin” itself in the Decision made before Baptism. Talk of “dying to sin” and the question, “Do you repent of your sins?” get removed from the text.

But that doesn’t mean the Church is getting wishy-washy. The attempt is to produce something more meaningful than those bits of the service which provoke a response of blank, bored looks. Something more than words is necessary. Baptism is God’s way of addressing us as whole people and asking for a response which will change the whole of our lives.

The first followers of Jesus discover this when John the Baptist points out Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” First time round he declares “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” - but we just hear John talking; no one does anything about it.

But the next day when he again points Jesus out - “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” - there’s something that moves two of his disciples to do something that will lead to their being changed for ever. They follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” - and they don’t know. But they ask “where are you staying?” And then they take up the invitation, “Come and see.”

“Come and see” is Jesus’ invitation to us as well. His first followers spend the day with him. Then they go and tell other people about Jesus - and they come to find out for themselves.

That’s what we need to do.

The new proposals for the Baptism service don’t drop sin and its consequences. They require the rejection of evil as “all that destroys” - not just “evil” as a short word you can easily say, but “all its many forms” and “all its empty promises.” The challenge is to make the response, “I turn to Christ” - and to keep on doing so: “And to put my trust in him… And to promise to follow him for ever.”

That’s a challenge to anyone who is thinking about being baptised or having their child baptised. It’s a challenge to all of us here. “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” Are we ready to learn more about this man, Jesus? Are we prepared to take the trouble to spend time with him? How will we respond to his invitation? - “Come and see.”