Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 15, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I was sharing our gospel reading for today with our preschoolers in chapel this week, and to begin the conversation about Jesus being identified by John as the Lamb of God, I asked the kids a question. “If you could be any kind of animal,” I asked them, “what would you be, and why?” I told them I would like to be a bald eagle because they live in beautiful places and can soar above the scenery and because I like to eat salmon. Then it was their turn. One little girl said she’d like to be a bunny, because she likes to hop. Another little girl said she’d like to be a kitty cat because then she could play more with her pet cat and because she likes to drink milk – and then she flicked her tongue to show me how kitties drink milk. Then the next kid in line, a little boy, blurted out, “I’d like to be a dinosaur so I could eat people.” Now, you might think that this would be cause for concern, that it might be time for a referral to a child psychologist, but this kid delivered this line with a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He’s going to be a comedian, not a cannibal! In one way or another, each of these responses gives some insight into the person answering, right? It reveals something about each of them.
Now, nobody asked Jesus what kind of animal he’d like to be and why, but something similar is happening in our gospel reading for today. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him, he pointed to him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The next day, when John was standing with two of his disciples, as they watched Jesus walk by, John again said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John refers to Jesus metaphorically as a lamb. It is important for us to understand why, because understanding why reveals much about who Jesus is and what he has come to do for us.
When John called Jesus a lamb, his own disciples would have had a deep sense of what that meant. They would have known that a lamb is born to give its life for others. This is true in the most basic agricultural sense. A lamb was, and often still is, born to serve as nourishment for human beings. It would be killed in order to give life, in order to provide meat and marrow for those who would feast upon it. But the meaning of the lamb goes far deeper than the protein it provides. The lamb was an important animal for the religious life of the Jewish people. It has a spiritual meaning too.
The most significant example of this is in the story of the Passover. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God told Moses to sacrifice a year-old lamb, one without defects or flaws. Once it had been sacrificed, the Israelites were to sprinkle the blood of this lamb on their door posts. They were then to roast and eat the lamb, making sure there was nothing left over. Then, when the angel of the Lord passed over Egypt, bringing judgement and death upon the Egyptians, the angel of death would “pass over” the homes which had been marked with the blood of the lamb. They were thus saved by the blood of the lamb. The blood of the lamb saved them from death. The blood of the lamb led to their deliverance out of slavery and bondage and into freedom.
Later, God provided the sacrificial system for his chosen people. Under the sacrificial system, the sins of the people could be forgiven with the sacrifice of a lamb. It was through this sacrifice, through the blood of a lamb being sprinkled on the altar, that sinners were reconciled to God. The sacrifice of a lamb took away their sin and gave them access to the holy presence of God.
Oftentimes this was a solemn ceremony as the people confessed the depths of their sin, expressing remorse and regret and repentance. They were forced to confront the stark fact that sin leads to death, for which the lamb served as a substitute. It would die in their place.
But these sacrifices were also, in some contexts, occasions for joy. The sacrificial lamb was sometimes given as a thank offering. In these settings the lamb was roasted on the altar and the meat was enjoyed by both the priests and the people. It was like a holy barbecue where God’s forgiven and holy people could joyfully eat together in God’s presence. (I think of this every summer when we gather for our church picnic and barbecue out at the Muzzall farm.)
For John to point to Jesus and refer to him as “the Lamb of God,” would have stirred up all of these and many other similar associations for John’s disciples. The lamb was not only a staple protein for these people, it was an animal with profound spiritual significance. It was an animal that was born to be sacrificed, so that the people would have forgiveness, life, and salvation. In referring to Jesus in this way, John is revealing much about who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
When Jesus came onto the scene, John pointed to him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The Israelites sacrificed a lamb to atone for their sins. Their sacrifice was temporary and limited. Jesus had come to be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the whole entire world! Jesus had come to sacrifice himself once and for all – not on an altar, but on the cross.
John referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God revealed that Christ has come to save people from death. He is the new Passover lamb. Whenever you hear the word paschal in the liturgy – the paschal festival, the paschal feast, the paschal candle, the paschal lamb – this is what it is referring to. Paschal is Latin for Passover, and Jesus is the new Passover lamb. His blood is sprinkled on us in Word and Sacrament, saving us from death.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who offered himself to make us holy. He gives us access to God, calling us into God’s holy presence. We respond to this with our thanks and our praise. We come with grateful hearts to the altar, to Christ’s table, singing John’s words, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.” And it is here that we eat and drink his body and blood as a holy and forgiven people joyfully eating together in God’s presence.
All of this talk about lambs and blood sacrifice can sound esoteric and primitive and odd to us, Maybe even off putting. But the truth is, we need everything this Lamb of God comes to bring us. No matter how much we think we have progressed as human beings, we still grapple with sin. No matter how advanced medical technology has become, death still takes our loved ones and looms ahead for all of us. No matter how much freedom we enjoy, we still find ourselves held captive to many different things in many different ways. No matter how connected the world seems to be, we still often find ourselves alienated from God and from others.
Dear friends, Jesus is the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world – including all of yours! There is no sin that Jesus hasn’t already atoned for. You are forgiven. You have been made holy by his saving sacrifice. And so you can approach God with boldness and confidence.
Jesus is the Lamb of God whose blood saves you from death. Instead of a door post he has marked his cross on your forehead, so that death will ultimately pass over you. It will still get us all in the short term, of course, but we who have been marked with Christ’s blood have been marked for eternal life.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who has set us free. By his sacrifice he has delivered us out of our every captivity – to sin and to self and to the lies and illusions of the world that keep us in bondage – Christ frees us from all of this to live in the freedom of his saving love.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who calls us around his table to feed us with himself, filling our hearts with gratitude and peace and joy, that we would live with faith toward him and fervent love towards one another.
A lamb doesn’t seem like a very impressive animal. If I were to ask the entire congregation what animal each of you would like to be and why, I doubt anyone would choose to be a lamb. Maybe an eagle, or a bunny, or a kitty, or a dinosaur, but a lamb? Every farmer and 4-Her knows that a lamb is born to give its life for others.
But that’s precisely the point of our gospel reading for today. John pointed to Jesus and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” “Look,” John said as Jesus came near, “Here is the Lamb of God!” This is who Jesus is, and why he has come – to give his life for others.
“Here is the Lamb of God.” He is here for you too. He gave himself for you, to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation. He comes so very near to us as we eat and drink of his body and blood, given and shed for us.
“Here is the Lamb of God” – in his living word, in his holy supper, among his forgiven, holy people.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church