Sermon for January 19, 2014: Lamb of God

Sermon for Epiphany 2 A / Lectionary 2 A
January 19, 2014
Michael Coffey

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
       But, to be painfully obvious,
       there’s still plenty of sin in the world.
Wars go on endlessly and young minds are scarred for life.
Poverty for many is growing,
      and extreme wealth for very is growing exponentially faster.
We divide ourselves up along ideological lines
             and decide we don’t like to play with the kids
             on the other side of the street anymore.
And on the holiday of remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.,
       we have to say that issues of racism and injustice
       still keep us from the dream.

John kept pointing at Jesus and saying it:
            Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We sing it in the Eucharistic liturgy most weeks.
            Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.
                        Have mercy on us.  Grant us peace.
So, I figured it was time to explore what it all possibly means.
            Jesus, lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world?
            On the face of it, it just seems false.
                        There’s plenty of sin in the world, right?
                        Jesus didn’t take it away!
            Or maybe, it means Jesus’ death somehow opens the door
                        to God’s forgiveness of our sins?
            Except, how does that even work?
And, oh yeah, John’s Gospel hardly ever mentions forgiveness of sins,
                        only once, after Jesus’ resurrection.
So what does the Gospel of John,
the only Gospel where Jesus is called the lamb of God,
mean by that title, lamb of God,
and how does Mary’s little lamb take away the sin of the world?

When we hear or sing Lamb of God
we tend to hear it as a sacrifice for sin.
We have inherited centuries of tradition that say
Jesus’ death on the cross somehow appeases
God’s requirements for payment or punishment
or restoring God’s honor or something like that.
There are many problems with this kind of God-talk.
            First, it tends to create a lot of problems about violence,
                        and it makes belief in a God of love and mercy a struggle.
But more important for us today,
            this isn’t what John’s Gospel means by Lamb of God.
John’s Gospel does many things that are unique in the New Testament.
            One of them is to call Jesus Lamb of God.
            The other is to have Jesus die on a different day than the Passover.
            That’s right.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke
                        Jesus dies on the Passover.
            His last supper the night before, when Passover started,
                        was a Passover meal.
But this is not how John tells it.
            John says that Jesus was crucified the day before Passover,
            the day of preparation for the Passover.
Now, if you wanted to celebrate a wonderful, traditional Passover
            you had a lot of work to do on the day of preparation.
You had to clean the house.
            You had to make unleavened bread.
            And, oh yeah, you had to slaughter a lamb
                        in order to eat the Passover supper.
When Jesus is crucified in John’s Gospel
            he dies just as thousands of Passover lambs
            are being slaughtered to celebrate the Passover meal.

Jesus is the lamb of God.
            Now we know, he is the Passover lamb of God.
            The Passover lamb was not slain as a sacrifice for sin.
                        The Passover lamb was slain to celebrate God’s victory
                                    over oppression and sin and injustice.
                        The Passover lamb was slaughtered as a sacrifice
                                    that represented God’s protection, God’s compassion,
and God’s liberation of people from ancient Egypt,
and all the other threatening powers of the world
that have tried to enslave and diminish people ever since.

So, now that we know what Lamb of God means,
            we have to wonder how he takes away the sin of the world.
In John’s Gospel,
            sin is the human inability to see and trust God
                        as the source of life and light and love.
            Sin is making ourselves our only concern.
            Sin is expressed in the inability to love neighbor
                        and the capacity for people to create vast systems of injustice.
So how does the Lamb of God take it away?
Well, a literal translation of that phrase,
            which is only found here in all of Scripture,
            is something like:  the Lamb of God who takes up the sin of the world.
Again, something unique in John’s Gospel
            is that people are liberated when they see God at work
when Jesus is lifted up on the cross.
So when Jesus is crucified and dies as a Passover Lamb,
            he is lifting up the sin of the world.
                        The cross was Rome’s power to crush opposition,
                                    to end any other way of living in the world
                                    than the Roman way of violence and greed
                                                and control and oppression.
            Jesus, who lived a life of love and mercy,
                        was rejected by the Roman empire.
            Jesus, who embodied God’s love for all the world,
                        was rejected by the powers of the world.
            Jesus, who brought light into the darkness,
                        was rejected by the darkness.
            But, once Jesus was lifted up on the cross,
                        the sin of the world is so exposed,
                        so obvious, so glaringly awful,
                                    that anyone who sees it for what it is
                                    can never be captured by Rome or Egypt
                                                or any other alternative universe
                                                than the universe of God’s undying love.
            In the death of the passover Lamb Jesus,
                        people experience an exodus
from life under deadly human powers
                        to life under God’s life-giving power.

There.  That’s my little excursus on the Lamb of God
            who takes away the sin of the world.
By crucifying Jesus,
            all the human sin of the world is exposed for what it is,
                        so it no longer has the same power over us.
            And anyone willing to see God in Jesus
                        and see God especially in the crucifixion of Jesus
                                    will be set free from the sin of the world
                                    and live instead in God’s world.
            A world of love and mercy.
            A world of justice and peace.
            A world where God is known and trusted as the source
                        of all life and light and love.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day,
            we can think of what happened
in those difficult and transformational years in a similar way:
            King, and many others,
                        lifted up the sin of the world so that it could not be avoided,
                                    it had to be seen and dealt with,
                                    and it became so obvious and awful,
                                                that never again could it have the same power.
                        Never again could systems of racial injustice
                                    simply be accepted as the way the world is.
            We know from King and others that this lifting up is a costly thing,
                        and the cross is our constant witness to this.
            By embodying and witnessing to the love of God for all,
                        King and so many other people of great faith
                                    have shown us the alternative world:
                                                a world of God’s love and mercy
                                                a world that is so much more beautiful and wonderful
                                                that we won’t settle for the old world anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong.
            The world is still full of sin.
            The world is still full of racism and prejudice
                                    and greed and oppression and economic disparity.
            The world is still a scary place sometimes,
                        and we still are tempted to live for ourselves only
                        and run and hide from all the threatens us.
But gathering together as we do
            at the foot of the cross, week after week,
            in the presence of the Lamb who was slain,
                        we can never fully give ourselves to those powers.
            We are continually drawn away from living for ourselves only,
                        drawn back, drawn up to God,
                        to trust in the mercy and love of God above all else.
As the people of the good news of God in Christ,
            we live in the world empowered by the Spirit
            to enact God’s love and mercy where ever we can.

Dr. King said many wonderful things
            about how people of faith live in the world of sin
                        without letting it be our way of living in the world.
Two quotes caught my attention this week:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

We gather together in the truth and honesty and mercy of God.
            We gather where we don’t hide from the sin of the world
                        even when we participate in it.
            We gather where the sin of the world is lifted up
                        and it is all too plain and awful to be accepted as our way.
            We gather in the power of the Spirit
                        who renews us to be people of light and love and life
                        even when it is difficult and costly to do so.
            We gather with the Lamb of God, who has mercy on us,
                        and even in our crazy, warring, sinful world,
grants us peace.


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