January 22, 2017
You may remember John the Baptist from Advent: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” The grizzled prophet in camel hair quoting Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” . . . You probably remember. He’s a pretty memorable guy.
And now here he is again—already–in this season of Epiphany. Except that this morning we are dealing with John the Baptist as presented in the Gospel of John. Here we meet a John quite different from the one we met during Advent—the one from Matthew and Mark and Luke’s Gospels.
John’s John, as far as we know, is not a relative of Jesus; he’s not wearing camel hair or eating bugs; he’s not even called “John the Baptist.” He’s just a guy who baptizes people and testifies to the coming Messiah.
And this John doesn’t say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” He says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
This is the phrase that struck me. “Lamb of God.” It may not be startling to those of us who have hung around church much—because we’ve heard it many times before. But I started to think about how truly odd it is.
In the passage we read this morning, “Lamb of God” is the primary title that John gives to Jesus. And it is a title that causes two of John’s disciples to leave John and follow Jesus instead. John and two of his disciples are standing there, just standing there, and Jesus walks by. “Look!” says John, pointing. “Here is the Lamb of God!” And the two guys leave John and follow Jesus. It’s an odd scene. Why do they want to follow a lamb?
These days, we hear the phrase most often during Lent. The “Lamb of God” is commonly understood as a reference to Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
“Lamb of God” conjures up images of Jesus’ bloody body hanging on the cross. The thing is, John proclaims Jesus as the “Lamb of God” years before the crucifixion. And also, why would images of a bloody, murdered lamb prompt Andrew and the unnamed disciple to leave John the Baptist and follow Jesus? “Look! Here’s the guy who’s going to be led silently to slaughter.” “Wow! Let’s go, Andrew! I want a piece of that action.”
It doesn’t make sense. And I was not surprised to learn that the Isaiah 53 connection—the lamb led to slaughter—was only made by Christians after the crucifixion and resurrection. It is highly unlikely that silent suffering is what John had in mind when he called Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
So what did John the Baptist mean when he called Jesus the “Lamb of God”?
Because of the agrarian nature of life in the first century, sheep—whether they be ewes, rams, or lambs—were common symbols in religious and secular contexts. Some biblical scholars think that John the Baptist is referencing here the Jewish apocalyptic lamb—the one we meet in Revelation. The lamb is, in this context, a symbol of conquering power.
In the book of Enoch, part of the Apocrypha—the books in between our old and new testaments—King David is portrayed as a lamb who becomes a ram and rules the sheep and leads them to victory over all the other wild animals. So Jesus as the Lamb of God could be a way John is connecting Jesus to his ancestor, King David.
Beyond the Jewish literature and tradition, we might consider the constellation Aries, the lamb. Aries was considered a divine lamb and all the other constellations were mapped around him.
If John’s disciples understood the “Lamb of God” to indicate a divine conquering leader, then it makes sense that they would abandon John and follow Jesus. And, if this is the premise under which the disciples start following Jesus, their general confusion and growing disillusionment also make sense. If this is what John the Baptist means by “Lamb of God,” then it makes sense that he would send some disciples back to Jesus a little later asking him– “Are you really the messiah? Or should we wait for someone else?”
Jesus was not quite the Lamb of God they were expecting. He healed instead of destroyed. He confounded religious and secular leaders with his words rather than attacking them with swords. He sent his “army” of seventy people out “like lambs” and told them to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” (Luke 10). He died in disgrace on a cross.
Jesus was not the reincarnation of King David or the Lamb of the Apocalypse. It seems that John and his disciples got it wrong. I wonder, though, if we don’t also get it wrong. If, by equating Jesus with the lamb of Isaiah 53, contemporary Christians err in the opposite direction.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, / yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, / and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
This understanding of the passive, suffering “Lamb of God” has been used by slave owners to keep their slaves in line; by pastors to encourage abused women to stay with their abusers; by people in positions of privilege and power to shame those who challenge that privilege, that power.
While silence and passivity in the face of violence is sometimes an effective protest strategy, to insist that the oppressed maintain silence and passivity in the face of the violence being done to them is simply another form of violence.
There is nothing particularly Christ-like about silent endurance. True, Jesus was silent before Herod, but that was an act of aggression, not passivity. Herod wanted him to talk. And before that, Jesus talked back to Pilate. And certainly had words for the chief priests and the scribes and the Pharisees on many occasions. If Jesus had merely been silent and passive, he would not have been executed by the state.
If the Lamb of God is not a triumphant ruler and not a silent victim, then what? I’ve never been comfortable with this terminology for Jesus, and now I see why. Neither of these most obvious understandings of the term faithfully reflect who Jesus was—and is.
These two understandings present different images of how the Lamb accomplishes the goal—through violence or passivity–but the goal itself remains the same: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
American evangelical Christianity has translated this to mean that Jesus forgives each individual of their individual sins. So you don’t have to feel bad about lying to your mom when you were ten or cheating on your taxes last year—the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
But I can tell you that John and his disciples were not concerned with their own individual, personal, moral indiscretions. Or, maybe they were concerned with them, but they certainly didn’t expect the Messiah, the Lamb of God, to care much about them. The sins of the world were much bigger.
Political entities that maintained their power through threats and violence. Religious leaders who used their positions for their own pleasure and privilege. Rich people who maintained their lifestyles on the backs of the poor.
Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
What is important about the Lamb is what he does.
The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
We know that what. If we are concerned about the how—which I think we should be—we have to look beyond the militaristic images of the first century disciples, and we have to set aside the glorified victim images of subsequent generations.
If we are concerned about the how, we have to study Jesus’ life. To note how he was powerful, but not violent. Peaceful, but not passive. How he challenged, but did not attack. How he was kind, but not permissive. The what and the how are both important. And are both revealed by Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Messiah.
I’m going to tell you something that is obvious and that bears repeating: you are not the Messiah. None of you. None of us are called to take away the sins of the world.
Yet somehow, while removing violence and hatred and suffering from our world is not our work, we are, nonetheless, privileged to participate with God in that work.
We are privileged to follow the example set by Jesus, to live within the power of the Holy Spirit, to walk with each other in the community of faith, as we all, together, work to take away the sins—the injustices and oppressions—of this world.
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