Sermon for Second Sunday of Epiphany – High Mass Sunday 19 January 2014
Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
When we were preparing the order of service, we looked for a picture to illustrate this incident from St John’s Gospel. Alas, the ones the internet came up with were either kitsch or camp. As we don’t do kitsch here and we try to avoid camp, – although some might think not with complete success – we decided to stick with the same picture of the Baptism of Christ as last week.
Unlike the other Gospel’s, John does not give a direct account of the Baptism of Jesus. Instead, it has the Baptist speaking of what he saw at that event. It is the account of a revelation, a vision; of what he sees and hears; of what he is given to know and understand, about Jesus and about himself and his own mission in relation to that of Jesus.
What we have in the 4th Gospel is a densely packed reflection on the event which begins the public life and work of Jesus from the lips of John the Baptist. He has already been questioned representatives of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. His preaching and baptisms, and the crowds he was attracting, had come to their attention. Who was he and what did he mean by doing all these things? Was he the Messiah? “No”, he said, “I am not.” “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”
Now, he sees Jesus coming towards him. The same Greek verb is used as in the Prologue to speak of the Word coming into the world.
“I myself did not know him; but I came baptising with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” “I myself did not know him,” is repeated to emphasise John’s dependence on the divine initiative: ‘…the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.”
What John learns and understands and speaks of is not his own invention. It is a revelation from God to which he must bear witness; both to those who will receive it and to those who will not. The latter are represented by the inquisitors from Jerusalem. We hear in them an echo of the words in the Prologue: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to his own people and his own people received him not.”
But some from that world and that people, represented by the Baptist and his two disciples, standing there with him, hearing his witness, will receive him. When John repeats his witness of the previous day, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the two leave him behind and follow Jesus.
We are so used to hearing Jesus described as the Lamb of God, and pray to him as such, that we rather take it for granted. We hear those words used at the most solemn part of the liturgy, in the invitation to Holy Communion and in the Agnus Dei. But it is worth pausing for a moment to give more attention to these words.
They gather up words and images from the Old Testament: the Passover lamb of the Exodus, the liberation from bondage in Egypt; the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 53,that passage we read in the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, the day which John identifies as the one on which the passover lambs were slain:
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed……He was oppressed and 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,… The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
It is an image taken up by the Book of Revelation and Isaac Watts’ hymn that we sang before the Gospel: “Come let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne,” with its “’Worthy the Lamb that died,’ they cry, ‘for he was slain for us.’”
The investigators from Jerusalem had come seeking a Messiah, and they had definite ideas of what the Messiah would be like. Jesus came to show that the real Messiah, God’s anointed one, would be very different. Both the dove, that symbol of the Spirit, of creation, and new creation, and of peace, and the innocent Lamb, speak of a Messiah who is not made in the image of earthly power and might but of gentleness and love.
People still come to Jesus with all sorts of ideas of what God is like and how God should behave. They still find that if they accept Jesus as what the Gospel claims he is those images need to be remade radically.
Returning to the action in today’s gospel, we see the two disciples of the Baptist, one identified as Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, leaving John to follow the on whom he has borne witness to. Jesus turns and sees them and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They reply, “Rabbi, ….where are you staying?” In English, it sounds a rather odd question. Why ask about Jesus’s lodgings? But there is much more packed into this simple question. The word used for staying is one which will be writ large in John’s Gospel to speak of Jesus in his mutual abiding and indwelling with the Father in the perfect communion of love, and of his abiding with the disciples and they in him.
What begins here with Andrew and his companion is the gathering of people into that community, that relationship, into that fellowship and communion which is the Church and the kingdom of God.
Jesus responds with an invitation: “Come and see.” They do just that, and although we are told nothing more than that they spent the rest of the day with him, it clearly has a transforming impact on them. So the next day, Andrew goes off to tell his brother all about it: “We have found the Messiah.”
In his excitement he gets rather carried away. In reality, it is the Messiah who has found them. Jesus has come into their lives just as he has come into the world. The initiative is with God.
If we read this this passage alongside the calling of the disciples in the other gospels, we see a significant difference of emphasis. In the others, Jesus calls people directly; fishermen from their nets, a tax collector from his tollbooth. In John, they are almost always pointed or brought to him by others: here, John the Baptist or Andrew.
Perhaps this reflects the experience of the church in which John’s Gospel was written. It certainly represents the experience of most Christians since: we are brought to Jesus by others; by parents and family, by friends. Simon is brought along by Andrew’s excitement at what he has discovered and his eagerness to share it.
Studies of how people become Christians today confirm that this is the most significant way in which people are brought into the life of the Church. It is through friendship rather than through great evangelistic campaigns.
People still ask where truth and meaning are to be found. They ask this of people who believe. They ask it of us. Our response should be, “Come and see.” In fact, it has to be, Come and see where Jesus us staying, because that is where we have found the answers to those questions in our own lives.
We have to say to those who ask these questions, “Come to see,” come and see where Jesus lives, where he is present in those particular ways he has promised, in the life and fellowship of the Church, in his word and sacrament in mutual care and companionship, in worship and prayer,
That of course says something very challenging to us about the nature of our companionship, our community. Is it one which has a transforming effect on us, as the presence of Jesus had on Andrew and his friend? Does it give us a new identity, a new role, as it gave Peter? Will people see in us, not just a group of people who love traditional ways of worship and beautiful music, but a place and a community where Jesus dwells, where people can come and see and be changed? Is this a group of people who see that they have been called to be “a light to the nations?”
Well, I’m sure they do, but that simply reinforces the importance of our own continuing to “come and see;” our ever-deepening indwelling and transforming communion with “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
When we lament, with the prophet, as we sometimes do, that we have laboured in vain; that we are not up to the task God has given us – not clever or confident or knowledgeable enough – then we need to listen seriously to Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians. Before he addresses their failings, which were many – at least as bad as ours – he reminds them that God has provided them with all that they need for their calling:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched by him… you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…God is faithful.”
What Paul says to them, he says to us who have also been baptised by Christ in the Spirit. We are not lacking in any spiritual gift either, but we must cultivate and use those gifts, not hide our light under a bushel.