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Sermon: Behold the Lamb of God!

Sermon preached at 7:45 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on January 15, 2017.
2nd Sunday after Epiphany; Year A (RCL): Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         Since the Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, Ian Markham, has officially returned on Epiphany from his year-long sabbatical, I offer you this in honor of his return:
           What happens if you ask Jesus to take the wheel of a self-driving car?       
           Emmanuel Override!
           (Ba dum bum ... I'll be here for about another seven minutes!)
           We're two Sundays into this season of Epiphany, and often the big question is, “Who exactly is this Jesus?” The Epiphany is the Revelation of God, how the Word made Incarnate took on flesh to be revealed to the world.
            So why are we spending so much time looking at this???
           Today’s gospel opens with further reflection on who Jesus is as seen through his baptism. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one anointed by the Spirit. We also hear at his baptism, for a voice from heaven declares it, that Jesus is God's own Son. That same voice will echo in a few weeks at his Transfiguration.
           But in-between, we have a number of these Gospel readings which unfold and unpack different aspects of who Jesus is. Through his words and actions, we get a clearer picture of this one born in Bethlehem, of whom the angels sang. What is his identity? And if he is the Savior, what kind of savior would he be?
           Today, John the Baptist chimes in. He declares Jesus to be the “Lamb of God.” The text also calls him Rabbi, the Son of God, and the Messiah, that is, the Christ. All these names or titles tell us something about who Jesus is.
           But Lamb of God is perhaps the most unusual name of these. It's a literal term in the Old Testament, relating to the Passover. There a lamb, a perfect unblemished male lamb was slaughtered, and its blood was used on the doorposts to mark the homes of God's people. In the final plague God levies against Pharaoh, which would kill all the firstborn of Egypt, the Angel of Death would see the blood of the lamb on the door and pass over that house. Furthermore, God commanded that the lamb also be roasted and consumed that night by God's people. It is a feast established then and carried over every year to now in remembrance of God's mercy to them. It is part of the way they recount how God saved them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt.
     It's easy for us as Christians to see how Jesus fits the bill of “Lamb of God.” Hearing the Passover story every year at Easter reminds us that He was the one, perfect sacrifice without spot or blemish. He is the One who saves by his blood, who saves us from death. He is the One who is consumed in the wrath of God over sin, as he suffers its punishments for all of us. And we continue to remember this blessed sacrifice in our holy sacrament, which he established. We feast on him, with the bread and wine representing the Body and Blood of Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins. In the liturgy, we come to see and hear Christ revealed to us through both word and a meal. And we are exhorted to go forth to invite others to come and worship this Holy One, and to receive the gifts of grace and peace made known among us.      
           But, and this is important to ask, did John understand all this when he pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God?” Who knows? The text does not say. But he was right to direct our attention to Jesus. So let’s look at what the text DOES say.
           John says, “Behold!” and that little word is important. “Take note!” “Look here!” “Pay attention, there's gonna be a quiz!” We all would do well to “behold” Jesus. It might not seem so at first. For a bloody lamb slaughtered and roasted guts-and-all isn't a very pretty sight. Nor is the sight of the Son of Man beaten and bloodied, shamed and humiliated, hung up on a cross with nails and thorns and sweat and agony.... no, Jesus isn't a pretty picture either. But even so, John says, “Behold!”
           The truth is, sometimes when we “Behold the Lamb,” it's NOT pretty…, it's not pretty because of SIN. Sin is what is ugly. It is Sin's consequences, be it suffering, separation, pain, or even death that are uglier still. And there on the Cross at Calvary, Jesus takes on sin for all of us. “God made him, who had no sin, to become sin for us." No, the Lamb of God was NOT beautiful to behold at that time.
           But that's our sin we're talking about. Yours. Mine. All of us. When you behold the Lamb who was slain, and see the bloody mess that sin makes, that's our mess! Are we accustomed to thinking of our sins in such terms? Are we used to thinking that every time we gossip or fudge the truth or slack off when we should be working, that it means blood and death? Do we consider our sins that ugly, or have we become so accustomed to sinning that it's not a big deal anymore?
           Certainly, we are repulsed by SOME sins ... other people's sins, mostly. The child abusers and the drunk drivers. The people who cheat on their husbands or beat their wives. But what about the people whose love has gone cold? Those who are too selfish? Who neglect to do the good that a Child of God is called to do? What about people who just think evil thoughts and hold lust in their hearts? Remember, Jesus condemns those things as well, and condemns them repeatedly. I think Jesus knew that our sinful thoughts influence our lives directly, even when we do not act directly on them. We're not off the hook. We may be better at beholding others' sins rather than our own, but we are not off the hook.
           Perhaps the people of the Old Testament had better reminders than we do of this reality. Day after day, bulls and lambs and doves were slain and butchered and burned in sacrifice for sin. There was a continuous stream of blood poured out for the endless stream of sin and its wake of death. And yet, it wasn't ultimately enough.
           After we truly see the bloody mess that is our sin, then once again we are called to look: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
           Perhaps some of you recognize this banner to my left. You may know it more appropriately as an Easter banner rather than relating to this season of 'after the Epiphany.' Yet, because our gospel today speaks to who and what Jesus is, I thought to use this representation of the triumphant Lamb of God. It first symbolizes Jesus as the Lamb of God. It recognizes the Passion of the Cross and the banner of the Risen Christ, who is triumphant over death. And it shows Jesus as the Lamb, bringing forth judgment, resting upon the Book carrying the power of the seven-fold Spirit -- from The Revelation to John, Chapter Five, verses 11-12: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive 1) power and 2) wealth and 3) wisdom and 4) strength and 5) honor and 6) glory and 7) praise."
            The fourth gospel refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Several New Testament writers used this image to give salvific meaning to Jesus’ execution. The Lamb as apocalyptic conqueror, the Lamb as suffering servant, and the Paschal Lamb are all possibilities of what the earliest Christians meant by this image. The medieval church stressed Christ as sacrificial Lamb, whose blood takes away sin.
           Jesus is that Lamb. Jesus takes THAT mess. OUR mess. He suffered for you, for me, and for all people. And he died. And there is nothing more important for us to behold, nothing more for us to look at, nothing more for us to pay attention to. For there in the Lamb of God, we see God's love for us, sinners that we are, and in Him and through Him, we are forgiven.
           So, in our lives TODAY, what are we to make of this Lamb? How are WE to BEHOLD the LAMB OF GOD? We all know we live in a time that might feel more divisive, more contentious, more disruptive than most of us have ever experienced. In this week ahead, that we as a NATION will remember the martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. by celebrating his birthday, we also witness the Inauguration of a president whose views seem to denigrate a lot of what Dr. King stood for. How are we to behold the Lamb of God in this tangle of our very selves?
            I submit to you that we must look past the blood and guts and sacrificed pieces of our own ideals. We need to look into the heart of what Jesus and Martin Luther King. Jr. personified: We need to offer ourselves to each other. As Jesus, the very Lamb of God, said: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mk 12:31), in addition to his teachings about giving to the less fortunate. Jesus lets us know this responsibility is ours.
            Dr. King outlines the more specific task. In his call for assistance at the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, King said “…in all our actions, we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things we not only desire but which we justly deserve.” Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been thinking of a different group when he offered those words, but really, they speak to all of us. Now. If we stick together and "Behold the Lamb of God," we MIGHT remember our individual and corporate sins and that they are ALL carried on that Lamb to that Cross at Calvary.
           And that Lamb which was slain, only to rise again? We can behold him on the Cross, and in the tomb, but we will also see him -- we will behold him, face to face one day, for he lives forever, and we will live with him in life everlasting.
           Behold him again, today, as he comes to you in the sacraments. Though we do not see Him with our own eyes, we behold Him by faith, according to His promise. This is His Body and His Blood. Given and shed for us. This, here, is the Lamb of God. Behold the Lamb. Take and eat, and take and drink. For the Word made Incarnate through Jesus Christ came to take on the sins of the world, and this meal in which we partake is His Body and Blood, given for our sustenance, our forgiveness, and our unity.
           Believe it for Jesus Christ's sake, and your own. I do. We should.