By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
If you were here last Sunday, you know that we celebrated Jesus’ baptism with a renewal of our own baptismal vows. The text for the day was from Matthew’s gospel, the third chapter.
Today’s text from John’s gospel continues the story of Jesus’ baptism story from a different perspective. Here the focus is on John the Baptist and his prophetic role in announcing Jesus as the Promised Messiah. What I’d like for us to think about this morning is the description John uses of Jesus as the “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
To appreciate what this means we need to go back to the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. That’s where we get the biggest dose of offerings and sacrifices. In a word, Jews were taught to offer sacrifices for just about every aspect of life. For example, there were the burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, wave offerings, thank offerings, elevation offerings, ordination offerings and offerings of well-being … and I may have overlooked one or two.
Sacrifices were necessary in order to make the offerings. Sacrificial animals included bulls, cattle, calves, oxen, rams, goats, sheep, pigeons and turtledoves.
Naturally, when an animal was sacrificed, there was a lot of blood shed. The blood was thought to have a special effect in appeasing God. In some instances, the Torah stipulated that, not only was the animal to be burned as a “pleasing odor to the Lord,” (think of grilling steaks on a charcoal fire), the priest was to dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times on the curtain behind the altar. In other instances, he was to place blood on the horns of the altar; and, at other times, he was to pour the blood out on the ground in front of the altar.
Lambs were commonly used in ritual sacrifice and, when a lamb was specified, it was to be a “lamb…without blemish.” Sometimes a single lamb would be sacrificed; at other times, it could be as many as twelve or more.
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A thousand sparks to spark your imagination!
As Christians, we don’t practice ritual sacrifice. In part, this goes along with what Jesus taught his disciples when he said,
“But you go and learn what this means:
‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’
for I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:13)
More to the point, we don’t offer sacrifices in the church today because we believe that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice in dying, once and for all, for the forgiveness of sins. He died for us that we might live for others. When we make an offering today, it’s in response to the freedom and forgiveness we’ve already received.
You may not be aware of this but, as Presbyterians, we take pride in pointing out that we have no altar in the church. Did you know that? The communion table is just that – the communion table, not an altar. The sacrifice was made long ago.
When we come to the table, it’s in response to what God has already accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Brian Wren said it best:
I come with joy to meet my Lord,
forgiven, loved and free;
In awe and wonder to recall
His life laid down for me.
Back to the image of the Lamb of God, we find this most poignantly expressed in the Passover. You remember the story: God sent Moses and Aaron down to Egypt to plea with Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” (Exodus 5:1) Pharaoh refused, and that led to a series of plagues designed to break the Pharaoh’s will. The last plague was the plague of death. God told Moses,
“Yet one plague more will I bring on Pharaoh, and on Egypt;
afterwards he will let you go.
When he lets you go,
he will surely thrust you out altogether.” (Exodus 11:1)
God said he would unleash his Spirit at midnight and take the lives of every first-born Egyptian,
“…and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die,
from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne,
even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the mill;
and all the firstborn of livestock.”
“There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt,
such as there has not been,
nor shall be any more.” (Exodus 11:5-6)
As for the Hebrews, God promised to pass over their homes and so, spare them from the angel of death. And, as a sign to distinguish their homes from the Egyptians, God commanded them to kill a lamb and smear the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their homes. It became known as the “paschal lamb,” the lamb of sacrifice. Here’s what God told Moses:
“Speak to all the congregation of Israel,
saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month,
they shall take to them every man a lamb,
according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old…
and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month;
and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel
shall kill it at evening.
They shall take some of the blood,
and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel,
on the houses in which they shall eat it.
They shall eat the flesh in that night…
it is Yahweh’s Passover.
For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night,
and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt,
both man and animal…
The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are:
and when I see the blood, I will pass over you,
and there shall no plague be on you to destroy you,
when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:3-13)
The Hebrews did what they were told and, as the angel of death crept through the streets of the city, they heard the cries of their Egyptian neighbors mourning the loss of their first-born children. Before the sun came up the next day, Moses and Aaron were summoned to the Pharaoh’s palace where Pharaoh himself was grieving the death of his son. He told them,
“Rise up, get out from among my people,
both you and the children of Israel;
and go, serve Yahweh, as you have said!
Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said,
and be gone…” (Exodus 12:31-32)
To this day, the Jewish people observe Passover and celebrate the dramatic way in which God delivered them from the yoke of slavery.
As Christians, this is where we make the connection between Jesus and the Paschal Lamb: His blood was shed as an atonement for sin – and, as John is quick to point out – “… not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) We have the assurance of eternal life through faith in him. As Jesus told his disciples, so it’s true for us today:
“I am the resurrection and the life.
He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies.
Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
No one has ever expressed this thought more beautifully than Isaac Watts, who wrote:
“I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,”
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life and thought and being last,
Or immortality endures.
As for sheep, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know all that much. Based on what sheep I’ve seen up close, they’re not as pretty as you see in pictures. Their wool is often matted and muddy. Plus, I’ve been told they’re not very bright. They’re also passive. If attacked by a predator, they won’t fight back. It’s this passive nature of sheep that inspired the prophet Isaiah to write,
“He was oppressed,
yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.
As a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute,
so he didn’t open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)
Just before that, Isaiah says:
“Surely he has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering;
yet we considered him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions.
He was crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment that brought our peace was on him;
and by his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray.
Everyone has turned to his own way;
and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
One of the great old spirituals describes Jesus’ passion and death this way:
They crucified my Lord,
and he never said a mumblin’ word;
They nailed him to a tree …
they pierced him in the side …
He bowed his head and died,
and he never said a mumblin’ word.
But if this sounds overly submissive and wimpy, think again. It wasn’t as if Jesus rolled over and played dead. In fact, he voluntarily surrendered to the Roman authorities in order to fulfill God’s will for his life. Paul told the Philippians:
“…who, existing in the form of God,
didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Surrender is not a word we like to hear. Yet, this is precisely what Jesus did – he laid down his life for the sins of the world, and that set the stage for the greatest miracle the world has ever known – his resurrection from the dead.
This is why, whenever you see the Paschal Lamb portrayed, it’s anything but a young lamb frolicking in the meadow; it’s a mature lamb with horns, standing erect with head held high, looking you in the eye, holding a staff by its right leg with a victory banner waving in the breeze.
It’s also why, in musical settings of the Mass, the final movement before the closing Benediction is the Agnus Dei:
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, grant us thy peace.The message is clear: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ has won the victory, once and for all. The assurance of salvation is ours, through faith in him.
This is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: His dying and rising are a paradigm for us to follow. He told his disciples:
“If anyone desires to come after me,
let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,
but whoever will lose his life for my sake,
the same will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
It’s in dying to self that we’re born again to eternal life. Only as you’re willing to get your own ego out of the way will you be able to experience life in all its abundance.
The Good News is that God has a plan for each of us – a destiny to fulfill. As you surrender your will to God’s good and perfect will for your life, you’ll experience the fullness of life God has in store for you.
Charlotte Elliott was a just a young woman the night she went to some friends’ home for dinner. The year was 1835. The home was in the West End of London. There she met a brash young minister named César Malan. During the course of the meal, he asked her if she were a Christian. She took offense and said she’d rather not discuss the matter. He apologized and the conversation moved on. Three weeks later, their paths crossed again. This time it was she who brought it up. She said ever since he’d asked the question she’d been trying to find the Savior, but to no avail. “So, you tell me,” she said, “How does one come to Christ?” He said simply, “Just come to him as you are.” That, she did. Not long after, she wrote this hymn:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee;
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming his way, he told his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” As you see signs of his presence in the trials and tribulations of everyday life, dare to let him come more fully into your heart and invite others to know him, as well.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.