May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Beginning in Advent, just a few weeks ago, we began Year A of the Episcopal Church’s 3-year lectionary cycle. Year A is Matthew’s year. Last week the Gospel was from Matthew, next week the Gospel will be from Matthew, the three weeks after that the Gospel will be from Matthew. You get the idea. So imagine my surprise to look up the gospel for today’s reading—and find that it is from the gospel of John!
Something unusual and important must happen in today’s Gospel reading for the creators of the lectionary to interrupt the long cycle of readings from the Gospel of Matthew and insert today’s text. In last week’s Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus got baptized by John. If you were dying of curiosity and kept reading when you got home, you know that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes straight from his baptism to the wilderness, where he is tempted for 40 days. However, in the part of John’s gospel, that we read today, an important interaction happens between John the Baptist and Jesus soon after Jesus’ baptism.
In every Gospel, John the Baptist makes a proclamation of faith about Jesus’ identity, but only in the Gospel of John, does John the Baptist call Jesus the “Lamb of God.”
This expression, the “Lamb of God” appears only twice in the entire bible—right here in today’s passage.
However, lamb and sheep imagery does appear frequently throughout the Bible. Frankly, I get the giggles whenever I hear the part of Handel’s Messiah when the choir sings, “We like sheep.” As you mature, sophisticated people know, the choir actually sings “We like sheep have gone astray,” but to my ears, it still sounds like a proclamation of affection for the furry creatures.
The sheep imagery that is important for our understanding of this passage today is the image of the sacrificial lamb. The first lamb to get sacrificed in Scripture was the ram caught in the hedges that Abraham gratefully sacrificed instead of his own son, Isaac. The next time the image of the sacrificial lamb appears is immediately before the Israelites are freed from Egypt . Remember the 10 plagues? The final plague on the Egyptians, before the Jews are released from slavery there, is the death of every firstborn—human and animal. Only households who sacrificed a lamb, and put its blood on their doorpost were spared. This sacrificial lamb is the Passover lamb.
After this, throughout Scripture, lambs have been sacrificed over and over again to atone for the sins of the people.
For the part of the Messiah I mentioned a few moments ago, Handel used imagery from the book of Isaiah. Just a verse after “We like sheep have gone astray” comes prophecy from Isaiah about a man who: was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.
Many think this is a pretty powerful description of the behavior of Jesus in his last days on earth. So the imagery of Jesus as Lamb of God is intense imagery, loaded with symbolism. Why do the author of the Gospel of John and the creators of our lectionary want us focused on this image during Epiphany? We celebrated Christmas about five minutes ago—and Good Friday is still months away.
I’m going to answer this question with another question: Why is this image of the Lamb of God linked to Jesus’ baptism?
We think of baptism as a rite that moves us out of sin and into forgiveness and into Christian community. It seems more than a little redundant for Jesus to be baptized—after all, what sins did he have? None.
While the author of the gospel of John does not mention it, Matthew describes the kind of baptism that John was doing as a baptism of repentance. John the Baptist had baptized hundreds of people in this river. Imagine the metaphor of their sins being washed away, transferred from their bodies to the water.
Now imagine Jesus, entering this water, polluted by the sins of mankind, taking on the same baptism. For him, it must have been a baptism of taking on instead of washing off. Jesus takes on the sins of the community, even though he is sinless himself. The sacrificial image of the Lamb of God is paired with Jesus’ baptism, because the baptism is a foreshadowing of his death for us.
In every account of the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist resists baptizing Jesus. Baptizing an innocent man is foolish, redundant. Why would Jesus enter this water, filthy with the weaknesses and brokenness of humanity?
This image was made concrete for me just a month ago.
In seminary, I had a friend named Adam. We were the same age and entered seminary at the same time. Adam lived two doors down from me, so between classes and living in the same dorm, we spent a lot of time together. We had a common love of television, shopping, and both had a consuming passion for shoes. (By the way, I blame my love of shoes completely on the women of this parish.) Adam had a friend who worked for a shoe company and somehow Adam managed to be part of a test market who received brand new shoes for free about once a month. I was wildly jealous.
Adam had, how can I put it delicately, a LARGE personality. He was one of the most effusive, loving people I have ever met, but there was a part of his personality that was a little out of control.
I have been a goody two shoes pretty much my whole life, so I had certain expectations of how people behaved in seminary. Adam pretty much blew those expectations away: He drank so much he would try to nap in bushes, he was a smoker who was always trying to quit, he went through a long period when all he ate was hamburger meat and bacon. He cursed louder and more often than I thought possible. He was up for senior review, because the faculty was not thrilled that he organized a school-wide poker game. He fell in love about once every three months, generally with women who would rip his heart out within a few weeks. He lived on the edge and there were those of us who seriously worried about him.
Last month, early in finals week, Adam died. He, at 27, had a heart attack while taking a shower.
In the midst of my shock and grief, I felt an enormous amount of guilt. I was his friend and proctor of his dorm—surely I could have had ONE more conversation with him about his health, about his choices. Maybe if I had said something differently, intervened, he would still be alive.
Being at seminary we of course, had a glut of liturgies. Those of us who lived with him prayed over his body. The entire school had a liturgy for the dead and finally a memorial service a few days later.
After the liturgy for the dead, small groups of us gathered and talked about Adam and our grief. One of my friends, Kathleen, mentioned that during the liturgy she had a vision. Now, I’m a pretty reserved person, and usually if someone mentions a vision, I am pretty skeptical. Kathleen, though, is one of those Christians who actually embodies what it means to live like a Christian. She is warm, hospitable, and has an incredible passion for mission. I trust Kathleen. She went on to tell us that she had a vision of Adam whole and happy, glowing as he smiled down at the congregation, full of love.
As she was telling me this, I suddenly, “got” this passage from John’s gospel. When Jesus entered into those waters of baptism, he took on Adam’s smoking, drinking, short temper. When Jesus entered those waters of baptism, he took on my judgment, my perfectionism, my impatience.
When Adam died, God did not stop at taking on Adam’s sins—he also filled up all those needy places in Adam. No longer is Adam trying to feel whole, trying to measure up, trying to feel loved. Adam rests in the very heart of love.
Despite three years of reading what feels like every theologian known to mankind, it took Adam’s death for me to remember that receiving that forgiving, embracing love of God is not about our behavior. Jesus’ baptism, death and resurrection are not reserved for those who are good, or act “Christian”. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was baptized into the worst parts of ourselves, not our best parts. Jesus, the Lamb of God, chooses to fully identify himself with us, even as far as death. Jesus, the Lamb of God, even goes beyond merely identifying with us.
Ironically, months before Adam’s death, our class had approved as our class gift an icon of the harrowing of hell. In this icon, Jesus reaches down from Heaven to the Biblical Adam and pulls him up out of hell. Jesus being described as the Lamb of God does not mean that Jesus is a passive victim. Jesus chooses to enter his baptism. Jesus chooses to bathe in the sins of his community. Jesus then chooses to liberate us from that same brokenness.
The best news of all is that Jesus does not wait for our death, or wait for us to get to get our act together to love us and transform our lives, but reaches out to us, pursues us, and loves us as we are.