“the Lamb of God”

John 1:29-34

You ever had the wish
that people could see you?
I mean really see you—
not just the physical features there for anyone to see,
but see beyond what there is to see.
See the magnificence of your passions,
the scope of your story,
the brightness of your spirit,
the depth of your struggle and the light of your love?
I think that’s what a lot of fantasy writing is all about.
Give someone magical power
so they can be seen as the wonder they are.
Make them creatures of myth and mystery
to signify the deep wonder and mystery of personhood.

The church has seen in Jesus
more than there was to see—
a powerfully transformative brightness of spirit.

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him
and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world!”
A declaration that was an introduction.

“Here is the Lamb of God.”
Certainly a rich image, but of uncertain derivation,
resonating within multiple references
to what would have been Scripture—
what we call the Old Testament.
Which was appropriate.
Later in this gospel, Jesus will say, “You search the scriptures
because you think that in them you have eternal life;
and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39).

There’s the lamb of Genesis
with which Abraham reassured Isaac on the way up the mountain:
“God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8)—
not meaning a word of it!
And anyway, it turned out to be a ram, right?—
caught in the bush (Genesis 22:13).

There’s the passover lamb (Exodus 12:1-13),
the lamb of Isaiah or Jeremiah’s gentle lamb,
both led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7-12; Jeremiah 11:19),
and the lamb of Jewish apocalypse
like the one of which we read throughout Revelation.

There are the lambs sacrificed in the temple every day, twice a day—
once in the morning, once in the evening (Exodus 29:38-46),
or the lamb as sin offering (Leviticus 4:32)—
though bulls and goats were evidently much more common sin offerings
(Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII
in The Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1966] 63)—
not to mention there’s other Scripture, like our psalm this morning,
that affirms God does not require burnt offerings—
does not require sin offerings (Psalm 40:6).

Maybe John’s earliest readers would have known
a particular reference with which to associate John’s words,
but for us, it’s an image woven into the weave of Scripture as a whole—
the story of God and God’s people—
initiatives of sacrifice—
God’s initiatives of grace.
So an image that evokes so much more than we can see.

And in addition to references in the Old Testament,
any reader knows,
you have to consider whether there are other references within the text I’m reading—
is there another reference in John?
And there’s not.
Well, there is, in the very next story,
again, John introducing Jesus (John 1:36),
but then never again.

Though Jesus will later say, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
Now don’t you think that’s interesting—
that there’s a movement from “Here is the Lamb”
to “I am the shepherd.”
I’m still wondering about that.

We’ll read, later in the gospel how the good shepherd
calls his own sheep by name,
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger,
but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers
(John 10:3b-5).
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
“I came,” Jesus will say, “that they may have life,
and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

The gospel of John, as part of its theology,
part of its apologetic,
presents Jesus as not growing.
The gospel of John would never say, as does Luke,
“Jesus grew in wisdom and stature
and favor with God and humankind” (Luke 2:52).

Though like sin, mentioned last week,
growth is another fundamental human experience.
How could Jesus understand me without knowing growth?
And there is some kind of implicit change suggested
in the movement from lamb to shepherd.
There is something to recognizing, even for Jesus—
to recognizing the voice to follow
into abundance.
And there is also, of course, in that movement
from lamb to shepherd, the implicit assertion:
“I am not passive; I am active—
not acted upon, but the one acting.”

And in deeds, this is he
who takes away the sin of the world.
Now note the singular—takes away the sin—
the sin—the sin of the world.
We’re not talking the sins of individuals,
but rather the collective, the systemic, the universal.
And I know you know that I’m not big on substitutionary atonement,
but atonement is generally understood personally, don’t you think?
And that doesn’t quite work that way here.

And elsewhere in this gospel, this verb (“takes away”) literally—
physically means remove.
“Take these things out of here,” says Jesus,
cleansing the temple (John 2:16). Same verb.
“Take away the stone in front of Lazarus’ tomb,” he says (John 11:39). Same word.
Joseph of Arimathea takes away the body of Jesus (John 19:38).
Same word.
It’s used three times in reference to Jesus’ body
having been taken from his tomb (John 20:2, 13, 15)—
Mary, “they have taken his body and I don’t know where.”
Same word.

The root goes back to lifting—literally—physically
Here’s the Lamb of God who lifts up the sin of the world.
“Would you look at this?
Can you believe what people just leave lying around—
stepping over it as if it has to be here.”
“Look at it more closely. Let me lift it up for you to see.”
“Let me lift this up in prayer.”
“Look, it’s not as heavy as you thought. Let’s get rid of it.”

Still thinking about all that.

John goes on: “This is he of whom I said,
‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me
because he was before me.’”
(You know, when you all said, “What?”)
That’s a hard sentence to forget once you’ve heard it,
and we actually just heard it fifteen verses ago
as part of the prologue to the gospel.
So we actually do really remember
that that’s what John had said of Jesus.

Scholars agree this is pretty much tied
to John’s theology of the pre-existence of Jesus.
You know: the Word was with God, and was God,
and was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2).

John’s gospel has the high christology—
the Jesus who knows everything,
who’s always in charge, who doesn’t grow.
And you have all the grandeur and beauty
of thought and language and imagery.
But a certain removed distance too.

Amy Jacks Dean, co-pastor with Russ down in Charlotte,
preaching today, posted “All I keep thinking is what difference
does any of this make to the person in the pew?
Lamb of God—gotta go through way too much
theological mumbo jumbo
that, while somewhat interesting to me—
what difference does it make to my living and theirs?”

And I sometimes wonder
if in John, the mystery of what we don’t know
can obscure what we do.
It’s why I so love the original ending to Mark’s gospel—
the one with no miraculous resurrection encounters
only resurrection news—
and fear (Mark 16:8)—
precisely the mystery we know,
not the mystery we don’t.
I sometimes feel like,
in comparison to the synoptic gospels (Mark in particular),
there’s almost a defensiveness
to the beauty and majesty of the language
and the thought and the imagery in John.

But John goes on, “I myself did not know him;
but I came baptizing with water for this reason,
that he might be revealed to Israel.”
And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit
descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.
I myself did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water
said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain
is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

So twice John says, “I myself did not know him—
did not know Jesus.”
So maybe, even this gospel’s a lot less certain than it’s written—
a lot less certain than it sounds.
“I didn’t know him.
My whole ministry is about revealing him,
and I didn’t know him. That’s what it says.
God revealed him to me.
I even saw—I saw the Spirit descending
from heaven like a dove and rest upon him,
and I still didn’t know him
until God said,
‘Hey, you know the one over there
with the Spirit on him?
That’s him.’
And then I testified that’s the Son of God—
though I knew him not.
But I believe God.
I believe in the work of God.
And I lean into what I believe.”

It’s like what we said last week,
we did not know him amidst us.
It’s what this gospel has just already said
in the prologue:
the world did not know him.
His own people did not accept him (John 1:10-11).

That’s actually different from not knowing him, isn’t it?
When you think about it.
I mean, based on what we know from other gospels,
there’s a good chance John did know Jesus—
was kin to Jesus—some kind of cousin second or thirds—
knew Jesus,
but didn’t know he was the one.
“I didn’t know.
I even saw that Spirit.
It came down. Sat right there.
I didn’t know.”

Have you ever looked at someone you love
and wished others saw them as you did?
Wondered how they possibly couldn’t?
How they could possibly miss the wry sense of humor,
the profound empathy,
the absolute wonder.
the unique beauty.

Have you ever thought to yourself about someone,
you should shine like the sun.
You deserve a halo—magnificent wings—
oh, not that you’re perfect,
but you’re you.
You have this amazing story.
You deserve a soundtrack with full orchestra
to accompany your living.
It’s that good.
It’s that important.
It’s that beautiful.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the coming of the Spirit
is imaged as flame resting on people (Acts 2:3).
Imagine tongues of fire resting on each of us,
flaming out the intensity of our love for God,
our commitment to the story of love and grace—
not in comparison,
not, “Oh, yours is brighter than mine!”
But in celebration.
Imagine this sanctuary filled with a bright, hot intensity—
pure, gleaming splendor
radiating out through the windows—
visible everywhere—
like those spotlights they have when a restaurant opens—
or a movie!

Sometimes we don’t see what’s there right in front of us.
We take it for granted.
Sometimes we don’t see because we don’t have a frame of reference.
Sometimes we don’t see the growth in someone we think we know.

Am I the father and husband and minister I want to be?
Sometimes I’m closer than others.
Sometimes farther away.
The girls will tell you so.
But my hope and prayer
is that I’m ever growing more into who and how I want to be.

Fran Schoonmaker was telling me this past Wednesday
about the Easter evening she was on sabbatical in London,
and went to the community worship service
at Westminster Abbey.
The canon, in his sermon that evening,
confessed (he did) that he could not fully understand—
could not full understand
or even fully accept
the resurrection.
Easter Sunday, mind you! Westminster Abbey.
“But I am living toward the resurrection,” he said.

Leaning into the resurrection.
Learning every more about living toward love.
Leaning into love.
Learning ever more of it—from it.
Living toward Jesus.
Living into Jesus.

What if that was true for Jesus too?
I’m living toward the resurrection.
I’m living into it.
And frankly,
that always has less to do with what happens next,
than it has to do with what happens right now.

He is, after all, the Lamb
who will come to name himself the shepherd.
He’s the one who knows lost, and so finds.
He’s the one who knows what it means to need care, and so cares for—
who consistently calls himself into his best being
and invites others to recognize his voice and to join him.
So maybe in our weakness,
in our dependence,
in our vulnerability,
in our need,
we can grow into those who look out for the weak,
and care for the dependent—
reassure the vulnerable—
fulfill those in need.

It occurs to me this week,
that John—the gospel of John
offers the grandeur Jesus deserves,
while maybe Mark—the gospel of Mark
offers more of the simplicity that he was.
In being not what John says,
Jesus deserves all John says.
It’s absolutely true
even if it’s absolutely wrong—
and I’m not saying it is!
Just pointing out it’s different—so different,
and that to know the Jesus of Mark and Luke
is perhaps to have to think and write like John.
Because you see more than you can.

You ever wish people could see you—
not the physical features,
but see beyond what there is to see—
to see Jesus?
To look at you and to see God—
because that’s your leaning?
Because that’s what you’re learning.

The church has seen in Jesus
more than there was to see—
a powerfully transformative brightness of spirit.
But today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend,
we acknowledge—
we have to acknowledge—
how we continue to struggle
to see everyone else—
everyone else
with that same grandeur and wonder and love
with which we see Jesus—
to see Jesus in the least of these—
in the family member, the neighbor we know,
the neighbor we don’t,
the neighbor we don’t want to know—
in the other—the different—
the enemy.

What would it be like to see other people in the fullness of their power?
In the fullness of their potential?
Now not so much that we’re constantly emitting
“about 100 watts of energy into our surroundings,
containing 7 x 10 [to the eighteenth power] joules of potential energy,
[we’re all walking around]
the equivalent of 30 large hydrogen bombs”
(Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God
[New York: HarperOne, 2013] 54-55),
Did you know that?
That’s the energy each of us is.
What if we saw everyone in the fullness of how God loves them?
Because there is no equivalent to that.
30 large hydrogen bombs?
What would it be like to see every person
in the fullness of God’s love for them?
I tell you, the world would not stay the same.


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