We usually think of sheep as dumb, harmless animals. If you go to a petting zoo, you’ll find sheep and not lions and tigers. That’s because zoo keepers think they’re safe. So when we hear John telling us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, our tendency is to see him as that nice cuddly lamb in the petting zoo. But that’s not what John has in mind
While this title – Lamb of God – might sound strange to us, first century Jews would have understood. Because lambs played an important role in their worship and in their Scriptures, what they heard was a reference to the Passover Lamb that symbolized their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. They would also have had the message of the Suffering Servant in their minds. The Servant, who like a lamb led to the slaughter and a sheep standing before its shearers, suffers for the people living in exile so that they might find freedom from their sins that keep them in bondage.
Jesus is proclaimed here as the one who liberates us from the sins of the world.
I. THE PASSOVER LAMB REVEALED
We hear the message of God’s lamb here at the beginning of the story, but if we keep reading we encounter the Passover Lamb again in John 18. In this passage we find Jesus dying on the cross at the same moment that the priests are sacrificing the Passover Lamb in the Temple. This isn’t coincidental, because in this Gospel Jesus is the Passover Lamb who is sacrificed for us. Although the Passover Lamb wasn’t a sin offering, John interprets it in this way.
Jesus is the Lamb that is sacrificed not just to deliver us from slavery’s bondage, but to atone for the sins of the world. Something similar is found in 1 Peter 1, where Jesus is the one who ransoms us from the evil one by offering his precious blood, "like that of a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Our tendency is to see this sacrifice as an appeasement of the wrath of God, but my sense of who God is, leads me in a different direction. Jesus’ death doesn’t appease God’s anger at our sins, but his death does change things. That word atonement is a good one, for it suggests that we who are divided are made one in Christ. We are estranged from God, and by way of this sacrifice that estrangement is ended. We are estranged from one another, but now we are reconciled.
II. THE SUFFERING SERVANT
There’s another image standing behind this text, and that’s the Suffering Servant of God (Isaiah 53). Isaiah speaks of the innocent one, who like a silent lamb is made a sin offering for us, bringing an end to the brokenness that dominates our lives. Back then it was exile in Babylon, but for us it’s a different form of exile. It’s that sense of alienation that colors all of our relationships – with God, with our spouses, with our children, our co-workers, and our neighbors. Nowhere is it more present than in the politics of our nation, a politics that divides us and keeps us from working together to build a better world. That’s our exile, but Isaiah tells us that this Servant is standing with us, the transgressors, pouring out his life for us, bearing our wounds and our sins, making intercession for us so that the exile might come to an end.
III. FOLLOWING THE LAMB
The question that stands before us is the one John posed first to Andrew and through Andrew to Simon – will you follow this Lamb of God? Having realized that Jesus was the Messiah who would free them from the bondage to sin that defined their lives, Andrew went and got Simon. Then, the two of them went to Jesus and offered themselves to him as his followers. Oh, they didn’t know what they’re getting into, any more than do we, but they do know that this is their destiny.
To follow the Lamb of God is to lay down our lives for the other. This is the way of love, which brings reconciliation with God and with neighbor. This is a fitting message for today, since this week is called the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity." This is an annual event that calls us to as Christians to put aside our differences and our divisions and see in each other the presence of God. As we do this, we discover our calling to work together as God’s one flock to bring the message of freedom to the world. When we’re divided, our message is lost in the confusion, but when we stand together we can embody God’s love in the very places we live and work. That’s a tall order, but it is our calling.
This is also Martin Luther King Weekend, and Dr. King understood what it meant to be a follower of the Lamb of God. Oh, at first, he probably didn’t fully understand, any more than did Andrew or Peter, but over time he discovered that following the Lamb of God meant joining with others in liberating African-Americans from the bondage of prejudice and the poor from their bondage of poverty. And, as he followed in the footsteps of the Lamb of God, he became himself a Suffering Servant. He’s not the Christ, but he understood that to follow Jesus could mean suffering and even dying for others. He understood that true discipleship is costly.
Tradition says that Peter died upside down on a cross, while Andrew, his brother and the patron saint, so to speak, of the Disciples, died spread eagle on a sideways cross, like the one that marks the Disciples’ chalice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself, died for others, wrote that "when Christ calls, he bids us come and die." This is what it means to follow the Lamb of God. In a very real sense we die to ourselves, but we are reborn as servants of the Servant King. As his servants, we bear God’s love to the world so that it might be liberated and transformed. As we do this, we draw close to the heart of God.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 20, 2008