Behold the Lamb of God
I should really be a vegetarian and if I had to kill my own food, I would be. Anyone else feel that way? I don’t know about you, but if I needed to slaughter my own meat, I’d probably find a way to live on dairy, eggs, vegetables, and grains…. maybe the occasional fish. Maybe.
But there is no way I’m offing a chicken or a pig or a cow with my own two hands, and certainly not a lamb. Have you ever held a lamb? Spent time with a lamb? Seen one at the farm or the petting zoo or at a Christmas pageant with their little diapers on so they don’t ruin the carpet?
I don’t think if I could kill a lamb if my life depended on it.
Now again, I’m not saying I haven’t eaten lamb. I actually really like lamb; roasted with garlic and rosemary, served with a little mint jelly on the side. Which is really messed up if you think about it …so I don’t.
If I’m home for Easter dinner and lamb is on the menu, I just give thanks for the fact that it tastes so good and I try not to think too deeply about how it came to be on my plate. It’s just too disturbing.
And you know what? I feel the same way about the scriptures when they talk about Jesus as a lamb…because I don’t think I could kill Jesus if my life depended on it. And yet there is definitely a prominent line of thinking within Christianity that seems to believe that my life and your life does depend on it.
Not that we have to kill Jesus, anymore than I need to kill the meat I eat, - the dirty work has already been done - but that his death, his sacrifice, was still in some way necessary in order for you and me to live. And that disturbs me. It disturbs me very much, and I hope it disturbs you too.
Honestly, I would be happy to gloss over this whole “lamb of God” thing today were it not for the fact that John the Baptist doesn’t just say it once, he says it twice. So it feels like something we need to face because if we get this wrong, I think it really messes up our understanding of God and what God wants for us and what God wants from us.
The trouble is that it is so hard to get right, because you see, the gospel writer is not playing straight with us. The gospel of John is laying down allusions, mixing metaphors, playing with and subverting familiar symbols, all in an effort to get us to repent/rethink/change our minds the better to see how God is at work in the world in a new way.
So if you hear this phrase about the, “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and your first thought is of sacrifice, a blood sacrifice offered at the temple to atone for one’s sin, that makes sense.
Or at least it would if lambs had been sacrificed at the temple for the forgiveness of sins. Only they weren’t. Full grown rams and bulls, birds and even grain was, yes, but not lambs. So the image of a lamb who takes away sin is weird.
Likewise, if you’re familiar enough with the scriptures to associate “the lamb of God,” with the passover lamb, you’re also on to something. Most of you will remember that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. When Moses appealed to Pharaoh saying, “let my people go,” Pharaoh was unwilling.
So God sent plague after plague, until finally God sent the angel of death to visit each household and take the first born son - the firstborn son because he represented the future of the whole family.
But God made a provision for the people of Israel. Each household was told to slaughter a lamb and paint its blood on the doorposts as a sign to the angel to passover and not take their first born. Then, with their sandals on and their tunics tucked in for a hasty retreat, they were to eat the small meal the lamb provided along with unleavened bread, because there was no time to wait for the leaven to rise.
And then, while Pharaoh and his people were distracted by the death of their own children, Moses was able to lead his people up and out of bondage and across the red sea to freedom.
In this case the blood of the lamb provided protection and was a means of liberation from captivity, but was in no way about the forgiveness of sins. And yet John says, “here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” So what’s he on about?
Or your mind might range even further back to to the strange and horrible story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own beloved son, Isaac. A sacrifice which God commanded and then forestalled by providing a ram in a thicket.
Was God showing us that the sacrifice of a beloved son was necessary or providing a ram to show us that this is not something God would ever want? To this day, no one really knows.
Or your mind might range ahead and note that we are also reading from the “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah during Epiphany, the cycle that speaks of one who “like a lamb led to slaughter”…” “was wounded for our transgressions (and) crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5,7).
All of these powerful and disturbing images would have been swimming in the head of the gospel writer and parsing them is a challenge. But one thing we know for sure is that the gospel writer isn’t just offering these images up straight, but asking us to see old symbols in a new way.
He is “telling the truth, but telling it slant,” to quote a well known local prophet. It’s all a bit of a mash-up and like any really good mash-up, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
So friends, see if you can follow me here, because I think the gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus as the lamb of God is actually the exact opposite of the standard straight up reading most of us were taught; a reading that is so disturbing that most of us just give thanks for the fact that it works out for our good and try not to think too deeply about it.
Most of us were taught to see Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice, given to appease an angry God. A God who paradoxically also loves us, loves us so much that He is willing to allow His firstborn son to be sacrificed in our stead.
We were taught that our sin separates us from God, but that Jesus’ blood washes away our sins. Jesus takes the punishment we all deserve. God’s wrath and righteousness are satisfied thanks to Jesus’ bloody death on the cross and we all get to live happily ever after. But if you think about it, it’s messed up, isn’t it?
Years ago, I had a conversation with Brian McLaren about all of this and he said, “yeah, it’s like we go out and tell the world that God is love, but in our heart of hearts we know that he’s only able to be nice to everyone else because back at home he beats the hell out of our older brother.”
It just doesn’t sit right, which for me is a sign that something else is going on here. So hear me out and see if what I’m about to say makes better sense to you.
If Jesus is the lamb of God, I think the first thing we are invited to notice is that he’s not ours. Jesus isn’t our lamb to sacrifice for our sins to make peace with God. Jesus is God’s lamb. Jesus is God sacrificing some part of God’s self to make peace with us.
Jesus, the first born of all creation - that is the one who holds the future of us all - is God entering into our story as vulnerable and mortal as any other human being. God immersing God’s self in our story as surely as Jesus was immersed in the waters of baptism: living in solidarity with us, making peace by coming to us rather than waiting for us to come to him.
Jesus comes to us knowing full well that it is not God who has a history of demanding blood, not God who desires to punish, not God who has a nasty habit of sacrificing the innocent, but us. Remember that God never cried out for Jesus to be crucified. We did.
In fact, if you go back through the scriptures, from the story of Abraham and Isaac on, you’ll find, more often than not, that it is people who feel like they need to sacrifice something to get right with God, people who need to shed blood, people who need something or someone to be condemned and die, someone or something to blame in order to feel righteous; and we have a term for that.
Anyone know what I’m talking about? A Scapegoat. Right.
Whereas God, from that ram in Abraham’s thicket onward, says over and over again…let’s dial back the blood. I don’t want it nor do I need it. Through prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah, God says over and over and over again that the blood of animals means nothing.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord;/I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;/I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11).
All I require is for people to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me (Micah 6:6-8; see also Jeremiah 6, Amos 5, Hosea 8, & Psalm 40). “Cease doing evil; learn to do good” (Isaiah1:16). “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 8).
But we just don’t get it. We just don’t get it. Because honestly, shifting the blame to someone else is a lot easier than taking responsibility for our own change and transformation. Making someone else pay is a lot cheaper. Allowing someone else to suffer is a whole lot easier.
And so we have created a world and a religion in our own image, a world and a faith where our salvation and safety comes at the cost of innocent victims, where we profit at the expense of someone else and call that a good deal, where peace can only be achieved through violence which makes no sense at all.
I think that is the exact opposite of what God wants from us and for us, which is why Jesus came to take away, not just the sins of the world - not just all our petty little iniquities - but the Sin of the world: our mistaken belief that violence is the answer, that someone must pay, that someone must suffer in order for others to be set free.
I mean let’s think about this for a minute: if the lamb of God needed to be sacrificed in order for our sins to be forgiven, John could have taken him out right then and there; held him under the water just a little bit longer.
But he didn’t because Jesus didn’t just come to die, he came to live, to show us a new way of being in the world. He sacrificed himself knowing that the cost of life, of becoming human is invariably death, but that doesn’t mean his death was the point.
The point was to show us that neither blood nor blame will save us. All that can save us is love and grace, forgiveness and mercy.
And so like a lamb led to slaughter, Jesus came among us and exposed himself to the very worst we could do…and then he came back to us in solidarity with nothing but love and grace, forgiveness and mercy.
The lamb of God does not die because God needs a sacrifice, because God needs someone to suffer the consequences of our sin. The lamb of God dies as a consequence of our sin, and then in spite of that sin, returns to us in peace.
If God were like us, God would need to punish someone for that, but God is not. Through the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus sacrifices himself to show us that we can hit God with our absolute worst and God will not hit back. Jesus gives himself up, once and for all, to prove to us that God does not require violence. God longs for an end to all violence.
Which is why I’ve taken so much time to try and explain this, because if we believe that God does require violence, it gives us cover to keep our cycles of violence and retribution going. But friends, I truly believe that is the exact opposite of what God wants of us and for us.
Jesus comes to liberate us, just like that passover lamb, set us free from our fear, from our need for scapegoating and violence, exploitation and retribution.
Set us free to build a world where violence is no more, a world where the lion lies down with the lamb; a beloved community where power is shared and reparations are made, a world where justice rolls down like rivers and mercy like an everflowing stream, a world where no one - least of all God - hurts or destroys anyone anymore, ever.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because he caught sight of that vision, and like Jesus sacrificed his whole life for it. He understood Jesus in a way that few Christians do.
They both knew that we can’t force this vision on anyone. We can’t sacrifice anyone but ourselves in our quest for peace; peace in our hearts or peace in our world.
All we can do is live into it and invite others to come and see just how different the world might be if we truly understood what God wants for us and from us.
All we can do is live as if the beloved community is already here, knowing full well that we might die in the meantime because it is not…not entirely… not yet.
All we can do is follow the lamb of God, regardless of the cost, the lamb of God who comes even still to take away the Sin of the world. Amen