The Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 19, 2014

Moore_Robert_cropped

 

 

 

Robert G. Moore, Senior Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Houston, Texas 

Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Isaiah 49:1–7
Psalm 40:1–11 I love to do your will, O my God. (vs. 8)
1 Corinthians 1:1–9
John 1:29–42

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s gospel we hear not once, but twice these words from John the Baptist:

Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

For all too long the church has interpreted these words in an unbiblical way. It has taken us a thousand years to consider whether the medieval view of Jesus’ death as a payment for human sin has any validity from a biblical standpoint.

To put it as simply as I can, the dominant view of Jesus death, especially since the 11th Century, has been that Jesus’ death was a penalty payment for the sin of the world. This view is based on the commercial world view that was arising in Europe. The world was placed on a ledger sheet by which human beings paid homage to God through their good works, but for their sins they had to make atonement to level off their deficit.

Now the doctrine of original sin was used to say that our debt is so great that no human could pay restitution. Therefore, humanity was left in despair and condemnation. The good news in this context became the proclamation that God has paid the price for human disobedience by sending God’s son to die on a cross in order to make full payment and to reconcile the balance sheet.

The death of Jesus was treated as an Old Testament sacrifice that was meant to pay the penalty. The problem is that in the Old Testament sacrifice, whether at a shrine or in the Jerusalem temple is not considered a penalty payment. Sacrifice is primarily the giving of oneself to the deity in confession that one is not whole, one is not healthy, one is defective. The one who makes sacrifice then is to be understood as approaching God in humility entreating God to come and to make whole not only the individual but the whole world. This wholeness is nothing less than the peace of God, shalom. Peace in Hebrew is not just an end to strife, violence, and warfare. Peace is a return to the wholeness of creation as God intended it to be.

Let me make brief mention of another story of sacrifice and a lamb. In Genesis 22 we are told the grim story of Abraham the great patriarch of faith and his son Isaac. Out of nowhere comes the divine command that Abraham offer his son, his only son whom he loved, as a burnt offering.  Abraham is obedient and prepares to go to the mountain in the land of Moriah. When he arrives at the mountain, Isaac asks his father,

“The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7)

Abraham answers,

“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8 NRS)

Or did he say,

“God himself will provide the lamb for a burn offering—my son!

I hope you know the story’s ending. Abraham prepares to do the unthinkable, but an angel stops his hand before he makes the sacrifice. Abraham passes the test. Isaac is spared. God then provides a ram to be offered.

Now we must understand that Moriah was later identified as the temple mount, where the central shrine of sacrifice was located. It was understood that this point on earth was the great axis mundi, where the center of the earth was located. What happens here is significant for the whole world.

The Abrahamic covenant then is realized as finding its goal in the inclusion of all peoples, nations, races and tribes. Just as Isaiah foretells:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

This story takes on added significance for the church when Jesus himself is offered on a mountain and the cross itself becomes the very axis around which the world turns. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8 NRS)

It should then be clear that today’s verse invites us to a very different perspective on faith than what has been forced on us over the last millennium. What does it mean? “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)  It means that God himself has provided the means by which we have peace with God and by which we are relieved of violent and useless ways to live whole and healthy lives.

William Blake captures some of this in his poem, The Lamb:

Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice! 
         Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
         Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
         Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
         Little Lamb God bless thee. 
         Little Lamb God bless thee.

The Lamb by William Blake. Source: The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David E. Erdman (Anchor Books, 1988)

Dear brothers and sisters, in just a few minutes we will sing this great sentence from the Gospel of John.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us, grant us peace. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 112-113)

This liturgical piece does for us what we would have happen to us in Holy Communion. The faith that expressed there is not the faith in some divine payment to set an overwhelmingly overdrawn ledger. The faith is that God has provided a lamb, Jesus Christ, who is present with us in the fellowship meal. Jesus, the lamb, who falls victim to human violence masquerading as civil order, is provided by God as a means to authentic restoration of wholeness, of God’s shalom.

It is particularly meaningful that on this weekend we celebrated the life of one Martin Luther King, Jr., who also in devotion to the way of Jesus chose the path of non-violence in his quest for justice in the civil order of the United States, not only in Birmingham and Montgomery, but in Boston and in Los Angeles. King, like Jesus, fell victim to human violence. He is despised to this day by white supremacists and by black nationalists who were convinced that justice could be achieved only through violence.

The Lamb of God brings mercy and peace to us in the eating and drinking of his body and blood at this table. At this table—and everywhere that the self-giving love of Christ is remembered, yes, encountered—that place becomes the axis mundi, where heaven and earth meet and God’s shalom is given to the world.

Amen.