Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lamb of God” (John 1:29)
January 19, 2020
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was in high school I spent most of my Washington Post paper route money on music cassettes (remember those?).  Every month after completing the subscription fee collections from the hundred or so houses on my route I went to a music store and bought more cassettes.  I listened to a lot of classic rock, but I also listened to a lot of Christian music, including a 1985 album by Twila Paris called Kingdom Seekers, which included a gem of a song that still goes right to my heart:

Your only Son no sin to hide
But You have sent Him from Your side
To walk upon this guilty sod
And to become the Lamb of God

Your gift of love they crucified
They laughed and scorned Him as he died
The humble King they named a fraud
And sacrificed the Lamb of God

Oh Lamb of God, sweet Lamb of God
I love the Holy Lamb of God
Oh wash me in His precious Blood
My Jesus Christ the Lamb of God

I was so lost I should have died
But You have brought me to Your side
To be led by Your staff and rod
And to be called a lamb of God

Oh Lamb of God, sweet Lamb of God
I love the Holy Lamb of God
Oh wash me in His precious Blood
My Jesus Christ the Lamb of God

Today I am preaching on just one verse from the gospel passage, a theologically loaded verse that summarizes a major recurring theme in scripture, a gospel soaked verse that describes who Jesus is and what he did (and does), a verse filled with hope for sinners like you and me.  John the Baptist is in the midst of his ministry in the wilderness, preaching and baptizing, when Jesus walks up to him, and John the Baptist declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, including your sin and my sin.  That is who Jesus is, and what he came to earth to do.

Throughout scripture we see again and again the recurring theme of the atonement of sin, the taking away of sin, through the sacrifice of a lamb.  The first time this occurs is in the very first book of the bible, Genesis, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only and beloved son Isaac.  As the two of them are walking up a mountain Isaac asks, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering my son” (Genesis 22:7-9).  God did just that, and Abraham sacrificed a lamb to God instead of his son Isaac.

In Exodus God tells Moses to command each home of the Israelites to “take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household…without blemish…(and) take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses” so that those houses would be passed over when the judgement of the Lord passed through Egypt.  And that is exactly what happened (Exodus 12:3-7) at what became known as the Passover.  The book of Leviticus contains additional instructions about how the sacrifice of a lamb to atone for sin was to be a regular part of Israel’s worship (Leviticus 3:7-8)—and it was mandated that this lamb be “without blemish” (Leviticus 14:10).

Many generations later when Samuel was the judge of Israel, as the Philistines were preparing to attack the Israelites, he too sacrificed a lamb to God, and when he did so scripture tells us, “As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel” (1 Samuel 7:9-10).

Many more generations later the prophet Isaiah foretold how Jesus Christ would be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world, how the recurring sacrifices of lambs to atone for the sins of Israel would be superseded by the once for sacrifice of this Lamb of God for the sins of the whole world:

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth…They made a grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth…his life an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:6-7; 9-10).

Still many more generations later John the Baptist saw Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and identified him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, the Lamb of God who would fulfill the entire Old Testament sacrificial system and not only to take away the sins of Israel but also of the whole world.

This is the heart of the gospel, because as you know the sin in our lives not only offends God but also hurts others and it hurts us too.  Moreover, the memories of the sins you have committed and the memories of the sins others have committed against you, remain in your heart for many years.  In his controversial masterpiece modernist novel Ulysses (1922) James Joyce describes it this way:

There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by man in the darkest places of the heart but they abide there and wait.  He may suffer their memory to grow dim, let them be as though they had not been and all but persuade himself that they were not or at least were otherwise.  Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him in the most various circumstances, a vision or a dream, or while timbrel and harp soothe his senses or amid the cool silver tranquility of the evening or at the feast at midnight when he is now filled with wine.  Not to insult over him will the vision come as over one that lies under her wrath, not for vengeance to cut off from the living but shrouded in the piteous vesture of the past, silent, remote, reproachful (Modern Library edition 421).

Every year the third Monday of January is Martin Luther King Day, when we remember the life and legacy of the slain Civil Rights leader.  A few summers ago I took a road trip to several Civil Rights sites.  I drove the 54 mile stretch of US Highway 80 from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the stretch Martin Luther King and many others walked in March 1965.  In Montgomery I visited the home where he lived with his young family from 1954 to 1960.  You can still see the mark on the porch where someone tossed a bomb at 9:15 on the night of January 30, 1956 as he and his wife Coretta and their seven month old daughter Yolanda had up till then been enjoying a peaceful evening at home.  The tour guide was an octogenarian who had been a parishioner and friend of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King.  “If I would have known what a big deal he would be,” she smiled, “I would have paid more attention to his sermons.”

And I visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he served as pastor at that time, and a warm friendly parishioner gave me a brief tour and even let me stand for a moment in the same pulpit from which Martin Luther King preached, a sacred space for sure.  It was in that pulpit on November 17, 1957—nearly two years after having his home bombed—that he preached a sermon entitled “Love Your Enemies”, because as you know that is exactly what Jesus Christ the Lamb of God preached in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-45).  As he always did, Martin Luther King eloquently went right to the heart of the matter:

Far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist.  The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency.  Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.  Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.  Now, let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing.  He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies.  He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you.  He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard.  But he wasn’t playing (A Knock at Midnight 42).

The next day I went to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and stood for a while outside the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at age thirty-nine, shot by his enemies whom he still loved.

Martin Luther King was exactly right: when Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies” he was not playing, for on Good Friday Jesus Christ loved his enemies to the end.  When Jesus arrived at the top of the mountain there was no lamb to take his place because he was and is the Lamb of God—without blemish, without sin— provided by God to take away your sin.  Jesus suffered and died during the celebration of Passover.  As the Israelites remembered the Passover in Egypt many centuries earlier as the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the Israelites’ homes ensured the judgement of God would pass over them, Jesus the Lamb of God was sacrificed so the judgement of God would pass over the world, and pass over you.  When Jesus died “the Lord thundered with a mighty voice” and the forces of evil were thrown into confusion and routed before the all-forgiving love of God.

Jesus’ death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love—as John wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10), and as Peter wrote, “You were ransomed…not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18-20).

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, John records visions of Jesus Christ the Lamb of God.  “I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered,” the Lamb of God whose blood “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:6, 9).  And in the final chapter John describes heaven, where “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him: they will see his face…they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:3-5).

You have been forgiven by God.  Your sin has been taken away by Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who walked upon this guilty sod and washed you in his precious blood.  That is the gospel.

And so every time we gather to receive Holy Communion, the sacrament of God’s forgiveness, we proclaim anew, “Alleluia.  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; Therefore, let us keep the feast.  Alleluia” (The Book of Common Prayer 364).