Monday, January 20, 2014

Sermon for January 19, 2014: The lamb of God, who ...

Children's message

Who has a favorite stuffed animal?  Ask by name for kids’ submissions.

Does anyone (besides any kids who’ve already volunteered) have a stuffed sheep?  Reveal lamb puppet.

Tell me a little about sheep.  How do you describe them?  How many legs do they have, are they soft or rough, where do you find them, what are they good for, etc.

There is a sheep in our Bible story today -- specifically there is a lamb.  But this is a very special lamb.  This is the lamb of God.

You see the very first sentence in our story begins with John the Baptist, and he is standing beside the river Jordan where he preaches and baptizes, and suddenly he sees -- guess who he sees.  Jesus.  Right, Jesus.  And he points a finger and says “Here is the lamb of God.”


Well that’s kind of a funny thing to say about Jesus, right?  Does Jesus have four legs like a lamb?  Does he have hooves?  Can he be sheared for wool?  No!  Calling Jesus a lamb points to something.

Let's listen for what the Scripture says.  When you hear “Here is the Lamb of God,” I want you to point a finger towards the cross -- to remember that John the Baptist is pointing to Jesus.  And then listen very carefully for what John says this lamb of God does.

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Scripture:  John 1:29-41

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’  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.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”  They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah.”

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Message

Last week at Young Voices for Change, Kaleb, who like all of you always asks really good questions, turned to me and said, “Emmy, is the Bible still being written?”

It seems like such a simple question, with a simple answer.  No -- the Bible’s finished.  We have our sixty-six books, bound in leather, painstakingly translated, passed down through nearly two thousand years, and it’s done; a thick volume of history, but a closed one.

That’s the simple answer.

Then there’s chapter one of our new Bible study book, Manna and Mercy.  There, author and pastor Dan Erlander retells the story of creation and of the fall of man.  God weeps and moans in chapter one.  How will I restore creation?  Should I destroy humanity completely and begin again?  Should I rip open the clouds and terrorize them into submission with thunder and lightning?

And then the book says:

The Creator, in passionate love, decided on another way.  It is a long story -- a story of friendship, passion, promise, disappointment, hope, and self-giving love.  It is a story of God mending the universe.  Listen to the story of God.

Then later this week, at Family Faith Night, Gina read from the Jesus Storybook Bible:

The Bible is most of all a Story.  It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure.  It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne -- everything -- to rescue the one he loves.  It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

You see, the best thing about this Story is -- it’s true.

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story.  The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

But I didn’t have these stories on Sunday when Kaleb looked at me and said “Emmy, is the Bible still being written?”

What I thought of instead was John the Baptist with his pointy finger saying:  “Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

Because apparently John hasn’t been studying his Bible very well.

You see, in old Jewish tradition, animals were sacrificed as an offering for sin -- a way to restore a broken relationship with God.  We don’t do this anymore, thankfully, and it’s a dark and creepy and bloody part of the Bible.  The animals were sacrificed, and burnt on the altar, and in that way the relationship between God and the sinner was restored.  Blood atoned for guilt.  The one who brought the sacrifice was reconciled to God.  That makes Jesus is the lamb of God because he, like the sacrificed lambs of old, makes payment for sin.

But -- in Jewish tradition, lambs weren't used for sin offerings.  Bulls and goats and sheep and birds, yes -- but lambs, young sheep, only in very rare situations.

So is John the Baptist just a bad Jew?  Did he just forget the traditions in his excitement over Jesus?  Did he stutter and say, “Look, here is the bull of God” and the writer just got it wrong?

No, I don’t think so, because John says it again:  “Look, here is the lamb of God.”  And two of John’s disciples tie up their sandals and chase after Jesus.  No, there’s something special going on here, something important in calling Jesus a lamb.  John is doing much more than pointing us to the altar of animal sacrifice.

See lambs do play a crucial role in a certain part of Jewish life.  And John definitely knows this.  John the Baptist is a good Jew; his followers are good Jews; the earliest Christians were Jews; the audience of John’s gospel were Jews.  So when John points to Jesus and says “Look, the Lamb of God,” he is referencing for his hearers and for us one of the most important stories of the Jewish life.

Passover.

The lamb was there at the very first Passover, when God struck a final blow at the Egyptians but saved the people of Israel.  Passover is the time when all Jews come together to re-tell and re-live the story of the Exodus.  Families and communities get together to share in this amazing feast of roast lamb -- like Thanksgiving in the middle of March.  The hungry and poor are invited to share in the feast of their wealthier neighbors.  All the faithful gather together to tell the story of how Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, appeared in a burning bush to a fugitive shepherd named Moses and through that one man saved the whole nation of Israel.  How God freed them from the horrible slavery under the Egyptians.  How God led them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so they could cross the desert safely.  How they stood at the crashing and watery banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army hot on their heels and said “Well now what, God?” -- and God split the sea in two.

Passover is a night of singing and storytelling and drinking wine and laughing and asking questions that go back thousands of years -- questions like Who is this God who saved us?  And what do we do now?  Passover is a night when the Jewish people remember who they are and where they are in the one big story of God.

And in the midst of all that there is the passover lamb.  Not a sacrifice for sin but a symbol of promise.  A reminder of restoration.  It’s a feast of freedom, this Passover.  The Scripture might be written and there won’t be another chapter added, but the one big story goes on, with laughter and wine and family and with a lamb at the center of it all.

So maybe, just maybe, when John points to Jesus and says “Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”, maybe John is saying “Look -- a lamb like the lambs that bring us together at Passover.”  Eugene Peterson even translates it this way, in The Message:  John the Baptist sees Jesus and yells:  “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb!”  So -- what if John is not just saying “whose blood will atone for our guilt.”  What if John is also saying “who, just like the Passover lambs, brings us all together as a community.  Who saves us from oppression and suffering.  Who reminds us who we are in the one big story of God.”

Well, that changes things, doesn’t it.

If we believe John, that Jesus is the Passover Lamb, then Jesus is the one meant to bring us to the same table.  All of us.  The family members far away, the estranged brothers and sisters, the sullen teenagers, the loved ones lost too soon to illness and death.  All of us.  The friends we’ve forgotten, the grumpy neighbors, the broken relationships and divorces that we carry like a secret scar.  The poor and the wealthy and the somewhere in between.  The Democrats and Republicans and independents and tea partiers and unaffiliated and uninterested.  That table of Jesus the Passover Lamb is the same table Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed when he said “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

It’s going to be a pretty big table.  And we’re going to need a lot of forgiveness to make it happen.  There’s a lot of pain and anger in the world between all these people who need to come to one table.  To make that happen there will be hard conversations.  There will be old shame brought to light, old wounds carefully unbound -- and then released.  Because in the center of this big mixed bag of humanity there is a lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

And if we believe John, that Jesus is the Passover Lamb, that we want to tie on our sandals and run after this Lamb of God, this Teacher, this Messiah -- our old story is over.

The old story of fear.  Of guilt.  Of everything that might ever taste of pain and sin.  If we’re keeping points or hiding our shame or piling up “stuff” or tramping down others -- it’s over.  It’s done.  It’s as ancient as slavery in Egypt.  Because in the middle of all our mess is a lamb who takes away our sin.

And if we believe John, that Jesus is the Passover Lamb, that we are part of the one big story of God -- then the story is still being written.  Here is where things get crazy, impossible, downright miraculous -- that God looks at the whole of the world, all of creation, every sunrise and sundappled forest and nighttime sky, every moment in creation, and then points to us and says You.  You are my beloved.  You are where I will be staying.  You will be my students, my disciples, my friends, my evangelists.  I will tell you stories of who I am.  I will take away your sin.  I will remind you who you are.

This is the story of God, that all creation will be restored, that every hurt will be mended, that every injustice will be made right -- and that every single person in this room, everyone in this world, everyone who has ever lived, with all of our flaws and insecurities and troubles, has a part in that great mending of the world.  Set up to be a light to the nations.

That’s the promise of God -- that you are part of this one big story, and the first page begins:  God says, “I know you.  I love you.  I forgive you.”

Now we get to write the rest.

The Bible may never have another chapter added to it.  But the story goes on.  Here, at the table, where you are offered the body and blood of the Lamb of God.  Here, at the table, where all are welcome, and there is forgiveness for all.  Here, at the table, where suffering is ended and new life begins.   Here, at the table, where we remember our place in the story.

Come and see.


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