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Behold the Lamb of God!

John 1:29-42

A sermon preached by Canon Simon Everett

on Sunday, 15th January 2017

Sandford St Martin Community Worship Centre

Over the past few years the C of E has carried out various experiments with its liturgy in order to make it more accessible.  Not so long ago they were looking at a new Baptism service that would go easy on sin and the Devil, (in truth to exclude them from the order of service).  This was in order to make everyone feel welcome and so that no one will be offended. After all haven’t we left sin and the Devil behind and moved on to more sophisticated things, we should be affirming people rather than making them feel guilty or inadequate in any way. 

But before being too dismissive of this initiative I would say that what lies behind these experiments is a desire to communicate the Christian faith in ways that avoid overtly religious words and terms that are either meaningless or misinterpreted by many in today’s world.

As a minister in the church of today I have to say that it is sometimes difficult communicating the Gospel to many who have no concept of God as portrayed in the Bible.  It is particularly difficult to convey the meaning of sin, its consequences and the need to be rescued (or saved) from it.  And yet this is precisely what today’s gospel reading speaks of.  

John the Baptiser looks to Jesus, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  But just what does this mean?  To anyone not used to the Bible or Christian teaching you might just as well be talking about the ‘Cow that jumped over the moon!”  It is a real problem that we need to overcome, and this will only happen by ensuring that we have good teaching about our faith both in our churches and our schools.  I do not believe dumbing down to be the answer.

What today’s Gospel reading identifies is that Sin is a colossal problem.  And this is as true to day as it has always been, and it was because of this that Jesus came into the world, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Sin isn’t some petty foible that causes a little embarrassment at genteel dinner parties, it is the fault line that runs through the heart of humanity, and indeed, the world as we know it.  It is the cause of all the ills of the world both man-made and natural, and it affects us all.

One theologian writes: ‘Scripture has a telling range of terms for sin: to list the most common of these, sin means failure, rebellion, transgression, trespassing, turning from the right road, stain, infidelity’. In the book of Leviticus when talking about the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:16, 21-22) sin is variously described as spiritual pollution, emphasising that it defiles our lives and affects us all.

At the moment we are experiencing extreme and adverse weather, and over the past couple of years we have seen weather patterns change all over the world. Many (myself included) believe that this is down to climate change, caused or accelerated by humankind’s abuse of the world and its environment.   It affects us all, some more so than others, but there is no escaping it.  And so it is with sin, it affects us all.  As another theologian put it, ‘God’s image in us is marred and his glory dimmed… We are out of sync with our Creator and, consequently, we fail to reflect his holiness in the way we live, and fail to fulfil our calling to be good stewards of his world.  Since we ‘fall short (of the glory of God)’, we need a way to make amends.  Since the glory is dimmed, we need a way for the glory to be restored.

The world and all that is in it is flawed, is fallen, and in need of a saviour.  This is why Jesus came, not to be a philosopher, teacher, an example, never mind a moralizer.  No he came as the Saviour of the world, to take away the sin of the world.  We have to be clear about this otherwise we are wasting our time and energies being distracted from God and the truth.  And the truth of the matter is that there is nothing we can do to redeem our situation, and yet, there is something that God has done to present us with a solution.  He has provided a lamb.  “A lamb!” you may say, “What good is that!”  and certainly to our way of thinking, the provision of a lamb, albeit the Lamb of God, may not seem an obvious solution to the problem.  But to those steeped in the traditions of Israel, the connection would have been immediately apparent.

Throughout Israel’s history lambs had played a significant part in both cultic rituals and other stories that made it the nation it was.  Therefore it is impossible to know if John had any particular story or symbolic association in mind when he talked of Jesus as the Lamb of God.   However, probably one of the most defining moments in the history of Israel is the Passover and Exodus from Egypt. 

This is the story of God’s judgement on Egypt in order to set his people free from their oppression.  This does not mean that the Israelites were without sin and it was just the Egyptians that needed dealing with.  No, the Egyptians had ignored all of God’s warnings and in doing so brought upon themselves God’s wrath and judgement.   But so that the judgement would fall on the Egyptians alone, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and then eat it.  The blood of the lamb was then to be painted on the doorpost of the Jewish household to be a sign for the angel of death to pass over it.  Blood symbolised life and so in painting blood on the doorposts the Israelites signalled that a life had been sacrificed for their sin and offered as a substitute in their place. 

John the Baptist sees Jesus as The Lamb of God, the substitute who, in taking our place, secures our deliverance.   He takes away the sin of the world, which means that when we stand before Christ to give an account of our lives, we shall not face the judgement that our sins deserve because he has taken our place and paid the penalty.  We can then enjoy the closer presence of God for all eternity; this is what Christ has won for us.

In the meantime, we can begin to enjoy the fullness of life that Jesus talked of by coming to the cross and accepting all that Christ has done for us.  This is the greatest gift that the world has ever received, and is expressed beautifully in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Now I saw in my dream Christian walking briskly up a highway fenced on both sides with a high wall.  He began to run, though he could not run fast because of the load on his back.  On top of the hill, he came to a cross.  Just as he got to the cross, his burden came loose, dropped from his shoulders, and went tumbling down the hill.  It fell into an open grave and I saw it no more.

Now Christian’s heart was light.  He had found relief from his burden.  He said to himself, “He has given me rest by His sorrows and life by His death.”  He stood gazing at the cross, wondering how the sight of the cross could so relieve one of guilt and shame.  He no longer felt guilty of anything.  His conscience told him that all his sins were forgiven.  He now felt innocent, clean, happy and free.  He knew his sins had all been paid for by the death of the One who died on the cross.  They were gone, buried in the Saviour’s tomb and God would remember them against him no more forever.  He was so thankful and so full of joy that the tears began to flow.

As he stood looking at the cross, weeping for joy, three celestial beings stood near.  They greeted him with “Peace be unto thee.”  The first said, “Your sins are forgiven.”  The second stripped him of his rags and clothed him with garments white and clean.  The third put a mark upon his forehead and gave him a book to read on the way and for identification at the celestial gate.  Then Christian leaped for joy and went on his way singing.

Is this what Christ’s death means to you?  Do rejoice each day for the sacrifice that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, has made for you?  If not then please take the remainder of this service to try and take in the enormity of what God has done for you and all humankind, for this is the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.