by Dave Swanson
John 1:35-51, Hebrews 2:14-18
As worshippers in a Christian church, we have to sometimes remember that we do strange things together. This story, the one about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is about a people so longing for renewal, meaning, and peace, that they followed a crazy guy dressed in camel hair into the desert to watch him run around baptizing people, and for many, to get baptized themselves. This was not sanctioned religion. That all happened at the Temple, in Jerusalem, and in other places, in the synagogue. The Baptist was doing something reminiscent of, but totally apart from the ritual cleansing rites that were part of ancient Judaism. John’s baptism was about honesty, integrity, justice, community. John the Baptist was earthy and so was his baptism. It was about getting real. And to cut through sanctioned and ritualized meaning-making of official religion and dominant culture, you have to be a little crazy. And John the Baptist was bonkers! And he was compelling. At least he was a compelling for people who were yearning for something more and better. Something whole and peaceful. Something true and deeply lodged in the life of God. He was compelling for people yearning for freedom and space to worship, and prosper, and be.
The Baptist was a kind of crazy man. But people recognized in his style and message a familiar kind of crazy. Prophets. They remembered stories of prophets running around naked, raising dead people–whirlwinds and axe heads, she-bears and feasts with enemies. The prophets were bonkers, too. And so, they were thinking, maybe this guy is one of those guys. Maybe he is the Messiah, who is finally going to make sense of this crazy world! In the passage before ours today, John is grilled about who he is and what he is doing and why. They wanted to know who he is and he disappoints them. I’m not him…
And then Jesus walks by again. The Baptist is with a couple of his crazy followers and he says it: Look, here is the Lamb of God! Now this Lamb of God title is code for Messiah, anointed one: the one who works with God to make things right. John’s followers picked up on it. The Baptist had said the same thing the last time Jesus showed up, in the previous scene, and this time, his disciples get it.
THIS IS THE GUY!
The previous time, John had added something. “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he said. By calling Jesus the Lamb, he was invoking the imagery of the sacrificial system. He was invoking the imagery of Abraham and Isaac, where God provides the ram for sacrifice. He was invoking an idea that resonated with Jewish people in that time and place as a saving idea. The Lamb of God is one who saves people from death.
Most of us grew up with a theology about Jesus that took this Lamb language and combined it with the logic of the sacrificial system as it has been commonly understood, and said that Jesus saving work saving the rest of us from being killed…by God. Jesus, we were taught, saves us from being killed by God’s righteous wrath. Because that’s what justice would look like without Jesus. Specifically, Jesus being the Lamb of God was supposed to save us from our guilt–guilt that doomed us to die at God’s hands, or at very least be separated from God, which is also death.
My bet is for many, perhaps most of us in this room, this kind of Lamb language is deeply associated with notion of human beings that puts our guilt as the most, or one of the most, important aspects of our existence. Why else would something as terrible as Jesus’ death be necessary, the logic goes?
But the great news is that this idea can and must be challenged. We are not spiders hanging by a strand of web over a burning fire as Jonathan Edwards described the human condition in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And to challenge it, we need to fill out our concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Hebrews 2 is super helpful here. Without going into the theology of Hebrews too much, the basic work of Hebrews is to imagine Jesus as a high priest in a heavenly temple where he can truly save people, because he became one of them in the incarnation. Into this beautiful dreamscape, an incredible description of Jesus’ saving work laid out for us. The writer directs us to a wonderful and mysterious thing in verses 14 and 15.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
This is one of the clearest descriptions of what Jesus saves us from. Jesus, by being one of us and enduring his suffering and death and being resurrected was the physical manifestation of the truth of life with God: the powers of death lose. The fear of death leads to death. It shows itself as all forms of despair, hopelessness, and chronic discouragement. It also shows up in the normal assumptions that I have to look out for my own interests first and make a name, a way, a career, a future for myself independently. As necessary as some of these things may be, investing ourselves in them at the deepest levels does not lead to life. The ways of being, the economy, that forgets or ignores God’s promises to be with us through everything and to work with and bring blessing through everything is a way that leads to death. When we forget that it is both God’s job and God’s love to take care of us and lead us to life, we take a step toward the grave.
The death of Jesus, coupled with the resurrection of Jesus, is the witnessing story that God’s life rises and sings even through the worst things.
Even through the end.
Even through all that seems final and futile.
God is still with us
God is still inviting us to live.
God coaxes us toward a wild and wonderful, satisfying and adventurous life in which we no longer have to live in the fear that we might be abandoned, or that anything up to and including death could separate us from God’s invitation to life.
Jesus, the writer tells us, defeats death by death. This is what salvation is.
John the Baptist, in this story, is church. Church is where we come together to remember the impossible–that though it feels like it, we are not alone–to live, to make our way, to become more true, to find peace. In church we get to believe with each other and for each other. We get to believe when our brothers and sisters cannot believe. We get to hold each other in the light, the light of the Lamb of God.
Church is where we get to listen to crazy people like the Baptist tell us impossible things and learn together that they are the true things. We learn it by loving each other into the reality of God’s life. We remember Jesus death that defeats death and hold it in front of us. We worship God in the hope of becoming true worshippers together, who can believe in a world, and the justice and peace that thrive in that world, where Lambs are the ones who save us.