St John 1:19-29
Rorate Coeli, The Fourth Sunday in Advent | December 23, 2007
The ancient text assigned for today pulled up short of one of the most profound Scripture texts, the one line sermon of John the Baptist, and I would like to extend our reading.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29]
We all know this verse, we sing it over and over in the liturgy, in the Agnus Dei “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us...” And in the Gloria in Excelsis which we have muted in the season of Advent, that song of the angels that we will again sing out on Tuesday, “O Lord God, Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.”
So this image of God's Lamb is very familiar to many of us, and this is good. One of the things I appreciate about our Lutheran liturgy is that it pushes these beautiful Biblical passages into our minds and hearts and plants the seed deep, so that I know when I go and see the sick and home-bound members of our congregation the hymns and canticles are so familiar that we can sing them together as we rejoice in the Lord's gifts.
But the danger with familiarity is that we miss the surprise and shock of the text. And so it's good for us to look at the text with fresh eyes, with eyes of wonder that the Lord has given us this text as a gift. That, after all, is what John is doing as he stands on the Jordan River and baptizes and preached and points to Jesus.
“Behold!” he says, “Look here.” But, and here's the wonder of the text, look at what he has us behold. John does not preach, “Behold the Son of God,” or “Behold the Savior of God,” or “Behold the Prince or King of God,” or the Might of God or the Strength of God or the Messiah of God. No, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Now that's a bit unexpected. If John is going to use an animal, at least He could have picked one with a bit more strength, “Behold the Lion of God” or “Behold the war horse of God” or the Grizzly Bear of God. But here John gives us Jesus, the Lamb of God.
And here, in this one word “lamb” we have the whole freight of John's preaching. For there is one role of the lamb in the Scriptures: sacrifice.
Remember when Abraham had his son Isaac on the altar and his knife poised to kill, it was a lamb, ram, caught in the thicket that was provided for a sacrifice instead. Remember the ten plagues in Egypt and the Lord's rescue of the people, it was a lamb, slaughtered, with its blood panted on the door posted that saved all the first-born from death. And it was a lamb that made up the morning and evening oblations in the tabernacle and then the Jerusalem temple.
Lambs were for sacrifice, and sacrifice was for the taking away of sin.
All of the worship in the Old Testament is showing this and putting it before our eyes that sin deserves death, the sinner's death, and yet in the place of the sinner the Lord will mercifully accept the death of another and set the sinner free. It happens first in the garden of Eden, when, after Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God and hid from Him behind fig leaves and bushes. The Lord God finds them, exposes their shame, hands out curses and promises the Gospel, and then there is the very first death in all creation: the Lord finds an animal, innocent of sin, and kills it in order to make clothes for Adam and Eve, covering of their guilt and shame.
And from that point on the sacrifices of the Old Covenant are a preaching of the coming Messiah who would Himself die for the forgiveness of sins. When the people looked at the altar in the temple, and saw on it the twisted, bloody carcass of a lamb or bull or goat they were to think: “That should be me up there bleeding and burning, but, God be praised, He accepts another's death for me to give me life.”
But we know that all of these sacrifices were preaching and pointing, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. This promise of the Lord's sacrificial provision of Himself comes to its fullest in the preaching of Isaiah,
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. [Isaiah 53:5-7]
Here is the ultimate promise of the Lord's Lamb, the one who would bear upon Himself all of our sins and iniquities, who would burn and be consumed in the wrath of God, who would bleed a scarlet flood to was us white as snow.
And so when John preaches, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he is says, “Look, here is the temple, here is the sacrifice, here is the priesthood and the prayers, the incense and prayers, the robes and altars. Here is the Blood that we've been waiting for, the Scapegoat who will be driven into the wilderness of God's wrath with all of our sins placed on His forehead. Here is the One who God will forsake and destroy instead of forsaking and destroying you and me.
When we look at Jesus writhing on the cross we should think: “That should be me up there bleeding and burning, but, God be praised, He accepts Another's death for me to give me life.” Jesus is the sacrifice for all of my sins; He is God's Lamb, the One who takes our sin away.
Now if you don't have any sins, all of this means very little, but for the rest of us poor, miserable sinners, this is the sweetest and most comforting sermon that we could ever hear: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Dear Saints, Christmas is right around the corner, our celebration of Jesus' birth. We will exchange gifts, and we will eat, and we will pray and sing. This is all good, that we love our neighbors and worship our God, and I hope the whole time that this preaching of John the Baptist echoes in your ears and make your joy full and your giving free and your hymns robust and your prayers bold and your conscience at peace: God's Lamb has taken away your sin. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller
Hope Lutheran Church | Aurora, CO
For further study regarding the Lamb of God:
John 1:36; Genesis 22:7,8; Exodus 12:3-13; Numbers 28:3-10; Isaiah 53:7; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6, 8, 12, 13, 6:1, 16; 7:9, 10, 14, 17, 12:11, 13:8, 14:1, 4, 10, 15:3, 17:14, 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22, 23, 27, 22:1-3; Leviticus 16:20-22