January 15, 2017
“Behold the Lamb of God...”
You probably have that one friend or family member, who at Christmas, loves to give gifts – but doesn't just wrap them and move on – you know the type – where the wrapping paper itself is a work of art. You might get calligraphy on the card, or a special ornament attached to the package. It's not just paper and tape, but a fancy bow or some other foo-foo adornment. You almost feel bad opening the gift, so much time has been put into it – and so you unwrap it slowly and carefully, appreciating the whole thing all the more.
That's kind of what Epiphany is like. Of course, Jesus is the gift. He's the Son of God sent into human flesh, God's gift to mankind – a savior. And this gift is so precious that the Christian Church has set aside a whole season – the season of Epiphany – in which we take our time “unwrapping” the gift that is Christ. And with each Sunday we will see another angle, another reality, another depiction of just who this Jesus really is:
The one baptized to fulfill all righteousness.
The one who makes fishers of men,
A Light dawning in the darkness,
The one who blesses the poor, the meek, and the persecuted, and finally, on Transfiguration day an echo of the heavenly voice heard at his Baptism: “This is my Son”.
Today, we hear several important descriptions of Jesus spoken by John the Baptist and his disciples. We'll touch on each of these shortly. But for starters, let's take the famous statement of John, when he saw Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
By this moniker, “Lamb of God”, John was no doubt evoking in the people's minds the lamb that was sacrificed at the yearly Passover meal. This lamb, which hearkened back to when God delivered the people from Egypt, was of course a foreshadowing of Christ. This lamb, whose blood was shed to save the people, whose life was given to save the people from death. This lamb, without spot or blemish.
But “Behold!” John says. Look, and take note! This one here, this Jesus is THE Lamb of God. The lamb to which all other lambs pointed. The lamb in which all other lambs find ultimate fulfillment. Their sacrifices anticipated his. Their blood looked forward to his blood.
So in this one little phrase, “Lamb of God”, John wraps a whole lot of Old Testament meaning. But it gets better. Because he's not just the Lamb of God, he's the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world”.
Oh, those sacrifices of countless animals over the years were sacrifices for sin. But they had no value in themselves. Instead, those sacrifices keyed in to the greater sacrifice to come, the once and for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The sacrifice that Jesus finally offered, of himself, to take away the sin of the world. One famous hymn puts it this way:
Not all the blood of beasts
on Jewish altars slain,
could give the guilty conscience peace
or wash away the stain,
But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
“The sin of the world”. Ponder the freight of this phrase for a moment. The world has a lot of sin. The people of the world are all sinners, from the least to the greatest of us.
But he “takes away the sin of the world”. What an all-inclusive statement! It's not just the sins of some people of some times and some places. It's the whole world, all people, all times, all places. And that means you, too. It's not for some of the sins of the world, but for all of the sins, even the really bad sins that you have committed. The ones you know about and bother you – and the ones that you don't even know you've committed.
This is not just any-old-lamb, mind you, this is the Lamb of God. This is the Son of God. This is a perfect man, who fulfilled the law and all righteousness. This is the only one strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with sin and devil and death and come out alive and victorious. This one, this Jesus, is the only one that could do it – but has he ever done it! His sacrifice there for you and me and everyone – really is the greatest thing that ever happened in the whole history of the world. Behold! Look! “Here he is” John says.
Today, your pastors say the same. Behold! The Lamb of God is here, the same Jesus who was once sacrificed for your sins. Behold! Look! See him – not with your eyeballs, but with the eyes of faith. Where is he? Only where he promises to be: in the bread and wine that are his true body and blood. Given at the altar of the cross, and distributed from this altar before us today. He's still taking away the sins of the world. He's still giving himself for you.
“Behold the Lamb of God!” John would repeat it. The next day he said it again, and John's own disciples begin to take it to heart. They acknowledge Jesus first as rabbai, teacher – and then as Messiah.
They call him rabbai, which means teacher. Certainly Jesus had much to teach them. They would spend the next 3 years learning from him, following him, being prepared by him for witness to the ends of the earth, and for persecution and martyrdom. They had little idea, I'm sure, that first day they began following the this teacher what they would be taught. The rabbai has much to teach you and me as well. May we follow him faithfully, and tune our ears to his words.
And they also called him the Messiah, which means, the Christ. Which means, the one anointed by God, set apart to bring about salvation. John saw Jesus anointed by the Holy Spirit. John declared Jesus to be the one he was looking for. And so Andrew and the others confess him as Messiah, again probably having little idea what that actually meant. Not a conquering king, but a sacrificial lamb, this Messiah. No worldly glory but only a cross was before him. It would take those disciples even longer to learn this. But here they would also follow, as most of them also met a violent death.
But nonetheless, this Messiah, this Teacher, this Lamb of God – would show them all things in due time. He would continue to reveal the riches of the mystery of his person and work – who he was, and what he really came to do. And much like unwrapping a beautiful Christmas gift, we see the good news of Jesus unveiled for us in the Gospels. We see God's word applied in our lives at various stages and in manifold ways – calling us to repentance, recalling us to his promises, guiding us in the darkness, enlightening us to greater thanks, deeper trust, and more fervent love for our neighbor.
For our faith is all about this Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and that includes your sin. his Rabbai who teaches us by word and deed, this Messiah who is set apart for us – the only savior.
That's at least three names or titles for Jesus in this little reading alone. But he's not the only name of note here. Jesus meets Simon, Andrew's brother, and notice what happens to his name: Jesus changes it. He calls him “Peter”, which means “Rocky”.
You, too, are given a new name in Holy Baptism. There, you receive the very name of the Triune God. There, you are made one with Christ, and a member of God's family. Then and there your whole identity is renewed, as the old Adam is drowned and the new man comes forth. There, each fallen son of man is recreated into a precious child of God.
Later Jesus remarks, when Peter makes the good confession that Jesus is the Christ, that “Upon this rock I will build my church”. So even Peter's name – a new name – teaches us something of Christ, and of the confession of his name.
Friends, the Lord bless you richly this Epiphany season, as we continue to ponder and unwrap this great gift that is given in Jesus. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Behold the Rabbai, the teacher of all men. Behold the Messiah, the only one who can save. Behold, he gives you a new name in baptism, and calls you to confess his strong name.