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To Be a Witness
January 16, 2011
01-16-2011 SermonLast week a friend invited Jan and me to one of Austin’s new downtown restaurants. This happening place was crowded, noisy, and full of customers, most of whom were young, tattooed, urban and hip. (Needless to say, I fit right in). Surveying the scene, it crossed my mind to wonder about these young people: what are their hopes, their fears, their interests? What would they say if asked, “What are you looking for?” The crowd in the restaurant that night was probably typical of young people today: electronically savvy and connected, and—many of them—wary of religion. Well, in our reading this morning, John the Baptist appears as a witness to Jesus. He points to Jesus and says, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Surely, a pressing challenge for the church today is to point people to Jesus in a way that wins their attention and arouses their interest.
Granted, objections will be raised. An organization of religious skeptics who call themselves Freedom from Religion surveyed its members about why they left religion behind. The most common reason given was “religion doesn’t make sense.” In what way, these religious skeptics might ask, has Jesus taken away the sin of the world? Such a claim seems to contradict the facts; it doesn’t match our experience in the world. Indeed, we are reminded every day that the world’s sin is very much with us.
Earlier this week, a voice from the heavens was beamed to earth. It was the voice of astronaut Scott Gifford, brother-in-law of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, who, along with several others, was gunned down last weekend in Tucson. From his space station, Kelly spoke over the radio as flight controllers in Houston fell silent. “As I look out the window, I see a beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not. These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words. We’re better than this,” he said. “We must do better.” In our world, where the sin of violence continues to set neighbor against neighbor, we Christians point to Jesus and make the intriguing but controversial claim that Jesus takes away the sin of the world. Does that make sense?
Of course, the sense of that claim is embedded in a metaphor: Jesus is the Lamb of God. In his commentary on this passage, New Testament Scholar Raymond Brown opens up this metaphor, helping us see the range of its meaning.
For one thing, Lamb of God imagery evokes the Pascal Lamb associated with the Jewish Passover. The Fourth Gospel, especially in relation to the death of Jesus, identifies Jesus with Passover symbolism. John notes, for example, that Jesus was condemned to death at noon on the day before Passover, and this was the very time that the priest began to slay the paschal lambs in the Temple. Religious skeptics would neither be interested in nor swayed by various atonement theories that attempt—none with complete success—to explain how Jesus as the Lamb of God takes away the world’s sin. But in essence Jesus represents the heart of God, a bleeding heart, whose love for the world stops at nothing.
On this Sunday before Martin Luther King’s birthday, recall how, during the Chicago crisis, a weary King concluded a sermon to his Ebenezer congregation with these words, ”I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.” Whatever else identifying Jesus as the “Lamb of God” means, we know it means this: God goes the way of self-giving love on behalf of a world that appears to be trapped in enmity. If it means sacrificing, God in Christ was willing to go that way. If it means dying for a world at war with itself, God in Christ was willing to go that way. God’s willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others is partly what we mean when we point a violence-weary world to Jesus and say, “Look! The Lamb of God.”
Further, when we point to Jesus as the Lamb of God, images of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah come to mind. The so-called Servant Songs found in the prophet Isaiah depict God’s servant as one who fights evil with the power of love. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…By a perversion of justice he was taken way…although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isa. 53). The Lamb of God embodies God’s purpose to redeem the world nonviolently. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement provided a powerful witness to nonviolence as God’s chosen way of redeeming the world. King declared, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time…Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method that rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” When we point to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away sin, we are reminding the world that nonviolence whose foundation is love is God’s answer for the problem of violence.
And there is yet another dimension to the Lamb image in scripture. While the Lamb of God is identified with suffering, sacrifice and death, the Lamb is also triumphant. Jesus risen and ascended is proclaimed to be the victorious lamb who ultimately destroys the world’s sin and evil. The book of Revelation, especially, trumpets Jesus as the triumphant lamb who has trampled all destructive powers under his foot. Whenever oppressed, discouraged or frightened people put their faith in Jesus as the triumphant lamb, the result is hope, the result is courage, the result is the power of love to overcome all odds.
One December evening in Albany, Georgia, King was invited to preach in the Shiloh Baptist church, where a great throng had gathered in preparation for a demonstration. A reporter named Pat Watters remembers that as King’s sermon reached its crescendo an old man in the congregation punctuated each of his remarks with a blood-curdling “GOD-ALMGHTY!”
“How long will we have to suffer injustices,” King asked?
“GOD ALMIGHTY!” the old man thundered back.
“How long will justice be crucified and truth buried?” King continued, and, “GOD ALMIGHTY!” came the response.
“But we shall overcome.”
“SHALL OVERCOME,” the crowd chorused back. Then, his voice full of emotion, King shouted, “Don’t stop now. Keep moving, Walk together, children. Don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting coming…”
This conviction that justice will prevail, evil will be defeated and truth will triumph is carried by those who recognize Jesus not only as the sacrificial lamb, not only as the suffering servant lamb, but also as the victorious lamb. Only when we begin to grasp the fullness of this great metaphor will the Baptist’s words form on our own lips: “Look, world. Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Does this make sense to those young people I noticed in the restaurant? To middle-aged skeptics? Does it make sense to you? Like John the Baptist, our mission is nothing more than to point to Jesus in every way we know how while extending the invitation: “Come and see.” Just “come and see.”
? To middle-aged skeptics? Does it make sense to you? Like John the Baptist, our mission is nothing more than to point to Jesus in every way we know how while extending the invitation: “Come and see.” Just “come and see.”