Tuesday, 28 January 2014

What are you looking for?

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 19 Jan 2014. Text: John 1:29-42.

“What are you looking for?” It’s the first words we hear from Jesus in John’s gospel. Up until that point he’s been talked about, as the eternal Word of God and then as the one who John the Baptist is talking about. It’s a challenge to the disciples of John the Baptist, and it changes their lives. And it’s a challenge to us too. We’ll come back to that, but just now I want to talk about the Lamb of God. 

One of my great pleasures in life is singing in choirs. I sang in my first classical concert when I was 20, and got hooked. So I tend to have lots of tunes in my head at any time – it’s what some people call earworms. And this week, since I’ve started thinking about this passage, I’ve had at least two settings of the words of John the Baptist that it begins with: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. It’s a vivid image, and it’s one of the key prayers of the Catholic Mass and also the Requiem Mass, so it’s been set to music by many different composers, especially in its Latin text: “Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi”. And if you have any interest in classical music, or ever listen to Classic FM, your head might now be running through at least one version of that text! The one that especially has been in my head is a modern setting, written at the turn of the millennium by Karl Jenkins, part of his piece called “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace”. I sang it ten years ago. I listened to the Agnus Dei a few days ago and had goose-bumps down my spine. It’s music that has real power to it, because it derives from an image with real power.

“Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The instant John sees Jesus, it’s what he says to his disciples, even before he baptises Jesus and sees the Spirit descending and hears the voice from heaven. And John says it again when he sees Jesus the next day. Indeed, we don’t hear another word from John the Baptist in this gospel. For him and the gospel writer, it’s clearly a crucial image. And if you look at many of the traditional paintings of John the Baptist, he appears with a lamb beside him.

So what did John mean by referring to Jesus as the lamb of God? For such a resonant phrase, it’s amazing that it appears in precisely only two verses in the Bible, both in this chapter. But the idea of a lamb is present through the Bible, both old and new. And there’s lots of ways of interpreting the phrase. I want to talk about two.

First, the Passover lamb. In the book of Exodus, the people of Israel are told to slaughter a lamb and roast it over a fire, and then to smear the blood on their doorposts. It is the sign of the blood which tells the Angel of Death to pass over them, to save their children. It’s a gruesome story and a gruesome image, but one that was and remains central to Jewish identity as a people rescued by God. The Passover celebrations were a few days after the baptism of Jesus, and so the slaughter of lambs would have been in John’s mind. So one way in which Jesus could be said to be the Lamb of God is in his sacrifice. And of course related to that were the images that the prophets had, such as the suffering servant being led as a “lamb to the slaughter” in Isaiah.

Second, the victorious lamb. In the time of the Maccabees, around a hundred and fifty years before John baptised Jesus, lambs were a symbol of conquerors. A lamb with horns was a sign of power and strength, not of weakness and sacrifice. There’s a lot about the victorious lamb in the book of Revelation, such as the great hymn which Handel used at the end of Messiah, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing’. So as much as the image of the lamb is about sacrifice, it’s also about power and victory, hence the picture of the lamb & the flag.

But there’s more in these short words. John not only calls Jesus the lamb of God but also says that he takes away the sin of the world. There’s a lot about sin in the gospels, but Jesus only said he was forgiving sins in a few places. One of the most prominent was the healing of the paralytic man at Capernaum who was let down through the ceiling. Before Jesus healed him, he first of all said “your sins are forgiven”, and it was that which shocked the Pharisees much more than the actual healing. And the gospel of Matthew records that at the last supper, which we will be remembering in communion later, he said that the wine was the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. So we can see Jesus forgiving sins both during his life and through his death. And the Agnus Dei was originally written as a prayer to be said while communion was being celebrated – as the priest broke the bread, the people spoke or sung the words over and over until all the bread was distributed.

The second time Jesus is introduced by John the Baptist as the lamb of God, John has two of his disciples with him. And as I said earlier, Jesus said some words to them that just as well could be addressed to us: “what are you looking for?” It’s a challenge to them. They’re clearly seeking for something, but what is it? Are they just going for one interesting figure to another, or are they really looking for truth? And Jesus had a lot of conversations with different people during his public ministry, and some of them had pretty strong agendas. So Jesus is asking the disciples of John: what is your agenda? Why are you here? What are you looking for in life?

It’s a question that Jesus could be asking each one of us just as well. What are we looking for? And it’s an open question too. It’s not a trick question, with a single right answer. Jesus came to people where they were, and taught them and healed them and led them to God where they were. The gospel of John is full of vivid images along with the lamb of God – the light of the world, the bread of life, the vine and the branches – and these reflect different ways that different people found what they were looking for in Jesus. But all of them had to be authentically themselves, to allow Jesus to see them authentically and to listen to him fully. They call him Rabbi, but in Jesus’ day, Rabbis – highly respected public teachers – didn’t go out seeking for the followers, the followers came to them.

And that’s what the disciples do. They want to know where Jesus is staying, and ask him. And Jesus says, “Come and see”. So they go to the place Jesus was staying, and they remained there with him. The word in the Greek is exactly the same as that which is translated as “abide” later in John’s gospel where Jesus says he is the vine and his disciples are the branches and over and over he says they must abide in him, they must remain with him. It’s not an easy journey, and many of them suffer for it, but it changes them completely. At the end of the reading we meet Simon, brother of Andrew, for the first time. He was transformed from a simple fisherman to the centre of a new movement by this encounter, and Jesus even gave him a new name – Cephas or in Greek Peter, which means ‘rock’ and as some people have commented is a bit like saying your new friend who’s quite big and burly should be called ‘Rocky’.

On and off the past couple of months I’ve been reading a book by an American pastor, John Ortberg, by the title “Who is this man?”  It’s a question to wrestle with. Who is Jesus for us? What are we looking for when we seek him? Here’s what John Ortberg says (in a different book) about being a follower of Jesus:
The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort. This means that to be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life.

The disciples must trust in him, and follow him. Do we have the courage to do the same? And can we ask ourselves what that would truly mean in our lives right now?

What are you looking for?