Sermon: Sunday 19 January 2014
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Look, here is the Lamb of God John 1:29
I do not subscribe to the school which requires all religious language to be straightforward. It seems to me that the weight which some religious words are required to carry make this nigh impossible. But equally I often wonder whether the words that we use have enough common understanding.
What do you hear and what do you feel when each week in this Cathedral you watch a priest very often lift the consecrated bread and wine accompanied by the words derived from our gospel reading – “Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. The words are reinforced by the choir repeating these traditional words known as the Agnus Dei – and used in the Eucharist from the 5th or 6th century of Christian worship. I wonder if they help you focus the significance of that moment. I wonder if they perhaps make connections in your head with innocence, as our new Cathedral crib explicitly does – see the vulnerable baby laid in his crib with the two lambs sitting in front guarding or warming the child.
We will hear this in today’s anthem, William Blake’s meditation on the Lamb from Songs of Innocence:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice
Making all the vales rejoice?
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child…
But the associations with innocence do not remain innocent. The words are explicitly connected with the death of Jesus and the shedding of blood. The image that comes to my mind is Zurbaran’s bound lamb. It the one of the best examples of his work and is in that tradition of still life painting. I use the words advisedly – this is still life but only just. The bound lamb awaits his fate. It is an image of intense stillness. I find it almost unbearable. This image of animal suffering is painted to signify the suffering of Christ as an exemplar of all human suffering.
There are two sets of images and ideas in the Bible associated with religious language about the Lamb. The first is apocalyptic to be found in the book of Revelation when at the completion of all things the Lamb of God is enthroned. This is God’s conquering hero that was part and parcel of the spiritual and political hopes of Jesus day. This is an image of triumph – despite all the oppressive actions of an occupying Roman force and despite all the angst of the human condition – all will be well. Some Christians have been content to leave it at that but to me that seem to dodge some trickier territory.
So secondly, serious butchery is very much part of the history of the people of God. In November in Jerusalem I told the pilgrimage group on the Temple Mount that they needed to think of that place more like an abattoir than as a quiet chapel for contemplation. Make that mental shift and we get nearer to the reality of the Temple as a place of worship.
The story which first comes to mind is that of the offering of Leviticus where in an annual ritual two animals are taken – one is slaughtered and its blood as a symbol of life is offered to God. The other has the sins of the nation named over its head and it is sent off into the wilderness as the scapegoat acting vicariously for the people. Jesus the lamb speaks of one bearing our sins. But he is not sent off into the wilderness to die; instead he is set before us – we see instead that scapegoating will no longer do. The Lamb of God is a challenge to all our scapegoating tendencies – to blame others to save ourselves.
Next, I think of the story of the Israelites in Egypt when the first Passover is initiated. A lamb was to be slaughtered and the door post was to be daubed with its blood marking the place for life so that the angel of death would pass by. John certainly sets the death of Jesus within the context of a Passover. Some scholars believe the Last Supper to have been a Passover meal. In Judaism, Passover is not a sacrifice for sin nor is the lamb seen to be a substitution. Rather that meal is food for the journey on the way to liberation from Egypt.
It is like the true story of Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s new film 12 Years a Slave. The slaves sing ‘Run Jordan Run’. The theologian James Cone says that this ‘makes clear that the black slaves were not passively waiting for the future; they were actively living as if the future were already present’. It’s what he calls the ‘transcendent present’. Christian talk of the Lamb of God is a cry to be free and to know it now.
Finally and most difficultly, my thoughts go to the story of Abraham and his precious son Isaac. In what seems to me to be one of the most barbaric offensive stories in scripture Abraham’s faith is tested. He is asked to sacrifice his own son. Abraham and Sarah have been childless and faced public humiliation for that. Having waited so long for a son, Abraham’s future is now secured through Isaac and his shame is salved. But all that is in jeopardy as the Father contemplates murdering the son. God provides a ram caught in a thicket instead of the boy.
This leads some Christians to speak of Jesus as the one who takes the rap, who becomes the one taking the anger that was instead due to us by God. Jews point to Abraham’s story as a revelation of God. This is a God who takes us away from the need for us to wield a knife over the vulnerable. Compare that to the alleged ‘Christian God’ whose anger is so unquenchable that his Son must die. That just can’t be an adequate understanding of the justice of God.
John says in his Gospel that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. It is not sins, because clearly that is not true – we are still beset by our sins. But instead he takes away the sin of the world – the system, the whole broken way the world is conceived. In this reading the Lamb of God reveals the system which abuses the innocent and allows us to project onto God childish but understandable responsibility for things which are really ours to own – most especially our anger.
The Lamb of God shows another way to live and another way to grow up and take responsibility. Jesus is a sacrificial offering but becomes the sacrifice himself to bring to an end any need for blood sacrifice. A new way of merciful love is fully revealed and the only sacrifice now is that of the offering of hearts and minds and lives in worship.
So it is a complex layered religious phrase which I can neither fully explain nor understand. Today’s gospel tells us that the John the Baptist utters ‘Look, the Lamb of God’ as Jesus ‘was coming towards him’. It is the action we see at the altar-table with the raised bread and wine.
God in Christ, the Lamb of God, is making the move towards us in challenge of our scapegoating, in changing the entire way the world and religion works and in revealing the freedom of God’s children.
© The Very Revd David Monteith