“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
I am trusting that we are past the worst of the fires now. I am no expert, of course, and perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, but I’m trusting that the prayers of this nation have been heard and that rain is going to continue to fall and that we are somehow going to be able to recover, though I’m not at all sure how that’s possible.
Apart from the terrible loss of those who were killed and the 3,000 homes that were destroyed, there have apparently been 17.9 million acres of land burnt out and over a billion animals killed, and God-knows-how-many insects, all since the fires started last September. Can we really expect things to just go back to normal now?
Each of us has been dealing with this crisis in our own way, relative to our own specific circumstances. Many of us had to abandon holidays but were thankfully able to safely return home. In the case of one member of our community, she and her son weren’t able to properly evacuate their holiday destination in time, but had to stand waist-deep in the ocean, along with most of the rest of the town and their animals, while they watched all the homes along the coastline burn!
Certainly the most impacting news footage I’ve seen was that taken on Kangaroo Island by a crew of firefighters who were attempting to escape from the blaze in their firetruck. The video feed is both frightening and inspiring – frightening because the raging fires seem more like a depiction of hell than anything earthly, but inspiring too by virtue of the cool and collected way the team handle themselves under pressure. They listen to instructions on the radio, quietly put up their fire curtains along the inside of their vehicle when the blaze hits them directly, and efficiently navigate their way out of the firestorm (thanks be to God).
While the link may not seem immediately obvious, that scene of firefighters trying to escape the blaze reminded me very much of what’s going on in Gaza at the moment.
They’re not surrounded by fire in Gaza, of course, but by a fence that seals the population off from the outside world and, since 1991, all food and all other materials going in and out of Gaza are monitored and restricted by the Israeli army (IDF).
In 2006, Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, said that Israeli policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Having said that, this is the year – 2020 –in which experts at the United Nations (UN) predicted that Gaza would become unliveable.
The population of Gaza is over two million, more than 50% of whom are children (18 and under). According to the UN, ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s water is now undrinkable, meaning that only 40% of Gaza’s children are consuming water that is fit for human consumption. Even disregarding the food shortages, the massive unemployment, and all the other myriad problems that beset these people, the water situation alone means that this year Gaza is under a real threat of Genocide. Like those caught in the fires, the people of Gaza are looking for a way to escape.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
That’s our text today from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, and you may well ask what that text has to do with escaping from bushfires or escaping from Gaza. The answer, surprisingly perhaps, is quite a lot!
We are in the season of Epiphany, of course, and, as the word implies, Epiphany is all about discovering unexpected things – unexpected things, in this case, about who Jesus was and who Jesus is.
On the actual day of the Epiphany we remembered the coming of the magi – those strange Iranian astrologers who came to see Jesus as a child because they had ‘seen his star in the east’. Their question to Herod, you may remember, was “where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) This was their epiphany – their unexpected discovery – that the Jews had a new king – Jesus!
On the first Sunday after Epiphany – last Sunday – we were given a second unexpected revelation about the identity of Jesus. As Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, a voice was heard from Heaven, saying, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). This was the second Epiphany (so to speak). Jesus is the ‘Son of God’.
Today, on the second Sunday after Epiphany, we have a third revelation about Jesus, this time from John the Baptist. Jesus, John tells us, is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
If you’ve been a member of the church for any length of time, you should be familiar with each of these epiphanies as we use these titles with regards to Jesus every week in worship. We refer to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ every time we say the creed, and we sing of Jesus as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ every time we celebrate the Eucharist. None of this is to say, of course, that we understand what we are talking or singing about, but these are familiar epiphanies nonetheless!
I want to take a moment today to unpack these epiphanies a little, such that if someone were to ask you what the Bible means when it says that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ or the ‘Lamb of God’ or the ‘King of the Jews’, you might be able to offer them a reasonably coherent answer.
That is not to say that you don’t already have a coherent answer, nor is it to suggest that your current answer may not be more coherent than the one I’m about to offer you. Even so, I am convicted that, for the most part, our popular understanding of what these terms mean doesn’t have a lot to do with what the Gospel-writers originally understood by these terms.
Let’s start with the most familiar title – ‘Son of God’. It’s a title that refers to the kingship of Jesus.
“I have installed My King on Zion, upon My holy mountain.” I will proclaim the decree spoken to me by the LORD: “You are my Son; today I have become Your Father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:6-8)
To say that Jesus is the ‘son of God’ is to say that He is the king of Israel – the leader of God’s people. This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t also metaphysically and ontologically share in the divine essence in some way, which the Gospel-writer, John, clearly believed He did. ‘Son of God’ just doesn’t mean that in and of itself.
‘Son of God’ was what you called the king. In other words, the first epiphany, given to the Magi, and the second epiphany, given by the voice from Heaven, are actually the same epiphany. Jesus is the king of the Jews, the king of Israel – the leader of God’s people.
I think when we understand this it helps us make sense of a whole lot of the New Testament.
I think we often wrongly depict the struggle Jesus has in the Gospel stories as one being between Jesus’ agenda for the spiritual salvation of the world and political agenda of His contemporaries in first century Palestine which was for liberation from the Roman occupation. I think this depiction is only half right.
Yes, the main thing on the mind of Jesus’ contemporaries was liberation from the Roman occupation. Of course it was!
If you were able to talk to the average Jew in first century Palestine and ask them what was really bothering them, it’s unlikely that many would have responded by talking about their need to confess and deal with their sins, any more than if you walked around Gaza today and asked people there what was most bothering them, any more than if you asked someone on a property in the bush with fire closing in on all sides … Actually, maybe in that case you would find someone ready to confess their sins and ask for mercy on their immortal soul, but if they thought God was going to send someone who would lead them out of the fire to safety …
This is the person the Jews were waiting for in first century Judea – someone who would lead them out of the fire that was the Roman occupation – most probably a more brutal military occupation than anything we see today.
We Christians have taken on the cross as a symbol of our faith, and this for understandable reasons, but for most first century Jews, the cross was a symbol of Imperial control over their lives.
People were always crucified in very public places where they died slowly and excruciatingly. It was Rome’s way of reminding you that they were all powerful and that you were nothing. After the slave revolt lead by Spartacus, which took place about seventy-three years before Jesus was born, the Roman army crucified more than 6,000 slaves and lined the Appian Way for 130 miles with their bodies. This is what happens to those who raise their hands against Rome.
If you were a first century Jew, you’d been brought up on stories about the good old days when your people were independent and lived under the rule of great and godly kings, like the legendary David – not pathetic despots like Herod, who wasn’t a real king anyway as he was really just the servant of the emperor.
Those were the days when you were able to worship your God in the way your God expected you to, without interference from any pagan overlords, who had their soldiers on every street corner and who taxed you on every shekel you made and who imprisoned your uncle and crucified two of your cousins…
You were brought up on stories of the good old days, and you were also brought up on stories about how God was going to send another David – another great king who bring this foreign occupation to an end and lead his people to a better tomorrow.
Of course Jesus contemporaries saw in Him their long-awaited king who would bring an end to the Roman occupation. The mistake we make is in thinking that the Gospel writers didn’t also see this in Jesus, for in fact, the first Epiphany we are given about Jesus is that he is the King of the Jews – the King of Israel – which is then confirmed by the voice from Heaven – ‘this is my beloved Son’. The mistake we make, I’d suggest, is in seeing this third epiphany – that Jesus is ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ – as being less political than the first two.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
I know that sounds very ‘spiritual’ compared to the other two titles but, according to Biblical scholar, Tom Wright, talking about ‘forgiveness of sin’ in first century Judea was just another way of referring to the end of the Roman occupation.
That might sound counter-intuitive, but not when you realise that the whole thrust of the Jewish Bible, which ends with God’s people under foreign occupation, is that they were suffering because they had sinned and were under God’s judgement.
The Roman occupation, like the occupation of the Greeks that preceded it, like the occupation of the Medes and Persians, like the occupation of the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem and deported her inhabitants almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus – they were all a part of the same punishment for the people’s sin,
When the people had suffered sufficiently for their sins, the hope was that their punishment would end and that independence would be restored. Another David – indeed, an even greater King than David – would take charge and rule God’s people. This is the great Old Testament hope, and John the Baptist says it’s going to be brought about by Jesus – the lamb of God who will take away their sin.
If you’re thinking that the image of the lamb is taken from the sacrificial system, as outlined in the book of Leviticus, it’s not. The sacrifice that takes away sin, according to the Torah, is always a bull and not a lamb. There’s also a goat that the people prayed over and transferred their sins onto, after which the beast was shewed away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16) but no lamb.
The image of the lamb is taken from the Exodus – from the Passover. The lamb was sacrificed just before God’s people, who were slaves in Egypt, began their journey to freedom, and the blood of the lamb protected their children from the angel of death.
Forgive me. Epiphany is a difficult time of year, for these revelations about the true identify of Jesus may be difficult for us to connect with. Most of us don’t have much to do with lambs, and we probably don’t see the Exodus from Egypt as our story.
In the US tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and if you are an African American, you might well see the story of the exodus – of God’s people coming out of slavery into freedom – as being your story too.
If you’re living in Gaza at the moment, the story of God’s people emerging from a land of death and oppression and into freedom might resonate deeply with you too.
I think for most of us Australians though, the image of the firefighters being led out of the death zone on Kangaroo Island and into safety might be as close as we can get to John’s intended meaning.
Forgive me if you haven’t seen that footage, but a big part of the power of that scene for me is that there is a truck that is going ahead of the one that is doing the filming, and the eyes of the driver a constantly looking to that truck for guidance, and there’s constant, calming commentary coming over the radio all the time too, telling them that they’re doing great, and I assume that’s coming from the truck ahead as well.
This is Jesus as He is manifested to us today – as a Moses-like figure who is moving ahead of us through the dangerous waters and leading us out of chaos and slavery and pain and into freedom – the Passover lamb of God who frees us from our past and give us hope for a better tomorrow. Glory to His name!
First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 19th of January 2020.