Sunday, January 19, 2020

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 1
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

How would you describe a lamb who can’t be good? Baaaaaad.
How would you describe my joke? Baaaaaad.

Well, I can take “have the congregation make involuntary sheep noises” off the list. But wait: sheep noises or lamb noises? Seems they’re the same thing, which the smug agrarians among us already knew. Sheep begin as lambs, for the first year or so, then they are sheep. The sheep are divided between ewes and rams, and when they get together, they make more lambs.

It is believed that sheep were the second animal to be domesticated (after man’s best friend), so I suppose sheep are our second best friend. And for thousands of years, sheep were an important source of milk, meat and skins for our distant relatives. Some time later wool become a thing, and you’re likely still wearing it today. Speaking of meat, when you eat lamb it’s lamb and when you eat sheep it’s mutton. I understand both go well with mint jelly.

Again, the sheep farmers in our midst already know this stuff, but those of us who have been domesticated to city life, less so. Things that were common knowledge a hundred years ago are no longer common knowledge, as our connection to the farm—any farm—has been severed. Despite this, we read our Bibles and find countless references to agrarian life. Fields and groves, seeds and vines, stables and pasture land—scripture gives us everyday things that are really symbols, and we look for meaning.

If we heard the extended version of the reading Joan shared, we would already know that “lamb of God” appears twice. Rule of thumb: if a symbol or motif appears more than once in a short passage, pay attention. So twice John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, and on the first occasion adds an important addition: “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We already know what this symbol does, but how does it work?

Before we do that, though, we need to review a thousand years of religious art. I hope you don’t have plans. Actually, I can be quick, because I’m leaning on the work of art historian Waldemar Januszczak. Waldemar—we’ll just call him Waldemar—begins his look at Jesus in art by looking at the earliest depictions. And Jesus appears frequently on sarcophagi—stone vaults that Roman Christians used to bury their dead.

The first thing that he notes is that Jesus looks young, a handsome lad, clean-shaven, with curly hair. Generally, he’s busy doing what Jesus does, healing the sick, making water into wine, and raising Lazarus. Often he has a sort of wand in his hand, touching the lame with it, or pointing it at poor old Lazarus. Waldemar notes that it will take nearly a thousand years for artwork with the crucified Jesus to appear, which is squarely a product of the Middle Ages. But early on, in art at least, Jesus is a miracle worker, freeing the people from every sort of sorrow.

Also in the Roman period, we find a lot of lambs in Christian art. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Between the first and the fourth century, eighty-eight frescoes [showing Jesus carrying a lamb] were depicted in the Roman catacombs. Clearly this symbolizes a lost soul being carried off to heaven by the Good Shepherd. It would have brought great comfort to those visiting these underground resting places.

Likewise, the catacombs featured lambs depicted with milk. One fresco “shows a shepherd milking a sheep, while still another shows milk-pail on an altar between two sheep.” Some argue that the sheep’s milk symbolizes communion, while others suggest milk represents the joy of heaven, once again a comfort to grieving family and friends. Whatever it means, it has an innocent quality to it, literal “comfort food” pointing to an eternity with the Most High.*

Now, before we drift too far from our passage, we need to hear our key verse again: “Behold,” John says, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” You don’t have to travel far to begin to see this is Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Maybe he’s the Passover lamb, sacrificed to save the Israelites in their hour of great need. Maybe the lamb sacrificed in the temple, or the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, or the vision of the lamb found in the Book of Revelation.** Even St. Paul describes Jesus as the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5.6), but curiously doesn’t dwell on the image.

So even though it’s obvious that Jesus died that others might be free from the power of death, it doesn’t automatically follow that the ‘Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world’ is a reference to his passion. Rather, John’s words seem to describe his earthly project, soon to be revealed, where the very presence of God would begin the work of healing, reconciling, and forgiving on Jordan’s bank.

A moment ago I mentioned innocence, the quality that comes when we see the Good Shepherd carrying that lost sheep in his shoulders, or the innocence of heavenly milk in art. Listen again the part of our passage, and focus on the innocence implied:

When [John] saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

Oddly, my favourite part of the passage is four in the afternoon. Why would John (the evangelist) remember such a detail? What could it mean? Now think back to the moment you met someone that would become important in your life, a partner, or a special friend: are there details that remain vivid in your memory? Can you recall the time of day, or the weather, or the place where you were? You see, memory and emotion tend to fuse, and sometimes we find details emerge, details you might not otherwise remember. It was four in the afternoon.

Likewise, the conversation itself has a sweetness that won’t be reflected in the latter half of John’s Gospel:

“What do you want?”
“Rabbi, where are you staying?”
“Come, and you will see.”

Some years ago I was attending the Greenbelt Festival, on a rainy Saturday in the Cotswolds. This was also the day that I discovered that yellow raincoats are unusual in the UK (I’m not sure why). At any rate, walking along, I got the sense that I was being followed, so looking around, I saw half-a-dozen girls following me, all around twelve. Curious, I said, “What's going on girls?” and then the answer: “We’re following the yellow man!” For me, it’s a delightful memory, one I won’t soon forget.

Back to our passage, what if it’s his innocence—his light—that takes away the sin of the world. Perhaps it’s his very presence and his tender approach—both lamb and shepherd—that embodies God’s desire to dwell with us, to befriend us, and to give us aid. Whatever trouble surrounds us, whatever ailment befalls us, whatever challenge confronts us, the Lamb of God is at our side and the Good Shepherd is carrying us home.

God’s approach can sometimes feel abrupt—serving us lessons we wouldn’t seek on our own—but for today it’s gentle, and innocent, and filled with the promise of a Saviour who is always companion and guide. May you be blessed by the Lamb of God and the Shepherd of the sheep, now and always, Amen.

**Texts for Preaching A, p. 107.


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