Preached FCCW, January 15, 2017
For all of us who were born in the 20th or 21st centuries, the one constant in life has been impermanence.
The last hundred years or so have witnessed an acceleration of scientific exploration and technological progress unprecedented in the history of human civilization.
We’ve gone from Kitty Hawk to space shuttles, and from telegraphs to Skype.
Still, we are occasionally surprised by discoveries that we never saw coming.
Like, when Pluto stopped being a planet.
Most of us were taught in grade school science class that our Solar System was made up of nine planets.
That’s the kind of thing you don’t expect to see change.
Then suddenly, in 2006, all those science project models of a nine planet solar system were rendered as obsolete as 8-track tapes by a redefinition of what qualifies as a planet, which resulted in Pluto being kicked out of the planetary club.
Another recent discovery that no one saw coming had to do with changing our ideas, not about what is in the far reaches of outer space, but something that is inside all of us.
Just a few years ago, a new organ in the human body, named the Mesentery, was discovered.
Actually, the Mesentery had always been there.
Leonardo Da Vinci included it in his diagrams of human anatomy 500 years ago.
But, until recently no one had ever noticed that it was an organ.
Which necessitated an updating of Gray’s Anatomy (not the TV show, but the classic medical textbook) to reflect the change in the Mesentery’s classification.
By the Church calendar, we are presently in the season of Epiphany.
An epiphany is by definition, a discovery that no one sees coming, but that has life altering implications.
In the grand scheme of things, neither Pluto’s demotion from planethood, nor the Mesentery’s promotion to recognition as an organ, make the slightest practical difference in your life or mine.
But an epiphany described in today’s Gospel message that has nothing to do with astronomy or anatomy, makes all the difference in the world.
This epiphany did not happen in a modern planetarium or laboratory, but on the banks of the Jordan River, 2000 years ago.
And the source was John the Baptist.
John had just baptized Jesus.
This Gospel doesn’t tell us what that experience was like for Jesus, but we do know what it was like for John.
For John, it was definitely an epiphany.
When he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus from heaven like a dove, and remain on him.
Or, abide with him. Which means the Spirit made its home with Jesus.
John feels compelled to share his epiphany about Jesus with anyone who will listen.
And what he tells people is, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Nobody who heard John call Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” would have ever seen this coming.
Not that lambs being sacrificed to God to take away sins would have seemed like anything out of the ordinary to the people John was telling this to.
Jewish religious practices, not unlike the practices of many other religions of the time, frequently involved sacrificing animals to God.
The Hebrew Scriptures prescribed sacrifices for many purposes, including atonement for sins and for establishing peace between a person and God.
The animals used for these sacrifices ranged from birds to bulls and other things in between.
Especially goats and sheep.
The sacrificing of lambs played a central role in what the Jewish people considered to be the defining moment in their relationship to God and their identity as a people.
When they were slaves in the land of Egypt God worked through Moses to persuade the Egyptians to grant them their freedom.
After those negotiations broke down, God secured their liberation by sending a devastating plague on the Egyptians.
On the night when the plague struck, the Hebrews were given specific instructions.
Each household was to kill a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their home.
The blood on the doorway would protect that household from the plague when it came.
So important was this event in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, that to this day the story is retold every year during the festival of Passover.
So, when John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and called him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” it would have been hard for those who heard him not to think of the Passover lamb and the message of deliverance that image conveyed.
In fact, in the timetable of John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified at the time of day when the lambs were being sacrificed for Passover in the Temple of Jerusalem.
There’s just one problematic detail with connecting the title John gave Jesus of “Lamb of God” with the Passover lamb, or any other lamb that was used for a sacrifice.
All the lambs sacrificed in the Bible were sacrificed BY people TO God, so that God would forgive their sins.
That was how sacrifice worked, how it always had worked, and everyone assumed, how it always would work.
It was as settled a matter for them as a nine planet solar system would be for us.
A Lamb OF God for taking away sin implied that it was GOD who was providing humanity with the lamb to be sacrificed, instead of the other way around.
That was a discovery that on one ever saw coming.
Nowhere in the scriptures was there an instance where God provided the lamb for a sacrifice.
With one exception.
In the Book of Genesis there was a man named Abraham.
Abraham was like the forefather of the Israelite people.
God once promised him that he and his wife Sarah would have as many descendants as there were stars in the sky.
But, at this point in time, all they had was one son, named Isaac.
One day, Abraham gets this idea in his head, that God wants him to prove his faith by offering his only son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice.
So, he and Isaac set out for a place called Mt. Moriah.
Abraham tells his son they are going there to make a sacrifice to God.
Of course, he leaves out the part about Isaac being the sacrifice.
But, when they get to Mt. Moriah, Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
Abraham says, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
It’s hard to tell if Abraham really believed that, because he was on the verge of going ahead and sacrificing Isaac when God intervened and kept him from going through with it.
Abraham looked around and there, in a thicket was a ram, which he sacrificed instead of his son.
A Lamb provided BY God in place of a lamb offered to God.
When the truth was revealed to John the Baptist, that the old order of trying to please God through sacrifices was coming to an end because Jesus was the Lamb of God who would do the sacrificing for us, he encouraged others to discover the truth for themselves by following Jesus.
It’s a truth we still need to be reminded of today.
Because humans can have a hard time letting go of something we have long held to be an immutable truth, and accepting a new truth that replaces it.
Even when that new truth has been around for 2000 years.
Our human awareness rightly tells us that there is this separation from God – this thing called sin – that is part of all of us.
And that something needs to be done about it.
Where we go astray is in the persistent conviction that repairing that separation depends on or figuring out what kind of sacrifice we can perform to make everything right.
All the while, the Good News of the Gospel is that the one thing we are called TO DO to be right with God is to accept what God HAS DONE about it.
Which is to offer to us and for us, the Lamb of God, who is also the Son of God.
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, who spoke at the Mass. Conference Annual Meeting a couple of years ago, has written:
“God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us.
We don’t earn a thing when it comes to God’s love, and we only try to live in response t the gift.
The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always.
We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God.
God is always coming near to us.”
In a moment we will sing these words:
“Just as I am, thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.
Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”
But many people go through life not really believing that promise.
Believing in its place that God does not accept them just as they are.
So, they live life as if they must always prove to God that they are worthy, which turns out to actually be attempting to convince themselves of that, because God doesn’t need convincing.
When we live that way we are still living in the outdated system of offering a daily sacrifice to make peace with a God.
Only what we are sacrificing is not the life of a bull or a lamb, but the life of actually experiencing God’s love for us.
But, for those to whom that epiphany truly becomes a new reality that replaces their old thinking, there also comes a freedom and a desire to follow Jesus, as Andrew and those first disciples did.
Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away sin – my sin, your sin – and the sin of the world.
May that be a promise that we believe, and a discovery that changes our lives.