Worthy is the Lamb of God, John 1:19-24 (1/29/12)

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Jan 302012
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ January 29, 2012 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

 

29The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’

32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’.  (John 1:19-24, NRSV)

 

To best understand the passage from John we just read, we have to take a few steps back.  Specifically, we have to go about 1500 years back.

Many of you know the story.  At that time, God’s people, the Jews, were slaves in Egypt.  For more than 400 years they had been slaves, subject to the brutal tyranny of the Egyptian Pharaohs.  Their suffering, however, did not go unnoticed.  The Bible tells us that God saw their misery, and heard their cries, and set about to liberate them from their bondage.[1]

God chose Moses as his instrument of liberation.  This fugitive shepherd, who, self-admittedly, wasn’t all that good in front of crowds, was sent by God to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go.  Pharaoh refused.  Even after rivers of blood, hordes of frogs, swarms of gnats and flies and locusts, plagues upon his livestock, an epidemic of nasty boils, violent hail and smothering darkness, Pharaoh stubbornly refused.  Nobody can say that God didn’t give Pharaoh a chance.  This was simply an enormously evil and hard-hearted man.

Left with no other option, God resorted to drastic measures.  God told Moses that at midnight the next evening, every firstborn son in all ofEgyptwas to die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh himself right down to the firstborn of every lowly peasant.

God also told Moses that the Hebrew people, however, were to be spared.  But their salvation depended upon a very detailed and mysterious set of instructions.  On the appointed night, each Hebrew family was to take a one-year-old male lamb from their flock, a lamb which was without defect.  At twilight that evening, each spotless lamb was to be slaughtered.  Then, the blood of the lamb was to be sprinkled on the sides and top of the doorframes of their homes.  Finally, each family was to roast the lamb and celebrate a special feast.

This is what God said would then happen.

12I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood [of the lamb] shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.[2]

God promised his people that by morning time, Pharaoh would finally relent and that they would be delivered at last from their age-old bondage.  Which is, by the way, exactly what happened.

Now, before I go any further, let’s just admit something.  Even if this story is familiar to you, don’t you still find it wildly bizarre, even grotesque?  Killing lambs and smearing their blood on your doorframes to protect you from a spirit of judgment?  What sort of superstition is this?  It sounds to me like a bad Stephen King novel.

What can help us is to understand a few things about the ancient culture of that time.  You see, in those days people believed that there was life in blood.  Which makes sense, actually.  If all your blood flows out of you, so does your life.  Right?  In fact, we still think in these terms today.  For instance, if I tell you that your enemy is after you and that he is out for blood, what am I telling you?  Am I telling you that he wants to spread unkind rumors about you?  No.  I’m telling you that he wants to take your life.

In his righteous judgment and wrath, God was coming to take the lives of people who had perpetually stood against him.  He was, you might say, out for blood.  Which is, I know, difficult for many of us to swallow.  We don’t like to think of God in these terms.  Many people, in fact, have walked away from faith because the Bible contains stories like this one.

While we cannot fully explain God’s actions here, it does help to remember that God was not shedding the blood of innocent people here.  The Egyptians of that time were brutal people who had, for 400 years, heaped immeasurable suffering upon a whole other race of people.  And not just any race of people.  They were crushing God’s chosen people, the people through whom God would one day raise up a Messiah to save all people, including Egyptians.  Furthermore, God had given the Egyptians opportunity after opportunity to set his people free.  But time after time they refused to do so.  What was God to do?

It may help us understand God’s actions here when we consider how in our own history, countless gallons of blood were shed in our nation’s Civil War because a group of people would not relent from the brutal practice of enslaving Africans.  Yet, few if any of us today question the terrible decision Abraham Lincoln and others had to make as a last resort.  In an even greater sense, who are we to question the decision of our holy and righteous God when he resorted, as a last resort, to the shedding of blood in order to free an entire nation of people from terribly brutal slavery so that, through these people, he could work out his plan of salvation for the whole world?

For his own reasons, God determined needed to be shed.  Out of judgment, blood needed to be shed that night inEgypt.  But the story takes a surprising turn when blood is also shed that night to lead to salvation.  For when God’s Spirit of judgment came throughEgyptthat night and saw that lifeblood had already been shed in, and sprinkled on, the homes of the Hebrews, the Spirit passed over those homes.  In a way, you could say that the lifeblood poured out of those spotless lambs covered over and protected God’s people at the very same time their tyrants were being defeated.  In the end, it all led to their deliverance.

This episode of God delivering his people out of slavery inEgyptwas, and still is, for the Jews, the central event of the entire Old Testament.  In fact, out of eternal gratitude and joy over what God had done for them, the Jews, from that point forward, celebrated the great feast of Passover year after year after year.  Because of the blood of innocent lambs, God had passed over them in judgment, conquered their oppressors, and set them free.

By the time of the 1st century, Passover had become the pinnacle feast of the entire year, a feast which would attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem.   Specifically, on the 10th day after the full moon of the first month of the vernal New Year, each household, consisting typically of about ten people, would select a spotless, year-old lamb from among their animals.

If you had lived at that time, you and your family would have taken your lamb to the Templelate in the afternoon on Passover Friday during an appointed two-hour period and stood in line.  At the front of the line, a great number of priests would be waiting in rows would meet you there, each holding a gold or silver basin in their hands.  When it was your turn, a male representative from your family group would bring forward the lamb you had chosen, slit its throat there in front of the priests, and watch as one of the priests would catch the blood of the lamb in his bowl.  Then the bowlful of blood would be passed down the line to the last priest who would turn and throw the blood against the altar.  The lamb was then hung on a hook, slit open, and the sacrificial portions of fat would be removed and placed on the altar fire as an offering.  In the end, the family would take home what was left to celebrate the sacred Passover feast that night.[3]   All this to remember what God had done.

How many of you have ever seen an animal slaughtered?  Anybody here grow up in a family, perhaps on a farm, where your parents regularly had to slaughter animals for food?  Some of you are in a much better place than I am to understand this Passover scene.  Like most modern Americans, I’m largely unaware of what it takes to put that piece of meat on my dinner table.  When I eat a lamb chop for dinner, the biggest mess I have to confront in the whole process is scrubbing the frying pan afterwards.

When we were inAlbania this summer I was walking through the village one day and turned a corner and came upon a family who had just slaughtered several sheep.  The ground beneath them and their clothes were dark with blood.  The dead animals were hanging by hooks from a beam as they stripped of their skin.  For a city kid like me, it left an indelible impression.  I ate a lot of salads for the next few days.

By one estimate, there were about 300,000 pilgrims at Passover in those days.  Do the math and you realize that approximately 30,000 lambs had to be slaughtered in the temple in just a two hour period!  It’s staggering when you try and imagine the traffic of the crowds, the frenetic activity of the priests, the bleating chorus of the lambs, and the rivers of blood.  So much blood.

And remember, Passover was just one feast of many feasts throughout the Jewish year which involved the sacrifice of not just sheep, but all sorts of other animals.  Add to that the daily Templepractice of sacrificing one lamb every morning and then another lamb every evening to atone for the sins of the people, and we begin to understand that the blood at the Templealtar never stopped flowing.[4]

Back inEgypt, all it took was one lamb per family on one night to deliver God’s people from 400 years slavery to Pharaoh.  By the time of Christ, however, the sacrifices had become never-ending.  Day after day the animals were marched to theTemple for sacrifice.  The blood of thousands and thousands of animals, with no end in sight.

And the reason was that now God’s people found themselves captive to an even older, even darker, even more terrible form of slavery.  Now they were captives to a tyrant that had been around long before old Pharaoh was even born, a tyrant that was, in fact, as old as time itself.  The tyrant, of course, was sin.  The power it held over them, of course, was death.  And no number of lambs from their flocks, no matter how spotless they all were, would ever be enough to permanently deliver the people from the tyranny of sin and death.

On any given day, a lamb would be sacrificed to atone for the sin in their lives, but it was a momentary atonement.  For almost immediately their lives became, once again, dirty with sin.  It’s like the laundry at my house.  The very moment it’s all clean and folded and put away in the drawers, that very moment the empty basket starts filling up again with more dirty clothes.  As my very patient wife will tell you, the dirty laundry at our house never, ever ends.

But laundry’s one thing.  We can deal with laundry.[5]  The endless bloody sacrifice of lambs is quite another thing.  I mean, what a way to live.  How could anybody live like that?  Day after day trying, in vain, to prove faithfulness to God, to cover up sin, to offer sacrifice after sacrifice to somehow justify lives before heaven.  Who would live like that?

We would.

Think about it.  Think of the guilt we carry around, many of us, for a past we cannot change, regrets from days gone by which weigh heavy in our hearts.  Some of us beat ourselves up daily for failures and shortcomings we simply cannot undo.

Think of the shame we try so hard, many of us, to cover up.  Shame over things we have done in secret.  Shame over thoughts we have allowed take up residence in our privacy of our minds.[6]

So many people in our world go to such extraordinary lengths, make sacrifice after sacrifice, in an attempt to rid themselves of heavy guilt and suffocating shame.

Others of us bring a different lamb to the altar.  We work ourselves to the bone.  We never stop trying to produce because, without realizing it, we are trying desperately to prove that we have accomplished something of value on this earth that might, in the end, justify our lives.  In this pursuit we sacrifice our health, sacrifice our marriages, sacrifice relationships with our kids, sacrifice joy.

Still others of us spend our days looking sideways, comparing our lives to the lives of those around us hoping that, in doing so, we will feel better about ourselves.  In this continual sacrifice of our estimation of others we find temporary relief because we feel, for a moment, richer, faster, smarter, more beautiful.  But the feeling is always temporary and before I know it I’m looking for somebody else’s image to sacrifice in my mind to make me feel momentarily better about myself again.

You see, we are not so different from our ancestors who lined up with their lambs in theTemple.  We may not bring sheep to church anymore.  That doesn’t mean you didn’t come this morning hoping to offer something to God that would make things right.  Sure, our sacrifices are usually much more sanitized.  But they are just as never-ending.  Over and over again, we make our sacrifices, trying in vain to make things right with God.  When does it every end?

Enter John the Baptist.  As we read earlier, one day this prophet was out in the wilderness on the far side of the Jordan River.  We learn in a later passage that it was springtime, and that the Jewish Passover festival was only days away.[7]  Which meant that even the countryside that day would likely have been full of people making their way toJerusalem for the great feast.  And not just people, but probably lots of sheep, and endless stream of lambs being driven up toJerusalem for slaughter.

In the midst of all the excitement, John, at one point, sees this man Jesus coming towards him.  Now John knows who this is, sort of.  At his baptism the day before, John saw the Spirit of God, in the form of a dove, come down from heaven and fill this man.  John knows, because God told him so, that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of this man.  God also told John that this man has far surpassed him because this man has come far before John.  Most importantly, John knows that this man is the Messiah, the very Son of God.

As Jesus draws closer, John, with all this in mind, suddenly proclaims in a loud voice to everybody within earshot, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

This man, John says, is the Lamb of God.  John calls Jesus, the Lamb of God. 

Now, from our vantage point, the title seems entirely fitting.  We almost read right past it.  We’ve heard Jesus referred to as a lamb, many of us, since we were children in Sunday school.  It’s a quaint title which, we imagine, is meant to remind us that Jesus is gentle, and pure, and lovely.  His fleece, like Mary’s little lamb, was white as snow.

Understand something.  No Jew within earshot of John’s declaration that day would have entertained such thoughts.  A lamb in that season was not for cuddling.  A lamb at Passover time was for sacrificing.  You didn’t pet a lamb’s soft coat of wool and have it follow you around wherever you were sure to go.  You drove it to theTemple, and you slit its throat, and you drained its blood, and you hoped that in doing so somehow God would be pleased with you.

All this means that people around John that day must have been thinking to themselves, “What in the world is the crazy man talking about now?  The Lamb of God?  How is this carpenter’s son fromNazaretha Lamb of God?  And the Lamb of God who takes away all the sin of the whole world?   What kind of sacrificial lamb can do away the sins of the entire world?”

I guarantee you, not a single person in earshot of John that day, and perhaps not even John himself, understood what he was saying when he called Jesus the Lamb of God.

In fact, it took another three years, almost to the day, before anybody even began to understand.

Fast forward three years.  By that time, of course, John the Baptist had been executed.  Now it was Jesus’ turn to be executed.  His enemies, in fact, wanted him dead yesterday.  Since the Passover feast was about to begin, these bloodthirsty men wanted Jesus gone before the party started at twilight that Friday evening.

So, after a hasty and unlawful trial Thursday night, they secured permission from the authorities to lead this Lamb of God to his slaughter.  On Friday morning of Passover, they nailed the Lamb of God to the cross.   All day Passover Friday, the lifeblood poured out of the Lamb of God.  And on Friday afternoon of Passover, just before twilight, the Lamb of God died.  He died, in fact, right on schedule.  He died right at the very moment when thousands and thousands of lambs were being led, yet again, to theTemplenearby to be sacrificed for Passover.

The scriptures tell us that as the Lamb of God died, he cried out one last time.  I can almost imagine the sounds of a thousand bleating lambs in the background as the Lamb of God used his last breath to speak these three final words, “It is finished!”[8]

With that, the Lamb of God, the Lamb who was God, and who is God, bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  The pure and spotless Lamb of God, the very author of life, hung lifeless on the cross, so much precious blood drained from his body.

You have no idea how tempted I am to try to do my best to explain all this to you at this point.  What keeps me from attempting to do so is a fear that my words would only cheapen the whole thing.  Let me, therefore, simply allow the words of scripture to speak instead.

Listen carefully to God’s Word to us from Hebrews 9:11-14.  These are verses I encourage you to take this week and reflect deeply upon.  There is more good news here than we can ever begin to comprehend.

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come,* then through the greater and perfect* tent* (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves [or lambs!], but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit* offered himself without blemish to God, [how much more will he] purify our* conscience from dead works to worship the living God![9]

Jesus, of course, put it more succinctly from the cross.  “It is finished,” he cried out.  It is finished.  Not only the sacrifice of animals at the altar, but also the sacrifices we make out of shame and guilt, the sacrifices we make for dead works of self-righteousness, the sacrifices we make to pull ourselves up by pushing others down, all that we might ever try to do, or have to do, to justify ourselves before God, it is finished.  It is finished.

John certainly could not have known what it all meant.  Still, he got it right.  Jesus was, and is, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  In light of this tremendously good news, what else can we do but worship the living God?

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”[10]

Amen.

 

The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

 

~ Read John 1:19-34 again, focusing particularly on verses 29-34.  What stands out here for you?

 

~ In the past when you have heard Jesus referred to as the Lamb of God, what has come to mind?  Has your understanding of that title changed after hearing this message?

 

~ How do you make sense of all the bloodshed of animal sacrifice in theTemplethat happened in biblical times?  Was this what God wanted from his people?

 

~ When Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” what do you think he was telling us?

 

~ What does Jesus want to see finished in your life?

 

~ In First Corinthians 5:7, Paul writes, “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.”  What do you think Paul meant when he compared Jesus to the sacrificial lambs of Passover?

 

~ In Romans 12:1 we find one of the most famous verses in the whole New Testament.  Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”  In light of all we’ve heard about God’s people at one time offering God dead sacrifices, what do you think Paul means here by encouraging Christians to now offer God their bodies, their very selves, as living sacrifices?  How can something, or someone, be a living sacrifice?

 

~ At Passover the Jews would feast on the lamb which had been sacrificed.  What connections can you make between this and the fact that at the Last Supper (which was, by the way, a Passover Feast), Jesus instructed his disciples to break and eat the bread, which was his body, and pour our and drink the cup, which was his blood?

 

Further Scripture Readings for the Week: 

Monday:       Exodus 12:1-30 – The first Passover

Tuesday       Isaiah 53:1-12 – A Lamb to the slaughter

Wednesday:         Genesis 22:1-19 – God provides the lamb

Thursday:      Revelation 5:1-14 – Worthy is the Lamb!

Friday:           Romans 12:1-8 – Living sacrifices

Saturday :     In preparation for worship on Sunday, read and reflect on John 1:35-42.

 

 



[1] See Exodus 3:7 where God says, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people inEgypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”

[2] Exodus 12:L13-14, NRSV.

[3] Information from The Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig A. Evans & Stanley E. Porter, (Downers Grove,Illinois: Intervarsity Press, c. 2000), p. 1043.

[4] See Exodus 29:39-40.

[5] Easy for me to say!  I don’t do much of it.

[6] Writer Anne Lamott spoke for many of us when she said, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

[7] See John 2:13.

[8] John 19:30.

[9] Hebrews 9:11-14, NRSV.

[10] Revelation 5:12, NIV.