Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15/16, 2011
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
Our Gospel lesson for today begins with one of the greatest encounter of all time … John the Baptist, coming face to face with Jesus. This delightful moment has been celebrated in many paintings, perhaps the most famous the altarpiece in the central church of Isenheim, Germany. The painter, Matthias Grünewald, depicts a gaunt John, pointing his bony finger at the One he had said was to come. A wise preacher once said that in John’s simple announcement, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, we have a perfect summary of the entire Gospel … everything else is merely commentary.
Perhaps that is true, but unfortunately, I fear, our Gospel lesson is filled with images that lack clarity for many who gather in churches like Washington Memorial Chapel. Behold the Lamb of God! That expression does not have the hold on 21st century Americans that it did for Hebrew people, living two-thousand years ago. We do not see many lambs today ~ we are certainly far-removed from anything that smacks of sheep-herding.
But this is precisely why it is important to learn the language of faith. No one should expect to be able to wander into a Christian church, without any familiarity with Biblical tradition, and fully understand a Scripture lesson like our Gospel reading. This is a little like observing a cricket match and expecting to make perfect sense of the game without an explanation from a proper member of the British Commonwealth. While I am sure that God can overcome our Biblical inexperience, I see no reason to believe that faith is enhanced by ignorance!
In Jesus’ day the lamb had two important meanings for believers:
First, the lamb conveyed a sense of innocence and purity, much like the image of the Suffering Servant which we read about in the prophet Isaiah: he was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. [Isaiah 52: 7]
Secondly the lamb was also the central symbol of God’s deliverance of his people from their bondage in Egypt, an event commemorated by the slaughter of a lamb for the celebration of Passover.
John takes the symbol of the lamb and relates it not just to the Passover but also to human sinfulness. John’s Gospel makes it clear that this Lamb of God is not exclusively for Israel but for everyone … Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
The longer I live the more convinced I am that the world does not need more wisdom … we do not need greater scientific technology … faster automobiles … or cable television with more channels.
No, what we need is to learn how to live together in peace with love for those around us … to be saved from our greed and narcissistic self-involvement, and … to be prepared for the reality that we will not live forever and that ultimately we will return to our loving God, who first gave us life.
The longer I live the more convinced I am that what we need is a Savior. But that is precisely what we have received … a Savior … born of the Virgin Mary. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Our Gospel lesson also preserves a critical conversation that grew out of an exchange between Jesus and several individuals who, up until now, were disciples of John the Baptist. John encouraged his followers to change their allegiance to Jesus. Many of them, like Andrew, were trying to determine what that would mean. They were wise enough to know that they would gain wisdom by participation and observation, so they asked Jesus where he was staying. Jesus responded by saying simply: Come and see.
That simple invitation … Come and see … launched the Jesus Movement. Before long Andrew invited his brother, Peter, and, then Peter invited countless others to come and see the one they were quickly convinced was the Messiah, the Promised One.
This dynamic of inviting and welcoming is as central to the essence of the Church as pews, stained-glass windows, hymnals, and an altar rail. Like Andrew we should want to find opportunities, not just to come and see, but to bring others to Jesus. We must remember that Christians are not born … Christians are invited by those who are a part of the Church and, therefore, determined to repeat the precious words of John: Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Christians do not impose, Christians invite. Those people whose lives were changed experience a transformation, not because they were threatened or cajoled. No, they were changed by a gentle invitation: Come and see. No one told them to make a decision for Christ; no one directed them to master any spiritual laws. No one told them to give the right answer to that anxious question … If you were to die tonight, do you know where you will spend eternity? No, the people who became followers of Jesus were those who accepted that simple invitation to come and see.
But as critical as these three words are, I know that it is all but impossible to expect most of you to say them to your friends or neighbors. Why? Well think about it …
In the first place sharing your faith is something that most of you have never been encouraged to do. We can be kind, we can be generous, we can worship with some regularity and even participate in Bible Study, but sharing faith? No, that seems unnatural … too manipulative … too intrusive.
But Jesus was neither manipulative nor intrusive. Jesus employed no coercion, no threat, no intimidation; Jesus simply employed the approach we use to recommend a book or a movie or a good restaurant … we say – come and see. Doesn’t it make sense that we should be able to talk about our faith and our Church with the same confidence with which we talk about a laundry detergent or a product that kills the dandelions?
The second reason it is hard for you to share your faith is that you have never been trained to talk about what you believe. Most people are operating on the basis of what they learned the last time they were in a structured Christian education setting and that was probably when they were fourteen years old and in a Confirmation class! This is why you will hear me encourage adult faith formation as a central part of what it means to be a healthy member of a congregation.
I hope that you, who are members of Washington Memorial Chapel, are enthusiastic about this congregation. I think we have a lot happening here. We have a worship life that enriches and strengthens those who come. We have a parish life that gives individuals a sense of belonging, a feeling of participation in a community of values. This congregation is determined to be more caring toward those in need; we are beginning with our food collection and our hosting of Alcoholics Anonymous on Monday evenings. We know we need to do more, but this is a start. Behold, the Lamb of God … Christ’s body is finding expression in so much that we do. And if you are not a member of Washington Memorial Chapel, I hope you will consider entering into the joy and challenge of church membership … if not here, then somewhere else.
Behold, the Lamb of God! There is a love that will not let us go, a love that does not wait for us to knock or ask:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true; No, I was found of thee.
I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul, Always thou lovedst me. [Anonymous] Amen.