They say that, in advertising, repetition is the key. The more times you can say something, the better chance people will remember it. I find it even works that way with me at home. Marilyn will say something to me once and I am only listening with half an ear, so I say “What?” Then she repeats it and the second time I listen. Repetition.
Repetition also plays a big part in today’s gospel as John the Baptist tells about baptizing Jesus. As John sees Jesus coming toward him he exclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Then he goes on to tell the same story we heard last week about the spirit of God descending upon Jesus after he was baptized in the Jordan. But then, the very next day, as John sees Jesus approach for the second time, he exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” So, that is the second time we have heard this phrase, “The lamb of God” and we begin to pay some attention to it. If John said it twice, it must be important. “The lamb of God.”
Remember that John was a Jew, and to Jews the lamb was a sacrificial animal. The first lamb was slaughtered so that the Children of Israel could use the blood to mark the doorposts of their homes so that, when the Lord came over the land slaughtering the Egyptians, he would “passover” the homes with the blood of the lamb. Every successive year, then, the Jews would ritually slaughter a lamb on the first night of Passover both as a remembrance and a sacrificial offering to God.
So, when John sees Jesus twice, each time his first reaction is, “This is the lamb of God.” Christ had died. Christ had risen. Now, John is interpreting what this all means. And the new concept John is offering here – twice – is that the sacrifice of the traditional Passover lamb is considered to be fulfilled by the crucifixion and death of Jesus who is now given the title, “Lamb of God.”
This concept is front and center in our liturgy. We sing it every Sunday. Just after the minister has held up the body of Christ and pronounced it broken for us and after she has lifted up the blood and pronounced it shed for us we all sing what used to be titled the Agnus Dei (Latin for Lamb of God.) “Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us. Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world. Grant us peace.”
So, somehow we are connecting the sacrificial blood of the lamb to Jesus’ own blood and somehow this shedding of blood takes away the sin of the world. We have come to think of Jesus as a “sacrifice” for our sins. And there is a very good and very helpful way we can imagine it that way. But first, I’d like to talk about a couple of ways which aren’t so helpful. Ways which may even be harmful.
Throughout Christian history it has sometimes been thought that God the Father sacrificed his own son to pay off Satan who had the souls of all human beings locked up ever since Adam and Eve gave into him in the Garden of Eden. So Jesus paid the price to get the souls out of hell. “Redeemed” the souls. Or, the other way it has been explained is that somebody had to be punished for the sin of the world, so the Father “sacrificed” his son. Had him tortured and put to death because of you and me.
This may actually be a harmful way to think of Jesus as the Lamb of God because it portrays a blood-thirsty God who is much more interested in punishment than forgiveness. Maybe more importantly, it even seems to condone violence as a way to solve problems and may even give a green light to domestic violence. Men may think, “If my Father in Heaven can use violence to punish his own son for sin, then it is ok for me to use violence with my own children. It’s biblical.”
These ways of thinking about sacrifice are dark. But I’d like to talk about a better way to talk about sacrifice – a more helpful way to think of Jesus as the “lamb of God.” In seminary we were taught never to lecture people on the Latin roots of words because their eyes just glaze over. But bear with me here. Sacrifice comes from two Latin words: sacrum (sacred), and facere (to make). It means “to make sacred.” The lamb offered in the Passover was “made sacred” in the ritual. Likewise, the bread and wine are “made sacred” in the liturgy of our holy communion.
Think of our common usage of the word. We can say that a person sacrifices his life for or a cause of for another person. A soldier can sacrifice her life for her country. But a death or violence doesn’t even need to be involved. We might say that a spouse has sacrificed her life to care for her disabled husband. In the giving up of something for another person, the sacred happens.
There is one this weekend whose sacrifice needs to be particularly lifted up. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was sacrificed for the cause of racial justice and Jesus’ clear command to tend to the poor, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. As we begin our season of Epiphany – the season of light symbolized by the guiding star – the words of Dr. King become particularly appropriate: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
King was hopeful, but his primary source of hope was not in human nature, but in God’s nature. He said that, “God has planted in the fiber of the universe certain eternal laws which … are absolute and not relative.” He said, “There is an eternal and absolute distinction between right and wrong.” God calls us, he said, to apply these distinctions to public affairs.
In King’s view, our faith demands than we demand justice in the public square. Faith is by its very nature political because it demands that we confront the rulers of this kingdom just as Jesus confronted the rulers of his earthly kingdom. It is what led King to lead bus strikes, garbage worker strikes, and marches. It is what led him to the Edmund Pettus bridge and when he and his followers were beaten and torn apart by attack dogs, King had this to say about suffering. Listen closely. I’ll say it twice: “Suffering for a cause can be more powerful than killing for a cause.” (repeat) Why? Because violence leads to escalation and makes future reconciliation almost impossible.
Jesus was killed violently. But he suffered nonviolently. To Dr. King, nonviolence was based on the belief that the acceptance of suffering was redemptive because suffering could transform both the sufferer and the oppressor. King told his followers that, by accepting the violence of the oppressor, without retaliation and even without hatred, the demonstrators could transform the oppressor’s heart.”
OK. If you don’t want to hear it from Dr. King, hear it from Jesus. From the mount: “Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Bless those who persecute you.”
Sacrifice does not always include violence. But it always includes love. I’ll close with Dr. King’s words on the biblical word for love; agape. He said, “Agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.”
“Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us. Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world; grant us peace.”
Text: John 1:29-42