BIBLE READING: John 1: 29-42
Last Sunday we looked at Jesus’ Baptism as described by Matthew. Today, we hear the story of Jesus' baptism story from a different perspective. Here the focus is on John the Baptist and his prophetic role in announcing Jesus as the Promised Messiah. John makes a powerful statement - he calls Jesus as the "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)
To appreciate what this means we need to go back to the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. That's where we get the biggest dose of offerings and sacrifices. In a word, Jews were taught to offer sacrifices for just about every aspect of life. For example, there were the burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings… and that’s just the tip of the offering iceberg!
Sacrifices were necessary in order to make the offerings. Sacrificial animals included bulls, cattle, calves, oxen, rams, goats, sheep, pigeons and turtledoves.
Naturally, when an animal was sacrificed, there was a lot of blood shed. The blood was thought to have a special effect in appeasing God. In some instances, the Torah stipulated that, not only was the animal to be burned as a "pleasing odour to the Lord," (think of a BBQ), the priest was to dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times on the curtain behind the altar. In other instances, he was to place blood on the horns of the altar; and, at other times, he was to pour the blood out on the ground in front of the altar.
Lambs were commonly used in ritual sacrifice and, when a lamb was specified, it was to be a "lamb…without blemish." Sometimes a single lamb would be sacrificed; at other times, it could be as many as twelve or more.
As Christians, we don't practice ritual sacrifice. In part, this goes along with what Jesus taught his disciples when he said,
"But you go and learn what this means:
'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,'
for I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:13)
More to the point, we don't offer sacrifices in the church today because we believe that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice in dying, once and for all, for the forgiveness of sins. He died for us that we might live for others. When we make an offering today, it's in response to the freedom and forgiveness we've already received.
You may not be aware of this but we have no altar in the church. Did you know that? The communion table is just that – the communion table, not an altar. The sacrifice was made long ago.
When we come to the table, it's in response to what God has already accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The image of the Lamb of God is most powerfully expressed in the Passover. God sent Moses and Aaron down to Egypt to plea with Pharaoh, "Let my people go." (Exodus 5:1) Pharaoh refused, and that led to a series of plagues designed to break the Pharaoh's will. The last plague was the plague of death. God told Moses,
"Yet one plague more will I bring on Pharaoh, and on Egypt; afterwards he will let you go.
When he lets you go, he will surely thrust you out altogether." (Exodus 11:1)
God said he would unleash his Spirit at midnight and take the lives of every first-born Egyptian,
"…and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of livestock."
"There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been, nor shall be any more." (Exodus 11:5-6)
As for the Hebrews, God promised to pass over their homes and so spare them from the angel of death. And, as a sign to distinguish their homes from the Egyptians, God commanded them to kill a lamb and smear the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of their homes. It became known as the "paschal lamb," the lamb of sacrifice.
The Hebrews did what they were told and, as the angel of death crept through the streets of the city, they heard the cries of their Egyptian neighbours mourning the loss of their first-born children.
To this day, the Jewish people observe Passover and celebrate the dramatic way in which God delivered them from the yoke of slavery.
As Christians, this is where we make the connection between Jesus and the Paschal Lamb: His blood was shed as an atonement for sin – and, as John is quick to point out – "… not for ours only, but also for the whole world." (1 John 2:2)
No one has ever expressed this thought more beautifully than Isaac Watts, who wrote "I'll praise my Maker while I've breath,"
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne'er be past,
While life and thought and being last,
Or immortality endures.
"He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn't open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he didn't open his mouth." (Isaiah 53:7)
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, grant us thy peace.
Charlotte Elliott was a just a young woman the night she went to some friends' home for dinner. The year was 1835. The home was in the West End of London. There she met a brash young minister named César Malan. During the course of the meal, he asked her if she were a Christian. She took offence and said she'd rather not discuss the matter. He apologised and the conversation moved on. Three weeks later, their paths crossed again. This time it was she who brought it up. She said ever since he'd asked the question she'd been trying to find the Savior, but to no avail. "So, you tell me," she said, "How does one come to Christ?" He said simply, "Just come to him as you are." That, she did. Not long after, she wrote this hymn:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee;
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming his way, he told his disciples, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" As you see signs of his presence in the trials and tribulations of everyday life, dare to let him come more fully into your heart and invite others to know him, as well.
Acknowledgement: Philip McLarty