Saturday, February 09, 2008

Sermon on John 1:29 and Isaiah 49:6, "Lamb of God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s sermon will focus on John 1:29 in our Gospel reading: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” I will also be referring to Isaiah 49:6, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In our sermon text, we hear familiar words to everyone who has sung in the liturgy, “Lamb of God” or Agnus Dei. Anytime we come across a passage of Scripture like this, that has become part of the living song of the Christian church throughout the ages, it’s worthwhile to ask: “Why did this become part of the Christian liturgy?” Or “why is this sung at this particular point of the church service?” On communion Sundays, after the words of Christ are spoken over the bread and the wine, we sing “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; have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us peace.” A threefold plea to our Triune God.

Why did this become part of the Christian liturgy? Because the same Christ John encountered on the banks of the Jordan River, is who we encounter here at worship, where Christ has promised to be with us in His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The Lamb of God, bearing the sins of the world, now comes to us to bear our sins as well. He comes in the Lord’s Supper to collect our sins, lifting the burden of our guilt from us, collecting our sins to take to His cross—where His lifeblood was poured out for us. This is why we sing His song, for here God has mercy on us—here the Lamb of God grants us peace.

Yet, best as we may try to understand these powerful words, we cannot help but be separated from their context by 2,000 years of bloodless religion. Well, at least in the proper sense of the word. 2,000 years past and half a world away from Jerusalem, we are distant from what it means to be the “Lamb of God.” Yes, we know it’s about Christ’s sacrifice. But not having grown up in the streets of Jerusalem, it’s hard to picture the constant stream of blood pouring down the altar in the Temple. Sin offerings, burnt offerings, guilt offerings, and peace offerings. The smell of burning flour, oil and incense from the grain offerings. Every morning and evening, twice a day all year, lambs were brought as burnt offerings in the Temple, in addition to bulls, goats, and birds. Day by day these offerings were a living and dying reminder to the Israelites that their sin had a penalty—death. They witnessed this as a constant reminder that this death and bloodshed was what they had earned.

Their sin earned the wrath of God and the penalty of death. They were the guilty ones. By all rights it should have been their blood that was spilled. But no, God did not want their death—even if it was well deserved. Instead He provided this sacrificial system of lambs and bulls and goats to die in their place. For the animals to die as a substitute. They could see the penalty of their sins in the blood and death of a lamb. Looking at that dead lamb, they would see their sin—their unfaithfulness to God, their jealousies, their hatred toward one another, their theft—any and all sin was put to death in the sacrifices. Yes, sacrificing was a bloody business, and being a lamb wasn’t very safe.

The book of Hebrews (10:3-4) calls these sacrifices “a reminder of sin every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The hymn-writer put it well:
not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain, could give the guilty conscience peace, or wash away the stain. But Christ the heavenly Lamb, Takes all our sins away; a sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they. (LSB 431)

The continual marching of Lambs to their death, could not take away the guilt of sin—but they pointed forward to the One Perfect Lamb who could. The heavenly Lamb, Jesus Christ, of nobler name and richer blood, who would take away the sins of the whole world. It wasn’t safe for Him to be a Lamb, but He knew it. In God’s perfect Lamb, without spot or blemish (1 Pet. 1:19) we see how great the penalty of our sin was, that He had to die in our place. His blood and death as a substitute for ours. Our disobedience, our jealousy and hatred, our careless words that hurt a friend or neighbor.

On this particular Sunday, our national church body celebrates “Life Sunday,” where we remember God’s command that we guard and protect the life of our neighbor. From conception till death, God has placed value on every human life. Jesus’ own incarnation into the womb of the Virgin Mary demonstrates this. Some may be burdened by the guilt of a past decision to have an abortion, and though repentant for what they did, they are still unable to forgive themselves. Some may have faced difficult caregiving decisions at the end of life and question whether they did what is right. Each of us may bear some burden of guilt for a time when we did not value life as God has valued it. Whether our own life or that of a neigbhor. For us the only peace for the guilty conscience is in Christ the heavenly Lamb. These and all sins, are paid for here in His death—the Lamb of God. No matter how well deserved, God doesn’t desire our death. Jesus has paid the precious price of His own life as a substitute for ours, so that by believing on Him, we might look to the Lamb of God and have life in His name. Christ did not suffer so that you might continue to labor under the guilt of past sins, but so that you might believe with confidence that they are taken away!

For an Israelite, who would have heard and seen John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, the words “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” would have been an “ear-opener.” And John’s disciple Andrew, in the reading, picks up on this immediately and goes with another disciple to follow after Jesus. Realizing the importance of what was now happening in their lifetime, Andrew runs and calls his brother Simon Peter, telling him, “We have found the Messiah! (that is, the Christ)” or Anointed One. Today as we come to the Lord’s table, and receive the body and blood of the Lamb of God—may we leave with that same eagerness and joy to tell our brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors, that “We have found the Christ!” We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. That here at His prepared table, He has collected our sins and taken our guilt to His cross, so that we are now free from our sinfulness.

And we can go to our friend and neighbor and tell them that their sins have been forgiven too, because Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I love the Old Testament verse in our reading from Isaiah, that says “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6). Here in Old Testament times, God is describing the Messiah He would send hundreds of years later. He is describing the one whose name would be heard in distant nations and islands. And God says that it is too small a thing for you only to save Israel! In essence, God was saying that it was not worthy of His splendor that Jesus would only restore the tribes of Israel…but that the greatness of God would be fully shown, He would also bring salvation to the Gentiles and the ends of the earth. The past deeds and miracles of salvation for Israel, such as the Exodus, would be far surpassed by Jesus’ death on the cross. God would outdo Himself in showing how much He loved us.

These two verses today speak so clearly of the universality of the Gospel, that the message of the Lamb of God was to go out to all the world, not just an isolated nation or select group. The defining moment of God’s glory would come when the crucified Son of God would cry out in anguish, “It is finished!” and the faithful Lamb of God would take the sins of the whole world to His grave. There to be buried in death, but no more to rise in accusation against us. And so our prayer of “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us!” will always be answered with a resounding YES! For we have the full assurance of Jesus’ body and blood that our sins have been taken away, and forgiveness is a certainty for us; for indeed we are included in “the world.”

We do not worship a god of insignificant power or glory, but the true God of unfathomable glory, who shows that His full greatness is not achieved until the whole of creation has heard of the humble, lowly, and despised death of His perfect Lamb, as the substitute for us. For it’s here that God truly achieved glory worthy of His great name, by showing mercy to sinners that exceeds all bounds and surpasses all love. The final perfect offering for sin, to bring an end to the ceaseless marching of Lambs to their death in the Temple. An end to the shedding of innocent blood that couldn’t cover the stain of our sin. Instead a fulfillment, the fulfillment of the sacrifices, of a substitute death for us, so that we can now live eternally off the death of another—Jesus Christ.

It’s no accident that we now sing those words before the Lord’s Supper because here Jesus comes into our midst in His body and blood to take away our sins. We’re not just watching, but we’re actually participating, because Jesus is here, taking our sins away. John’s words become our cry, that the Lamb of God would take away our sins. It’s our cry and our song because we see our sin, we see our need. “Lamb of God, don’t pass me by—have mercy on me, a sinner. Lamb of God, I have sins, and I need you to take them away—grant me peace.” We see here our substitute sacrifice and we receive His body and blood for our forgiveness. Have faith that the body and blood of that perfect Lamb, offered up on Calvary for the sins of the whole world, is now placed in your mouth to take your sins away. The Lamb of God Himself, having mercy on us, granting us peace by His forgiveness from the cross. You cannot go to the cross to get it, so He brings it to you at His table. Here and now the Lamb of God has mercy on us poor sinners, and grants us His peace. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

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