January 15, 2017 Sermon

Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017, Lectionary A

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+Rector  – Scripture: John 1:29-41

 

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

 

The Lamb of God

 

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open us to fully receive the Lamb of God into our hearts who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

One of the great blessings of my childhood was living next door to my paternal grandfather, whom we called Doc.  Doc was a doctor, a surgeon to be specific.  He was one of the first doctors in Montgomery to use forceps.  If you are unfamiliar with the term, when a newborn was having difficulty moving through the birth canal, then that child would be seized by the head with forceps and gently (presumably) dislodged from his or her entrapment.

 

So, Doc was a bit of a medical innovator.  Truthfully, medicine back then did not have a whole lot to offer.  It was in its infancy if you will.  Doc had his own hospital and nursing school.  Many nurses were trained there.  Can you guess what the name of his hospital might have been?  It was named Hubbard Hospital—big surprise, huh.  Later, it would merge with what is now Jackson’s Hospital, one of several hospitals currently operating in the Montgomery, AL area.

 

Needless to say, things were different during Doc’s time.  There were no big grocery stores like we have today.  In fact, Doc grew his own food not only for his family but for his hospital.  I vividly remember the lush garden that sat behind the house where we lived—a hold-over from an early time.  Doc also raised dairy cattle and the milk would be transported to the hospital.  There was no pasteurization then.  The freshly squeezed milk would be drained through a cheese cloth, so my father once told me.

 

Doc kept a horse, a Tennessee Walker, which was a pleasure to ride.  He also raised sheep.  I grew up with a small flock of sheep next door, watched over by one large ram.  We, the grandchildren, used to ride the ram.  We would jump on his back and he would make a mad dash across the field.  The only way to get off was to fall off.  One personal delight to me about the sheep was that the ewes would give birth in February, the month of my birthday.  For me as a boy, there was something special about that—the little lambs being born in the same month as I had been.  I still remember their awkward stiff-legged first steps and the thrashing of their little tails.

 

The lambs of course would grow up.  They had not been raised as pets.  I recall a particular Saturday morning when I had walked next door to visit with Doc.  He and some other men were in the stable area, hunch over a sheep, which was lying on its side.  The sheep just lay there, not struggling, perhaps not comprehending that her slaughter was imminent.                    The exacting, nimble hands of my surgeon grandfather had just begun to do their work.  I looked down at the sheep.  She gazed upwards.  There along her neck a dark red line had been begun to appear—a red line of blood.  I might have been made to leave at this point because I don’t remember seeing that sheep losing her life.

 

In this morning’s gospel from St. John we twice heard Jesus referred to by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God.  “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” declared John.  Actually, today’s gospel reading might have been labeled as an exercise in name-calling.  In verse 29, Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God, in verse 34 as the Son of God, then again as the Lamb of God, then as Rabbi, and lastly as the Messiah.  The name-calling, however, does not stop there.  Jesus calls Simon son of John, Cephas, translated as Peter.  What though of Jesus being called the Lamb of God?  Is He not the good shepherd, the same shepherd to which the psalmist King David says, “The Lord is my shepherd?”  What are we to make of Jesus being this Lamb of God?

 

John does not use the term, Lamb, loosely.  The term is meant to set off a number of significant bells wherein the importance of being familiar with the Old Testament or Torah.  One of the first places we come across the word lamb in the Old Testament is Genesis 22:7.  Do you remember?  “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’”  Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.

 

What follows next might be one of the most frightful episodes recorded in the Bible.  By today’s standards it would certainly be prosecuted as child abuse of the worst sort.  We hear in Genesis 22:9, “When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”  We are horrified, are we not?  How could a good, loving god have asked of his favored servant Abraham, through whom God had promised all nations would be blessed, such mindless cruelty?  Isaac was to be part of the means of that blessing and now he was to be murderously eliminated by his father.

 

For many, many years, much commentary ink has been and will continue to be spilt about this biblical episode.  What could God possibly have meant by asking such a despicable thing of Abraham?  We might have observed that Isaac put up no struggle to resist his elderly father Abraham.  Isaac, like the sheep I saw at Doc’s, simply lay there, waiting for his death.  Isaac himself would have been a boy, no older than I had once been, the difference being that he was the sheep to be slaughtered.

 

God, though, intervened to stay Abraham’s hand from sacrificing his son. We read: “But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD will provide’.”   The ram, a sheep, a lamb, had taken Isaac’s place and died instead.

 

We may not fathom what was going on in the mind of God when He asked Abraham to sacrifice, kill his son; we certainly, though, would have some sense of what was going on in the minds of Abraham and Isaac.  As parents, we would have been horrified and heart-broken.  Indeed, we are shocked and dumbfounded when we hear of a parent killing a child or children.  I still think of that woman in Texas who drowned three or four of children.

 

What though of Isaac?  What must he have felt?  Could he trust himself to be alone with dad anymore?  When he saw dad pick up a knife did it set of waves of PTSD?  How do you live such a thing down?  Could Isaac ever again believe his dad, Abraham, loved him?  We are left wondering about it all.  This though was not the only important biblical episode involving lambs.

 

Later and significantly, we can read in Exodus 12 the Lord saying to Moses, “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family. [. . .] the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. [. . .]  For I 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; [. . .] I am the LORD. 13 The blood 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.”  Of course, this marks the beginning of the Jews exodus from slavery under the Egyptians.  Again, the slaughter of the lamb has provided protection from death in this case for the Jews.

In Leviticus 5:6 we can read this in respect to a lamb or sheep: “And you shall bring to the LORD, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.”  The slaying of a lamb provided protection from death and atonement from sin.  Sound familiar?

 

In the words of the Prophet Isaiah (53), the lamb begins to take on human qualities.  The prophet proclaims, “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.”  Of course, the prophet was speaking of Jesus.  Like the sheep to be slaughtered by my Grandfather Doc, Jesus lay silently and without protest before those who slaughtered Him.

 

So then, when John the Baptist’s original audience heard him declare, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” these Old Testament images of the lamb would have been recalled, but now in a new sense, not to be fully realized until after the crucifixion and the resurrection.  The new sense heralded a new Passover.  In the words of John, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Pascha Nostrum, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us as St. Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 5:7.   These are the very words I will use when I consecrate the bread and wine for Holy Communion.

 

The Good Shepherd, Jesus, who is also the lamb, lays down His life for His sheep.  When we hear in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” we are to understand that God’s giving of His only Son is His Son as the Lamb of God, sacrificed, slaughtered on the cross.

 

It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate what God, what Jesus has done for us as the Lamb of God.  I have tried to bring it down to earth by speaking of my own experience with the slaughter of a sheep.  The hard part to grasp and receive is that the slaughter of the lamb is God’s way of asserting and declaring His eternal love for us.  Even harder to understand is how a loving father could allow his son to be killed.

 

There is a wonderful story some of you may have heard which warrants repeating at this juncture.  It goes like this.

 

There once was a bridge operator who had a young son whom he dearly loved. They were inseparable. The young boy often asked to go with his father to watch him work – to watch him raise and lower the draw bridge, allowing the boats to pass under or the passenger trains to cross over. One day the father relented and allowed his son to come with him.                             ‘Stay here at a safe distance,’ the father warned the boy, ‘while I go and raise the bridge for the coming boat.’  The boy stayed where his father had left him and watched the bridge as it slowly lifted up in the sky. Suddenly, the boy heard the faint cry of an approaching passenger train – coming quite a bit sooner than had been expected. The father, up in the control room, could hear neither the whistle of the train nor the warning cry of his son.

 

The boy saw the train racing closer and closer, and he started to run along the platform to reach his father. Knowing there was a lever he could pull near the operating gears of the bridge; the boy ran to the door in the platform and tried to lower himself down to reach the lever. Losing his balance, he fell into where the gears came together and was caught.

 

At the same time the father saw his son fall down into the hole in the platform, he saw the fast approaching train. In horror, he realized that if he didn’t start lowering the bridge immediately, it would not be down in time for the train to pass safely. The train would crash into the river below killing hundreds of innocent people. The man was faced with an unimaginable dilemma – race to save his son at the cost of hundreds of lives, or sacrifice his son to save the passengers on the train.

He made the only choice he could and pulled the lever to lower the bridge. In spite of the noise of the descending bridge and the oncoming train, he still heard the anguished screams of his beloved son being crushed to death between the gears of the bridge.

 

The father ran to the platform as the train was passing by. Most people on the train simply ignored the man crying on the platform. Others looked out of the window and stared, totally oblivious of the unspeakable sacrifice that had just been made on their behalf. They gave no other thought or concern to this man who had just given up what was most precious to him so that they could live.

 

There is an obvious parallel to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus. God did not take pleasure in watching His Son die. It must have been agonizing for God to stand by as Jesus died for the deep darkness of all of our sins. The sacrifice, though, had to be made in order for us not die in our sins.

Like those people on the train, we have the choice to make about the sacrifice. We can choose to ignore it – to ignore God – not even bothering consider what God did on our behalf. We can choose to look at God briefly – to glance in passing – and then continue on with our own priorities and plans. Or, or we can receive and live into God’s astounding love for us. Where then are we on that train?   The Lamb of God gave His life for us, so that we might not die but have life eternal.  Have we received Jesus, the lamb, into our hearts?

We are, perhaps, still left in disbelief, wondering how God could let His beloved son be killed, be crucified?  The words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI are worth considering. “(I)f  I do not understand something that doesn’t mean that it is wrong, but that I am too small for it” (Benedict XVI. Last Testament. p 10).

 

I’ll close with one last quick story.  Eddie Fox was the General Secretary of World Methodist Evangelism.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist governments of Eastern Europe, he observed a sign placed in the churchyard of a little Methodist church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The sign went up the very first day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It read: “The Lamb Wins!”

 

Fox noted: “Not the bear, not the lion, not the tiger. But the Lamb – the Lamb wins!” (quoted by Dr. Hal Brady, 21 May 1995, Dallas, Texas).

Indeed, the Lamb of God has won.  By dying for us He has defeated sin and death, yes, our very own, and we are invited to win with Him.  Again, have we received Jesus, the Lamb of God, into our hearts?

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.