Lessons for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year A): Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and, John 1:29-42.
Have you ever had something in your house that has been there so long that you kind of forget that it’s there? Or, on your drive to work, one that you might have taken every day for years, there’s a sign or a familiar place (something that you see day after day) that you forget is there? Then, one day you notice it again, and there it is! There is it with some sort of newness, good or bad. I think that today we might be looking at something in our gospel lesson that is a little bit like that.
John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b). That is an image that for the Church might lose its meaning, or maybe it’s better to say that the image has lost its metaphorical structure – the meaning of it as an image has changed over time. It’s one of those things that maybe we say a lot in the Church and we think we know because but we don’t really notice. We don’t pay attention to the origins of the image’s metaphorical structure, not noticing what it really means to those who were hearing John bear witness to Jesus in the wilderness.
Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!John 1:29b; cf 1:35
Even in its narrative context, the statement can be a little confusing. John the Baptist, the wild man in the desert who eats locusts and honey and wears a camel skin tunic, shouting as Jesus comes toward him, “Here is the Lamb of God….,” seems a little random. There were, after all, expectations of the Messiah. That would not be the kind of proclamation I might have expected. Behold the “the Mantle of Elijah,” the great new prophet to proclaim God’s word, or “the Lion of Judah,” a fierce and mighty warrior to challenge the empire, or even “the Prince of Peace,” at least then there is royalty. When I look at the scene frozen in time without historical context or future foresight, it is rather uninspiring.
So, why does John call Jesus a lamb? The lamb was a significant image, a metaphor representing Israel’s very identity. Think about the images that we use: the Bald Eagle, your high school mascot, a national flag. What does the image project? For Israel, their national image was the lamb, representing God rescuing the people from the oppression of slavery. If you will recall the story: After the generation of Joseph and his brothers had died, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt (Exodus 1). But God “observed the misery” of the Israelites and “heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” so God “come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8). God, therefore, raised up Moses to challenge Pharaoh to release the Israelites from the bondage of slavery to let them go worship their God. But the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let the Israelites go; so, God sent plagues upon the land of Egypt as a demonstration of God’s own power over the Egyptians and of God’s own protection of the Israelites (see Exodus 7-10).
Even after nine devastating plagues brought upon the Egyptians, the Pharaoh still would not relent. God sent one last plague as a final demonstration when every “firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die” (Exodus 11:5). But God told the people of Israel that they would be protected: “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” (Exodus 12:13). The blood was to be the blood of a lamb lamb spread on the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the Israelites, which the Lord would see and thus death would pass over the house. The lamb, thus, became the image and symbol of God’s redemption of Israel, of divine faithfulness and deliverance.
Years later, when Israel had become exiled in Babylon, there arose a prophet whose story we find in the second part of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). This prophet told of a servant who would be established to again redeem and deliver the people. This servant is the “suffering servant” of Isaiah (see Isaiah 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–7; 52:13–53:12) who will be despised and abused, suffer and be lifted up, bu in all that will lead the people to a final redemption. This is the messianic expectation of the early Church, found fulfilled in Jesus. So, when John proclaims the coming of the Lamb of God, he is telling Israel that God has sent the Lamb, the suffering servant whose blood will be shed for redemption and deliverance.
We could stop right there and say we get it: Jesus is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. We could stop right there and we would get it right! But, as it is, there is more to the story. What happens next, with the first words of Jesus and the response of the disciples, gives us a lot to ponder.
After John the Baptist proclaims Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ first words appear in the form of a question: “What are you seeking (looking for)?” (John 1:38a). Jesus does not immediately respond to the proclamation of himself as the lamb of God. Instead, Jesus begins his ministry with a question. The other three gospels have grander entrances, I think: In Mark’s story, Jesus begins with a mighty command to silence a demon. In Matthew, Jesus begins with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountainside. In Luke, Jesus is in synagogue quoting from Isaiah and proclaiming his anointing and the year of the Lord’s favor. In the Fourth Gospel, though, Jesus begins with a question: “What are you seeking?”
What are you looking for? What do you need? It is a question worth wrestling with, as individuals, as congregations, as communities, since our answers as well as with the journeys we take have everything to do with what we are looking for. Jesus poses his question to two of John’s disciples, who, having just learned that Jesus is the Lamb of God, are determined to follow him. What those disciples are seeking is given away in their response, a question of their own: “Where are you staying?” (John 1:38b). The English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability.
When the disciples respond to Jesus’ query with their own question, they are not asking Jesus for the location of his tent, or the address of the guest house at which he is visiting; they want to know about the enduring, permanent, eternal, undying dwelling place of this Lamb of God. Where are you staying? Where can we find you? Where shall we go to be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we be in the very presence of God?
And then, Jesus says to them, “Come and see!,” answering both his own and the disciples’ questions. Jesus does not first, or primarily, call them to do a particular task or to fill a particular role. Indeed, he didn’t ask them to do anything, except come and see. “Come and see,” captures a primary message of John’s Gospel: If you want to know the word made flesh, come and see Jesus. If you want to know what love is like, come and see Jesus. If you want to experience God’s glory, to be filled with bread that never perishes, to quench your thirst with living water, to be born again, to abide in love, to behold the light of the world, to experience the way, the truth, and the life, to enter into life everlasting . . . if you want to know God, come and see Jesus.
There is, in other words, an invitation to a relationship with Jesus. It is only after Jesus invites the disciples to be with him in relationship that he gives specific content and direction to where that might lead. Jesus calls us first to personal intimacy, a shared life that we entered into through the covenant of holy Baptism. In baptism we were called to abide with Jesus, to find out where Jesus lives, and to spend some time there. By and by, this will lead us somewhere, but we may not know where for quite a while.
Eventually or intermittently there will be a call, an invitation to the work of the body of Christ in the world. It is often, if not usually, something that wanders in and out of our lives. It can be frightening and frustrating, terrifying and exhilarating. This is what happened to those first disciples: They stayed close to Jesus for a while, learning from Jesus what they could and coming to know him little by little. Then, admittedly long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them things to do, dramatic tasks and quiet work. Yes, the invitation to “come and see” will eventually always find expression in ministry, but I’ll leave that for another homily.
We are invited to be disciples, to be with Jesus! Each of us. It’s an invitation that will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back because it is our Lord calling us to himself. It is our Lord’s call to be with the lamb of God who brings redemption and deliverance, freedom and life.