In these past few
Sundays we’ve been opening the gift of Christmas “one truth at a
time.” Two weeks ago,
through the visit of the wise men, we learned that Jesus was not
only the king of the Jews, but also the king of the world.
Last week, in the story of his baptism, the heavens opened
up, the spirit fluttered down, and God said, “This is my beloved
son.” So, it’s not just
a beautiful baby boy we found under the tree on Christmas morning:
it’s the savior of the world, the king of kings, the beloved Son of
God. We are opening the
gift of Christmas one truth at a time and today, with a little help
from the Gospel of John, we will learn that Jesus is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world.
When I told the worship planning team that I
would be preaching from John this Sunday
said, “I thought you were preaching from Matthew this year.”
And she’s right.
In the lectionary this is Matthew’s year.
We call it “Year A,” and from now until the end of November
most of the Gospel readings will come from Matthew.
Next year is Year B, when most of the readings will come from
Mark. The year after
that is Year C, when most of the readings will come from Luke.
What you would expect is Year D, with readings from the
Gospel of John, but that’s not what you get.
For some reason the lectionary committee decided three years
was enough, and so, after Year C, we start all over again with Year
A. “But what about
John?” you might ask.
“My favorite Gospel!”
Well, here’s what happens: every once in a while, when you’ve had
just about all the Matthew, Mark, or Luke you can stand, the
lectionary committee will reward you with a generous slice of the
Gospel of John. And
today, even though we’ve only been in Matthew for a few weeks now,
that’s what we get.
And it works perfectly, because we’ve been
opening the gift of Christmas one truth at a time and John has one
more truth to share about Jesus before we move on from his baptism
to his ministry: the truth that Jesus is the Lamb of God.
But before we get into the details I need to say a word about
the Gospel of John in general: it’s different, and maybe that’s why
it didn’t get a year of its own.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic Gospels”
(“syn” as in synthesis and
“optic” as in optical).
It simply means that these three Gospels can be looked at
together. Do you
remember that game on Sesame Street where they showed a picture of a
hammer, a saw, a pair of pliers, and a shoe, and said, “Three of
these things belong together, three of these things are kind of the
same, but one of these things just doesn’t belong here, and now it’s
time to play our game”?
The game was to figure out which of the four didn’t belong, and when
it comes to the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the
hammer, saw, and pliers, but the Gospel of John is the shoe.
Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and
Matthew and Luke used Mark’s basic structure, but John—who wrote his
Gospel some thirty years after Mark—decided to take things in a
whole different direction.
Clement of Alexandria called John “the spiritual Gospel,”
and the late Raymond E. Brown (who probably forgot more about the
Gospel of John than I will ever learn) would agree.
He said, “We see [the spirituality of John] in the beautiful
and simple picture that through their birth in water and Spirit
believers receive God’s own life, and that through Jesus’ flesh and
blood that life is fed and nourished; the language of love binding
believers to Jesus just as love binds the Son to the Father; the
indwelling Holy Spirit—the
paraclete—through whom Jesus remains attainable; the importance
of discipleship which is a role that all can share.”
Brown says that for John, “there are no second-class citizens
among true believers; all of them are God’s own children in Christ.”[i]
If John is your favorite Gospel, these are
probably some of the reasons. But
if you only read the Gospel of John it’s possible that you could
come away with an unbalanced understanding of Jesus.
Let me explain: we Christians believe that Jesus was both
fully human and fully divine, but if you only read the “spiritual
Gospel” you might come away with an emphasis on his divinity that
eclipses his humanity.
When I studied the Gospels in seminary I noticed that in John’s
Gospel Jesus seems to walk three feet above the ground most of the
time while in Mark Jesus has his feet firmly planted on the earth.
But sometimes Mark’s Jesus seems a little too human—not only
earthly, but earthy.
What we need is a balance between Jesus’ humanity and his
divinity and we get it, I believe, by reading all the Gospels and
not just one of them. I
think that’s especially important these days, when it seems that
Christianity itself is being pulled apart along that line between
heaven and earth. There
are some Christians who are almost entirely focused on getting to
heaven, and others who are almost entirely focused on redeeming the
earth, and the two don’t seem to want to have much to do with each
other. Maybe what we
need most right now is a balance between the Synoptic Gospels, in
which Jesus is working to bring heaven to earth, and the Gospel of
John, in which he seems to be trying to get earth to heaven.
That’s a long introduction, but it may be
necessary, because one of the first things we encounter in today’s
Gospel lesson is the difference between John and the Synoptics.
In the Synoptics John the Baptist seems to know who Jesus is
when he comes to the
In last week’s reading from Matthew, for example, John said
to Jesus, “I should be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
And last week I also mentioned how, in Luke’s Gospel, John is
the first one to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
But here in the Fourth Gospel the Baptist says plainly, “I
myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this
reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
And he testified, “I saw the Spirit
descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.
I myself did not know him, but the one
who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see
the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy
Spirit.’ And I myself have seen
and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:31-34).
As I said, the
Gospel of John is different, and in this spiritual Gospel the author
wants us to see that the Son of God was not revealed in any earthly
way, but in a divine way, with the Spirit descending from heaven
like a dove and remaining on him.
Each of the Gospel writers tells the story of the dove, but
only John emphasizes that this is the way Jesus was revealed for who
he really was. There is
no voice from heaven at the baptism saying, “This is my son, the
beloved; in him I am well pleased.”
There is only that voice that says to him beforehand: “He on
whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes
with the Holy Spirit.”
But John the Baptist doesn’t call him “The One who baptizes with the
Holy Spirit”; he calls him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin
of the world.”
And I’m not the
only one who has wondered what that means.
Commentators through the centuries have
pointed out that while lambs were often offered as sacrifices in
they weren’t offered as sacrifices for sin.[ii]
There was the Passover lamb, whose
blood was sprinkled on the lintels and doorposts so that the Angel
of Death would “pass over” the homes of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt,
and in John 19 Jesus is sentenced to death at noon, “the very hour
on Passover Eve when the priests begin to slaughter the paschal
lambs in the temple precincts.”[iii]
There seems to be a connection.
But if you thought of it like this: that Jesus’ blood is
sprinkled on us so that God’s judgment will pass over us, and we
won’t suffer the death penalty for our sins, well, that’s good, and
possibly true, but it’s not the same thing as taking
away our sins, and that’s what John says, isn’t it?
Oh, wait a minute.
He doesn’t say sins, plural, he says sin,
singular. “Behold the
Lamb of God who takes away the
sin of the world.”
Which makes me wonder: what is the sin of the world?
interesting moment near the end of John, chapter 9, when Jesus says
to the man who had been born blind, “Do you believe in the Son of
Man?” And the man
answers, “Who is he, Sir?
Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
And Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to
you is he.” And then the
man who had been born blind, the one who has just been healed by
Jesus, the one who is standing there looking at him, says, “Lord, I
believe,” and he worships him.
That’s when Jesus says, “I
came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may
see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees near him heard
this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind,
you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin
remains” (John 9:35-41).
In this section of
the Gospel, at least, it seems that the “sin of the world” is a kind
of spiritual blindness: an inability to see Jesus for who he really
is. When I was thinking
about that last week I kept picturing this low-lying fog around the
Jordan River, and Jesus coming to John the Baptist through that
swirling mist to be baptized, and then the baptism itself, and the
spirit descending, and the fog lifting, until John could see Jesus
for who he really was.
“Behold!” he says. “The
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The one who makes the fog lift, the one who opens our blind
eyes, the one who helps us see clearly who God is and what he’s up
to in the world. And
that’s when two of the disciples who were following John the Baptist
began to follow Jesus.
When Jesus turned and saw them following he said, “What are you
looking for?” And they
said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
And he said, “Come and see.”
When you think
about the sin of the world as a kind of spiritual blindness this
passage takes on a whole new meaning.
Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended, the fog lifted, and
John the Baptist could see Jesus for who he really was.
Not only that, but he could point him out to others.
And when Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” this
passage becomes especially meaningful, because these two disciples
may have been stumbling around in their spiritual blindness for a
long time, they may have been groping around in the fog of sin
forever, but now—suddenly—their eyes are open, and they can see the
one who has caused the fog to lift.
“What are we looking for?” they might have asked.
“We’re looking for you!
We’ve always been looking for you!
We just didn’t know it was you!”
But instead they say, “Where are you staying.”
And that’s one of
those loaded theological terms.
In Greek the word is
meno, and it means to “abide” or “remain.”
It’s the word Jesus uses later in this Gospel when he says,
“The one who abides in me bears much fruit” (15:5).
“Where are you abiding?” the disciples ask, and although they
don’t say it out loud they seem to imply, “If we could only
abide with you for a
little while, if we could only sit in your presence and soak up your
essence, it would satisfy the deepest desire of our hearts.”
So Jesus invites them to come and see, and in this Gospel
seeing is believing. The
sin of the world is lifted, spiritual blindness is cured, and people
are able to see Jesus for who he really is through the newly opened
eyes of faith. “Abide
with me, believe in me,” Jesus says, and the next thing you know
Andrew is rushing off to find Peter and tell him, “We have found the
Christ” (John 1:41).
The first words
Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John are these: “What are you looking
for?” This morning I
want you to hear that question as if Jesus were speaking directly to
you, as if he were standing before you, looking you in the eye.
What about it?
What are you looking for?
Is it possible that it’s been in front of you the whole time
but you just couldn’t see it?
If so, then hear Jesus say, “Come, and see.
Come and abide.
Spend time in my presence, soak up my essence, until the deepest
desire of your heart has been satisfied.”
Raymond E. Brown,
Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor Yale Reference
Library), in the conclusion of his commentary on the Gospel
Richard Swanson, in his comments on this passage on the
“Working Preacher” website for January 19, 2014
Raymond E. Brown, A
Crucified Christ in Holy Week (Collegeville, Minnesota:
the Liturgical Press, 1986), p. 65.