A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
January 19, 2014
The Second Sunday after Epiphany
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John 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.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
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 Lynn Turner 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 Jordan. 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 ancient Israel, 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?
There’s an 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.”
[i] Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor Yale Reference Library), in the conclusion of his commentary on the Gospel of John.
[ii] Richard Swanson, in his comments on this passage on the “Working Preacher” website for January 19, 2014 (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1879)
[iii] Raymond E. Brown, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week (Collegeville, Minnesota: the Liturgical Press, 1986), p. 65.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.