Look! The Lamb of God

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

This message is a call for us to see and look at Jesus, the Lamb of God. And to point him out others. This was the mission of John the Baptist, and it as much ours today.

We are still in the period of Epiphany, where we focus on the manifestation or revealing of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God’s Chosen One. Our reading for this Sunday is John 1:29-37:

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One [or Son].”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

Bruner, who has written a wonderful (1200 page) commentary on John, translates some of these verses differently, emphasising the use of present and continuous tenses in the original Greek, notably:

29 The next day John sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Look! The Lamb of the God, the One who is taking away the sin of the world!

36 And John looked intently at Jesus as Jesus is walking by and he says, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 

I focus on these two verses in this message, as I have felt God speaking to me particularly insistently this week about verse 29. And I make five points:

  1. John sees Jesus coming and walking towards him. Jesus is always coming towards us, even if we are moving away from him. His trajectory is always in our direction.
  2. Look! John twice says, “Look!”. I like Bruner’s addition of the exclamation mark, as it emphasises that this is a call, an imperative. John wants us to stop drifting through life blindly. Or from being so focused on other things that we don’t notice Christ coming towards us. So he calls out, in excitement, perhaps even in alarm, “Look! Look out!”
  3. Jesus is taking away the sin of the world. This is a pretty packed little sentence:
    • John speaks about ‘sin‘, not ‘sins’. It is the condition of being sinful that Jesus takes away, rather than the individual sinful acts that we do.
    • John says that Jesus ‘is taking‘, emphasising that this is a continuous activity, that has already begun, is presently happening and will continue to happen in the future. While Jesus’ death on and resurrection from the cross are surely pivotal in salvation, God has been saving humanity through the Son from the time of the fall, throughout the First Testament, through Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry, through his death, resurrection and ascension, by the outpouring of Holy Spirit, and continuing to today and into the future. The Son of God has been and continues to be in the business of taking away sin.
    • It is the sin ‘of the world‘ (the ‘cosmos’) that Jesus takes away, not just the sin of those who repent, those who believe, those who are members of certain churches or religions, those who adhere to certain church rules or doctrine. Scripture abounds with verses that reinforce that salvation is for and of the whole world (the cosmos). It is a radical inclusion of the entire created order – the cosmos!
  4. Salvation is thus possible for all, but we have to take hold of it. That’s why John keeps saying, “Look!”, and why we are told in verse 37 that John’s disciples leave John to follow Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. In the Eucharist or Mass, we celebrate and re-member this great work of God the Son.
  5. And finally, we, like John and his disciples, and like Jesus’ disciples (about whose calling we learn in the rest of John 1), are invited to continue John’s ministry of pointing people to Jesus. We remind people that Christ is coming towards them. We call them to ‘Look!’ We point them not to our denomination, our pastors, our worship, ourselves; but towards Christ himself. And we show through our lives, our inclusivity, our radical love and our walking towards others that he is indeed taking away the sins of the world .

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Featured image: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1600, downloaded from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438813

To be saved

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Our Gospel reading for today is the rather curious passage from Luke 20:27-38, which involves a convoluted story about a woman who was married and remarried to seven brothers in succession, with the hope that one of them would impregnate her. The question asked of Jesus by the Sadducees was which of them would be her husband at the resurrection. It is a rather awful story, filled with patriarchal beliefs about women, marriage and child bearing.

I did not feel God leading me to preach on this passage today.

However, the point of the story is of interest. Jesus affirms that there IS a resurrection, that there is an afterlife, and that it will be wonderful. And this affirmation of Jesus – that life does not simply end when our bodies die – prompts us to think about salvation and what it means to be saved.

For that, we turn to our Second Testament reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (I’ve bolded some of the key words):

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[b] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

What do we learn about salvation from this passage?

  • First, God chose us – God called us. Salvation is always God’s initiative. And God chooses and calls every person into fellowship with God. God’s mission is to reconcile the WHOLE world to God’s self, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-14). When God calls us, God calls us by name. It is personal. God wants YOU personally. It is not just that God wants to save everyone, like some anonymous conglomerate of humanity. No! It is that God’s has chosen YOU personally, by name, and called you to be in fellowship with God, to be saved.
  • Second, we are saved through two main actions (according to this passage):
    • First, we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. When God calls us, Holy Spirit comes and resides in us. Spirit makes a home in our hearts, comes and lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:19). God works to transform us into the image of Christ, from the inside out, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
    • Second, we are saved through our belief in the truth. And what is this truth? Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6; John 8:31-32). We can do nothing to attain salvation; salvation is in its entirety the result of Christ’s work, through creation, his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God. We can’t add to this. All we can do is respond to the truth of it. And ‘to believe in’ something or someone is much the same as ‘to trust in’ someone or even better, ‘to entrust ourselves’ to someone. We entrust ourselves into the truth of Jesus.
  • Third, the result of this salvation is that we get to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not so much that we become glorious, but that we bask in the radiance of God’s glory. We can be confident that when we die, we enter into the enjoyable and wonderful presence of God. Jesus spoke about this in our earlier reading (Luke 20:36): “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
  • Finally, because of all of this, we are encouraged to stand firm and hold fast to our faith. Sometimes, maybe often, our faith is frail and feeble. Sometimes life gets on top of us. Sometimes we succumb to sin. Sometimes pain, suffering and illness burden us. Sometimes evil in the world – violence, hatred, exclusion, oppression, poverty and injustice – overwhelm us. In these times, especially, God calls us, urges us, to stand firm in and to hold fast to Christ.

In Paul’s final words in this brief passage, he offers a blessing. I liked this blessing so much, we read it four times during the service, twice as a blessing, with my hand outstretched. I again stretch out my hands to you in blessing, saying:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

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Jesus’ Law

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In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus presents (albeit very briefly) his most comprehensive teaching on his view of Law of Moses. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, that the dot on every i and the cross on every t is vital, that the Law has not passed away, and that we need to practice and teach it. Many commentators (naturally) read this to mean that the First Testament Law is as binding on Christians today as it was on the people of Israel in years between Moses and Christ.

However, when we look at Jesus’ teaching and behaviour, even just within Matthew’s Gospel, we see him repeatedly massaging the Law, challenging the Law, even brazenly disobeying the Law – certainly as the Law was understood by the Pharisees of his day. For example:

  1. Matthew 5:21-48. Through the rest of chapter 5, Jesus uses the formula: “You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” In this formula he, by his own authority, reinterprets the Law and in cases appears to overturn it. At its heart, he shifts the focus from the external letter of the Law, towards the heart attitude underlying the Law. And is so doing, makes keeping the Law much harder.
  2. Matthew 9:14-17. Here Jesus breaks the fasting laws. He is challenged on this, and explains that since the he is there, they should celebrate.
  3. Matthew 12:1-14. Here Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws – very important laws! He walks, he harvests and he eats, all on the Sabbath, and with his disciples. When challenged by the Pharisees, he even uses the Law to justify his breaking of the Law! And then he goes on to heal a man. In the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel (2:27), Jesus justifies his breaking of the Sabbath Laws by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”
  4. Matthew 15:1-20. Here Jesus breaks the dietary (Kosher) laws (specifically not washing their hands before they eat). His answer is quite wide-ranging. He says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (v11). And then he later explains in more detail: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them

How do we reconcile Matthew 5’s apparently strict teaching with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and his daily behaviour? They do appear to be at odds with each other!

I suggest the following:

  • Under the First Testament Law, people believed that keeping the Law lead to Righteousness (i.e. to a right relationship with God). Because of this, they invested in keeping the Law down to the smallest letter (the jot and the tittle in the King James version). And the Pharisees, in particular, were highly devout in unpacking what each Law meant, and how it had to be lived out in the daily life.
  • Under the Second Testament, Jesus teaches that Righteousness (i.e. having a right relationship with God) leads to the keeping of the Law. We are made right with God through Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. He is the one who, through his grace, makes us right with God, and we receive this righteousness through faith. Because of this, and in the power of the Spirit, we are enabled to keep God’s Law. But even this Law is not a legalistic ‘jot and tittle’ law, but a living, heart-based, relationship-centred Law. It is the Law of Love.

I end with a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-20 by RT France (2007, pp. 190-191) in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that is points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.

“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”

 

The Word became flesh

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).

These majestic words open the Gospel according to St John, and continue over 18 verses in one of the most majestic hymns to the Christ. On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of an infant, a little child who promised hope and new life. But he was, after all, just an infant. By contrast, John presents us with the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Holy One. Magnificent, eternal, powerful, unfettered, transcendent.

We really cannot dissect and analyse such an image of Christ. Rather, we must merely apprehend it, gaze upon it, marvel at it. My own church tradition is low church, not high, but it is on days like today that I wish we had incense in my church, as its fragrance and appearance would serve to lift us up out of the intellectual to the mystical, and to merely and deeply appreciate the mystery of the Word.

This Word, who became flesh, and who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). How amazing that God should became human, that God should shrink down to be merged with a single human cell at conception, and develop into a neonate, a son.

We, like John the Baptist, like John the beloved disciple, can only witness this gift of love, to see it and hear it and know it. And then to be witnesses to it, to proclaim it. The Word made flesh!

Here are today’s key readings:

Featured image from: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/what-big-bang-theory-ncna881136

Opening bars of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel: https://www.amazon.com/Strauss-R-Also-sprach-Zarathustra/dp/B00EYVGAO6

Wondering where that music comes from? Here you are:

There will be signs!

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – during which time we reflect on our preparation for Christ’s comings into the world – his first coming some two thousand years ago, and his second coming some time in the future.

Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36, presents part of Jesus’ prophecy about the future, specifically, the Day of the Lord, or the day on which he will return, aka the ‘second coming’. He opens this passage with the words, “There will be signs…”

We all look for signs – signs about our past, to explain where we come from; signs about the future, so we know where we’re going; and signs about the present, to help us make sense of our current situations. In this passage, Jesus gives us insights into all of these.

Advent is a time of going back more than 2000 years, so we can look forward to the birth of Christ, whose birthday we will celebrate in a few weeks. In those days, people were looking for signs of the long-awaited Messiah. Now, today, we are looking forward to his second coming, and looking at the signs that foretell this.

Jesus’ teaching in Luke raises both the light and dark of Jesus’ second coming, some time in the future. He cautions us about the dangers and risks of that time. And he also encourages us to be faithful during these times.

Drawing on Christ’s teaching, I suggest that he calls us – in our faith, and also in our private and public lives – to cast one eye on the future and the other on the present. I explain why he says this and why it is a useful approach for contemporary living. I argue that we should live in the present, with roots in our past and looking forward to the future.

Feature image from: https://blog.obitel-minsk.com/2017/05/orthodox-understanding-of-the-second.html

God works with young people too

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Today is the first Sunday in Youth Month (June), and our church decided that ‘the youth’ (i.e. teenagers) would attend grown-up church for the month, rather than the usual youth church. Youth will be participating more actively in the services this month – welcoming new comers, serving as sides persons, reading the scriptures and leading prayers. And on June 17th, a teenager will preach.

So this sermon is intended to kick off Youth Month by addressing the question of the place of young people in God’s work in the world, in the Kingdom of God. All too often,  grown-ups tend to think of teenagers as being ‘adults-in-waiting’ (something scholars call ‘waithood‘). We have high expectations of who they must become, but low expectations of what they can offer now, and create little opportunity for them to act now. But, I argue, this is not what we see in the way God relates to young people in the Bible.

Drawing on the story of God calling Samuel when he was a boy (probably about 12 years old) in 1 Samuel 3:1-11, I show how God intentionally sidelined a grown-up priest (Eli) to rather engage with Samuel. God calls Samuel FOUR times in the night! During a time when the voice of God was rarely heard. AND God appears to Samuel in physical form (a ‘theophany’), which is also rare in the Old Testament narrative.  And then God gives a momentous message to Samuel, about God’s judgement on Eli, who is Samuel’s master.

In this story, we see God engaging fully with a young person, and making that young person central to God’s mission in the world. It is no accident. God selected a youngster to do this pivotal work. Samuel was about the same age as Jesus was when he left his parents to sit in the temple and engage the Jewish leaders (Luke 2:41-52).

Another narrative is found in Mark 2:23-3:6, a passage ostensibly about Jesus’ teachings on Sabbath law. I suggest that in this narrative, we Jesus acting in a typically adolescent way! (Remember that Jesus, being around 30 years old, was himself a youth, according to the South Africa definition of youth as ages 14-35.) In the first part of this narrative, Jesus and his disciples are walking, harvesting and carrying – all against the Sabbath law. Jesus’ response when challenged is a first century “Whatever” that is typical of modern teens. And then he heals a man, not because the man is in danger (his hand had probably been shriveled for many years, and was not in any immanent danger that warranted an ’emerging healing’ on the Sabbath), but to make a point. He wants to show his disregard for the Sabbath laws that had become a millstone around people’s necks.

In this second story, we see Jesus valuing a typically adolescent attitude: a healthy disregard for tradition and authority. Teenagers want to know why we do things the way we do them. What’s the point? Why is different not acceptable? Who says? We know that God appears to value such a questioning stance, because Jesus himself acts it out.

Teenagers are not grown-ups in waiting. They are already people. They’re just young people. God loves them enormously, extravagantly, intensely. God wants to engage with them, be in communication with them, listen to and talk to them. God wants them to partner in God’s work in the world, in God’s Kingdom. God sees them as full people, who have much to contribute. We, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, need to create some space for God to work with these young people.