Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 19, 2020
John 1:29-42 Commentary
The lamb of God. Agnus Dei. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Agnus Dei tolle peccato mundi. It is so familiar to us. Even if you Google that Latin phrase Agnus Dei, you instantly get over 10 million hits. And that’s in Latin! (Maybe these days quid quo pro would get more hits but probably not.) And few images in stained glass—in the world’s great cathedrals as well as in the world’s smallest country churches—are more familiar than anything depicting a lamb.
Anytime a phrase or an image takes on a life of its own like “Lamb of God” has done in history, we assume it is something that is all over the place in the Bible. Yet did you know that John 1 is the only place in the entire Bible where it is used? No Old Testament prophet ever referred to God’s Messiah as “the lamb of God” before John 1 and no New Testament writer will repeat this exact phrase either. Even in the Book of Revelation, where the apostle John mentions the image of the Lamb, the exact phrase “the lamb of God” is not repeated.
To this day scholars have not come to a consensus as to what John the Baptist meant by this designation for Jesus. But consider: if even 2,000 years later people are not certain as to what this phrase means, how likely is it that the people on that long ago day understood it!? If, as appears to be the case, this phrase was a novelty, perhaps coined by John the Baptist himself, then how did it strike those around him? The people had long been looking for the Messiah, but in the form of a king, a warrior, a hero. So calling Jesus a lamb would hardly have conjured up the idea of the Messiah. It maybe seemed downright odd or even cruel.
Even today you sometimes hear people described in animal terms, but nine times out of ten such designations are not complimentary. No one wants to be called “a pig” at the dinner table. If a high school boy refers to a girl as a real “dog,” it’s not kind. Still other times someone may be called “bull-headed,” a “bird brain,” a “cow,” a “scaredy cat,” a “barracuda,” a “pit bull,” and so forth. Each carries with it a certain descriptive connotation but none is very positive.
John calls Jesus “a lamb,” which could have been perceived a couple of different ways. Lambs are often a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability. In this sense, calling Jesus a lamb could have been a nice thing to say, but it would hardly be the type of description that would fit the Messiah. Certainly the average politician wouldn’t be very successful in getting elected if the main way people thought about him was that he was a real lamb of a guy! When the stock market is doing well, it’s called a “Bull Market.” You can’t imagine having a “Lamb Market” and it being considered good news for investors.
But, of course, in Jesus’ day, because there was that long history in Israel of using lambs as sacrifices, there was another sense in which hearing Jesus called “a lamb” might have struck some people as cruel. Maybe it would be like today calling someone a “turkey” or a “dumb bunny” or a “jackass.” Calling Jesus a lamb may have sounded like the equivalent of accusing Jesus of being a little dumb, someone easy to gang up on.
It does make you wonder what the disciples thought when they decided to hitch their wagon to this particular “star.” Was Jesus going places or going nowhere?
Whether John’s title meant Jesus was very meek or that he was destined for the chopping block, either way (much less both ways) it didn’t seem to indicate Jesus would be very effective in the long run. Nice guys finish last and sacrificial lambs are just finished eventually. Yet John adds the kicker line that somehow this particular lamb-like Jesus would “take away the sin of the world.”
So now we have the image of a lamb and the concept of sin in the same sentence. But since the only traditional connection between lambs and sin had always involved the death of the hapless lamb, John is clearly introducing a very dark theme. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d say about someone who was on his way to the top of this world’s heap. This isn’t how you’d describe a celebrity on a red carpet or a politician on his way to the platform where he had just been nominated for president.
John could just as easily have said, “Behold, the one who is going down the tubes! Behold the loser, the victim, the dead man walking.”
How odd it must have sounded. The next day, though, John repeats it, letting you know that it wasn’t some foolish slip-of-the-tongue on John’s part. This is central to who this Jesus was. When preaching on this passage today, we do well to recover for our congregations the oddness of the phrase, re-appropriating in afresh in ways that will generate wonder and gratitude.
As noted, despite the world-famous nature of the phrase “the lamb of God,” this is a John 1 novelty not found anywhere else in the Bible. That Jesus is identified as being a lamb is surely confirmed in Revelation 4-5 but the precise phrase used in John 1 may be a John-the-Baptist novelty. What did John the Baptist mean by it? As noted, there is not a great scholarly consensus on this question. The most obvious choice is to connect this to the Passover lamb but even this is disputed by many. But if you do not go that route, the other options are limited to a single verse scattered here or there in the Old Testament, the best known of which is Isaiah 53’s passing reference to a lamb being led silently to the slaughter. But either way or both ways, calling Jesus a lamb surely was meant to conjure up sacrifice and suffering and such. Probably that is why the next time we run across that image in the Book of Revelation, we are told that the lamb John of Patmos saw in his heavenly vision was not just any old lamb: this one was a lamb “that had been slain.” A dead lamb walking—that’s what John saw. It is also what John the Baptist predicted in John 1.
The folks in Hollywood love to shower themselves with awards, as we saw very recently in the 2020 Golden Globe Awards. There are, of course, awards presented in other fields: journalism and literature have the Pulitzer, the sciences and related fields have the Nobel Prize, and even religious folks get in on the action through things like Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year Award” and the lucrative “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.”
But no single field has an array of awards like the entertainment industry: the Golden Globe Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, the New York Film Critics Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Cannes Film Festival Awards, the Tony Awards, the Grammy Awards, the American Film Institute Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and of course the Academy Awards.
You are probably familiar with what often happens before these ceremonies begin. Outside the theater hosting the show, they literally roll out the red carpet. Velvet ropes cordon off the walkway leading to the entrance, and sometimes a few tiers of bleachers are erected for spectators. Hours, and sometimes even days, before the show begins, crowds gather hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars. Then, as the limos begin pulling up and depositing their precious celebrity cargo, cheers and screams emanate from the spectators as the likes of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep begin their high-profile trek down the red carpet, stopping frequently to speak into the microphones being shoved their way by eager reporters.
It’s amazing how much excitement can be generated by having the right kind of person simply walk past you. That’s why there is a kind of delicious contrast provided by John 1. There has never been a more important celebrity on this planet than Jesus. Yet John 1 makes clear that without some extra divine help, you would hardly be able to pick Jesus out of a crowd. Even John the Baptist admits that if God hadn’t let him see the Spirit descending onto Jesus like a dove, he himself wouldn’t have known who Jesus was.
If you look at it from the right angle, John 1 is almost hilarious in being so understated. Jesus had no red carpet to walk on. He wasn’t a Brat Pitt-type who became the center of attention wherever he went, causing people to crane their necks to see him. Small wonder people missed recognizing Jesus then. We for sure would miss him today! While thrusting an autograph book in the direction of Julia Roberts or Leonardo DiCaprio, Jesus would probably brush past us and we’d never see him.
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