Sermon: 2 Epiphany—Year A–January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
In 2008 Stephanie and I went to see her sister in San Francisco and we spent one lovely afternoon touring Alcatraz Island on which sits the infamous federal prison, which operated from 1933 to 1963. Alcatraz was home to such luminaries as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Robert Stroud–the Birdman of Alcatraz, and of course Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who was there from 1959 to 1962. I expected Alcatraz might be a depressing place to visit. Certainly the prisons I’ve been in, like the one at the rotary in Concord, are scary and sad because human beings are suffering there today. But walking around Alcatraz, listening to the personal audio tour, I found just the opposite because now this place is filled with happy, interested people, who at the end of the day are free to leave.
John the Baptizer points to Jesus and says: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Time doesn’t allow us to unpack the phrase Lamb of God—that would take us to at least Second Isaiah and the Book of Revelation—but it is clear at a minimum the evangelist who wrote the Gospel of John sees Jesus as the new Passover Lamb. He so wants us to see this that the Passover is not on Maundy Thursday, like in Matthew, Mark, and Luke when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper. But rather the Passover is on Good Friday, so that at the same time Jesus is being crucified the Passover Lambs are being slaughtered for the feast that night. Jesus is the Lamb of God who like the lamb of the first Passover rescues us from death and delivers us from slavery.
Please notice that Jesus does not die just so I can have my many sins forgiven and get into heaven when I die. That would make his mission too small and even an expression of failure, if the best God can do is rescue us without our bodies from this broken world, leaving creation to decay and die.
Rather, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—the Greek word translated “world” is the word “cosmos”. The sacrificial death of the Lamb of God is an event that rescues the cosmos, all of creation, from slavery to sin and death, ushering in the New Creation.
As N. T. Wright puts it, “By 6 PM on the Friday evening Jesus died”…”something has happened within the actual world of space, time and matter, as a result of which everything is different….Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic ‘new temple’ [because as Paul writes]“God was reconciling the cosmos to himself in the Messiah.” The Day the Revolution Began, Page 156; 2 Corinthians 5:19
Certainly your sins and mine are forgiven, but again, not so we can float up disembodied to heaven when we die, but so that in this life we may grow towards being fully alive women and men who are God’s image-bearers, reflecting the light and love of Christ into this world and into the world to come when finally the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth and we have resurrection bodies.
As Wright says, “forgiveness of sins” is “the name for a new state of being, a new world, a world of resurrection, resurrection itself…when the prison door is flung open, indicating the jailor has already been overpowered.” Ibid 156
Those first disciples after Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost spend their lives learning how to live in this new world by fundamentally doing two basic things:
First, they worship Triune God by immersing themselves in God’s presence and living into the story of the liberation wrought by the Lamb of God.
We humans become what we worship: spend time every day worshipping how bad your life is, how mistreated you’ve been, or how bad you’ve been, and you will create a world filled with more of the same. This is a psychological fact known to every therapist: marinate your mind in the whining and negativity of your victim story and your life will be filled with more problems.
But marinate your mind in the healing, forgiveness, and liberation of Jesus and your life will bloom–even during times of suffering and struggle.
We cannot overcome a bad situation by giving that situation the power to control our thinking. Fear cannot heal fear, anger cannot heal anger, and hatred cannot heal hatred.
Rather in the bad times, as in the good, we are invited by faith to hold in our minds the image of Jesus, the Lamb of God who loves us and gives himself for us.
This is why Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in August 1963 was so powerful: to be sure he named the oppression and injustice, but he didn’t stop until he had witnessed to the dream of a new day. He said:
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive…. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all…are created equal.”
Then reciting Isaiah 40 he continues: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
As the first witnesses to the resurrection open their tired minds and broken hearts to God. People began to say things like, “Look how they love one another.” “Look how they love even their enemies.”
Paul can’t help but witness to his Lord and Messiah: in today’s reading from 1st Corinthians he names Jesus 8 times in the first 9 verses. In Romans 6:10-11 (ESV) he calls us to make Jesus and his saving work the center of our attention as well, saying: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
HERE’S THE THING: Consider yourselves dead to sin, dead to your old world, dead to your past failings, dead to your future fears, because as The Message translates puts it: “Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call!…. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God.”
We are being called to Wake from the nightmare and live the dream.
For over 4 years our invitation to communion has been: “Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith, come to the holy table and receive the Supper of the Lamb.”
Jesus is our host, inviting us to feast on forgiveness, the forgiveness of the cosmos.
+At this feast the bread and wine are the very Life of Jesus.
+At this feast heaven and earth are One.
+At this feast we immerse ourselves in Triune God.
+At this feast we become witnesses to Jesus, the Lamb of God.
+ At this feast we consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
At this feast we remember we are free to leave our prison, because all the jailers are gone and all the doors are open.