“In those moments when all that we are is on the line, we are met by the one who came so that even death itself shall die. The temptation will always be around to not care, to not love, to not open ourselves up to the possibility of pain; but at that moment – when it feels like everything we’ve longed for is being taken away – that is the moment when God is most present, offering all that He is to mend our broken hearts and heal our deepest wounds.”
This was one of the most difficult sermons I’ve ever preached, but also (or maybe because it) expresses one of the most central convictions of my theology. The Christian faith is not a means of knowing enough to be in control, but of finding the embrace of God when we are finally willing to give up control and risk all that we truly are. If I’m right, we almost always look at theology in the wrong direction. The vulnerability of relationship comes first, which in turn creates the space for words of faith to do and mean something true.
John 1:29-36 & Genesis 22:1-19
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I 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.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
It’s never good to be the lamb. Lambs are just young sheep and sheep tend to be the unwitting victim of all kinds of insults. Need to call someone stupid? A sheep will stand in as a beautiful metaphor to make the point. Want to call someone a follower, say that they have no mind of their own and just follow the pack mindlessly no matter where it leads? There’s a word for that – sheeple, these sheep people will go along with anything. A farmer would probably tell you that sheep aren’t actually all that stupid – they have just learned that following the herd is better than going it alone, but if anyone ever calls you any variation of sheep or lamb – I can pretty much guarantee you they don’t mean to call you a team player. It’s never good the be the lamb.
The Old Testament is full of imagery about lambs involved in the sacrificial system. I can assure you, their role in that system makes them a lot worse off than being used as a derogatory term. Leviticus is probably the most detailed look at the system if you ever care to read more, but the gist of it is this – God came to Moses and they recorded an elaborate system to deal with sin and sacrifice. In some ways it was quite liberating – if you managed to fail in almost any particular way, you had a prescription for how to set things right; no need to guess at action or wonder if sufficient. For the animals on the other end, however, it wasn’t such a liberating trade off. It’s never good to be the lamb.
One of the most powerful moments in scripture comes from a similar moment of animal offering, but before the system became so formal. Way back in Genesis, we find Abraham and Isaac walking up toward Moriah, preparing to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Isaac must have been fairly young at this point and he didn’t know his father’s plans. As they walked, Isaac asked his Father – “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”………. It wasn’t long before, that Abraham and Sarah were old and childless. God had promised years before that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And yet there they were, no hope left.
Eventually they took matters into their own hands and Abraham had a child with their maid servant, which is all kinds of messed up and weird. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well. Abraham and Sarah, still waiting for a child of theirs, once even laughed in the face of God and God’s messengers when they said the promise was still to be fulfilled. But that year, the dream came true. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. Their little bundle of joy would be the one through whom a great many children and grandchildren and on and on would be born. He was the vehicle through which God would bless the world.
But a short time later Abraham and Isaac were walking up to Moriah together. Isaac asked his dad, “the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb?” There wasn’t going to be a lamb this time. God had said to Abraham, Take your son. Your only son. Your son whom you love. And go to Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice to the Lord.
Sallie and I are still on the wrong side of our journey with infertility and I can’t even begin to tell you how differently this story hits me now than it did even a year ago. There is nothing OK, or logical, or sensible about the request God made of Abraham. Each word cuts a little deeper – your son (that you didn’t think you could have). Your only son (whom you longed for so many times). Your son whom you love (and still can’t believe you actually had). Take him, and offer him up to me.
“Dad, where is the lamb?” All Abraham can say in response is, “God himself will provide the lamb.” It’s never good to be the lamb. Twice in our gospel reading, John sees Jesus walking nearby and proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God.” 6 words is all it should take to realize everything you need to know about who Jesus is and where his life will lead. John includes all sorts of moderately confusing philosophical and theological language to add some nuance to the claim.
“This is the one of whom I said ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” John the baptist is giving a nod to John the gospel’s 1st chapter in that Jesus is the agent of creation, the Word who was in the beginning and without Him, not one thing came into being. The Baptist continues, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” John wasn’t just cheerleading for a friend – he was immersing Israel into the hope of the one who would fulfill God’s promises. John then testified that the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove and this would be the one to Baptize in the Holy Spirit.
John the gospel is so full of connections and nuance to show how and why Jesus is Lord. Some of which are super confusing philosophical sounding jumbles of words. Others are deeply connected to the story and future of God’s chosen people. Fast forward to the end of John’s gospel and you find your expectations met. Through deeply interwoven language of sacrifice and hope, John guides us toward the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made. And yet in 6 words, you can figure out pretty much everything you need to know to understand who Jesus is. “Here is the Lamb of God.” It’s never good to be the lamb.
Abraham and Isaac made all the preparations for the burnt offering. Abraham bound Isaac to the altar and prepared to do what he had to do. But just before he made the sacrifice an angel came to him and said “Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy, for now I know that you fear the Lord.” And as Abraham looked up he saw a Ram, an adult sheep, caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham released Isaac and together they took the ram and made their burnt-offering to the Lord. Happy ever after. Except, I really hate this story, especially at this point in our life.
The binding of Isaac raises plenty of unresolved questions. Was God actually testing Abraham in order to decide whether to keep His side of the promise? Could it be that it was just a story and not a real event? Does that get God off the hook? Was it the willingness of Abraham that God wanted to see or was it important that Abraham would have actually gone through with it? Would God ever ask anything similar of us? Saying yes makes God sound pretty awful. Saying no far too quickly implies that nothing meaningful is really at stake in choosing to follow God.
The weight of scripture clearly tells me that God would not ask something so awful of us, but at the same time, it is nothing less important than life itself that is transformed when we choose to follow after Jesus Christ. I can’t give a simple answer to the troubling questions that are raised in the story, but I can tell you that I still hate the story, no matter what answer you give to any of them. The questions are not what bother me. I hate it because I don’t want to think about risking myself right now. I don’t want to open myself up to the possibility of losing what I’ve wanted for so long.
To think of all the struggles, all the false hope, all the unmet desire I’ve felt the last few years – and here is a story with the all the language of my struggles. A husband and wife longing for a child and when they finally get what they’ve wanted, Abraham is asked to give it all up – to face the loss of the very promises God made for his family and future. To face that possibility might be worse than going through with it. When asked to face that kind of tragic loss, what I want to do is close off my heart to anything at all. I want to be numb and not care what tomorrow brings. If I don’t care about anything at all, then nothing can disappoint me ever again.
That’s the pattern we find so often in life. Never had the relationship you wanted with your parents? It’s easier to stop caring or stop coming around than to be reminded of the love you’ve never quite found. Don’t find fulfillment in work? Don’t feel like you’re a part of something worthwhile? It’s easier to just check out and mindlessly do what you have to do than to fight for change and find your purpose. Marriage troubles? Friends hurt you? No one listening? The list goes on – in every case, the temptation is there to avoid and withdraw. If we never reveal our deepest desires or bear our deepest wounds, even to our self – we’ll never have to risk the let down.
Abraham did not shut himself off from the possibility of losing what he’d always wanted. And in that very moment – as he stared into the heart of darkness and fear and loss and everything I try so hard to avoid in life – in that very moment, the angel said to him, “here is the lamb of God.” In those moments when all that we are is on the line, we are met by the one who came so that even death itself shall die. The temptation will always be around to not care, to not love, to not open ourselves up to the possibility of pain; But at that moment; when it feels like everything we’ve longed for is being taken away; that is the moment when God is most present, offering all that he is to mend our broken hearts and heal our deepest wounds.
For all the talk of sin and brokenness in the world, we do a remarkably poor job of talking about what really matters. Sin as a punishable offence is not unimportant, but to focus on punishment is to hide from the parts of sin that actually define lives. Punishable sins and legalism are just two sides to the same symptom that we so often use to pretend everything is alright deep down. But there is a deep longing inside of us all – a desire to love and be loved – a desire to find fulfillment and hope and joy in the relationships we share with God and one another.
The reality of sin means that life is often not as we desire it to be. The deep and harmful nature of sin tempts us to hide behind the walls of control and good enough. If we numb ourselves enough and never admit that we long to love and be loved, we never have to risk being let down. But hiding from what’s inside just makes the symptoms worse. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. God is there even in our darkest hours because he has gone before us to make love real and make hope present.
It’s never good to be the lamb. But through the faithful Lamb of God, we find that it is OK to give up control. In God’s arms, we don’t have to be numb to the world because we are embraced more than we could ever know. In the hands of our savior, every ounce of fear, every pain of loss, every moment we fall short, every time we fail and are failed, every scar we bear and every wound we cause are embraced, redeemed, and made new in Him. Take the risk. Take the risk to seek after a love that knows no bounds and never ends. And you will find that Here is the Lamb of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.