Looking South East from Hilltop Farm, Gladstone South Australia

Facing up to freedom

Gospel: John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards 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.’

35 The 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!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When 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?’ 39He 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. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He 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).

This is too long for a sermon. It will be a handout for Sunday. I will talk around the subject in a bit less detail.

The poor people of the land met a travelling preacher from Nazareth called Jesus. He captured their imaginations. He had "God" written all over him in some way, and many of them followed him to Jerusalem, convinced something new was about to happen; God was on the move.

What happened was not new. Jesus was a political troublemaker, a cause of potential unrest. And like so many others before him, he was put to death by the Romans, probably with the collusion of the Jewish authorities.

That should have been the end of it. It usually was.

Except 15 or so years later, Letters start surfacing, and then Gospels. A movement began to spread across the empire; people preaching that this Jesus had risen from the dead! The ones who should have been dispirited and dispersed found that something of Jesus remained.

The love of God, the freedom of God, the experience of God... whenever you told the Jesus' stories and sought to live like him, it began to be that you had the sense he was there with you. They called it resurrection. They were so convinced of his closeness to God, and the truth of what he showed them about God, that they called him Son of God. In their culture, to formally call someone a son, was to give him the authority of his father; if the Son was with you then, essentially you were in the presence of the Father.

This Jesus had been executed on a cross, the shameful death of those criminals guilty of treason. And yet these new followers said that very defeat, in the eyes of the world, was a massive victory over death; it was the source of real life, and the source of freedom!

Understand that they did not say this as some kind of theory. Faced with his death, struggling to understand how someone so godly could be so brutally and shamefully killed, they found new life and freedom. The triumph of the cross was not a theory, it was their experience. His death on the cross was what made the whole experience "work," if you like. It was an unthinkable, paradoxical defeat, which they saw and experienced driving their new freedom.

And so it's a fair question to wonder "What is it about the unjust murder of the best of all human beings by the rich and powerful who oppress us, which actually means that life is good and free; which means we have hope; which means we are "saved?" How could that "work?"

When we struggle with questions like that we discover new understanding and new freedom as we meet God. The Bible is the record of our Faith's growing understanding of the God we meet.

So the Gospel of John is written for us to understand this Jesus and what he means for us; it prepares us to understand and experience, at some level, the crucifixion of Jesus and resurrection. It is about us "having life in his name." (John 20:30)

Among the first things we are told in the gospel is this: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." This is at Jesus' baptism. It is the event that establishes his identity; he is the one on whom the Spirit of God remains. The story of the baptism is used by John to say to us: If you want to understand Jesus and what he gives you, first understand this: this Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

People knew about lambs:

  1. A child was sometimes called a lamb; we still do this! Good leaders were like God; a shepherd who cared for the sheep and the lambs. (eg Psalm 80:1)
  2. Lambs were killed to save the Israelites when the Angel of Death killed the first born children of Egypt. The blood of the lamb on the lintel was a sign that the people of a house were to be spared death. That was a revealing way of thinking about Jesus. Was he in some way like the Lamb of the Passover? (Exodus 12)
  3. There was the lamb in Isaiah 53:7-8 — He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
       yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
       and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    (NRSV) Those verses must have seemed full of significance for people struggling to understand what had happened.
  4. Then there was the scapegoat. One the Day of Atonement two goats (without blemish) were chosen. One was killed and its blood was taken into the Holy of Holies in the temple and sprinkled on the "mercy seat," the top of the Ark. The high priest would confess the sins of Israel and these were symbolically heaped on the head of the second goat, the scapegoat, which was sent out into the wilderness. The sin of the nation was atoned; ie paid for, by the two goats. (See Leviticus 1, Leviticus 16)

    If we had met the freeing power of Jesus it would not be long before we made a connection there!

  5. There was another lamb floating around in the collective imagination of the people of Jesus' time. This is the lamb that is spoken of in Revelation 5:

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.... ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ (Rev 5:7,12)

Horns were a sign of great power in this literature. Seven horns suggests perfect power, or the greatest of power, perhaps. The image of the all powerful lamb, and of the lion of Judah, was one of the images used by the Essenes and others as they talked about the coming Messiah.

People understood a "lamb" would come. Revelation is saying that lamb, is the slaughtered lamb; that is Jesus. John the Baptist, and the Gospel of John, are saying, "That Lamb of Power we are all waiting for, God's mighty Lamb?  It's Jesus. Follow Him." John's two disciples follow him. And Jesus says, "Come and see..." which amounts to the same thing. It's actually an invitation to us.

This fifth lamb, the mighty Lamb from Revelation (You can also see it in a book called The Testaments of the Patriarchs) is the lamb of the five which scholars think John had most in mind when he wrote the gospel. (If we can guess at the author’s intent, I think it was more likely to have been the messianic imagery [eg the lamb in Revelation]given what we have heard so far [in John], but perhaps with a hint of the Passover.)  Bill Loader  But because we don't read Revelation that much, it is probably the least likely image for us to think of!

Many of us interpret the Lamb, or in the language I have used, "understand how Jesus works," through a theological theory called penal substitution. In that theory, we are such evil sinners that we deserve to die forever— and in many versions, burn in hell forever. Our sin is so bad God that can't forgive it; it must be paid for. (That does make it sound like sin is greater than God, by the way!)

So, according to this theory, God sends his Son Jesus to die for us. Jesus is the innocent lamb (we can see aspects of points 1-4 in this) which is sent to die in our place so that we don't have to die. God willingly sends his innocent son, we sometimes say, as a substitutionary sacrifice for us.

For many of us this theory of penal substitution, which made a lot of sense to people around 1100 – 1600 CE— is the only theory we have ever heard of how Jesus' death and resurrection works! We might even think that if we don't believe this we are a heretic— I've certainly heard that said.

The trouble is, by today's standards, it does not explain Jesus and how Jesus saves us at all. Instead it is an appalling image which makes God sound like a monster. If we tell this story to people we should not be surprised if they think it is stupid, or even evil.

It also makes us afraid! Such a god is a god to be feared. If he would do this to his own son, what might he do to me?

God is not a monster. God forbade child sacrifice! (See for example Deuteronomy 18: 10 – "There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering…")

Why then would God send his son as a sacrifice?!  Does God want this? What sort of God is God if that is all that can be done? One author (Gil Bailie) says

Who is it that demands the sacrifice? Is it God? Is it God who has his fist in the air, shouting, "Crucify him!"? Who demands that Jesus die? The crowd. The mob. Us.

Bailie says

All [the ancient] religions existed to take away the sins of the world. How did they do it? Every once in a while they dumped all these sins on someone and ran them out, or strung them up -- and felt righteous about it.

This is what Australia did to Lindy Chamberlain. The night her conviction for murder I was packing shelves in the Alice Springs Coles, not long before heading to theological college. People burst into cheers of heartfelt approval as the radio newsreader made the announcement. Feeling righteous was hardly an adequate description of the hatred which was heaped upon her. Aboriginal stories, and any common sense observation of the behaviour of dogs, let alone dingoes, knew that the taking of a baby was a most plausible event. But we needed a scapegoat.

Whenever something goes wrong we look for someone or something to blame. The media, or the government, or the local community always makes a scapegoat of someone; someone they can blame. Even families do it! Have you noticed how in some families there is always someone who gets the blame? They are the one these families choose to blame for everything instead of taking the blame for their own problems and shortcomings.

When we say God sent his son to pay for our sins, what we are really doing is avoiding the fact that it is our sinfulness, our shortcomings and pigheadedness and greed that messes up the world. We say we will be forgiven and saved because Jesus paid for us. We make him a scapegoat and we make God a monster.

Would you like a father who put his innocent son to death so some undeserving mongrel got off scot-free? I wouldn't. I certainly wouldn't worship him!

But it says God 'so loved the world that he gave his only Son', you say. It says it in John 3! How does this work? How is it, then, that the death of Jesus saves us?

God indeed gave his Son. In Jesus, God comes to us in the flesh and allows god-self to be a scapegoat. If we would only have lived as Jesus lived— if we had only listened to him— there would have been no death. God did not come to die. God came to live with us! But we demanded a death, a sacrifice, a scapegoat.

But even then the love of God for us was not destroyed. Even after Jesus' death people still felt the love of God. When they lived as Jesus lived, the power of God in their lives was increased. Jesus saves us because he shows us that even death does not stop God. Even death does not separate us from God. All the hatred and destructive power of the world does not separate us from God. Romans 8:39 says [neither] height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

In the story of the baptism in John's gospel the two disciples of John the Baptist say to Jesus, "Where are you staying?" It's a pun. The old King James says where do you dwell? The underlying message is this: Where will we discover your essence, who you are, where you abide? And the answer is: "Come and see." (John 1:37-39) It says they went and stayed with him. They dwelt with him, or remained with him. The Greek word has the same root to remain in each part of that little story.

The world has its sin taken away when it remains with Jesus. He removes the power of sin. The life of the world, and our lives, is fundamentally altered when we come and see, and stay with him. When we trust Jesus and live his Way, even though "common sense" says he is dead, we stay with him. It saves us. We discover the meaning of love. We meet God.

In an ideal world Jesus would never have been killed. But even though he was, the love of God still persists. Remaining with him means we discover that we are never separated from that love.  It turns our whole world around.

[You will find more on this topic at: http://onemansweb.org/scaping-the-goats-john-1-29-42.html]

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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