Epiphany 2: 16 January
Gospel: John 1:29-42
29 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).
The problem with a reading (and a gospel) such as this is that it is so much more than the sum of its parts. We can identify issues of politics. We can identify theological themes. We can see the author’s “winks” to the reader- they are not particularly subtle.
But this would be only to analyse the text in by “prescribing a mathematical formula to rate the quality of poetry” which Robin William’s character finds so outrageous and foolish in Dead Poet’s Society. In fact, we would be worse- even more ridiculous- because we ascribe a certain holiness to this text!
It is a matter of balance. If we do not identify the themes and symbols,”the nuts and bolts”, the text will be uninformative, and unable to question us. If we place too much emphasis on the themes we will miss the invitation; it will be all nuts and bolts, and we will never hear the questions.
Most obvious to me among the nuts and bolts, is the continuing theme of John’s subordination to Jesus. If I had written this text in our cultural context, I would expect my English teacher to wonder if I was overdoing things. "How many times do we need to hear that John is subordinate to Jesus?" he would say. Clearly, this was a major issue for John’s community.
Bill Loader says the “passage also suggests that some of Jesus’ disciples swapped to Jesus from John.” That would be major! Perhaps Jesus even started out as John’s “junior.” Bill goes on to say “there is a kind of theological politics going on in the passage which could obscure other main features, as theological politics often do.”
Holding the political claims to one side, we find theological claims are also embedded in the passage. It is not merely said that John is subordinate. He says it of himself, which is a powerful rhetorical artifice. Also embedded in this rhetorical sophistication, is the message that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (29,36) John bears witness to Jesus.
We see another of John the gospel author’s rhetorical devices here; repetition. As well as two references to the lamb of God, there are multiple references to baptising. There are multiple occasions where John says of a word, “... which is translated as...” We might feel things are overdone here, too.
I was once privileged to talk about rhetoric with Bill Loader. I commented that sometimes I look at the gospels and wonder if I read things into them a little too much. But the symbols and allusions are so consistent and so compelling that I tell myself it cannot be a matter of my imagining. The authors surely intended this.
Bill agreed. He told me a little about the study of rhetoric in Jesus’ world. We sometimes speak of the "three Rs” in eductation; reading, 'riting, 'n' 'rithmetic. As I understand Bill, if anyone in Jesus' time had the privilege of education there was a fourth R; rhetoric. Rhetoric is the study of how to make an argument compelling and memorable. It was hugely important in Jesus' world. There were no CDs or TV repeats, and many people could not read. A person would often have only one opportunity to make their point. I suspect rhetoric would not have been seen as a subordinate to the other three “Rs”.
As modern readers, we are somewhat illiterate in recognising and evaluating rhetoric. During my two university degrees, I never even heard of a course in rhetoric; something unthinkable in Jesus time. Our poverty is evident in the use of “moving forward” by the Prime Minister during her election campaign. Her attempt was ham-fisted.
I used to think John was like this. All that repetition; how unsubtle and clumsy! I’m now wondering if part of reading John is to recognise that he is not painting his invitationand his message in the fine and detailed brush strokes of some artists. He is layering, even sculpting, the paint with a palette knife. If I think there is something unsubtle about this, I am not properly listening. The layer upon layer of paint has its own sublime message.
The Lamb of God had a number of clear associations for John’s readers. What were they?
It depends what you had for breakfast, so to speak. If you have been feeding on traditional ideas of messiahship (and they have been on the table since 1:19 in many shapes and sizes and will continue to dominate for the rest of the chapter) then you might most naturally think of the image of the lamb or sometimes, the ram, who will emerge victorious over God’s enemies and drive out sin. The Book of Revelation assumes such associations when it hails Jesus as the lamb, even as the slain lamb (5:6,12). John’s gospel uses messianic imagery to underline its message that the Father sent the Son to overcome evil and darkness with light and truth.
Someone coming from thoughts about Jewish sacrifices and feasts might think of the Passover lamb. Those hearing the fourth gospel many times would remember that it alone portrays Jesus as dying at the time when the Passover lambs were killed (18:28; 19:31) and describes his dying in terms which echo Passover imagery (19:29,36). The link would be that Jesus brings an act of deliverance. Others might think of the daily sacrifice or generally of sacrifices, which increasingly came to be interpreted as dealing with sin, though most had other functions originally. Or the ram caught in the thicket might come to mind from Gen 22 and thus provide a link between God’s beloved son and Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac.
What Bill Loader identifies here is also more of the layering in John. His writing is fertile and generative. It invites us to play with the imagery. And yet, as Bill says,
Imagery in John is always subordinate to the main theme. The main theme is that in Jesus we are to see and hear the Son whom the Father sent to offer us a relationship which will bring life to us and our world.
This week’s reading is only one panel in a whole graphic novel. We need to look at the whole painting, not these few verses alone. (Which makes for interesting preaching when just a few verses are injected into the Year of Matthew!)
Part of the balance we need to achieve in reading John is to play with the imagery in the context of that main theme. In one sense there is no “right” answer about which "Lamb" John had in mind. In this same spirit of no right and full answers we can note with John Petty that
The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world--note the singular. This view of sin pops up also in Paul. The Lamb defeats the enslaving power of sin. It's about cosmic victory, in other words, and not about the snarky remark you made to Aunt Freda about her new hat.
The Lamb of God is no mere Teacher. (38) He is the Messiah. (41) John not only “translates” the word Messiah as anointed. A few verses beyond the artificial boundaries of the Revised Common Lectionary he has another translation: We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote... (46) And in another bold stroke of the palette knife he cuts into the objections of the naysayers, sceptics, and traditionalists and adds (who is) Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.
Some of the double meanings characteristic John are also present in today’s reading. “Where are you staying?” ask the disciples. (38) “Come and see.” And in verse 48, “Where did you come to know me?” These “winks to the reader,” as Bill calls them, are one more little hook inviting us into the painting; inviting us to fall into the ocean of the Dawn Treader, if you like.
So how will I preach this on Sunday? To be faithful to “the main theme,” I need to bear witness to it: I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly. John 10:10 may be a place to start. I can talk about some of the themes and symbols, and how they point us toward the message. But I want to do more.
In high school we were required to read Albert Camus’ book The Outsider. I was completely out of my depth with this book; I’m sure it never featured in an exam question, or I would have failed. Despite this, I identified, and at some instinctive level deeply felt the unreal, disconnected nature of the main character’s existence. It frightened and repelled me. I wanted a life that was not disoriented by “heat and bright sunlight.” How odd to find that description of Meursault's haze in Wikipedia; I grew up on a limestone ridge and often found the heat and bright light of summer oppressive and distressing!
As I first began to read John, it was like The Outsider. I was outside. It was strange. John's gospel also seemed to portray a story in the oppressive hiss of a heat haze; all slightly unreal, disconnected, and disturbing. John invites me into this world without guarantee. If I try and pin down his categories and symbols with the precise logic of science, his world disappears as rapidly as the life in a Dead Poet’s work when it is raped by wooden analysis. But if I risk the heat haze, I am no longer an outsider. I find reality, not absurdity and emptiness. The extravagant flourish of the palette knife seems completely appropriate. I realise that holding onto those apparent certainties I left so unwillingly is the real absurdity. I am not sure how to get all that into one Sunday sermon!
Andrew Prior Jan 2010, first published at scotschurch.org
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