Sermon for January 19, 2020 | The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” To grasp the meaning of this acclamation and its significance for our lives today, let us not look to the experience of shepherds in the fields but rather cast our eyes upward into the heavens. There we can see the same constellations that Jesus and the gospel writers could see. And among them, we find the astrological constellation named Aries, that is, the ram or young male lamb. What we need to know is that this constellation, the cluster of stars named after the lamb, was believed by the ancients to be the first one created by God. The lamb is the first-born of the all the stars, the leader of the starry skies. For our Jewish ancestors in the faith, the lamb held a prominent place in the celebration of Passover since the blood of the lamb served as protection on the night the Hebrews were liberated from slavery in ancient Egypt. Thus, the lamb became the sacred Passover food that nourished the desire for freedom, for liberation in every generation.
While you and I might find a trove of greeting cards at Easter time portraying cuddly little lambs, the lamb was considered by our ancestors a strong, heavenly leader who, nonetheless, was marked by vulnerability: an animal that did not resist those who would do it harm. To state the obvious, lambs are not predators as is the eagle, the mythological symbol of our nation. Now that juxtaposition of leader and vulnerability might sound strange to us who have been taught by our culture to value leaders who never show a hint of vulnerability, of doubt, of weakness. A good leader, we are told, is strong, clear-headed, in charge, and able to promote continued growth for his or her organization. How odd it must sound to us – in this year of Matthew – to hear Jesus, our leader, say: “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” How odd it must sound to hear him say, “You have [been told to] love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:39; 43-45a).
Barbara Rossing, a New Testament scholar, claims that there are two powers who seek your loyalty and mine: worldly power – the power of the society or system in which we live – and the power of the Lamb. Worldly power, the power of worldly rulers, is frequently marked by power over others, others who have little voice. Such worldly power is frequently marked by the urge to retaliate when a ruler, a boss, hears criticism of their leadership. This power is frequently marked by verbal or physical violence against those who dissent; is marked by disregard for those who experience distress; is marked by the determination to always get one’s way. But worldly power is also subtle. It can be found in our resistance to forgive a harm done to us; it can be found in the urge to gossip about others in our parish or workplaces; to judge negatively those who do not share one’s social status or values.; to remain silent and comfortable in the presence of injustice. Worldly power can lead us to objectify other people in order to disregard them. I hear this in the way some Tacomans speak of the unhoused, the homeless, as if they were sub-human entities rather than fellow human beings created in the image of God.
I think this is what the Baptist means by “the sin of the world.” Truth be told, it is present in the institutions we may take for granted and even rely on; it is present around us in the subtle and blatant racism we breath in from childhood, in the prejudices communicated by the ever-present media that surround us, in the stereotypes we may think are actually normal and acceptable. The sin of the world is greater than any one of us. Perhaps this is why the prophets and the gospels repeatedly call us to wake up, to be alert to the society and the systems within our society that abuse and demean, alert to the disinformation that misleads.
On the other hand, the power of the Lamb is both a criticism of worldly power and an alternative to it. The power of the Lamb is found in non-violent resistance to prejudice, hate, and injustice. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and – and – remain resolute in your opposition to violence, harm, or prejudice. The power of the Lamb is found in the challenge – and it is a daunting challenge – to love one’s enemy without condoning the harm inflicted by them. For the only other option is to engage in revenge – and once engaged in retaliation, the spiral of violence only grows greater and stronger. Just ask any divorce lawyer.
Indeed, it was the power of the Lamb that animated the life and political ministry of the Christian martyr, Martin Luther King, Jr., the lives of Coretta Scott King, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, and the many who continue to be inspired by his non-violent resistance to the original sin of this nation: its white and Christian objectification of the native population and their subsequent murder; its white and Christian objectification of Africans and their subsequent enslavement. Such non-violent resistance to that which degrades any life is grounded, according to King, in the power of love, the power of the Lamb. “In the final analysis,” King preached, “love is not a sentimental something we talk about. It’s not an emotional something. Love is a creative power that seeks out the goodness in all women and men, especially one’s enemies. It is,” he said, “the refusal to destroy any individual … for each one bears the image of God.” The beauty and power of love is this: that it seeks to defeat the evil and oppressive systems in which we are easily caught. This is the great power of love: that it resists with unyielding compassion the sin of the world.
Is it any wonder, then, that as we approach the Supper of the wounded and risen Lamb, we sing this ancient litany, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” At this moment in our national life, a time marked by terrible distress, by a flood of falsehood in the highest places, by religious hatred, and by surging white racism, do you and I not need the power of the Lamb more than ever? Do we not need to be strengthened by his living presence, given to us in broken bread and shared wine cup? For what other reason would you and I come to this eucharistic table but to eat and drink the power of creative love and unyielding compassion?