Our text for today is any many ways a reflection on the text we looked at last Sunday. Technically, it’s about the same event – the baptism of Jesus. John’s gospel, however, is a very different animal from Matthew, Luke, and Mark. Those three, written much earlier and drawn from a common body of material, focus primarily on what Jesus said and what Jesus did.
John’s gospel was written after the Christian Church had been around for a couple of generations and had time to think about what all of this meant. John’s gospel offers theological reflections on the meaning of Jesus’ miracles and sayings. In fact, John’s gospel is rather light on miracles – it contains only seven. Nevertheless, it outlines the significance of Christ with such precision, detail, and eloquence that it is often John’s gospel that is used to introduce the Christian message to unbelievers.
Consequently, when John tells us about the baptism of Jesus, he does not even mention the actual baptism. It’s not the baptism itself that matters to John, it’s the chance to introduce God-made-flesh to the world stage.
Just before where our story for today begins, John the Gospel-Writer has been telling of how the religious leaders had interrogated John the Baptizer. They asked him over and again, “Who do you think you are? Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah?” John answers them every time, “No, I’m not.”
It is hard to appreciate now how important that conversation would have been to the early Church. Many of Jesus’ early followers were followers of John the Baptizer, and from what we can tell many of them were bitterly disappointed to find that Jesus had not been the conquering hero they had expected. Before introducing Jesus to us, the gospel-writer takes the time to make it very clear that John the Baptizer made no claims to divinity and that he recognized the divinity of Jesus.
It’s as if, before turning the spotlight on Jesus, the gospel wants to make sure that everyone who might distract us has moved away from center stage. The outspoken, fiery prophet is perhaps a little too tempting for us superficial humans. We don’t respond well to real divinity. We glorify, perhaps even worship, shallow, self-absorbed celebrities. Whether in movies, on the news, or in tabloids, we cannot get enough of even the most silly or personal details of their lives.
Our real saints, on the other hand, those who dedicate everything they have to healing the wounds of the world, are trotted out for the occasional, brief nod that lasts only until we can find out who Elizabeth Taylor’s latest boyfriend is or which member of this week’s boy band has been arrested last night.
Apparently, that has been the human condition for quite some time, and so John the Baptizer is given the chance to make his role clear before he introduces the Savior of all humanity. When the time comes for Jesus to be presented, John picks an odd phrase. As Jesus walks toward him, John proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
With this one image, John ties together two main images from the Hebrew Bible. One is that of the Passover lamb [Ex 12:1-13] When God’s people had languished in slavery, each family had been told to sacrifice an animal without blemish and place the blood of the animal around their doorway. Those marked by the blood of this sacrifice were protected from the violence of God’s wrath.
Personally, I’ve always had a problem with that image. In order to protect their own lives, the children of God are asked to take life. It is a reminder to us that some things are in fact even more sacred, more important, than life itself – and a God who sees what lies beyond death can sometimes ask very much of us indeed.
Even those who feel some sympathy for the lamb, and perhaps even a little shock that a loving God would require blood for our protection, cannot help but be more than a little stunned when John introduces the final, ultimate Passover lamb to us.
The blood of this sacrifice is meant to mark us all, to free us from the pain and weakness that chains us in a broken world. John announces, “Here is the final, ultimate Lamb, whose sacrifice will mean that no more blood need ever be shed” and it turns out that John is pointing to none other than God in the flesh.
I spent some time as a college admissions counselor. Any of you who have put children through college these days know how painful those tuition bills can be. I can still picture the faces of some students the first time they saw the total dollar amount they would be expected to pay. I was always careful to point out that, incidentally, the bills would come in their name. They were adults now, and would be responsible for their own choices.
I was fortunate to work for a college that wanted to make sure that anyone who was admitted could attend the school. As a result, I can remember the faces of those same students when I showed them their financial aid packages and they realized that, as steep as the bill was, the college would be paying for it.
In much the same way, John had been preaching about the enormous debt all of owe to our Creator. He had been preaching of how we are doubts, our weaknesses, our misplaced desires had kept us from becoming even a tenth of our potential as God’s children. The price, John has told us, will be very high, payable only in currency of pain, blood, and death. And then John presents us with both the bill and the payment, and they both, in fact, come from God.
Like so much of what God asks of us, finding redemption and peace is always just beyond our grasp. We try. We place all sorts of things on the altar: money, education, relationships, time – yet none of them seem to be enough. Not enough to satisfy us, surely, and certainly not enough to satisfy God. And, as in many other ways, where we reach the limits of who we are, there is God – this time literally, in the flesh as Jesus.
Standing, not as the mighty king who waves away our problems with a condescending sniff and a haughty stare. Standing as one who fixes the problem by allowing it to devour him before it can devour us.
This image, that of the sacrificial lamb, is more than a reference to the deliverance of God’s people from slavery. It is also a prophetic symbol, and John’s words remind us of the songs of the suffering servant from Isaiah. Isaiah tells us of the coming servant of God who would bring hope to the hopeless. He will come, not with strength and shouting, but instead with silence, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” [Isaiah 53:7]
Perhaps more importantly, just a few paragraphs earlier [Isaiah 49:6] that when the servant of God comes, it would be too easy simply to rescue the Israelites. The Passover lamb was good enough for that. The Lamb of God, however, the Son of God, would allow God’s love, God’s redemption, God’s salvation, to “reach to the end of the earth.”
And so, when John introduces us to the Messiah, it is as the one “who takes away the sin of the world.” Not “sins.” Not the specific acts of deception and evil that all of us are guilty of. Not just individual, petty sins. The sin of the world. Whatever it is about the human condition, about life, that fills it with pain and loss. To take it away, not just for some, but for all. For the entire world.
John goes on to explain that the flesh and blood person standing before his followers was the person they had all been waiting for, that unlike the water of John’s baptism Jesus would offer the cleansing and rebirth of the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is – indeed – the very Son of God.
Imagine, learning that God stood there among them in the flesh. Yet, the next day, when two of John’s disciples come to speak with Jesus they do so, not because John has proclaimed Him the “Son of God” but because he is the “Lamb of God.” It was not Jesus’ divinity that drew them. This was a time of great trouble; of violence, poverty, and danger. They wanted hope, not piety.
It is interesting that the disciples are unnamed. They are just two people who had presumably come to John because he offered the possibility of hope, now turning to Jesus because they believe he offers them a chance. A chance for what? They probably don’t know. They do know, however, that they want their lives to be better than they are.
I’m glad they don’t have names at this point in the story, because I believe they are every person who comes to faith in Jesus. Their story is our story. Believers – not just people who take on the name “Christian” because they think they should – but real believers are people who come to Jesus looking for something, expecting something of Him. We come to Jesus not because He is the Son of God. That is perhaps to abstract and holy a concept for us to understand. We come to Jesus because he offers us hope, because we think he has something that no one else does.
Our nameless friends do not get a chance to say a word. We are told that that they merely followed Jesus, and Jesus turned to them and spoke. Here too I believe that their story is also our own. The Church is always willing to put words in our mouths. This is particularly true when it’s time for a new building campaign, and during those times the words are usually about sacrifice and tithing. But at other times, too, particular in the matter of salvation, I think the Church is perhaps to quick to make us express our relationship to Christ in standard and uniform ways. To get us to pray or recite certain prayers, as if we could possibly understand who Jesus really is or what we should ask of Him.
These two seekers came to Jesus in clueless silence, which is truly the only way any of us can approach Him. Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” Good question. What are we looking for? What do we expect when we come to church, when we pray, when we read our Bibles? Flashy miracles? Faith healing? The heavens to open up and the voice of God to echo through our minds?
Are we looking for truth? Are we looking for forgiveness? Acceptance? Conviction? Help? What are we looking for? If we don’t know, then why do we come? Perhaps its simply to be around others who are also looking, and who know that we have found the answer even if we haven’t figured it all out yet.
These two disciples certainly knew no more than that, and there only answer is a question. They ask Jesus “Where are you staying?” This is not as simple as it sounds. “Stay,” which is also translated “abide,” is the word that John uses to describe Jesus’ relationship with God and the Spirit. They “abide” within each other, they are one.
Where do you abide, Jesus? Where is your home? Where is your heart kept? Where might we find you?
Jesus answers with an invitation, and perhaps even a smile. “Come and see” he says.
We learn that one of these two people was Andrew, the brother of a man named Simon. Andrew runs to get him and brings him to Jesus. When they meet, Jesus gives names him Kephas, which is Aramaic for “rock.” In Greek it is “Petros” and we know him as Peter, the impetuous but ultimately faithful apostle of Jesus.
“Come and see” Jesus tells them. They won’t get their answer from words, even from Jesus’ words. The only way to find out what it means to abide with Jesus it to come and follow. Peter, Andrew, and this unnamed disciple will do just that. As a result, they will face much hardship, but they will see the world transformed, they will in fact help transform the world, and in the process be transformed themselves.
A strange mystery indeed, to be faced with a bill we cannot ever pay only to find that God not only picks up the tab but invites us to join in healing our own wounded world. We all come to this place with more questions than answers, with more ignorance than wisdom. What will you do, Oh God? How can you fix what is broken within us, around us? And Jesus invites us, “Come and see.”