A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to an old comedy series which I had never seen before. It is called “Mind your language”, and it is about a group of foreign people living in England attending night classes to learn English. It was filmed in the late 1970s, and seems to have fallen out of favour because of political correctness. When I looked at it, the real humour is not the foreign students, it is about the complexity of the English language, how so many words have different meanings.
Of all the bible, John’s gospel is the place where language is most powerfully used – each word John uses is carefully chosen, laden with significance and meaning. Take the simple word ‘lamb’. For us the first image that conjures up is probably gentleness – the friendliness of wool, the cuddliness of the little creature. Can you think of anything gentler than a lamb? Jesus, so strong in purpose in character, is also gentle, so loving and loveable that he endears himself to all.
It may suggest new life, a new beginning, a fresh start. And so the message of Christ is new life, new beginnings
If we were Jewish, as both John the Baptist and John who wrote the gospel were, we might think very quickly of the Passover lamb. In Exodus 12 we read the story of how God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, slaying the firstborn in the Egyptian households. And how did he know the difference? The Israelites sacrificed a lamb and sprinkled its blood on the doorposts, and so the blood of the lamb was a symbol of belonging to God, of being protected by God and of being delivered by God. The blood of the Passover lamb delivered the Israelites in Egypt from death, and so John is saying “here is the one who can deliver us from death to eternal life.”
Of course, John the Baptist was the son of a priest, and he would have been familiar with the ritual of the temple sacrifices. Every morning and every evening a lamb was sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the people. He may have been thinking of that when it was revealed to him that Jesus is the only sacrifice that can truly and permanently deliver us from our sins.
The image of a lamb is also used by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, who wrote of one brought like a lamb to the slaughter. Both had a vision of one who by his sufferings and sacrifice, meekly and lovingly borne, would redeem his people. These prophecies became immensely precious to the early church meditating on the death of Christ. Perhaps John the Baptist was the first to see it so.
Between the time of the Old and the New Testaments there was a great struggle in Israel, during the time of the Maccabees. In those days the horned lamb was the symbol of the great conqueror – Judas Maccabaeus was described in this way, as were Samuel and David. It may seem strange to us, but it would have been a familiar concept to the Jews of Jesus day.
That simple phrase, “the Lamb of God”, comes laden with so many images, so many layers of meaning and devotion – the gentle one who brings new life, the sacrifice for our sins, the suffering and conquering one – truly the one who takes away the sin of the world. Do we even stop to think of the enormity of one taking away all our own sin – let alone the entire world. As we break the bread in preparation for communion we sing those words, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world”, reminding us of who we are in communion with – as we worship we confess our sins and they are washed away by the lamb when absolution is pronounced, when we share the bread and wine we are made one with the lamb who cleanses and restores us.
My role, as a preacher, is to be like John the Baptist – to say to you ‘behold the lamb of God’, to point you to the lamb and encourage you to follow. I can’t force or cajole you, only point you.
As John’s disciples followed Jesus there is a curious yet wonderful exchange. Jesus was aware they were following him, and turned and said to them “what are you looking for”, and they replied with a strange question, “Rabbi, where are you staying”, and his equally oblique response was “come and see”.
The first important thing is that Jesus turned around to face these disciples – he met them half way, he made things easier for them, he opened the door that they might come in. When we begin to seek God he is always there waiting for us, looking for us, prepared to meet us more than halfway. God does not leave us to search and search for him, he does not stand at a distance. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son he runs out and meets us on the road.
Jesus’ question is the most fundamental question in life, what are you looking for. Were they scribes and Pharisees, looking for legalistic arguments, were they politically minded, looking for a warrior messiah, were they humble men of prayer looking for God? What are you looking for today – are you looking for security – material and financial security – are you looking for a career, for power prominence, prestige – are you looking for inner peace?
The reply of the disciples seems strange – where are you staying? But think about it – they are in effect saying, we don’t want to just meet you as a passing acquaintance on the road, we don’t want a brief conversation, we want to come to you as our Rabbi, to learn from you, to get to know you, to spend serious time with you.
Jesus’ answer may seem equally strange – come and see. To the Jew this was a phrase laden with meaning when spoken by a Rabbi. Rather than presenting answers to students, the Rabbi often invited them to come and see, to work together to discover the answers rather than presenting them as a fait acompli – and any educationalist will tell you that this is a method that works, teach the student how to learn
The curious note of the time is worth reflecting on – it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. It may well be that the time was deeply embedded on John’s mind because he was one of the two disciples, and he could tell the very hour, and probably the very stone upon which he was standing on the road when his life changed completely through knowing Jesus.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Will you ‘come and see’?