The good news here is that it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world, not you and me. It is Jesus who scoops up all the ways that we have fallen short, all the ways that this broken and violent world falls short of God’s intention, all the horrors of war, criminal behavior, illness, and despair, and takes them away. The good news is that forgiveness is not a burden placed upon us, but a gift.
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward 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.” 35The 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).
When I was eleven years old, my father taught me a game we called, “What do you see?” We lived five miles from the farm where my parents were building the house, but of course, they had built the barn first. Once the barn was built, and we were still living in town, there were animals to feed, and most of the year that meant a drive in the country as the evening darkness fell to feed the calves and horses. When we returned home, driving along the narrow county road in the darkness, we played, “What do you see?”
Out on the edge of the pool of light cast by the headlights is where the action is. Mammals will cross the road at the edge of the light, but so quickly, we have to be already looking to see them well enough to identify them. A rabbit will get in the light and stay in the light, running right in front of the car, as if it’s afraid of the dark. A raccoon will bound across the road and then freeze next to a fence post, trying to blend in. A coyote will lope easily, never speeding up, never slowing down, just turning its head enough to catch the headlights in its eye for a moment, as if to say, “I am not a dog. I am wild.”
Then, there are the rare sightings in that part of Texas. You have to look very carefully to see these things. A bobcat, a grey fox or a red fox, an owl taking off from a tree or fence post – if you’re not already focused on the edge of the light, there’s no way to get a good enough glimpse to identify just what you saw.
Sometimes, my father and I both saw the same thing, the same bright eyes and dark shape dart across the road, but we saw different things. Was it a grey fox or a red fox? A raccoon or a skunk? A bobcat or a big tailless house cat?
When John pointed at Jesus, he saw something his disciples could not: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
That got their attention – as much as if my father had pointed through the windshield to the edge of the pool of light and said, “Look, a polar bear!”
When we look and listen carefully, we can begin to understand the weight of John’s claim as he pointed at Jesus.
That phrase, “Lamb of God” carried the cargo of the hopes and fears of all the years of waiting and longing. From the Jewish perspective, the Lamb was the Passover lamb, that paradoxical symbol of life through death; the lamb that was sacrificed to give the people of Israel strength for the journey on the night they bolted from Egypt, where the angel of death had struck the firstborn of every household, passing over those who had the blood of the lamb above the door.
The title “Lamb of God” designated power. For the people who celebrated the Passover, the lamb was not a weak and dumb animal that went to its death in ignorance. The Lamb of God went to its death as God’s instrument to save the people from death. In its death, in its weakness, the Lamb of God symbolized the power of God to save, to set free, to secure a future for a people who were enslaved and as good as dead.
Here at the beginning of the story, the gospel writer points us to the end. He points us to the story of a death that gives life, a dying and rising, the power found through surrender.
In this story of the gathering of Jesus’ disciples, John has a different take on it than the other gospel writers. Whereas the others remember the fishermen leaving their nets and their father Zebedee to respond to Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” here the disciples respond to Jesus’ call, “Come and abide with me.”
John’s emphasis is not so much on the discipline of discipleship, figuring out what Jesus would do, writing it all down in a systematic theory of ethics and applying the theory to each situation. John’s emphasis is on the community of disciples. “Come and stay, abide with me,” Jesus says, and they do. They abide in his presence, they soak up the vision of the new way of living he shows them. They receive his hospitality, they eat his bread and drink his wine and just abide, stay with him.
The community of faith that changes the world after Jesus’s death and resurrection grows out of this relationship. After Jesus has been executed, but before his resurrection, the disciples huddle together and hide out in fear. They are anything but heroic.
The shift comes, the shift from scared disciples to a community of faith, when they see and experience that Jesus has not left them orphaned; he still lives among them. He still abides with them.
The Lamb of God to whom John points is, after all, not one who comes to teach his disciples how to live without sin.
Instead, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
When I hear about a visionary leader, I usually think of someone who can see into the future. A leader with vision can describe a future nobody has yet seen and inspire an organization, or her employees, or her congregation to bring that vision into reality.
That, however, is not the kind of vision that we find in the Gospel of John. John doesn’t say that John the baptizer, or the disciples, envisioned a future and inspired people to bring it to fruition. In John’s Gospel, nobody can see far into the future—vision is the ability to see who Jesus is, not what the future will bring.
The farthest that anyone in the Gospel except for Jesus can see into the future is out on the edge of the headlights. John wields this metaphor of vision to great comic effect in chapter 9 when Jesus heals a man born blind and the only person in the story who has the vision to see who Jesus is, is the blind man.
The power of John’s pronouncement, is that in Christ, God is doing what we cannot do for ourselves. None of us can undo the past. None of us can undo or take back the words we have said, the lies we have perpetrated, the times we have let things go instead of taken the bull by the horns, or the hearts we have broken.
John points to the Lamb of God who can do what none of us can do: he takes away the sin of the world.
The good news here is that it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world, not you and me. It is Jesus who scoops up all the ways that we have fallen short, all the ways that this broken and violent world falls short of God’s intention, all the horrors of war, criminal behavior, illness, and despair, and takes them away.
The good news is that forgiveness is not a burden placed upon us, but a gift.
Living with, staying with, abiding with Jesus, puts us in a place where forgiveness is done for us, on our behalf. We no longer are required to carry the burden of our own sins or the sins of those who have done us wrong.
Dean Leuking, a pastor of a church in Illinois, tells of a moment for him when he witnessed the intrusion of the Lamb of God. He writes:
“I was meeting with a family in the narthex of the church and preparing for the funeral service of their loved one, which was to take place that morning. We were ready to close the casket and I began to lead in prayer. Then the narthex church door opened and a man entered. I thought he was a latecomer hurrying in to the funeral.
“He made his way to me, apologized for the untimely intrusion and asked if he could speak with me then and there. His face was such a roadmap of anxiety and his agitated manner so revealing of his need that I realized I could not refuse him. I recognized him as someone who was once with us in the congregation but who had left after giving me more grief—years of it—than anyone I've known through my pastoral years.
“We stepped aside to a quiet corner. He looked me straight in the eye and got right to the point: "Dean, I've come to tell you how deeply sorry I am for the sins I have committed against you. I ask you to forgive me." Bam—just like that! I knew by the earnestness of his words and the piercing intensity in his eyes that he spoke from the depths of his being and meant every word. This untimely but immensely powerful moment was the fruition of a long, complicated process of stocktaking. On that day, in that place, without forewarning, a John 1:29 moment arrived. . . .
“Unprepared though I was for it, the Lord Jesus presented himself to me in the person of a tortured man who had been battling his inner demons for years and calling them [by my name]. When I spoke his name, put my hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, "I forgive you," I said the only thing that a fellow forgiven sinner can say, needs to say and wants to say. Then, in forgiving him, I was freed to ask him to forgive me for the sin of resentful judgment against him that had been simmering in me much too long. His response? He caught me up in a near rib-cracking bear hug, then turned and left.” (Christian Century, January 4, 2011)
It looks like we really will be worshiping in the new and renovated sanctuary at the end of March. It’s an exciting time for us as a congregation, a time that is coming after a tremendous amount of vision, strategy, risk, and sacrifice.
As one of our elders said during a session meeting, these times require that we renovate not only the building, but us.
Certainly, we have to envision as well as we can the future into which God is calling us and plan for it.
The challenge of the Gospel, however, is that the future beyond the edge of the headlights is not in our hands, but in God’s hands. Our calling is not to create, but to discover that future out beyond the edge of the headlights by strengthening our relationship with Jesus Christ; abiding together as people who love and forgive one another as we have been forgiven. That kind of life together is so extraordinary in this divisive age that people will notice. And we, like John, can point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
I still drive down country roads at night with my eyes on the edge of the pool of light, looking for whatever may be out there. Around here, it’s a good idea because you never know when a suicidal deer will suddenly appear.
Sometimes, a wild and unexpected animal jumps right into the light, like Dean Leuking’s former parishioner who walked right into the church.
Other times, we have to live in the light, but keep our eyes scanning out there on the edges of our peripheral vision, where we can scarcely see. When we live in the light, when we abide with Christ, we can come to trust that Christ is out there, at work in the darkness beyond our sight, taking away the sin of this world.
In that trust, in that faith, we are set free to live as both a forgiven and a forgiving people. Thanks be to God. Amen.