Jesus, “Lamb of God”

The Lamb of GodIn the third chapter of John’s gospel, John recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. John, in ecstatic praise, twice announces that Jesus is none other than the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36).

The title, “Lamb of God,” was not a familiar, well-worn title back then.  It was more the stuff of prophetic poetry than common Jewish vernacular, a title rich with meaning and profound theological depth.  What did John mean when he called Jesus God’s lamb?

Any talk of a lamb in a religious context recalled the great Exodus event of God’s liberation of Israel out of Egypt.  It was the tenth plague–the night in which the angel of death passed over Egypt–that forced Pharaoh’s hand to let God’s people go.

God gave Moses strict instructions before that night: Have the Israelites put the blood of a lamb on their thresholds so that the angel can “pass over” that household and spare the inhabitants.

Exodus then goes on to tell how God commanded the Israelites to remember that day both in celebration and in sacrifice: On the day of atonement, the Jews were to sacrifice a lamb (a “paschal”–meaning passover–lamb),  yet again for the removal of sins against God and neighbor.

That John calls Jesus the “Lamb” is rich with this history and theology.  Jesus was the one who embodied the paschal lamb by giving himself as the sacrifice for the “sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Yet, being the “Lamb of God” also had ethical meaning.  By being a lamb–passive and unobtrusive, gentle and obedient–Jesus shows us how to be nonviolent followers of God the Shepherd.

Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus reminds his disciples that he is merely following the will of God and, like Jesus, we are expected to follow the will of God in everything we do.  We are to sacrifice our own lives for others and to be the gentle ones who can hear the Master’s voice, obey, and follow no matter the cost.

The title of “lamb of God” also has pastoral implications.  I’ve always liked the metaphor of Jesus as lamb because it draws me in and creates a sense of solidarity with my life.  The image makes Jesus approachable.

I can’t help but think that this was the case for the early church.  In Revelation 5:1-6, John (not John the Baptist) has a vision of the throne room of God.  There is a scroll that cannot be opened by any mere being in heaven or on earth.

A heavenly messenger assures John that there is one who can open the scroll, the “Lion of Judah, the root of Jesse” (Rev. 5:5).

We expect a loud roar to fill the vision and scare John.  Instead, when Jesus appears in the vision, he is not a lion but a lamb “as though slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6).

This was a critical image for John’s audience because they were going through severe persecution.  To have Jesus appear as a lamb who suffered showed Jesus’ solidarity with the community.  Jesus knew what they were going through for he too suffered as a result of his sacrifice.

If God resurrected Jesus, then God would surely resurrect Christians who were dying at the hands of the Romans.

Sometimes we need Jesus to be the lion who comes as a strong victor who takes leadership to the front lines; but often in the midst of hardship and brokenness, we need Jesus to walk beside us as a lamb who experienced the very same things we go through.

By now, calling Jesus the “Lamb of God” seems cliche and antiquated in many ways.  Yet, when we look at the deeper meaning of this profound and rich title, we can experience the fullness of the very God whom Jesus embodied in the first place.

The New Year is an opportunity for conversion

hobbesThe New Year is an opportunity to make resolutions.  Perhaps for many of us, however, resolutions may not be enough; we may need an actual conversion experience.

There is a fourth-century story told of two monks in the Egyptian desert.  One monk came to the other for advice:

“Father Joseph,” the monk said, “According as I am able, I keep my rule, my fast, my prayer, meditation and silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?”

The other monk rose up and stretched out his hands in response.  His fingers, held toward heaven, became like ten lampstands, and he said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

This story reminds me of John the Baptist coming out of the desert to declare that God had come in the form of a messiah.  “I baptize with water,” John said, “But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Fire in the ancient world was as destructive as it is now, but it was also a cleansing agent.  Fire was used to purify precious metals, shape iron, and cleanse chaff from wheat.  The Greek word for fire is the root word for the English word, “purity.”  It was, according to ancient philosophy, the precursor to God’s Word and the harbinger of Spirit.

For John the Baptist and, later, for Jesus who claimed that he came to separate wheat from chaff, fire was the symbol whereby one was cleansed from all impurities and made right with God.  It consisted of God’s action as well as one’s decision to “repent” and convert.

Whereas resolutions are commitments to do something, conversion transform our very nature just as fire can transform the properties of many metals at certain temperatures.

Conversion is more concerned about who we are than about what we do, assuming that who we are will eventually inform what we do.

For those who see conversion as an important step in their faith journey, repentance is considered a regular spiritual discipline.  It does not occur only once, let alone once a year, but, as Father Joseph implied, is occurs continually: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

The equation for repentance is straightforward, but we always need reminding of how it occurs. With the New Year upon us, it is a good time for a refresher.

Repentance happens when we realize that we are not perfect and fail to be who God wants us to be.  The Bible says that all of us are sinful, that we all “fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  The first step in repentance and conversion is to acknowledge this simple fact.

This brings us to another fact: that because we “fall short,” we are disconnected from God and need salvation.  Unfortunately, we cannot save ourselves, and being a good person or doing a good deed for the day just does not cut it.  This is based on the premise that God is perfect and holy; and, since we are not holy, then we cannot justify our own actions before God.

This is where the Holy Spirit and “fire” come into play.  We recognize that Jesus, who died for our sins as a sinless human and bore the weight of our guilt upon him, is the mediator between us and God.  The Holy Spirit enlightens us to this truth as He draws us closer to God through the person of Jesus Christ.

Then, as we are set right in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ upon the admission of our sins, we are commissioned to live a life of obedience, sanctification, and discipleship.  This is where “fire” comes in, as the Spirit continually fashions us and molds us in the smelter of life experiences and lessons learned.  It’s fire that conforms us into the likeness of Christ.

I grew up in a faith tradition that saw conversion as a one-time event; but, as I grow older, I realize that it is a continual cycle with which God is never finished.  Just as each New Year brings with it inspiration for a fresh start, so does God’s Son, Spirit, and cleansing fire give us a fresh beginning every day.

John’s Unquenchable, Advent Fire

fireText: Matthew 3:1-12

I.

Christmas is a few weeks away, but it will be here before you know it.  What will happen when Christmas comes?  We know its Jesus’ birthday, and we will surely celebrate.  The children will wake us up once again way too early; the hustle and bustle of family dinners will dominate the greater part of our day.   But it is Jesus’ birthday—shouldn’t it be life-changing, shouldn’t it make a difference?

What difference will Christmas make in your life?

Some folks say that it is wrong to take Christ out of Christmas, but what if we took the mass out of Christmas?   Maybe we need to ask that question like this:  What difference will Christ make in your life on December 25th?

Advent is a time to reflect upon that question and to anticipate that Christmas—Christ!—will indeed make a difference come Christmas day.   We hope that it will be transformative, that we will see things in a new way; that we will wake up, and the breath that we take will be qualitatively different, that we will feel more alive.  We hope that it will bring about a new vision for our life, perhaps like the vision we talked about last week from Isaiah 2, in which we see the world as a brighter place simply because God is a part of it.

But then again, it might just be another routine day, like any other.   It may come and go, and nothing out of the ordinary may happen.  We may wake up and be grouchy—There have been many Christmas mornings in which the kids come in yelling, “Wake up!  Wake up!  It’s Christmas!”, only to have me swat them with a half-dead, sleepy arm, “Get back to sleep—it’s too early!”

We say Advent is a time of anticipation and change, but what if it feels like we already arrived—what difference will Christmas make then?

The truth is, Advent and Christmas is more than merely celebrating Jesus’ birth, the coming of God Emmanuel—It is the anticipation that the truth, “God with us,” will indeed bring about a conversion for all of us who are still in need of a conversion experience now and then.  It’s as Paul said in his letter to the Philippians:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make salvation my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.”

II.

There’s a story out of the Egyptian desert from the fourth century.  This was a time in which people were going out into the wilderness in order to get away from the corruption and mass consumerism so blatant in their society, a time in which people were giving up wealth and pomp to seek simplicity and holiness.  It was the beginning of the monastic movement.

The story is of two monks who lived in community together, and one monk, frustrated with his Christian journey said to the other,

“Father Joseph, according as I am able, I keep my rule of life, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts : now what more should I do?’

“The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.  He said, ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?’”

Fire, a cleansing agent that both destroys and cleans; an agent that is destructive, but in many cases is necessary for new life, like in the forest when the chaff of dead vegetation needs to be cleared in order for new life to grow.  Even the word fire in Greek—pur—is the root word where we get the English word for purity.

It is the fire of conversion—in the words of one author, a “Furnace of transformation, where the old self dies and the new self is fashioned by God and born anew.”

That is the way that John the Baptist described the Advent of Jesus Christ.  In all four Gospels we find this mysterious, idiosyncratic figure—John—coming out of none other than the fiery, hot desert pleading with people to “Repent!  For the kingdom of heaven is near!” and letting them know that the Messiah is about to come not to sing Kumbaya, but to bring holy fire that will cleanse souls, burn chaff from hearty wheat, and clear the threshing floor of all sin for the very presence of God himself.

III.

John’s message and ministry was a peculiar one for sure, and we’re not sure where he came from.  It was not uncommon back then that prophets emerged from the wilderness of Palestine.  We may think, for instance, of the prophets and communities of, say, the Essenes, who were keepers over the library of scriptures popularly known as the Dead Sea scrolls, who preached that God would come with fire to cleanse Israel and judge the nations.

We think also a little farther back in history to the time of Elijah and Elisha, who brought down fire to consume sacrifices as a way to prove that God was boss over all creation.  Like them, John critized the powers that be, both in the Roman political hierarchy and in the Jewish religious realm where Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees assumed they knew what God was up to.

We also think of the passage in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy, in which Moses describes God as a “consuming fire.”

“You brood of vipers,” John says in our lesson today, “Do not assume you know it all; do not assume you have arrived—why do you think that you are exempt from having to repent?  And, even now, the ax is heading for every root in God’s forest.  Fire is coming, the Holy Spirit is coming—and it will burn with an unquenchable fire.

Jesus later affirmed John’s preaching in Matthew 13, when he told a parable about God separating wheat and chaff, as well as in Mark, where Jesus said that if something causes you to sin, its better that you cast it off and let it burn in that very unquenchable fire that John mentioned before (Mk. 9).

If you think you have arrived, why not be totally changed into fire.  And what is conversion but the very act of bringing every part of our being—heart, soul, mind and strength—under the authority and rule of God?

IV.

I have people ask me sometimes—it seems to be street preachers and Southern Baptists more often than not—when my conversion experience was.    Although I know I made a decision to follow Christ when I was twelve, I can’t answer that question so quickly.  I believe that my life is the sum of many conversion experiences.

There were so many times when I was going about life, living through the routine, when God showed up and touched me or moved me or pierced me with Spirit and with fire.

There was, for instance, that time in high school I thought I felt a call to ministry and, on one youth retreat in North Carolina, God showed up with a fire that brought me into a new place of intimacy with him.

There was the fire of college, where I studied the Word of God in the company of professors and peers alike and felt the Spirit illuminating this biblical text like never before—it glowed like embers, ready to change my very being when I sought after it with my whole heart.

There was the fire of childbirth, when, upon having Haleigh, God hit me with the reality of being a father, of having the responsibility for another person.

And then there was the fire of untimely death that visited my family, a time of testing and trial in which I had to choose from utter despair to be a victim of gun violence or to have trust and hope that God has a purpose that defeats all forms of violence and heartbreak.

Thomas Merton said it best, “We are not converted only once in our lives, but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ.”  It is the way, he argues, to freedom.

V.

If anything, John’s words for us today and this Advent season is one that challenges us to seek conversion yet again, to see what chaff might be brought before God for cleansing and for growth and renewal.   It is a challenge to see conversion, in the words of Raymond Studzinski  as that which “requires a person to discern what is to be left behind and what is to come and be welcomed.”

So let me ask you again: What difference will Christmas make in your life?  And when Christ comes, will it be a call to convert…

  • Feelings of hostility or malice into feelings of compassion or patience?
  • Ideas and philosophies that are born from a worldly perspective into convictions born from God’s very mouth, God’s Word?
  • Positions of fear and anxiety into dispositions of grace and trust?
  • Destructive habits and behaviors into attitudes of life-giving and life-preserving avenues of hope and spiritual disciplines?
  • From addictions and lifestyles plagued with sin into pilgrimages of salvation in which Christ is Lord over all of who we are?

Where will conversion take place in your life, for Jesus is coming, folks!  And he is coming with that word that echoes Matthew 10:34:  “Do not think I have come to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”

It is a sword that divides bone from marrow, falsehood from truth, flesh from spirit, and sin from grace.  Jesus comes with Spirit and with an unquenchable fire!  Why not be totally changed into fire?!