This Sunday we break from our reading of Matthew’s Gospel (the Gospel for our current year A) to read from John’s Gospel. We hear Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, Jesus is among the crowd that was listening to John and being baptised by him in the Jordan River. But at first, John did not know him. Twice in the Gospel reading John admits, “I did not know him.” But, something had happened at the baptism of Jesus which had convinced John beyond all doubt that Jesus was the Son of God. As the fathers of the church saw centuries ago, it was something which only the eye of the mind and soul could see. But John saw it and was convinced. It is only when John saw “the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him” that John recognised the stranger.
And so, when Jesus walked by and John announced to his followers, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! “, John pays spontaneous tribute to Jesus. He calls him by that tremendous title which has become woven into the very language of devotion—The Lamb of God.
What were they to make of such an improbable claim? If they had the slightest familiarity of their faith and religious tradition, two words stood out. They were “lamb” and “sins.”
First century Judaism was based on two traditions. The older, the one that placed the Temple centre stage, invoked memories of the Passover Lamb. The Passover Feast was not very far away (John 2:13) in the calendar. The old story of the Passover was that it was the blood of the slain lamb which protected the houses of the Israelites on the night when they left Egypt. The blood of the lamb delivered them from destruction. Around this system grew the Tabernacle and then the Temple cult, supervised by a hereditary priesthood descended from Moses’ brother-in-law Aaron. John was the son of a priest. He would know all the ritual of the Temple and its sacrifices.
The second vital part of Jewish religion in the days of Jesus was the synagogue system. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel, torn apart, situated between aggressive world powers, conquered again and again. The conquering powers sought to cower the Jewish people by destroying its visible connection with God. Those Jewish people taken hostage “by the waters of Babylon” not only wept; they gathered together to hear their Scriptures read by authorised teachers. In first century Palestine Temple worship, with its substitutionary sacrifices, situated in Jerusalem, jostled together with synagogue practice, hearing and receiving the Scriptures and applying them to daily life.
Note how today’s Gospel brings together these two practices, not in a theory, but in a Person. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, “who died that we might be forgiven, who died to make us whole.” Jesus is also Rabbi, the authorised teacher, in whom God’s law is renewed and applied to the new citizens in his chosen nation.
So, when John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he was making a reference to the sacrificial lamb on a new scale. He proclaimed that Jesus would make a sacrifice so significant that the whole world, not just a few participants in a religious service could experience forgiveness of sin and redemption. Certainly, that was an amazing calling, a painful road and a momentous task. It was Jesus’ higher purpose in life. It led to the Last Supper and Calvary and the Resurrection. We call this the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Our minds are best focused on the Eucharist, on a Person. In the Mass, we re-member. We bring to life in the here and now, the sacrifice, once offered for the sins of the whole world. In Holy Communion, we eat and drink, ingest, the life of Jesus, the Lamb of God.
Before we reach that point in the Mass, we hear Jesus the Rabbi, the authorised teacher, expounding to us God’s law, the words Jews heard at the time of Jesus and the words Christians have heard since the time of Jesus. And we corporately confess our misdeeds, missteps and flirtations with evil.
We do so as God’s community of priests, as we stand between God and humanity, the nations, the Church, our families and ourselves. For, The Spirit of God has given us the vision to see Jesus in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist and in the hand of the priest raised in absolution. The Spirit of God has given us the ears to hear the voice of Jesus in the proclamation of the scriptures and in the preaching of the Church. The Spirit of God has helped us to recognise the supportive and comforting presence of Jesus in the loving members of the Church.
Sitting in your place this morning, look up, and with the mind of faith see the Lamb of God, the one you call Rabbi, and in your hearts, pray, “Have mercy on us. Grant us peace.”