The Second Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
15 January 2017
Almighty God, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that thy people, illumined by thy Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
One of the things that has always amused me about the account of Jesus’ first encounter with John the Baptist in the Gospel of John is that it went on for days. This is in stark contract to Mark’s Gospel, which as a whole is characterised by a sense of urgency. There, right after Jesus is baptised and is is named God’s “beloved son,” we are told that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” where he remained for forty days and was tempted by Satan. For Mark, the baptism is the starting line of a race to the finish; of Jesus’ ministry leading up to the Passion. John's story is more complex. In fact, we never really are told whether John baptised Jesus at all. That’s not really even the point.
What we are told is that John was going about baptising and preaching and was making quite the impression. People wanted to know who he was, because he sure seemed like someone important. While John told people he was neither the Christ nor Elijah, he still made a great claim for his work, that he was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John, pointing his listeners right to Isaiah with the command to “make straight the way of the Lord,” was saying that he was the prophet of seismic change. He pointed his listeners directly to the vision that “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low .... And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” John was making it clear that this was the moment when Isaiah’s vision would be revealed, that now was the time when the messiah would come, and that he was the one who knew this to be true.
Drawing big crowds and making grand claims, it isn’t surprising that John had not just got the attention of those he met along the way, but that he had come to the attention of the religious authorities. They decided to see for themselves, to ask this so-called prophet what he thought he was doing. And John makes it perfectly clear to them when they asked: “I baptise with water, but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” The time is now, the place is here, John is telling them.
And the day after this encounter, John showed he was not afraid to point him out, name him, reveal him to his followers and to those authorities.
Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.
John points out Jesus, who was among those who had gathered around John at his baptismal festival. He names him as “Lamb of God,” referring his highly scripturally literate listeners back to Isaiah, to the Suffering Servant, Israel:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth .... And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days, the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand .... Therefore I will divine him a portion with the great .... because he has poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Simply by naming him “Lamb of God” all this would have been apparent to those who heard it. John was naming Jesus as Messiah, he was naming him as the one who would bring the great tectonic shift in the world, naming him as the one who would do this in and through his suffering. The Messiah John names is the unlikely Messiah I preached on Christmas, the one who achieves God’s loving purpose through vulnerability, the vulnerability of the lamb.
John tells those gathered around him that he knows this to be true because of what he had seen with his own eyes:
I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.
And the funny thing is that the text does not tell us under what circumstances this happened. The text is silent on the question of whether Jesus was baptised with water by John. It is silent as to whether this descent of the Spirit, naming Jesus as God’s chosen, God’s son, happened at the baptism, as described by Mark, Matthew, and Luke. And in a way it really doesn’t matter because John’s testimony, John’s insistence on Jesus’ identity was absolutely convincing to his followers in that moment. Perhaps they had witnessed it as well.
So when the next day Jesus was still hanging around John’s retinue and John pointed out Jesus once again as the Lamb of God, it inspired Peter and Andrew to follow Jesus, to speak to him and see for themselves what John had described. John's witness was so compelling, so resonant with what others saw in Jesus and with what they understood about the witness of the prophets, that in his public naming of Jesus as Messiah, John was able to inaugurate Jesus’ public ministry.
John frames Jesus’ ministry, the gathering of followers, the notion of baptism and the power of the spirit within the tradition of Hebrew Scripture and the prophetic witness. He tells us right from this beginning what kind of Messiah Jesus would be and that the events that are now beginning to unfold would be hard. They would involve suffering, the calling of the people to account and the naming of the people's sin. He tells us that what will unfold will be monumental and will change everything.
This morning’s lesson from Isaiah speaks profoundly to this moment:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
This messiah, this despised suffering messiah, will shine as a light not only to Israel but to all the Nations, and that this messiah’s power will be greater than any earthly ruler. This is the messiah whose power is God’s power. It is the power of Love, the purposeful Love that shines in the face of self interest and the amassing of wealth and power for its own sake, shines out in the face of sin.
This messiah, this Lamb of God, this suffering servant is the one we follow in these days and who gives us the power and strength to persevere in difficult and challenging times, whose own suffering empowers us in our ministry. In these days, let us hear clearly John’s identification of Jesus as Lamb of God, let us look upon him, and imitate him, knowing if we do this together, we are all doing the work he has give us to do in our baptism, when we too, received the Holy Spirit and were set apart.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
[Richard Meux Benson, 1915, and Charles Gore, 1932], 14 January 2017
© 2017 Andrew Charles Blume