Manuscript of the sermon preached on January 15, 2023, for Briensburg UMC [Audio Podcast]
MLK & Human Relations Sunday Bible Readings:
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 ; John 1:29-42
Jesus is metaphorically the Lamb of God
The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29 KJV)
The imagery of the sheep and shepherds is among the most prevalent and powerful in the Bible. The word translated “lamb” in this passage literally means exactly what we think it means, “a young sheep.” But even the most ardent fundamentalist would hopefully want to go deeper into what God is saying through that word than simply the literal image it initially brings to our minds. The image of Jesus as the Lamb of God speaks to us of innocence and purity, of sacrifice and offering, of forgiveness and redemption.
The weakness the world ascribes to the image of a sheep or a lamb turns out in the Bible, especially in the closing chapters, to be the most powerful image of all as the “the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb” in Revelation 5 (Revelation 5:8 KJV), “And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13). Revelation 17:14 says in the King James Version, “These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). And that’s just to name of a few of the ways the Lamb is described in The Revelation, and only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hearing God speak to us through the dynamic imagery of the Scriptures.
The People of God are called sheep in the Bible. Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6 KJV). In Matthew, it says, “When [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 KJV).
At the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25, the sheep are divided from the goats according to how they have treated their most vulnerable populations. The sheep represent those Jesus identified with saying, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40 KJV)
Throughout John chapter 10, Jesus self-identifies as the Good Shepherd and those who know him as his sheep. “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” (John 10:14 KJV).
John said that Jesus “Taketh away the sin of the world.” How? Forgiveness.
Here the Lord of lords and King of kings aka the Lamb is the one who takes away this sin of the world through the forgiveness he taught and exemplified. At the Cross, Jesus said of his tormenters, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).
When we reflect on our own mistakes and errors and shortcomings — that is, our sins -- we might realize that we like them did not know – really know -- what we were doing. We may not have known what the residual effects of “what we have done and what we have left undone” (UM Prayer of Confession) might be, or how long the hurt would linger for ourselves and for others. Such is the message of God in the imagery of being washed in the blood of the Lamb. The sins of the world are cleansed only by the forgiving love Jesus calls us to minister to each other and to the world.
Behold! See Jesus in the imagery of the Lamb. Through the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we celebrate the presence of Jesus and invite each other in the Holy Mystery to “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The ancient chant Agnus Dei meaning Lamb of God is included in one of our United Methodist communion rituals, after the breaking of the bread:
Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.
(United Methodist Service of Word and Table IV)
Jesus corrected the misunderstood imagery of the sacrificial system.
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. (Psalm 40:6 KJV)
The imagery of opened ears communicates opened mind, heart, eyes, understanding. To insist on only a strict literal interpretation of Scripture is to stop our ears from hearing God speak to us. That’s why Jesus attached this saying to many of his parables, “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” If we think of Jesus as a lamb only in the literal sense, we miss the whole message.
In Matthew 9:13 Jesus said, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The great confessional Psalm 51 includes these verses: For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
The letter to the Hebrews speaks about the Sacrifice of Praise (Hebrews 13:15). In the “Love Chapter” Paul wrote, “I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned—but if I have no love, this does me no good.” (1 Corinthians 13:3 GNT). Remember what God said through the prophet Amos as written in the Good News Translation:
The Lord says, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry. (Amos 5:21-24 GNT)
God is glorified when we imitate Jesus as servants of love.
And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified. (Isaiah 49:3 KJV)
Here in this passage the servant of God is identified as Servant Israel, and just as the New Testament personifies this vision of a servant leader as Jesus, so this image of the servant Israel takes on the deeper meaning of the Church, the Body of Christ. Just like Jesus, we enter our servant leadership mission in baptism, and learn to love others as Christ has loved us.
Christ unites all people everywhere.
Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both their's and our's: (1 Corinthians 1:2 KJV)
Paul addressed this letter to The Church at Corinth, and God used the words and imagery throughout this letter to speak to all people about love and service. Think how many people who might not even self-identify as Christians yet are blessed by 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter. The letter provides images of Christ as a foundation and as a building, and contrasts the kinds of construction materials to be used as metaphors for building up our spiritual lives and relationships. It offers the image of all people finding their place in the one mystical Body of Christ, being joined together in love and service, and cooperating with each other in the ministry of our spiritual gifts as the parts of a human body are expected to do in functioning as a person.
Paul used this interesting phrase translated “theirs and ours” in the King James Version in reference to everyone everywhere who calls on the name of Jesus. Such language and imagery does not speak of exclusionary doctrines of separation and segregation and discrimination, but of inclusive teachings of unity and integration and impartiality.
Today is Human Relations Sunday in the United Methodist Church, celebrated annually the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr’.s birthday, to strengthen and promote social justice. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King preached in the picturesque language of the prophet:
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood”
(Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream).
Paul wrote about us as being sanctified and called to be saints. All who are willing to accept this calling, even to step into it as best they can, start to become what we are called to become as Paul describes, sanctified saints. We are becoming people in whom God’s law of perfect love is coming alive more every day. We are becoming a spiritual community of people who work together with others to bring all people everywhere into one universal fellowship of love that transcends religion and politics and race and culture and any other false barrier. Just imagine what that will be like when God’s vision for humanity has been completed. And just think, we get to be a part of it, here and now!
The language of the Bible is the language of love. God speaks to us through the Scriptures in fresh new ways every time we open the Bible with the attitude of discipleship to hear what God is communicating to us and through us. We want to experience how God speaks to our ever-changing lives.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.