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Second Sunday after the Epiphany



Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42; Psalm 40:1-12 Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John the Baptist, in our Reading this morning from the Gospel of John, calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” for the very first time in Scripture. And for that matter, he here calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” for the very last time in Scripture as well. Indeed, the two verses with this appellation, Lamb of God, are just some six or seven lines apart. We cannot be one-hundred percent certain that this term actually goes back to the lips of John the Baptist himself. It could be that the expression originated after the fact in the theological thought and ruminations of John the Evangelist; not the same person as John the Baptist of course. This is probably the more likely scenario. In any case, Christ is not called the Lamb of God anywhere else in the Bible. The anonymous author of the Book of Revelation, confusingly sometimes also called John, does often refer to our Lord as “the Lamb,” but without the further specification, Lamb of God. And there are likewise a scattered number of similar references through the rest of the New Testament, such as in the Letters of Paul and elsewhere. But again, it is only here that Christ is proclaimed “the Lamb of God,” per se. What to make of this passage -- its interpretation -- has become something of a cottage industry among seminary professors and university scholars. Even the early Fathers of the Church – alas there are no attested early Mothers of the Church that I know of, pity that -- the early Fathers of the Church were divided in their interpretations. One historian lists as many as seven completely different ways of understanding the phrase over the centuries. And while the related themes of lamb, sheep, and shepherd are common enough throughout the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament – think of the beloved Psalm Twenty-three for instance -- nowhere is a human figure, much less God, ever referred to as the Lamb of God. And nowhere are lambs, sheep, or shepherds ever said to “take away the sin of the world.” So, you see the problem the professors are up against in their attempts to make sense of the words for us. Be that as it may, the image of the Lamb of God has become very popular over the centuries in the Christian imagination, and particularly in Christian iconography. The so-called Ghent Altarpiece of the fifteenth century, sometimes spoken of as the very first great oil painting in Western Art, depicts, you guessed it, the Lamb of God. And the cover-piece of our Order of Service this morning portrays a contemporary interpretation of the Lamb of God theme in sculpture, located in the courtyard of a Reformed Church right here in Budapest near Hősök tére. By the way, the Lamb of God is a concept particularly beloved in the Reformed Churches. When you stop to think about it, to call Christ, the Messiah, a lamb, much less the Lamb of God, seems at first glance a bit strange; back at the time these words were uttered and today as well. After all, most devout Jews at the time of our Lord were looking for a great leader in their coming Messiah, a general perhaps, someone who would take charge and free them mightily from foreign

domination. So, one would be tempted to think that perhaps the image of a lion or an eagle might have seemed more appropriate at the time. Surely, no one was looking for a sheep or a lamb-like figure. But from John that is exactly what they get; what we get. Israel, in other words, in John’s interpretation, did not get in Christ the Messiah they awaited and expected. And that may just be the point. The Evangelist’s John the Baptist, in juxtaposing the name of God, the almighty, with surely one of the most vulnerable and arguably innocent of everyday creatures, a lamb, is recalling the disparity or gulf, between our human frailty and mortality and the divinely ineffable and mighty. If this Christ is genuinely God’s lamb, he is also the innocent and pure offering or sacrifice made on behalf of all humankind. As paradoxical as it may seem, the Christ, the saviour, the messiah, to which we as Christians turn is in fact John the Baptist’s Lamb of God of in all its innocence and vulnerability. And I might add, in all its loveliness, for nothing is as sympathetic and agreeable to us, even us city-dwellers, as a bleating lamb, new to this world and itself trusting and pure. Yet also often destined for slaughter. And in the case of our Lord, destined for the Cross, his blood poured out on our behalf. As Scripture reminds us in so many places, God’s strength is made known to us in all too human weakness. This is an important message for all of us to remember these days in a world which sometimes seems dominated more and more by tough-minded posturing, bullying, name-calling, threats, and yes, even war; the ultimately futile show of what is thought of as strength. With all due respect to our canine friends and companions, it is probably no wonder that Shakespeare speaks of “the dogs of war,” a metaphor expressing the havoc of unrestrained hatred and rage set loose upon innocent lives. The only lambs of war are the innocent lives lost to human depravity. The genius of John the Baptist, or John the Evangelist if you prefer, is to recognise that it is only the vulnerability, innocence, and self-sacrifice of Christ, the genuine Lamb of God, which can bring about forgiveness of sin and reconciliation among peoples and people. And only self-sacrifice, mercy, and caring for others less fortunate than ourselves, the lambs of our world, bring an end to the strife and belligerence to which our fallen nature is so prone. Only the mercy of God, who comes to us as Lamb, can save us. Jesus, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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