What is it that would bring you out to church (or to read a sermon online) on a day like this? When churches all over the state have cancelled services, what are you doing? What are you looking for? One church I heard about in St. Louis moved its services from Sunday morning to yesterday, Saturday, at 4 p.m., so that they could meet ahead of the storm. What are they looking for? What is so important about what we do at church, that we would go looking for it, when there are so many other things we could be doing? Sleeping in. Reading the paper. Having a big Sunday brunch. Watching a movie. Did I mention sleeping? What are we looking for? What are you looking for?
These are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in this Gospel, the Book of John. “What are you looking for?” And in a way, the question has already been answered. Our author John has already put the answer to this question in the mouth of John the Baptist. Twice actually. Just before where our passage picks up today, John is out at the river Jordan, baptizing, and he sees Jesus coming toward him, and he declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And then the next day, as we read here, John goes out again, with his own disciples, and when he sees jesus, he again says, “Behold the Lamb of God!” And it’s enough to make these two follow him. What are they looking for? The Lamb of God.
But what does that mean? Why is Jesus the Lamb of God? We sing it every week, as we prepare ourselves for communion. But do we think about what we are singing, and why? Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us. What are we saying?
Well, I know what I thought, before I really started to dig into this passage. I thought that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb, the paschal lamb, being sacrificed in our place, taking on our sins and paying the price for them. But now I’m not so sure that’s what John the Evangelist (as we call our author) was after. For one thing, the translation of the Greek isn’t exactly right. What John the Baptist actually says in the Greek is, “Here is the lamb of God who bears or who takes up the sin of the world.”
See, it turns out that this Lamb image is one that picks up on a bunch of different parts of Scripture. For those familiar with the whole story arc of the Bible, say, for instance, a first century Jewish Christian who would have heard the stories of the Old Testament all their lives, or for those who have been working their way through the Narrative Lectionary for the past few months, hearing about the Lamb of God would evoke certain other passages, and bring to mind other stories.
Like the story of the binding of Isaac. Isaac, Abraham’s son, his only son, his beloved son, who is taken to the top of the mountain. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice, father?” And Abraham responded, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And God does provide, and Isaac is set free from his bonds.
Or the story of the Exodus, when the first Passover is celebrated, and the first Paschal Lamb is killed. The Paschal Lamb is the lamb that is used for the Passover meal, and the Israelites use its blood to mark their doors, so that the angel of death will pass them over, and the next day they are set free, liberated from the bonds of slavery. And we will see in a few months that, in the Book of John at least, Jesus is the Paschal Lamb, the Lamb of God who dies at the very hour of the day when they are slaughtering the Paschal Lambs for the Passover feast in Jerusalem.
Or maybe we are reminded of the lambs in the Temple, the lambs that are brought to the Temple by the devout, and offered there as sacrifices. But here’s the thing, they are not sacrificed as sin offerings, as we might imagine. Nowhere does the literature show lambs being offered in order to expiate sin, as a substitution to cleanse the sinner. Sure, there are sin offerings that are part of the cult of the Temple, but the lamb is not one. Instead, the lamb is offered whole, as an extravagant act of worship and gratitude. This is the lamb of the Temple cult. An extravagant whole burnt offering, given simply as a way of connecting with God.
And here is the Lamb of God. The lamb that is, this time, given by God, instead of by humans. This is the lamb that Abraham was talking about, the lamb that God will provide, as an extravagant offering, given to create connection. To take up sin, to bear sin, to liberate us from our bonds, just as Isaac was liberated when God provided the lamb for the sacrifice. Just as Israel was liberated, and the lamb’s death announced that liberation. This is the Lamb of God, who takes up the sin of the world, who bears it away for us, so that we are free. Free from sin, free from death. And being free, new possibilities open up. you are not just free from, you are free to. Free to set aside the past. Free to move into a new tomorrow. Free to connect. Free to connect with God and with one another.
Which is exactly what Jesus sets about doing. Connecting. “What are you looking for?” he asks. Notice that his first words are not, “Are you ready to accept me as your personal savior?” His first words are simply a genuine invitation into relationship. True connection. “What are you looking for?” And his next words are more of the same. “Come and see.” This is the God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ: the God who wants so much to know us, to be in relationship with us, that God would provide the lamb, become the lamb, would do whatever is necessary to know us, to know our joys and our pains, our celebrations and our sorrows.
Because at the end of the day, the real answer to that question, “What are you looking for?” is “connection.” Whoever you are, whatever you are carrying today, I would be willing to bet that what you are looking for is connection. Whether you are grieving a loss, or worried about a child, or dissolving a relationship, connection is what has drawn you here in spite of the weather. Whether you are sick in your body, or sick in your soul, or just sick of the hypocrisy and the politics and the greed of the world, you have set aside all those other things you could be doing, and you have come looking for something. For connection.
Connection is the opposite of all of those things that drag us down. And it is hard. Connection is hard. It requires that I let down my guard. I have to be vulnerable and I have to let others in and see all that I try to hide – the exact things that connection can help – pain, shame, brokenness. To truly connect, I have to expose old scars to another person, and risk having them cut open again. And mostly I don’t. The risk is too great, and mostly, instead of connecting, I build walls and I hide away, and I put up a brave front, until it’s just me against the world. But that is not what God wants for us. Our Triune God is a God of relationship, the God who is relationship itself, the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the God who calls us into that relationship through the life, death and resurrection of the Son, the Word made flesh to dwell among us. This is the God of connection. Because honest connection, genuine relationship, it undoes the pains and shames and griefs and sorrows of the world, it overcomes fear and alienation and despair, it helps us to find identity and purpose, it draws us forward into a different way of being. It is exactly what God wants for us. It is God’s promised and preferred future for each one of us.
And to make sure we don’t miss it, our Evangelist draws our attention to another Old Testament story, the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Remember Jacob, running from his brother’s wrath, asleep in the desert, with nothing but a stone for his pillow? And he has a dream, of a ladder set on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord came to him and reiterated the promise, that he would be the father of a great nation and that all the families of the earth would be blessed in his offspring.
And Jesus tells his new disciples, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” In other words, Jesus is the ladder in Jacob’s dream, the link between God in heaven and humans down here on earth. Jesus is the ladder that draws us into communion with God, that pulls us Godward and that brings God to us. God so longs for us, so wants to connect with us, so wants us to connect with others, that God would become the ladder, the connection itself. In Jesus, our sins are lifted up, our scars and sorrows and shames are exposed to the light, and we are made vulnerable. no wonder so many of us shy away. No wonder so many of us would as soon read the paper or stay in bed. It is a painful business, having our sins lifted up, admitting that we are in need of help, confessing that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But, painful though it is, it is also the gift that we are given, to be drawn into the light, to have our sins lifted up, so that they are no longer holding us back. We can let down our guard, the walls we have built can fall away, they are no longer necessary, because it’s no longer just me against the world. You are not alone, you are not isolated, you are not required to carry it all by yourself. A different future, a connected future, awaits you. Come and see!