“Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
These words are carved in my memory, from when I first learnt them in the musical setting in Handel’s Messiah, as a boy treble at the age of 10. The gathered choir included the boys secondary school, where my father taught, and Beresford House girls, where my mother was. I have at home a programme, which I treasure, from the Congress Theatre Eastbourne, with all the singers listed in the back, our three names together.
And now, here at Holy Innocents, we say and sing these words every week.
But only in preparing for today did I learn that it is John the Baptist who first speaks them, calling out as Jesus approaches, on the bank of the river Jordan.
This morning I want to raise three questions: What might these words mean? How does Jesus respond? And how might we?
John’s call, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is full of hope – here is someone who will rid the world of sin. It is an astonishing promise.
By the sin of the world, John is referring not primarily to individual error, but to the structures which hold the world captive. In his day, a powerful empire perpetuated huge inequalities of wealth and power, with a collective energy that meant that even the well-meaning within it could make little impact. This is culture, the momentum of expectation passing through the group and down the generations. Within it sits structural sin, unnoticed, behind our superficial focus on individual failures, the sin of the world which John says Jesus will take away.
You might be forgiven for thinking that he is making slow progress! The sin of the world seems almost as powerful now as it was then. Power and wealth inequalities are still huge. Cycles of violence and exploitation seem impossible to stop. As we enter a new decade, there is for many in our country a sense of despondency as it seems we are slipping into reverse, and the idea that the human race might be capable of collective altruism and self-restraint, needed to avoid environmental catastrophe, seems worryingly optimistic.
And yet the hope expressed by John the Baptist is still alive. Even if that hope lives mainly at the bottom, among those with little power, other than their voices.
I notice examples of that hope often among the young. I recall visiting Taize, as a young man, joining thousands of young people from many different countries, praying and singing with a simple intensity, a power which seemed somehow the opposite of the power of this world. The Taize brothers, when first confronted by these crowds of young people in the 1960’s, responded with gratitude at how much they learnt from them, from the clarity of their hope.
But let us return to John’s exclamation. How does Jesus respond? What he does not do is take on the powers of the world directly. Despite the desires of some of those around him, there is no campaigning, no incitement to revolution.
He also stays apart from the religious institutions of Judaism. Teachers of the law come and see him, and one senses in their approach, a question: This man has a gift, the people like him, can we bring him into the fold, can he be managed, accommodated? And the conclusion is always, no, he is not one of us. A power they cannot control comes to be seen as a threat.
So in his lifetime, at least until that final point in the temple when he turns over the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus’ attitude to the powers of the world is one of separation. So far as he can, he keeps away from the structures and tentacles of the world’s power. He has no status, no family, no property, he and his disciples keep a common purse.
It is in his death and resurrection that Jesus’ direct challenge to the sin of the world is shown. He is the lamb of God, and the lamb is a symbol of sacrifice.
Christians have argued as to the meaning of sacrifice when applied to Jesus’ death. For me, the sacrifice Jesus makes is not one demanded by God. The violence of Jesus’ death is the violence of the world, and in some way, as he surrenders before that violence, and rises again, its sinfulness is exposed and stripped of its hidden power. Here perhaps we approach what might be meant by the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
But a symbol as powerful as this is not to be captured by explanation.
And what of us?
John the Baptist addresses his words to the crowd. “Behold!” He says. Look and see! And, as we heard in our gospel reading, the response of at least some of those who see is to follow Jesus. And we receive the same invitation today, to follow him.
As we come together in the Eucharist, I invite you to look and see, in contemplation, this gentle presence, Jesus, the Lamb of God, who surrenders to the world as his mysterious way of overcoming its power, of redeeming it.
This is the way we are called to follow, the strange and powerful hope we are invited to carry, that through Christ, and his love, the sin of the world will be taken away.
Each of us will be moved to respond in a different way, marrying the work of his spirit in our hearts with action in the world.
But we all sit under John’s invitation: Behold! The lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.