Epiphany 2A Sermon (1996)

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:29-42;
Is 49:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9


I’d like to begin with sort of a mystery quote. I’d like you to see if it sounds at all familiar to you, not just where this quote is from, but if it seems to describe anyone you know:

You must know that when our gentleman had nothing to do, which was almost all the year round, he passed his time reading books of knight errantry. He grew so strangely besotted with these amusements, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of that kind. He gave himself up so wholly to reading romances that at nights he would pour on until it was day, and at day he would read on until it was night; and thus by sleeping little and reading much, the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that he at last lost the use of his reason. His head was filled with nothing but enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, amours, tournaments, and abundance of stuff and impossibility.

Sound familiar? Sound like anyone you know? Does it sound a little, for example, like your child playing Nintendo?

He gave himself up so wholly … that … the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that he at last lost the use of his reason. His head was filled with nothing but enchantments, etc.

What do you think? Nintendo? Or perhaps your husband watching football on Sundays? Well, actually, its Cervantes’ 16th century description of the hero of his great novel, Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha.

I’ve begun with this somewhat light-hearted quote to begin getting at something a bit weightier: namely, what it is that we live by, or live under. What is it in our lives that demands our attention, that receives our loyalty? What is that we value and give our time to? Back in the 60’s, the ‘hippies’ were very direct. They used to ask, ‘Where’re you at, man? Where’re you at?’

Actually, the Gospel of John has a similar way of putting it. It begins somewhat as a pun. John the Baptist introduces Jesus to two of his disciples, one of whom was Andrew, and they ask Jesus, ‘Where’re you at?’ Jesus interprets it as, ‘Where are you staying?’ And he shows the two disciples where he’s staying. But I suggest this might have been somewhat of a pun for John the Evangelist, because the Greek word he uses here has far-reaching connotations throughout not only the Gospel, but also the letters of John (used more than 80 times!). It can literally mean where someone is staying or lodging or living. But it also the further sense of living or dwelling in something that has permanence or staying power. In John’s gospel, we are most used to hearing this word as “abide.” Abide. Later in John’s gospel, if someone is to ask Jesus where’s he at, he will tell them, ‘I abide in my Father, and my Father in me. You can abide in my Father, too, by abiding in me, like branches on the vine.’ The branches and vine. Do you remember that discussion? Jesus talks about abiding:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Isn’t this where we’re at in life? We need something with staying power in which to dwell. We need to abide somewhere with something that really abides, something that really lasts. Jesus tells us that that someone and something is him. We need to abide in him.

Why is this so important? What kind of world do we live in? Is it one where we can easily find something with staying power, something or someone in whom to abide? Or is our world characterized by its quickly passing fads and fancies, by impermanence, by seemingly constant change? This is where that light-hearted beginning about Nintendo gets more scary. Our children are searching for somewhere to be at, something of permanence in their lives. And they’re having a hard time finding it, aren’t they? So they fill their time with diversions, Nintendo games. I know that I try very hard as a parent to provide a stable environment for our boys, a home, a place of abiding. But it feels like so many of those other human institutions are falling down around us that our home doesn’t feel like enough shelter in an otherwise shelterless world. We sometimes say that we live in stormy times, right? We need somewhere to abide. Our children need somewhere to abide. Somewhere of permanence to give us shelter. For the Christian Gospel that somewhere is someone. We need to abide in Christ. And then we even turn that around at times and say that we are the temple in which Christ abides. Christ comes to live in us. That is our faith.

What’s this all about? Right at the outset of John’s gospel, John the Baptist gives us another strong clue as to what this is all about. The first words spoken as Jesus comes on the scene are, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Lamb of God. These are such familiar words; we sing them most communion Sundays. Do we really know what they mean? It is a difficult image for us because we are far removed from the temples of sacrifice that consumed such lambs. Sacrifice. Jesus transformed that word so that it generally means self-sacrifice, giving up something of yourself. But that’s not what “sacrifice” originally meant. Sacrifice was about spilling someone else’s blood. And the most difficult part for us to understand is that the slaughter of these lambs provided a function for their society which they deemed essential. The importance of lambs in Jesus day was at the Temple for sacrifice. The Temple was the place that gave meaning and order to their lives. It was where they were at. They believed that God abided in the Temple and gave order to things, to make their places of abiding more peaceful and meaningful. The Temple provided their shelter in which to abide.

So what does “Lamb of God” mean in John’s Gospel. This. That Jesus comes most definitely to replace the Temple. Jesus abides in the Father, and the Father in him. And since the Temple is to be replaced, we too must also now abide in the new Temple, in Jesus. We must abide in Christ, and Christ in us. So Jesus comes to give us a new abiding place with more staying power than the Temple with its altars of sacrifice.

But he is also the cause of the upheaval. This is very important: Jesus is also the cause of the upheaval, because he comes to replace that which previously gave us a safer place to abide. So, if we don’t abide in Jesus, then we won’t find ourselves with any place to stay, any place to abide. Without Jesus, we find ourselves increasingly homeless. We find ourselves like today, with so many of our old institutions seemingly falling down around us.

Lamb of God. We must understand what this really means, for it is so easy to misunderstand it, even for Christians. We misunderstand it because we don’t realize who is demanding the sacrifice. We are tempted to make the sacrificial reading, which would be: ‘Well, God’s in his heaven; God demands that somebody pay the bill. Jesus pays the bill, and the rest of us are off. Jesus’ sacrifice to God gets us off the hook.’ That’s the sacrificial reading, and therefore he’s the Lamb of God.

But the Lamb of God, Jesus in John’s Gospel, comes from the Father, and he returns to the Father. Jesus reverses it. He is the lamb that God is offering to the sacrificial monster. Who is the sacrificial monster? Humanity. It is we who demand sacrifices to keep our order. It is humanity’s sacrificial inclinations that are exposed in the story of Jesus, so that we can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say ‘God wanted that sacrifice.’ John the Baptist says, “This is the Lamb of God.” In other words, this is not our lamb given to God. This is the Lamb of God given to us — we, the sacrificers. What Jesus came to expose is that we humans keep order by sacrificing some for the sake of others, while justifying it with our gods. That is our sin which Jesus takes away. Sin. Missing the mark; that’s what sin means. And what we miss seeing the most is the victims. We don’t see that our sacrifices create victims, because we blame it on God and justify ourselves. Jesus the Lamb of God came to reveal this to us as the crucified victim of the institutions in which we abide. The prophet Isaiah foretold this as well, as he proclaimed the nation Israel — whom he himself names as “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” — he proclaimed that this victim nation will finally be a light to the whole world.

Let me repeat this: we humans keep order by sacrificing some for the sake of others, while justifying it with our gods. We abide in our sacrificial institutions until Jesus takes them away from us. And we either need to search for some other sacrificial institution to abide in, or we can finally accept Christ’s invitation to abide in him.

It is crucial to see that our sacrificial institutions of order did not fully cease to be, when the temples of sacrifice ceased to be. At the time of Jesus, the sacrificial order that was already beginning to take the place of the temples was the Law. Yes, the Law. St. Paul already began the Christian task of exposing the law, too, of explaining how the law is a sacrificial order that Jesus came to replace with God’s righteousness, a justification by sheer grace. What about today? We still have the law, though it’s showing signs of breaking down, isn’t it? So many big legal cases lately that seem to cause more chaos than order?

We can close this morning with a couple other brief examples. First, what about our work ethic? Our culture and economic order is based on it. If you have a good job in our society, you’re a full person. If not? Well, you just may be sacrificed. And we justify that with our gods, right? We say, “God helps those who help themselves.” But do you know what? That’s not in the bible. It’s certainly not in the Gospel, which as St. Paul and Luther took great pains to remind us is about grace and faith, not works righteousness. Let’s be clear: this is not to say that work is bad, or that ‘free-loading’ is O.K. No, what is bad is the order we base on work which sacrifices some for the sake of others. If we abide in Christ, on the other hand, the promise is that our labor will never be in vain (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:58). Our work will be fulfilled, and we won’t have to sacrifice someone else in the process, largely because our work will involve serving the victims of the sacrificial order.

Two other quick examples. In the last 40-50 years, our society has been breaking down the order along old lines of gender and race. Institutional racism and sexism are breaking down. Often times, this feels frightening, because we no longer have that old order to abide in, right? Yet might we not say that this was once again the work of the Lamb of God who came to take away our sin? Those old orders needed to break down because they operated upon the sacrifice of others, namely, women and people of color. Jesus came to expose these sacrificial orders, even though it virtually takes away our abode, our place to live. And so we have a society today that is searching for a new home. Will it be some new home built on sacrifice?

Or will we finally accept Christ’s invitation to abide in him? The Good News is that Christ came not just to take away our old shelters, but to offer us a new one: to abide in his love. This is the gracious invitation that is always before us. This is the gracious invitation that we are privileged to extend to others, as we follow in John the Baptist’s footsteps as his witnesses. We, too, are called to proclaim with every last ounce of our being, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” ‘For God so loved the world that God gave up the Son…’ Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 13-14, 1996

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