2nd Sunday of the Year, 19th January 2020 ~ SMC
Have you ever been somewhere which was disappointing? Maybe a holiday which you’d been counting down to for ages, ticking off those days on the calendar and then the day arrives and … the plane is cancelled, or the weather is atrocious, or the person you go with is really awful. That which you’d been really excited about doesn’t live up to expectations. Christmas could have been the same: after months of preparation, you drop the Turkey, or the cousins who always argue did the same thing again.
Things can turn out in a disappointing way because of different forces at work: sometimes human error, sometimes just bad luck because the weather is sometimes bad, sometimes our own sinfulness has meant we weren’t in sufficiently good a place for the crisis to be averted or endured faithfully. When Bp Jonathan was preaching last Saturday at Southwark Cathedral for the Epiphany Festival which he’d invited us all to, he had a fantastic line of how the world was not created with a tragic ending despite there being so many tragedies along the way. The first miracle Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana in Galilee was slightly unnecessary if anything, certainly wasn’t going to change the world: He simply changed water into wine at a banquet where everyone was already having a good time. Slightly pointless if anything. The first miracle was a reminder of the centrality of joy, not fanciful whimsical happiness, but a profound joy. This will hold us steadfast through the trials of life, both those things we can’t do anything about and those of our own making.
It’s with joy that John the Baptist announces the coming of the Saviour who will in a few verses’ time be at Cana on the third day for the union of the unknown couple at Cana. We heard him in our Gospel this evening: “Look, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” It’s the day after Jesus’ Baptism, which we celebrated last Sunday, and Jesus goes to John the Baptist. Notice here the reiteration of the gesture of humility. Wicked King Herod summons people to him in the Gospel narratives. The Lord of all Life goes once again to his cousin from whom He was humble enough to receive Baptism.
It might puzzle us that John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I did not know him myself.” The Church’s first commentators on this passage wonder if John the Baptist says this so that it doesn’t look like an inside job, as if John the Baptist was put up to heralding Jesus because he was family. Others wonder whether John the Baptist simply didn’t recognise Jesus, after all we don’t know if they’d seen each other for a while and we do know John the Baptist had been in the wilderness living a life that seems to have shunned so much of what we might call ‘normal’ interactions, eating wild locusts and wearing the skin of a camel. So John the Baptist is trusting the one to whom he is pointing: “Look, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
Let’s just look at that phrase a bit more closely: why a Lamb? It was the animal of sacrifice, of course, the sacrifice made day in and day out in the Temple. Remember the prophecy of Isaiah that we hear on Good Friday each year when we gather to commemorate the Death of the Lord: “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth,” (Isaiah 53:7). The name ‘Agnus’ of course comes from the Latin word for Lamb. St Agnus is one of the Church’s earliest virgin martyrs, whom we will celebrate at Mass on Tuesday. St Agnus died at the age of a young teenager, faithful to Christ, a martyr, willing to die. She is a challenge to us who have lived longer and who have dampened in our discipleship and been swept along by the world and its ways, rather than let ourselves be caught up in the ways of the Kingdom of God.
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This is the basis of our hope. This is why we know we won’t be disappointed: because the world was not created to have a tragic ending and God does not fail on those promises. Remember those things we identified that could spoil a holiday or a special occasion: the natural chaos of life, our own sinfulness and human error. All those factors will be removed when the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is fully known. There won’t be volcanoes erupting in Heaven, or global warming. There won’t be arguments or things in our past we’ve not come to terms with. We will know truly our wonderful selves caught up in the Son of the Living God, Jesus Christ. There’ll be no disappointment in Heaven, no tragedy.
John the Baptist’s words are the monumental expression of hope: “who takes away the sin of the world.” Notice the use of the singular: “sin.” We all sin in particular ways, doing this or that, thinking the other, never thinking about that. There will be a number of times that we have done this or not done what we should have done. There will be different places where we have sinned and different people to whom we have sinned; a variety of gifts we have not offered back to God. As well as this endless list of my sins, your sins, his sins, her sins, there is also the general fact of sin, a rupturing of our relationship with God, with the world, and with each other.
My friends, Jesus takes that away. It has no power over us. Death has lost its sting! We’re not engaged in a battle of two opposing and equal forces, good versus evil. Evil has already lost, we are simply pointing to that through the victories we are to live out in our everyday life. I want to finish this evening by considering a couple of specifics of where we might say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” in other words where we might point out the joy of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Forgiveness. The world is an unforgiving place, constantly pointing out where people have failed, gossiping about what so-and-so has done. People do this on their Facebook profiles and in private text messages, in whispered conversations to their best friend and with perfect strangers who you end up sitting next to on the bus. Jesus’ words on the Cross are, “Father, forgive them.” The first Christian martyr, St Stephen, prayed for those who stoned Him even as they let go of those stones that would kill him. Forgiveness is hard and it may be that we have to start by simply saying to God in prayer that we can’t forgive that person but we know we need to get there but we witness to a different reality, the true reality of God, by forgiving.
Yesterday, 18th January we began the week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the days leading up to the Feast of St Paul on Saturday. Come to the 9.30am Mass at St Mary’s so you can to see the difference God’s grace makes in people’s lives! Christian unity is the aim that all Christians will come together so there aren’t all these different denominations: Methodist, Church of England, Pentecostal, Church of God or whatever it might be, but that we’re all back together under the authority of the One Church. That’s an issue which we can all be praying for and we must also press on our bishops how important the task is. On a day-to-day level we can work for that unity by being a bit better at looking after each other as fellow Christians, to prioritising this fellowship we have with each other, again witnessing to a higher way of community, one the world knows not.
Let us point out to others the Lamb of God, who is sacrificed for the sins of the world. As we come to Holy Communion we sing out and praise God: “Lamb of God you take away the sins of world.” Let us in our treatment of other Christians and in our willingness to forgive everyone be reminders to others that we know what Jesus has done for us and we will point others towards His love. Amen.