This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
Here, toward the beginning of the calendar year, I’ve been doing some thinking. We’re in the midst of a sermon series titled “New Year, New You” and I’ve come to realize some essential truths.
Things are not as they ought to be.
We can listen to the talking heads wax poetic about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle and all that. But I think it’s far more insidious.
We are so obsessed with our financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our dominant religion. We worship money and the accumulation of it. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.
Did you know that, as a nation, we spend more money on national defense every year than on all of our programs of social uplift combined? Surely, that is a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.
We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.
There is so much injustice in this country – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
Something’s gotta change.
Now, let us pause for a moment. How did all of that make you feel? Do you agree with what I said? Do you disagree? There’s a better than good chance that saying what I said left most, if not all, of us feeling uncomfortable.
And yet, nearly everything I just said is not original to me. I stole those bits of proclamation from another preacher, one by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things that made people uncomfortable that he was murdered.
It’s been almost 55 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow, businesses and schools and all sorts of institutions will close to observe a holiday given in his name, and yet I wonder what it is we remember about Dr. King. Perhaps our minds move to his “I Have A Dream Speech,” or maybe we remember his calm demeanor in the midst of such a perilous time.
However, a year before Dr. King was killed he was widely regarded as one of the most hated men in the country. 63% of respondents in a poll right before his death admitted to being vocally opposed to his words and works.
It’s hard to remember this, let alone acknowledge it, because everyone today loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But we love him now because it’s so much easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging and upsetting the status quo.
In other words, it’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.
John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
For both Johns, the gospel writer and the Baptist, the image of the Lamb of God is central to their understanding of Jesus. We might talk about and think about Jesus as our teacher or our example or some other identifier, but for the Johns, Jesus is the Lamb of God.
And not just a lamb, but the Lamb – the Passover Lamb.
The church today is very comfortable as a safe and sanitary space where the realities of life, and by that I mean things like suffering, are kept at bay. We are good to mention the plight of Ukrainians in our congregational prayers, we will ask for volunteers to help with Family Promise, and all sorts of things. But when it comes to church, we like things neat and clean and ordinary.
We’re not comfortable with death or illness or questioning the status quo.
However, the church, weirdly, is called to be different. The church takes our over-manicured lives and says, “You’re a mess! You don’t want anyone to know it, and you don’t even want to admit it yourself, but things are falling apart!”
Behold the (Passover) Lab who takes away the sin of the world.
The church is a far cry from where we started. When God first gave specifics on how to worship to the people Israel it was messy: Build a temple, and take animals likes doves and bulls and slaughter them there. Take their blood and pour it over all sides of the altar.
Why? Because there is no transformation without sacrifice.
Moreover, before God’s people made it to the banks of the Red Sea, waiting on a miracle, they had already experienced their miraculous deliverance from Egypt with Passover.
Take a lamb for each family, God says, a perfect and unblemished lamb, and bleed it out completely before you hang it to roast, make sure that none of its bones are broken. The lamb shall be divided in proportion to the people who eat of it. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and you shall eat it hurriedly.
I’m getting you out of Egypt, says the Lord. Take the blood from the lamb and mark it on your doorposts so that I will know to passover as I bring my vengeance upon the people of Egypt.
It’s not for the faint of heart!
And, though we avoid it today at all costs, we still rely on blood for our worship. We no longer slaughter animals every week, but only because Jesus became the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.
Jesus was beaten to the point of death and stabbed in the side shortly before his death, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.
Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the lamb’s bones were to remain intact.
I know this is a lot, it’s gruesome and frightening and messy.
But that’s what church is all about. It stands in stark contrast with so much of what we want our lives to look like. We want people to think we are perfect even though we are far from it. We want everything to be nice and orderly even when life is tearing at the seams.
Church, in different ways, is God’s way of looking at the mess of our lives and saying, “I know you deserve this not at all, and yet I’m going to save you anyway. ”
Some of John’s disciples are there when he makes his radical proclamation. They understand, somehow, that the new Passover Lamb is right there in front of them. So they leave John behind to follow Jesus.
They sacrifice whatever their lives might’ve been to follow the Lamb.
The life and ministry of Jesus who they follow is neither neat nor clean. Notably, Jesus is forever spending time with messy people and their messed up lives. His ministry is among and for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Even today, we worship the God who willingly chooses to enter into the muck and mire and mess of our lives, which means things are liable to get messy along the way of our own discipleship.
And yet, that is Good News!
It is Good News because God comes to us in the brokenness of our health and the shipwreck of our family lives and the worst of our mistakes.
Or, as the liturgy puts it, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us.
Do you see? God saves us in our messes, not from them.
When John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he means it. He, somehow, knows the future in his present, he knows what will happen to the incarnate God when the holy encounters the unholy.
Notice, the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or those with perfect Sunday attendance in church.
The Lamb takes away the sin of the world, all of them.
That’s why we can sing, “My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!”
And yet, the very next verse says, “And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”
What is the Lord descending to do? The Lord comes to judge the living and the dead.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are redeemed by the Lamb already. And yet there’s a bit more to it as well. Even now Jesus is taking our sin away. Like Dr. King, the Lord speaks words of comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.
It’s a both/and. We are set free from the foolishness of our past while at the same time we are called to live new lives here and now based on that redemption.
Jesus is the exodus for the rest of us, he delivers us from our captivity to sin and death into a strange new world we call the Kingdom of God.
And in its messy in the Kingdom.
I started the sermon with stolen quotes from Dr. King, a man committed to seeing and bringing about a different world. His commitment cost him his life. And I think he knew that it would. For, the night before he was killed, he delivered one of his most moving speeches. Notably, Dr. King was in Memphis in support of a new union for sanitation workers.
That final night he stood before a packed auditorium and ended with these words:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day he was dead.
The Lamb of God brings a kingdom the world doesn’t want – the blood of the Lamb makes a difference and that difference means we are now different.
God does not accept the current realities of the world. God is still contending against the powers and the principalities. God will get us to the Promised Land.
It’s like God is saying to us today: “Come and see what I can do – come and see what we can do together. It’s going to be messy, but change always is.” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including sin, coffee and contemplation, Prayer School, sharp swords, prophetic preaching, miry bogs, Pelagius, trust, sanctification, gifts, blame, low anthropology, the Lamb of God, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel According To Francis Spufford