Sunday 19 January 2020

The Lamb of God

Address given at St Flannan's Cathedral, Killaloe on Sunday 19 January 2020, the 2nd after Epiphany

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
Beginning with these words, in today’s reading from St John’s Gospel (1:29-42), John the Baptist publicly testifies to the great truth about Jesus, which had come to him as he baptised Jesus the day before – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

And pointing to Jesus, the Baptist says to two of his own disciples the next day, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ One of them is Andrew, who after spending a day with Jesus goes to find his brother Simon Peter, to tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’.

Jesus as the Lamb of God is such a familiar image, isn’t it? We’ve all seen those icons of Christ as a lamb holding a cross. And we still sometimes use the Agnus Dei during communion, which I remember from my childhood in the ancient chant, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us’.

The image is so familiar that we often don’t realise how strange it is – the Son of God represented as a vulnerable lamb. Wouldn’t a noble beast like a lion be more appropriate for the Son of God? CS Lewis in his Narnia books chose Aslan, a fearsome lion, to represent the Christ-like character in his stories, rather than a lamb. Jesus chose to describe himself as the Good Shepherd, not as a lamb. So why does the evangelist have John the Baptist describe Jesus as the Lamb of God?

The image of the lamb had layers of symbolic meaning for Jews at the time of Christ.
It would remind them of the old story of the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12). The Israelites are told to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on the doors of their houses, as a sign to the Lord to pass over the house without killing the firstborn within. The firstborn of the Egyptians die and the firstborn of the Israelites live. The Passover Lamb protects and saves the Israelites and they escape from Egypt.

It would remind them of the daily sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem of ‘two male lambs a year old without blemish’, one in the morning and one in the evening, as an offering to God (Numbers 28:3-4), an offering intended to turn God’s wrath away from the sins of the community.

So the lamb would have represented reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins – atonement in the language of theology. The English word originally meant ‘at-one-ment’, being in harmony with someone.

And the lamb would also have represented uncomplaining gentleness. Jeremiah writes, ‘But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’. And Isaiah writes of God’s suffering servant, ‘Like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter … he did not open his mouth’.

Today we are horrified by the cruelty and injustice of sacrificing living animals to God. It also horrified the prophet Isaiah (1:11-17), who told the people of Judah that God did not want their animal sacrifices, but rather wanted them to ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. But his words were ignored, perhaps because of vested interests - the privileged status and livelihood of priests would have depended on sacrifices continuing, and sacrifices were no doubt cheaper and easier for the well-to-do than Isaiah’s alternative. Jewish practice of animal sacrifice did not cease until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD.

Jesus taught his disciples that God would pardon their sins if they truly repented. In perfect obedience to God’s will, he submitted to a cruel death upon the cross although an innocent man. Perhaps it’s not so very surprising that his disciples, the first Christians, should identify Jesus with the sacrificial lamb, as John does, and as Paul did too.

As the years passed, Christians came to see the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the final and complete atoning sacrifice, taking their sin away, reconciling them to God, and making further ritual sacrifice of animals unnecessary.

The imagery of Christ as the sacrificial lamb lived on after animal sacrifice ceased.
Christians have always meditated upon it. And many have pondered how Christ’s death on the cross reconciles us with God – how atonement works. Theologians have come up with innumerable theories.

There’s ‘ransom’ atonement. In this theory Adam and Eve are held to have sold humanity to Satan at the time of the Fall; Justice requires that Satan be paid a ransom to free us from his clutches; God pays the ransom on our behalf through Christ’s death; Justice is satisfied and we are freed from Satan’s grip of sin and death. I can’t accept the dualism of this theory. I believe in one God, and I do not believe in any kind of anti-God like Satan.

There’s also ‘substitution’ atonement. In this theory the debt humans owe for their sin is not to Satan but to God himself; human kind deserve God’s punishment for sin; God’s Justice means that God cannot simply forgive the sin without exacting punishment; but God takes the punishment on himself by sending his Son to die on the cross in our place as a substitute; and this cancels out human sin, allowing us to receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God. This theory repels me, because it makes God appear to collude in the unjust punishment of Jesus, rather than being the loving, forgiving and merciful Father that Jesus revealed to us.

And then there’s ‘moral influence’ atonement. In this theory Jesus’s self-sacrifice on the cross shows us how to deal with the consequences of sin, and also demonstrates God’s love for us; we respond with repentance, and receive God’s forgiveness; we are reconciled to God and transformed by the Holy Spirit. I find this a much more satisfactory explanation of atonement.

But all these musings of theologians are like smoke compared to the real experience of atonement.
Human attempts to define the purposes of God must always be inadequate, and we should not let differences of opinion about atonement divide us one from another.

John the Baptist is pointing to the reality of atonement when he says of Jesus, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Overhearing him, Andrew approaches Jesus, who says to him, ‘Come and see’. And after spending time with Jesus, Andrew goes to find his brother Simon Peter, and tells him‘We have found the Messiah’.

The reality of atonement is, I suggest, personal experience of Christ’s call and our response. As the Lamb of God, Jesus calls sinful people like me and you to ‘Come and see’. When we respond, when we truly repent, our sins are forgiven. We are reconciled with God. And we pass on this good news to others.

Sunday 12 January 2020

The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ, Joachim Patinir, Kunst Historiches Museum, Vienna

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 12th January 2020, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, the Baptism of Christ.

Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
Picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?

Matthew describes an epiphany, in which God reveals Jesus to be his Son and anoints him with his Spirit.
The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages were seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?
John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism - not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of them.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.

Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “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 baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God. 

Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.
Jesus very deliberately chose to ask John for baptism, and insisted on it – it must have been very important for him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God wished him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate publicly that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John.

But Jesus himself surely also needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associated himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful people like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.

So what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?
Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it, Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it, Christians could see the relationship as one in which God takes our human nature upon himself, to be incarnate as a human being, like you or me.

Everything is changed, everything is made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like our loving Father, to be like Jesus, his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.

Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Almighty God,
who anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit
and revealed him as your beloved Son:
inspire us, your children,
who are born of water and the Spirit,
to surrender our lives to your service,
that we may rejoice to be called your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday 5 January 2020

The Wise Men's quest

The Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna (c1431-1506)
J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Address given at St Kieran's Church, Cloughjordan on Sunday 5th January 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, celebrated as the Epiphany/

At Epiphany, in our Western Church tradition, we remember the Wise Men from the East.
As Matthew tells us in the reading we’ve just heard (Matthew 2:1-12), they followed a star which led them to find the baby Jesus, to pay homage to him, and to present symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The story of the Wise Men is so familiar to us, ever since we first heard it as children. Over the centuries it has grown with the telling, as the best stories always do. Story-tellers and artists have embellished it from their imaginations. Matthew’s unspecified number of Wise Men became three kings, riding on camels and bearing expensive gifts for the Christ-child. And the kings acquired names unknown to Matthew along the way - Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior.

Matthew’s Wise Men were foreigners bringing gifts. People remembered OT texts referring to foreign kings who bring gifts. We have heard some today. Psalm 72 says: ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts’. Today’s reading from Isaiah (60:1-6) says: ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They – the kings that is - shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord’.  At first people must have thought Matthew’s Wise Men were rather like these OT kings. Later, people came to the conclusion they were just the same. The number of the gifts the Wise Men brought no doubt explains why there are three of them. I’ve no idea where the names came from, though.

Leaving aside these embellishments, it’s not easy to see Matthew’s simple tale as plain history. The idea of a star which moves and then stands still seems absurd to us today. So is it any more than just a pretty story for children? Let’s examine it a little more closely to find out.

Matthew’s Wise Men are on a quest.
A quest is a kind of story in which heroes follow a long, hard and dangerous journey to find an object of great value before returning home. Such stories have been told since time immemorial. An ancient example is Homer’s Odyssey; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a modern one.

The object of great value the Wise Men are looking for is a rather special human child: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ they ask in Jerusalem, ‘For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage’. We are not told why they associated this star with a king of the Jews, but no doubt as learned astrologers they were led to do so by their sacred scriptures

The learned chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem similarly draw on the prophecy of Micah in their Hebrew scripture to answer the Wise Men’s question. They suggested the Wise Men look in Bethlehem for ‘a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’. But they are strangely indifferent to their quest – they don’t even bother to send someone with the Wise Men to report back what if anything they find.

King Herod, however, ominously asks the Wise Men to let him know when they have found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage’.

The light of the star is what leads the Wise Men on their quest.
This light leads them to the Christ-child with Mary his mother. There, at the culmination of their quest, they are overwhelmed with joy. They kneel in homage and present their gifts, signifying that the royal king they seek is in fact this baby. Now that’s amazing, isn’t it? They have travelled so far, suffered such hardships, to find what? A tiny, vulnerable, human child, just like so many they could have found without stirring from home!

One great truth buried in Matthew’s mystical story is this, I believe - the Wise Men’s quest is our quest too. If we have the tenacity they had to follow the light of their star, like them we will find that baby, who is, as St John puts it, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’.

Light represents all that is good and true and beautiful, all that is worthy of God. This, surely, is what light means to Isaiah, when he addresses God’s people the Israelites, saying, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’. Isaiah’s words are addressed to us just as much as to the Israelites - we too are God’s people. Our light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. We too should be overwhelmed by joy, like the Wise Men!

After finding what they seek, the Wise Men return home – the proper end of any quest.
No doubt they were changed by all that had happened to them, perhaps unsettled by it. They would surely be better able to appreciate what was good in their homelands, but less tolerant of the bad.

But notice this dark note: Matthew tells us that ‘having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road’.

They had good reason - Herod had form. He had already executed a wife and several sons he suspected of disloyalty. Now Matthew goes on to tell us he orders the massacre of every child under 2 years old in Bethlehem, because he fears that the child found by the Wise Men might usurp his throne. Jesus only escapes their fate because Joseph was also warned in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

The characters in Matthew’s story illustrate three ways in which people respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.
·       Herod reacts with hatred and murderous hostility – just as some people do today.
·       The reaction of the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem is one of indifference. They are so engrossed in their own affairs that they completely ignore the good news. How like so many people today.
·       But the Wise Men respond with adoring worship, seeking to lay at the feet of the Christ-child the finest gifts they can bring.

The story of the Wise Men is surely much more than just a pretty tale for children
It is an adult fable which shows us how to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.

To ‘follow your star’ has entered our very language as a description of single-minded determination to be the very best you can be.

Let us pray that through God’s grace that we may follow the same star that led the Wise Men to the Christ-child, to be the very best that we can be - for him!

O Radiant Morning Star,
you are both guidance and mystery.
Visit our rest with disturbing dreams
and our journeys with strange companions.
Grace us with the hospitality
to open our hearts and homes
to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom
bearing profound and unusual gifts. Amen