Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 16: Epiphany 2, The Lamb and the Dove (for Christina Taylor Green)

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
We had our consistory meeting on Monday night. The consistory is the governing body of the church, the elders and deacons and myself. I’m always a little nervous before these meetings, because I am accountable to them, and I felt unusually vulnerable because we were discussing my salary, and also because I needed to retract some information I had given them the month before. But it was a very good meeting, and at the end we all felt very positive. We had many things to celebrate, because last year was a banner year for Old First. We want to share these things with you at our congregational meeting next week after church.

On Tuesday morning, as is my habit, I got up at 6 am to keep working on this sermon, studying the lections, trying to listen for a word from God for me to communicate to you today. At 8 am I took a break for breakfast, and turned on NPR, and I heard the latest report on the shootings in Tucson, and suddenly I found myself weeping, weeping for the congresswoman, and the judge, and the other victims, and for Christina, the little nine-year-old girl, weeping for our nation, and grieving our violence and our indulgence of our violence. I am usually inured to this, I try to be professional, but maybe I was still vulnerable from the night before.

"O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God who takest the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace." Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis. For many centuries the church has been singing this and praying this, especially when we face our violence and fear and misery, and the damage we do to each other and to the world.

"Behold the Lamb of God." John the Baptist was the first to say it. He was the first to identify the Messiah as the Lamb of God. Where did he get that from? That’s not what they wanted from the Messiah. They wanted a lion, a victor, a leader, not a lamb. Lambs get sacrificed, lambs get eaten, lambs are victims, lambs are like little nine-year-old girls.
I think I know where he got it from. He testifies that he saw the dove come on Jesus. He reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down on the Messiah like a dove. That’s not what he expected. He was expecting the Holy Spirit to come down on him like fire. There were prophecies of this. The fire of holiness, the fire of power and judgment and purgation. And what the people will have wanted was an eagle, a properly royal bird, the symbol of power, like the Roman eagle, carried by the legions in their power and their victory. Eagles and lions, the symbols of kings.

The dove is a Biblical symbol of two things. In the story of Noah’s Ark, the dove is the sign of the judgment over, the healing of the world, of restoration and reconciliation and peace. In the law of Moses, the dove was a poor person’s sacrifice. If you could not afford a lamb you could substitute a dove. When the dove came down on Jesus, John the Baptist saw these things.

The baptism of Jesus is reported in all four gospels, but as usual, John reports it in a way that differs from the other three. He reports it after the fact, in terms of what John the Baptist had to say about it afterward. The Gospel of John assumes we know the other three, just as the history plays of Shakespeare assume that you already know the history. And what it reports is a moment in the conversion of John the Baptist, how his expectations of the Messiah were converted, and what he saw in Jesus even converted his interpretations of the prophecies that drove him. Having seen the dove, he began to see the Lion of Judah as the Lamb of God. Who takest away, not the enemies of Israel, as King David would have done, but the sins of the world. That kind of peace.

But lambs are sacrificed, like the Passover lamb. Well, his sacrificial death will be the instrument of liberation and salvation, though not from slavery to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, or from oppression by Herod and the Romans, but from the sins of the world. The sins of oppressors, the sins of enslavers, the sins of assassins, the sins of 22-year-old paranoid losers with guns, the sins of terrorists and politicians, and our own sins, our sins against our loved ones and our friends and even against ourselves. He takes away those sins. That is the policy and program of his kingdom, for he is a king, he is the Messiah. The kingdom of the Messiah brings many benefits in its healing and peace and reconciliation, but the very first article of the constitution of his kingdom is to take away the sins of the world.

It is for another occasion for us to discuss the theological mechanism of the atonement, by which his sacrificial death accomplishes the removal of our sins before the face of God. But it is for us today to commit to take away each other’s sins, because we are citizens of his kingdom and the first article of his constitution is a law for us. He has taken away the sins of the world, then how can we hold our sins against each other? Together we confess our sins here every week, in the prayer of confession, and then together we sing the kyrie, Lord have mercy upon us, and then when we hear the absolution of our sins, and then we pass the peace to each other. It is required of us. It is the coming of the kingdom that we do. Because he is the lamb of God, we are doves to each other. We pass to each other the peace of Christ, a peace that is greater than our own, and yet as citizens we rise to it each week. You let your dove take wing. You rise to your belief that each other’s sins have been taken away by the Lamb of God.

When Simon, the brother of Andrew, came to see Jesus, Jesus told him, You are Peter. That is who you are. When St. Paul addressed the congregation in Corinth, confused and contentious and conflicted as that congregation was, he called them saints, sanctified, full of grace, enriched in every way, not lacking in any spiritual gift. That is who you are, Old First. On the face of it you are a strange and peculiar collection of individuals who have come here for who knows what and who knows why, but do you know who you are? You were called collectively to be God’s servant, and God’s call came to you through whatever who knows what or why that brought you here. You are a community within the kingdom of the Messiah, a beloved community, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you are beloved of God, in order that you might love each other and love the world, even its violence and misery and fear.

It is too light a thing, Old First, that you should speak peace just to each other every week. It is too light a thing that you should do church just for each other and your loved ones and yourselves. God has given you as a light to the nations. To your nation. To your community. It’s because of what happened in Tucson that’s it’s so important what you do here. The peace you practice here, the sacrifices of love that you offer each other in the name of Christ, this is the light to the nations.

The very first words that Jesus says in the Gospel of John are very simple. He says, "What are you looking for?" Two men say, "Where are you staying?" He answers, "Come and see." Where are you abiding? How can I be close to you? How can I feel close to God? Where can I go that I can feel God’s presence in my life? Where can I experience your kingdom coming? What are you looking for? I want my sins to be taken away. I want to be able to let go of the sins of others. I want there to be some relief and resolution to my weeping when I hear the news. I want to have something to celebrate with other people. Yes, yes, you are right to want these things. It is God’s Spirit in you that inspires your wanting them. And in your coming here together each week to find these things you will see these very things come to be. Because the Lord is faithful and has chosen you. I give thanks because of the grace of God that has been given to you.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

Brenda from Flatbush said...

Many thanks for some beautiful new insights on the baptism gospel (a dove, the poor man's lamb!--never thought of that one!), from a crabby Roman Catholic now smiling.