During Advent, one of the questions that I posed in a sermon was what image comes to mind when we think of a prophet? Perhaps one of the most striking images of a prophet that often comes to mind is that of John the Baptist, dressed in camel hair with a leather belt around his waist living off locusts and wild honey.
When we look at paintings of John the Baptist though, whether by artists including Caravaggio, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Mathis Gothart Grünewald, Dieric Bouts the younger or Hans Memling – and many others – they often depict John accompanied by a lamb. In my mind, these do 2 things:
- They give us an indication of the nature of John’s ministry – pointing away from himself and pointing towards Jesus.
- They give us an indication of the person and work of Christ.
I’ve got a few pictures here to show you what I mean.
In the space of the 14 verses of our Gospel reading today, we are repeatedly presented with astonishing testimony and revelation of the person and work of Christ, who Jesus is. We are told twice that Jesus is the Lamb of God (v.29), and also that he is the Son of God (v.34) and the Messiah (v.41).
We’ve got to take all of these into consideration in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel when we think of how things had to end and why. Jesus was to die a sacrificial death for the sins of the world. The death of Jesus takes place, in this gospel, on the afternoon when the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple. Jesus is the true Passover lamb, but a Passover lamb unlike any other.
The people of Israel would have been very familiar with lambs for sacrifice and especially the significance of a Passover lamb. One of the challenges of John the Baptist’s message was that he not only presented Jesus as the Lamb of God, but also as the Son of God and the Messiah. For the people of Israel their hope for a Messiah was for a conquering war-like leader who would free the people from oppression. How does that fit together with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Son of God?
John the Baptist weaves together baptism and the lamb of God and it is helpful to think about why. It is generally agreed by scholars of all denominations that, in the New Testament, baptism was by immersion. It depicted death, burial, and resurrection. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Jesus and John were picturing the “baptism” Jesus, would endure on the cross when He would die as the sacrificial Lamb of God (Isaiah 53:7; Luke 12:50). It would be through death, burial, and resurrection that the Lamb of God would “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Only God as Jesus, the son of God, could pay the price once and for all. Only God as Jesus, the son of God, could conquer sin and death. No other sacrifice was sufficient. Only Jesus the Messiah could accomplish this victory in his first coming that would be taken to completion in his second coming.
The thing is, when we are presented with testimony about Jesus how do we respond? When two of John’s disciples heard his testimony, their response was to follow Jesus. And as always Jesus presents them with a deep question… “What are you looking for?” When Jesus asked them this, he was encouraging them to define their purposes and goals. Were they looking for a revolutionary leader to overthrow Rome? Then they had better join the Zealots! Little did Andrew and John realize that day how their lives would be transformed by the Son of God.
What is our expectation of Christ? What are we looking for? Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, indirectly answers this question when he goes to find his brother when we said “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).” Messiah is a Hebrew word that means “anointed,” and the Greek equivalent is “Christ.” To the Jews, it was the same as “Son of God” (see Matthew 26:63-64; Mark 14:61-62; Luke 22:67-70). In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed and thereby set apart for special service. Kings were especially called “God’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:11; Psalm 89:20); so, when the Jews spoke about their Messiah, they were thinking of the king who would come to deliver them and establish the kingdom.
There was some confusion among the Jewish teachers as to what the Messiah would do. Some saw Him as a suffering sacrifice (as in Isaiah 53), while others saw a splendid king (as in Isaiah 9 and 11). Jesus had to explain even to His own followers that the cross had to come before the crown, that He must suffer before He could enter into glory (Luke 24:13-35). We might recognise this tension too,
Again and again in John’s gospel we will see the ancient people of God, not least their rulers and self-appointed guardians of tradition, missing the meaning of what Jesus is doing, while people on the edges, outside the boundaries, get the point and find themselves forgiven, healed, brought in by God’s transforming love. This is what we are to understand when John the Baptist points Jesus out as ‘God’s lamb, taking away the world’s sin’. As we journey into 2020, let’s ask ourselves who are we looking for when we think about Jesus? Do we consider every aspect together: Jesus as Lamb of God, Jesus as Son of God, Jesus as Messiah. How might we respond? Amen