A Sermon preached on Epiphany II, January 15th 2017 at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 49: 1 – 7, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, John 1: 29 – 42
“John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) “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.” (John 1:35-37)
What comes to your mind when you think of lambs? The nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb,” sweet, soft, playful, gamboling creatures, mint sauce? Is that the image of someone you would follow at the drop of a hat? Not really. Of course, that is not what the Jews of Jesus’ day would think of when hearing the words “Lamb of God.” They might have recalled one of the prophet’s Isaiah’s passages about the so-called suffering servant of Israel (53:7), “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; 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.” Most likely however, they would have made a connection with the Passover lamb. This was the lamb, as described in the Book of Exodus (12:3-13), that each family was to take, without blemish. It was to be slaughtered and eaten, hurriedly, and its blood was to be smeared onto the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the Jews in Egypt as protection. For as God tells Moses, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
That is not the same as Mary’s little lamb, but all the same, would you immediately drop everything to follow one who is described as a sacrificial lamb, someone who is identified as a victim? Would you follow a loser? Might you not be in danger too? And yet, the two disciples, one anonymous, the other identified later as Andrew did immediately follow the man described as the Lamb of God. From the very beginning, Christians have made this connection between Jesus and the Passover Lamb. In his 1st Letter to the Corinthians (5:7) Paul writes: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” We sing the Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” most Sundays between the Fraction, the Breaking of the Bread and the Distribution of Communion. We too follow the sacrificial Lamb of God, we follow the one who gave his life for the sins of the world, and if we mean it seriously, then we should be willing to follow him all the way.
This weekend we remember the birthdays of two men who were certainly willing to follow the Lamb of God all the way, two men for whom the term Lamb of God with all its implications was the grounding of their ministry and witness: Martin Niemöller and Martin Luther King. Yesterday was Martin Niemöller’s birthday, he died in 1984, and today Martin Luther King’s, he died in 1968.
Martin Niemöller was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor. He did not start his life as a “lamb,” during WWI he was a naval officer and even later as a pastor between the wars he, like many German protestant clergy, was a conservative nationalist and initially even a supporter of Adolf Hitler. Yet under the influence of the regime’s increasing ant-Semitism, he became one of the founders of the opposition Confessing Church, together with Douglas’ favorite theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Niemöller was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps – as a personal prisoner of the Führer – and only narrowly escaped execution. He always regretted not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis, and was the author of this statement, that you all know and that has recently made quite a re-appearance in social media:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller, who by the way in the 1970s and early 1980s worshipped here at St. Augustine’s now and again with this second wife, lived in Wiesbaden after the war. He was President (“bishop”) of the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau (EKHN), chair of the National Council of Churches (ACK), and president of the World Council of Churches. He became a vocal anti-war activist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament, which were for him “sins of the world.” As a man who, though he just escaped execution under Hitler, was willing to die for his faith and for others, I think he very consciously followed the Lamb of God.
More of you will know Martin Luther King, Baptist minister and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in America. His rhetorical claim to fame is of course the 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. It is still well worth reading. In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance, and like Niemöller, he too later expanded the focus of his ministry to include opposition towards war, as well as poverty in general. Racism, war, and poverty were for him “sins of the world.” As you know, he was not only willing to die for his faith and for others, but was murdered for them.
Both men understood what John meant when he called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Both men are examples and models for their commitment, for their faith, for their active witness, and for all they did to combat some of the sins of the world. When we hear the phrase sin, we often think only of our personal faults and failings, and those are the ones we focus on in our confession during the service. These sins are important too, and God promises us forgiveness for them in and through Jesus. Martin Niemöller acknowledged and asked for forgiveness for his personal guilt in his behavior and attitude between the two world wars.
But Jesus was also sent to liberate us from the big sins, the communal sins, the sins of the world. The Passover lamb was not a sin offering, not a sacrifice to absolve the Jews in Egypt from any individual transgression. The Passover lamb was part and parcel of their liberation from slavery and oppression and death. When we sing the Agnus Dei, we ask the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, to have mercy on us, and to grant us peace, because war, violence, and all kinds of oppression are the sins of the world.
The two disciples in this morning’s Gospel, Martin Niemöller, Martin Luther King and countless Christians throughout the ages have dropped everything to follow and serve the Lamb of God because that vision of liberation from sin and sins is so compelling. And because we know that Jesus’ death was not the end and that our death is not the end and so we need not fear. The Lamb of God is vindicated; God lifts him up. Isaiah already points to this change of fortune: “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’” (Isaiah 49:7)
This vindication is God’s promise to all the faithful righteous. I said earlier that Christians have connected Jesus and the Passover Lamb from the very beginning. In the second century AD Bishop Melito of Sarda wrote a book called Peri Pascha, ‘about the Passover,’ explaining in great depth and detail how the Passion and the Passover are connected. I am going to finish with a passage from the very end of that book. It describes beautifully all that Jesus, the Lamb of God’s promises us, from forgiveness and liberation to glory:
So come all families of people,
Adulterated with sin,
And receive forgiveness of sins.
For I am your freedom.
I am the Passover of salvation,
I am the lamb slaughtered for you,
I am your ransom,
I am your life,
I am your light,
I am your salvation,
I am your resurrection,
I am your King.
I shall raise you up by my right hand,
I will lead you to the heights of heaven,
There shall I show you the everlasting Father.1)
1) Found in Construing the Cross by Frances M. Young