Monday, January 20, 2020

Do you like lamb?

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany preached on Sunday, January 19, 2020.

    Do you like lamb?  I must admit that I cannot resist the lamb on the menu of the Depot.  It is delicious.  Maybe you have never had lamb?  No chops on the grill or a nice leg of lamb with mint jelly?  But still I ask:  Do you like lamb?  Maybe you have have eaten lamb and did not realize it.  I am not talking here about the way people deceive you with venison disguised as beef.  I am talking about the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  Then, yes, you have eaten lamb and although it was obvious what you were eating, you may not have been paying attention.  Now you know.

    The setting in the Gospel is just after Jesus’ baptism at the hand of the John.  John was squeamish about the whole thing but went ahead at Jesus’ insistence.  By the end of it all, John had regained his courage.  Now his finger pointed to Jesus and his voice made known for all to hear:  Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  What John pointed to was the flesh and blood of the incarnate Son of God.  Jesus the man standing in front of them is being identified with the Lamb of God that every Jew knew of – this is the Passover Lamb who marked their deliverance from slavery and the sacrificial Lamb who is slaughtered in the temple and whose blood is the atonement for their sin.  That is how they heard John then.  That is not how we hear him today.

    When we think Lamb of God, it is not a finger pointed at a man but bread set apart by the Word of Christ to be His flesh and wine set apart by His Word to be His blood.  We are not pointing to same thing as John but it is the same Christ.  The Christ whom John pointed to is the same Christ whose flesh is our food and whose blood is our drink.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  What Passover marked was a deliverance that hinted at the greater deliverance Jesus would accomplish by His death and resurrection.  We are not delivered simply from proud Egyptian Pharaoh but from sin, from the tempting lies of the devil and from the dark desires of our own hearts. 

    What Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, accomplished in symbolic act by a lamb sacrificed for the sins of the people, we see happen upon the altar of the cross for the sake of a sinful world.  God counted the blood of an animal as righteous because that blood pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose blood has the power to cleanse every sinner from their sin and clothe them with righteousness before the Father on high.  We are not delivered by a symbol but by real flesh offered in suffering, real blood shed, a real death from the only real innocent man.  That is all that is bound up in the finger of John and his proclamation that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin.

    And this witness of a finger pointing to Jesus and the voice declaring who Jesus is has become something even more profound and mysterious.  It is the Sacrament by which the thing symbolized is realized, wherein the word is turned into food and drink, and by which the Jesus out there all around is made accessible and available to us with all His gifts and grace as we eat and drink.  The Church may still stand like John before the world and point to Jesus in the Scriptures and call Him the Lamb of God.  But here, in the house of the Lord, when we point to the Lamb, we point to the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. 

    You have heard me say it before that it is crazy to tell our children that God is up there somewhere.  What good does it do our children to have a God who is somewhere out there?  If we want our children to know God’s presence, then we must point to the means of grace by which Christ lives among us and makes Himself accessible to us so that we are forgiven, set right before God, and delivered from the devil and his death. The God who is up there somewhere came in flesh to be near us and so that we might be near Him.  The God who is up there somewhere came to walk the path we could not and did not want to walk.  He made His way to Calvary to answer for our sin and the sins of the whole world.  He lived a holy life so that those who live in Him might be declared holy and righteous in His name.  He died a real death and rose with a real life so that the people who live in the valley of the shadow might be raised to the very top of the mountain, where the veil of death is cast off once and for all.

    Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He does not symbolize that Lamb but actually is the Lamb.  He does not wear this as a title but fulfills the purpose of the Lamb, offering Himself into death for our sin and offering Himself as our food in the new Passover of this Sacrament of His body and blood.  Here we are not only kept in Christ and fed and nourished by His grace so that may endure the trials and troubles of this morning life.  This is our witness to the world around us – the Emmanuel of Christmas is not in the manger but on the altar, not in the flesh of an infant but in the bread of the Sacrament, and from the cross He comes to this altar.  He redeems not our feelings to make us feel better about our condition but redeems our bodies marked by sin for death to forgiveness and life so that its claim on us is over.

    We Lutherans are foolish.  I grew up when the Sacrament was offered four times a year.  We forgot what it was that Christ had given to us and what we had to give to the world.  Jesus became an occasional treat instead of our regular food.  Over the course of several generations the claim of our Lutheran Confessions and our earliest history and practice has been restored.  Holy Communion is more and more frequent.  That is good.  It happened here when 25 years ago we moved from every other week to every week.  It is a good thing that the weekly Holy Communion has been restored.  Now what is left to be restored is a piety rooted in this blessed table and the body and blood of Christ.

    So do you like lamb?  No, not the lamb as a choice selection off a restaurant menu or even a seasonal offering at the butcher.  I am talking about this Lamb.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  They say that lamb the meat is an acquired taste.  Perhaps it is.  But I know that the taste for the Lamb of God in this Holy Sacrament must be acquired.  It does not come naturally.  The Holy Spirit must plant faith in us to see this bread for what it is – the flesh of the Lamb of God – and this cup for what it is – the blood of the Lamb of God.  The Spirit must help us to, as St. Paul says, discern this presence by faith and learn to desire its gift and yearn for its goodness.  The Spirit must ready us through repentance, confession, and absolution to be fit to receive this body and blood of Christ the Lamb of God.  And the Spirit must work to put this food to good use so that we grow up in maturing of faith and holiness of life before our heavenly Father.  And one day, we will feast upon this food in heaven on high.

    There is a point in the Eucharistic Prayer when the pastor says, “Gather us, we pray, from all the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.”  If you notice, the hands of the pastor move from open wide to drawn us right to the bread and cup in front of him and of us. It is a small reminder that the food of heaven is present here, not the full meal but the foretaste or appetizer.  Soon, however, it will be our main course and our eternal food.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world gives us His flesh as food and His blood as drink, a taste of eternity now until it becomes the food of eternity in the life to come.

    Do you like lamb?  Well, you sing about it every Sunday.  You sang it today already in the first hymn, the hymn of the day, and you will sing it again.  The words of John:  Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world.  In just a few moments you will sing John’s words but not to the God who is out there somewhere.  You will sing it  to the Lamb right now on His throne on this altar, waiting for us to come eat the bread of salvation for which there is no price and to drink the cup of salvation which satisfies our thirst forevermore.  Today we talk about it in the sermon, but in just a few minutes it won’t be talk.  It will be people kneeling, mouths open, and hearts rejoicing.  For the Lamb of God is our real food and our real drink and it will keep us in the covenant of His mercy to the most real of all lives – the one which death cannot end, sin cannot stain, sorrow can not distract, and temptation cannot succumb.  Lord, give us this food always.  Amen.

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