2023-01-15 Epiphany 2
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
An entire decade ago now, I was going down to the Oxbow post office to pickup the mail. There was the usual round of bills and junk mail. But there was also this blue envelope. Written on it was instructions not to open it but rather to bring it north to the neighbouring town of Carlyle, to a church where the envelope originated. Once there, in front of a church representative, you could open the envelope for your chance to win … an iPad or money off coupons from the local department store! I was completely bewildered and at a loss for words. I could not believe that any Christian church would steep so low as to entice people to attend a worship service just to win prizes! There was no mention of Jesus on the envelope. No mention of the cross. No mention of grace and forgiveness of sins. Not a word about Baptism or Holy Communion. It was just your big chance to win fabulous prizes! Was I looking at a message from a Christian church or a Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes letter?! Ed McMahon wasn’t on the envelope and neither was Jesus!
It was the classic “bait and switch” routine. You are promised or lured by one thing, then given another. Stores do this all the time. They have a sale on items but when you get there, they either have only 1 of the advertised item in stock or they will happily sell you a more expensive version. This scheme was simply implemented in a church. This is the tell tale sign of Consumer-Christianity. But the message of Jesus and Christianity isn’t about earthly electronics or department store discounts. It’s not some fad or advertising gimmick. It’s not about luring people with complimentary coffee or VLTs or rock n’ roll bands and light shows or puppets and clowns!
Rather the timeless 2000 year old message of the Church are found in the words of John the Baptist: “he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what it’s all about folks! The very message of salvation! This is true help for hurting, broken people. This is the message that speaks of God’s amazing grace and love for a sinful world. This is the message of the true Gospel of our Saviour who has come to take away the sin of the world. To replace darkness with light. To replace death with life. To replace sin with virtue. To replace justice with mercy.
But as you know, this is a much harder message to market with business sales pitches because you have to bring up the “sin” word. You have to tell people that they have a problem. You have to tell people that they’ve done wrong and missed the mark of God’s perfection. And as you can imagine, this is unpopular. It’s an unsavoury flavour to our consumeristic palettes. So, instead, what do you get? You get fads and prizes like free technology and gift coupons! So much easier. So much more fun and appealing! But it’s all smoke and mirrors at best. You can’t make being a “poor miserable sinner” more attractive. You can’t dress it up and take it anywhere. You can’t cover it in tinsel and throw some twinkling lights on it. You can’t drown it out with drums and guitars. Like a coffee stain in the carpet that just won’t come out, it’s always there. Oh sure you can try to cover it with an attractive area rug. But eventually your teenagers are going to throw up all over your area rug and when you take it out back to hose it off, oh, there’s that spot. Still there.
A tourist visited a beautiful cathedral in Germany. As he looked at all the beautiful paintings and carvings and gold and ornamentation. As he was staring at the sheer magnitude of it all, he was surprised to see the carved figure of a lamb tucked way up high near the top of the church’s bell tower, relatively out of plain sight. He asked the tour guide why that little lamb was way up there and was told that when the church was being built, a workman fell from a high scaffold. His co-workers rushed down, expecting to find him dead. But to their surprise and joy, he was alive and only slightly injured!
How did he survive? It just so happened that a flock of sheep was passing beneath the tower scaffold at the time, and the worker landed on top of a lamb! The poor lamb broke his fall and was crushed to death, but the man was saved. To commemorate that miraculous dodging of death, one of the artisans carved a lamb on the tower at the exact height from which the workman fell.
And this is the crux of the matter. We all need a lamb – not an iPad! The ancient Israelites at the time of Passover needed a lamb too. They sacrificed it, and painted the lintels of their doors with the lamb’s blood to mark them for salvation. Even though that cute little lambie would die, the people would live. And they would be delivered to the promised land after the mighty Pharaoh was drowned in the sea. And so, in the Divine light of God’s power and salvation, John the Baptist connects the dots for us. He connects them to Jesus who is once and for all the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the lamb that we all need to fall on for He was crushed for our iniquities (Isa 53:5) and died that we may live.
I remember as a confirmation kid reading the comic book Bible. I loved that there were lots of pictures in it as reading requires so much work and concentration. I stumbled across the story of Abraham and Isaac. Up the mountain they went to make a sacrifice, with wood, with a knife and with fire. “Where’s the lamb?” Isaac asks. “God Himself will provide the Lamb”) Abraham responds. These words Abraham believed as he raised up the knife to do the unthinkable – to sacrifice his only son. But the voice of the Angel of God rang out – “Don’t do it!” Over in the nearby trees behind them was a ram, caught in a thicket by it’s horns. God provided the sacrifice. Life for life.
The tricky thing for us city slickers is that we’ve become divorced from the grim reality of life. Walt Disney has taught us that animals are people too. We can barely even tolerate the idea of shooting Bambi in woods! Thank goodness for us that meat now comes from supermarket packaged styrofoam and not from real animals on a farm! Phew! But as your read the scriptures and see the Old Testament system of sacrifice, it really punches O’ Walt Disney right in the mouth! Animals are gonna die – and all of this seems so wretched to us! It’s so gross and disgusting! All this cruelty. The smoke and fire of sacrifice. The burning of flesh. Having to look your sacrifice in the eye and take its life. We shudder at the very thought of it as we sit in our squeaky clean pews, in orderly rows, in our odourless churches. How nice that we have progressed from our primitive roots and obtained a level of Disney approved civility! Yet the words of John the Baptizer remain forever: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The whole sacrificial system: the animals, the temple, the priests and the blood, the sinners - all of it points ahead to Christ Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Why? Because He is a God of love who seeks to be Emmanuel with His creation. He is the loving Father who rejoices and celebrates when sinners repent and come home. He is the One who sheds His blood on the cross for our forgiveness. He is the One who dies in our place – so that death might die. This was for our atonement - literally our at-one-ment with God. Relationship is restored and set right through grace rather than through retribution. The sickness of sin is put in remission and healed. Life reigns where there was only death, and eternal life at that.
A new iPad? Money off coupons in a department store? Rock bands and light shows and free coffee? How ’bout a lamb instead? How about the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world through His cross and resurrection? How about the lamb who was crushed for our iniquities? How about the lamb who welcomes us to His table to taste and see that Lord is good? “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Amen!