This Sunday we mark an abrupt transition in the life of Jesus. Last week we heard of his baptism by John in the Jordan, and next week we'll be off an running with Jesus taking up the mantle of John after the latter's arrest. This week, not much happens except John points to Jesus and identifies him as the Lamb of God:
The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’... 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.
By identifying Jesus as "the Lamb of God," John echoes the story of the Exodus, in which the blood of the Passover lamb was used to mark the doors of the Israelites, warding off the avenging angel of God, as well as the "Servant Hymn" of Isaiah. It is not a common image for Jesus in the other Gospel accounts, or in Paul's letters, but it bounces back at the very end, in the imagery of Revelation.
This particular way of addressing Jesus--"Lamb of God"--was compelling enough to early Christians that it found its way into the liturgy of Holy Communion, becoming part of the Roman Rite (from which our Lutheran liturgy mostly derives) in the 7th century and even earlier in the Eastern churches:
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world
In some liturgies the theme continues to what we would call the invitation to Communion, when the presiding minister, holding up the consecrated elements, says: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are they who are called to his table." Just as Jesus's life was sacrificed to save the world on the cross, we participate in and join ourselves to his sacrifice when we eat and drink and offer up our prayers and thanksgiving in remembrance of him.
The Lamb is an image of sacrifice, but its connection to forgiving or removing sin is not straightforward. The worship of the Temple had sacrifices for sin; the Passover lamb was not a sin-offering but something else, more like a sign of protection to ward away danger. It's not an image of Jesus paying a penalty for our sins on our behalf, but of Jesus's death protecting and covering us. His death conquers and thwarts death. He is "the Lamb who is slain from the foundation of the world," as Revelation said, but who in the end will reign over heaven and earth.
It's not an easy passage to work with, and a quick search of my files suggests I've never preached on this week's readings before (in fifteen years of regular preaching I haven't missed too many Sundays of our three-year lectionary cycle but this appeas to be one of them). But it's always good to listen for those words that have spoken profoundly to the centuries of Christians who came before us. If they are strange or confusing to us, but are yet preserved in this way, there is probably a good reason for that. It means something to me that both the Word of God, which sets Christ before us in the stories of his life and ministry, and the Sacrament, which makes Christ present to us in a real way under the forms of bread and wine, say to us "Behold the Lamb of God." Look here, see this one, who lives and dies for you!
More on this passage from Sherri Brown at Workingpreacher.org:
The tension sparked by the word of Jesus creates dramatic interactions through dialogue that actively moves his story forward toward its fulfillment on the cross that glorifies both God and the Son and produces a new community of God’s children who have received the Word. Just as the festival of Pentecost celebrates the revelation of God in the Sinai covenant, now Jesus, Christ and Son of God as the Son of Man, reveals God to all he encounters. He shares in the divinity of God, yet he has taken on the human condition completely: Jesus is the uniquely begotten Son of God who fulfills God’s earlier gift of the Law to Moses through the new gift of himself in truth. He is the Lamb of God who heals the broken, sinful relationship between God and humankind (thereby completing the role of the Torah), and the Son of Man who reveals God in the human story by challenging disciples and audiences of all time to “come and see” (John 1:39).
Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas, TX seeks a full-time Youth and Family Minister who will encourage the faith development of children, youth, and their families. This role will supervise Sunday school, confirmation, and youth programs, engage lay leaders, and help include children and families in the life of the congregation. The job description is available below. Send inquiries and resumés to Pastor Ben Dueholm (email@example.com.)
Christ Lutheran Church is a vibrant congregation dedicated to worship, learning, and service to the community. Strong candidates will demonstrative leadership, creativity, and a passion for the faith and work of the church and its youth.
There's a lot going on in the readings this coming Sunday. The Gospel passage depicts the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan river:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’
The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer is recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only Matthew records John's attempted refusal. In fact, in the other versions of the story, it doesn't seem that anyone in the crowd (including John) knows who Jesus is until after the baptism happens. But here John has been granted special knowledge of Jesus and demurs, saying--correctly!--that he, John, is the one who should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus gives an interesting reply: "it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus needs no repentance or forgiveness of sins, but he submits to the baptism of John so that no sign of righteousness may be lacking in him. This is a theme in Jesus's life. While sometimes carelessly depicted as a renegade or rebel, Jesus in the Gospels is very often patient and accommodating. As an infant he is circumcised according to the Law of Moses and is presented in the Temple with the customary sacrifice (Luke 2:21-40). He argues over the meaning of the Sabbath laws, but he never rejects them. He leads a (maybe violent!) protest at the Temple to drive away merchants who profit by the sacrifices but doesn't tell anyone to boycott it.
For Jesus, whom we confess to have been without sin and in need of no grace, every such ritual action is a sign to illuminate us. Orthodox Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus on what we call Epiphany but that they more often call "Theophany," a manifestation of God. Jesus submits to baptism in order to be revealed. The one who stretched the oceans submits to being washed in the river. He humbles himself, in other words, and in doing so makes himself visible to the eyes of faith.
The story from Acts takes place years later, after Jesus has ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit has come to lead the disciples out into the world. Peter has been led to the home of a Gentile soldier, Cornelius, and the Spirit provokes him to say something dramatic:
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.
This is an important moment. We find it easy to imagine that Jesus was explicitly "inclusive" of Gentiles in his preaching and ministry, but in fact his movement was at the beginning a group within the Jewish nation. It was not obvious to anyone that the Gospel was intended to reach Gentiles nor the Church to include them. Only later, as the apostles and their communities reflected on the real existence of Gentile believers, was the universal reach and meaning of Jesus's teaching and work apparent.
That's how I take it, anyway. The meeting of Peter and Cornelius is a powerful moment. Cornelius is an "insider" in the Roman imperial system, a soldier and (presumably) citizen in the power that dominates the people and land in and around Israel. Yet he is an "outsider" with respect to the promises of God through Moses and the Prophets, which were sent specifically to the people of Israel. Peter, on the other hand, is an "outsider" in the Roman system (tradition holds that he was crucified, as only non-citizens could be), a Jewish man in a Gentile empire that did whatever it pleased with him and his people. Yet he was an "insider" with respect to the promises of God.
This doubleness--both of them inside and outside, in opposite ways--means that Peter is realizing something even as he preaches good news to Cornelius and his household. Peter understands that God has already been at work outside of the boundaries of the covenant (and the church!) and his definition of his own community shifts.
This Sunday is a time especially suited to remembering and renewing our baptismal vows and promises. So at the end of the sermon we'll be doing that, reaffirming the promises we made (or that were made on our behalf) at our baptism and being reminded of the promises God attaches to that baptism: forgiveness of sins, union with the Body of Christ, and eternal life. This involves being splashed with water from the baptismal font, so be advised: we're all going to get a little wet. And it's a good time to remember that through this sacrament we are joined to all kinds of people in a new creation that transcends every nation, language, time, and place.
This Sunday, after a few weeks of angels and shepherds and even wise men, we'll finally hear the vast and yet simple opening to the Gospel according to John. You can read the whole passage here, but for now I'll just take a look at this bit:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This is a key verse for understanding pretty much the entirety of Christian belief and practice. The first part of the chapter is beautiful and stirring, but there was nothing especially controversial in the ancient pagan world about the idea of a divine Word being at one with God and going forth to create everything that exists. It's even been said that this part of John's Gospel borrows from a much older "Hymn to Zeus" by a poet associated with the philosophical school known as Stoicism. Time was I could have talked about this with at least a little knowledge, but my ancient philosophy is pretty rusty these days.
Suffice it to say that things get much more controversial and significant when John gets to that line about the Word becoming flesh. That was the big claim that made the philosophers hesitate when it came to this new religion. A divine Word carrying out the creative work of God is one thing; that Word becoming flesh, becoming human and living--and being crucified!--among us is another matter. It seemed impossible, not to mention absurd, that the creative power of God should be humbled to earthly existence like that. And yet without that claim, I don't know what Christianity would have become--maybe nothing more than a disappointed Messianic cult that died out as its hopes of vindication within history gradually failed.
Through centuries, and still today, we have to continually hold to this claim against all kinds of skepticism. There were arguments about how exactly the Word and human flesh were connected: was Jesus just an appearance of humanity, or was the Word inside his body, like an astronaut in a space suit? Does it mean that he became the Son of God at some point in his life, such as at his baptism? Or is it really just a way of saying Jesus was especially enlightened and knowledgeable about the Word of God?
The church answered those questions over the years: no, Jesus was not merely apparently human but was really fully human; no, the divine Word wasn't inside him like a parasite in a host, but was truly one with his human flesh; no, Jesus didn't suddenly turn into the Son of God and he wasn't just an especially enlightened or knowing individual. We come back over and over again to the insistence that the eternal, perfect, immortal Word of God was made human flesh and connected God and humanity forever. This insistence changes everything. We aren't just spirits trapped in human bodies. We aren't supposed to be indifferent to our own bodies or the bodies of others. Our frail, mortal, temporary human flesh became the dwelling of God the Word--the Greek word we hear as "lived among us" could be more literally translated as "pitched his tent among us"--and so even our weakness and our suffering and our hindrances are taken up into the absolute holiness of God.
For more on this topic, you might want to take a look at a central piece of the argument over the meaning of these words, a treatise by Athanasius of Alexandria called On the Incarnation of the Word.
The season of Christmas as observed in American retail and popular culture, which starts shortly after Halloween, for the most part ended on December 26. If you've been dodging "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," your airwaves and grocery stores are now safely free of it.
But Christmas in church is not over yet. We will continue using the Christmas prayers, music, and white paraments this coming Sunday for the Second Sunday of Christmas. And in still another sense, the celebration of Christmas doesn't come to a real end until the festival of the Presentation of Our Lord on February 2, forty days after the birth of Jesus when, as the Gospel according to Luke records, Jesus was presented in the Temple and a man named Simeon pronounced his famous song to the Christ child:
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
In Sunday School this week, and again on January 19, we'll take a look at the full season of Christmas in worship and in the Scriptures. It's a season in which the full meaning of the coming of Christ starts to become known and declared. The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, killed by Herod, are remembered as witnesses to the Jesus who barely escaped their fate. Jesus is circumcised and named on the eighth day of his life, in accordance with the Law, so we'll look at the power and significance of the Holy Name. The magi, or "wise men" (though they were not necessarily men and perhaps not especially wise), come from Gentile lands to bring tribute, so we'll talk about the significance of Jesus becoming known to the nations of the world. We'll discuss the story of his baptism by John in the Jordan (celebrated in church on January 12 with a renewal of our own baptismal vows and promises), and finally come around to that day in the Temple when Jesus, not two months old, shows forth salvation to an old man who has been waiting for it.
It's a beautiful season with powerful Biblical stories and a rich tradition of worship practices that we'll explore together. Join us on January 5 and 19 at 10 a.m. in the upstairs classroom!
The liturgical celebration of the birth of Christ (the Christ Mass, from which we get the term 'Christmas') is rightly cherished as one of the high points of the year in church. We hear the famous nativity story from Luke 2 and sing some of the most beloved hymns in our whole tradition. We offer up our gifts along with our prayers and praises, and the Word becomes flesh again for us on God's altar.
It can be a challenge for preachers to find a surprising or even just worthwhile word to proclaim underneath all of this hallowed tradition. The hymns can do so much of the theological work:
Hail! the heaven-born Prince of peace!
This year I'm introducing a Eucharistic Prayer to the liturgy that also aims at expressing the breadth and depth of the event:
But, above all, you are forever to be adored:
The proper posture, both for the preacher and hearer, is awe and wonder rather than curiosity or mere sentimentality. Heaven and earth joined and mingled; angels addressing shepherds, shepherds addressing God in human form; glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill.
A few years ago I wrote a column about Christmas for a (now defunct) newspaper:
For those of us who share — or try to share — Athanasius’s faith in the Incarnation of the Word, the world on Christmas Day can look like a highly charged place. If God’s action is not remote and distant, or localized in a special place, but abroad in the universe through the mysterious union of God and humanity, the whole crazy, kitschy apparatus of Christmas becomes a little easier to appreciate. When we gather around our Nativity scenes with our Norwegian-looking Jesuses and when we consecrate and break and share little pieces of bread that bear the presence of Christ, I remember that the Word did not become beautiful. It became flesh and pitched its tent among us.
I also wrote about one of my favorite Christmas songs ("Sweet Little Jesus Boy") and the Luke nativity story for the same newspaper:
Perhaps the most striking refrain in the whole song is the line on which it ends: “We didn’t know it was you.” The standard manger scene is a busy one, with shepherds and wise men, angels and animals all paying their respects. But again Luke’s Gospel is much more spare. It’s only from Matthew that we hear about all of Jerusalem in an uproar, a prominent star and traveling wise men. The only audience for the newborn Jesus, in Luke’s account, is a group of shepherds directed to the manger by the momentary appearance of the heavenly host. Jesus was very much hidden from the world at the time of his birth, revealed only to a divinely favored group of peasants and his unwed mother.
Many years on Christmas Eve I've started with a poem, since poetry is better suited to the majesty of the night than most prose. Kay Ryan's "Pinhole" is one of my favorites:
It is a busy season, and I hope for everyone reading this a joyous one. But whatever is good and fulfilling or harsh and wanting in your life right now, I hope you will take a few hours to pause and worship on Christmas Eve.
The High School youth, Confirmation youth and young adult alumni will join together for a unique experience at Camp SOTO in Arkansas from January 17, 5 PM - January 20, 6 PM. The High School youth will be teaching the Confirmation youth about the youth program and how they can keep it thriving for years to come. The cost is $200 (scholarships available) and registration is now open below. Once registered, the packing list and further information will be sent out. Please email Kylie Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions.
The following form must be filled out and submitted to the church office or emailed to Kyle at Kmauer@clcdallas.org
With all due respect to Mark Lowry, the writer of the popular Christmas song "Mary Did You Know," it appears that Mary did, in fact, know. The mother of Jesus is seen in some powerful moments in Luke's Gospel, one of which we'll hear in worship this Sunday. Called "the Magnificat" for the first word of its Latin version, Mary's song (Luke 1:46-55) has become probably the most widely arranged, recited, and sung passage in all of Scripture:
And Mary said,
This song is chanted and sung by the church throughout the world every day at Vespers (Evening Prayer), and each year in Advent we hear it on a Sunday. It echoes the thrilling notes of the Old Testament (especially the song of Hannah) and anticipates the unfolding story of salvation through the life and ministry of Jesus. When Jesus says, in our Gospel passage this Sunday, "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me," it starts with hearing the words of an otherwise not very important or prominent girl from Nazareth who devoted her own body to the incarnation of God and the salvation of the world. Here's a 16th-century setting by Palestrina:
And here's a huge. majestic setting by J.S. Bach from the 18th century:
And here's a personal favorite--an intimate setting by my friend and sometime editor Steve Thorngate. There is something authentic about the use of a country-music style to voice the words of a provincial girl who has been moved to the very center of the universe:
God's Work. Our hands.
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