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Benjamin West, Christ Coming Up Out of the Jordan
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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.”
In traditional images of John the Baptist, he is very often pointing to Jesus. This, according to the Gospels, is his role. He is not the one who is to come. He is the one who is to prepare the way. He is not the light. He is the witness to the light. He is a figure poised on the edge of the age of prophecy and the age of fulfillment.
We see them now as cooperating: John the cousin of Jesus leaping in his mother’s womb when Mary visits; John in the wilderness preparing the way for a salvation he would not accomplish; John directing our attention to Jesus; John the point guard, the John Stockton passing the ball of the Kingdom of God to Karl Malone who will slam it into the hoop.
The stories are a little less straightforward than that. In Mark’s Gospel, John knows that someone or something is coming, but not exactly who or when. John baptizes Jesus with a whole crowd, but Jesus’s vision of the Holy Spirit at his baptism appears to be a personal one.
In Matthew’s version, which we heard last week, John knows who Jesus is when he arrives for baptism, and John tries to stop him. “You should baptize me!”
But today, in John’s Gospel, the baptizer acknowledges that he did not know who Jesus was until he, John, saw the Holy Spirit descend on him. And now John understands, looking back on it, that the purpose of his ministry of baptism was to reveal the Son of God.
He specifically identifies Jesus in two ways that are special to John’s Gospel: He calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and he says that Jesus ranks ahead of him because Jesus was before him.
These are both important claims.
Jesus is the Lamb of God. We see later in John’s Gospel that Jesus will call himself the Shepherd. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “great shepherd of the sheep.” Here’s something that makes sense: Jesus is Shepherd, a role God takes on in the Old Testament, especially when the religious and political “shepherds” of the people were failing; and we are the sheep. But here John says that he’s the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
This is an image of sacrifice, not rulership. It calls the people who heard it back to the lamb that was sacrificed and eaten in the Passover, whose blood was painted on the doors of the Israelites to keep them safe from the plague that struck Egypt on the night of their liberation.
Some time later, when Revelation is written, the author will have a vision of Christ as the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world and who comes in glory. In the liturgy we sometimes sing this hymn to the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. And as we prepare to receive the Sacrament we sing “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: Have mercy on us.”
Paul the Apostle calls Christ our Passover, sacrificed for us. “Therefore, let us keep the feast.” The Christian meal, the Eucharist, was a way of re-entering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and sharing his body and blood. But the Passover lamb was not a sacrifice for sin. The lamb wasn’t paying a penalty on behalf of the people. The lamb’s blood served as a sign for protection, and the lamb’s body was food for the journey out of slavery and into freedom. The Lamb doesn’t take away the sins of the world by being punished on our behalf, as some of our brothers and sisters and faith want to emphasize. The Lamb rescues us from the power of sin.
And this gets us to that other thing John says: He ranks ahead of me because he was before me. In this telling, Jesus is not just the person who takes up John’s mantle when John is arrested; he is the eternal Son, existing before the Universe itself, and John sees now that his role was to reveal him. “He didn’t follow me, even though I appeared first, but I followed him,” John says in effect.
These are just gigantic things for John to drop on people. It’s almost like a movie where you spend the first part thinking it’s about a robbery or a murder and it turns into a giant conspiracy. This is a very big story with eternal origins and eternal consequences and John has only one place in it.
So to bring this back to a human level, I imagine that this exchange happens at some emotional cost to John. He is seeing his life’s work in a new light—a grander light, but one that diminishes his place. He starts bequeathing his followers to Jesus right then and there. He points to one more important than him. He invites Christ to shine through him.
It can be hard to do this. A lot of people want to be the hero of the story. Or at least we want to be the protagonist, the main actor. In our work, in our homes, maybe even in our little piece of history. We are tempted to tell stories with ourselves at the center. It’s hard to step aside. Without leaning on too many stereotypes, I get the sense that this is especially hard for my male brothers when it comes to letting our wives or our female coworkers take credit or be the center of attention or admiration. And this is not necessarily because we are bad or fragile, though sometimes we sure are. It’s because we’ve been taught that we have to take responsibility for things, and that means being in the center, being the protagonist. And if someone else is, who are we?
Now I don’t want to turn this remarkable moment in the Gospel into a little moral fable. This story is not telling us to give other people credit we deserve, or to look at our shoes when someone wants to celebrate us. That certainly wasn’t John, who was big and surly and nobody’s wilting wallflower.
But it is a story about letting Jesus be the protagonist. Letting Jesus be the hero. Letting Jesus be the responsible one—the one who takes away the sins of the world, sins we could not remove with all our might. Letting Jesus shine through us. Pointing to Jesus. It was grace that revealed John’s smallness to him. It was grace that showed John not just that he, too, needed a Savior, but that his Savior was now present before him. It was grace for him to see that the Kingdom of God he preached and proclaimed would not be his work, but only that he would add his work to its unveiling, and his voice to its ongoing story.
There is a kind of glorious humility we can experience in the presence of Christ, not because God has made us small but because God has revealed Godself to be much vaster and greater than we knew. I think about this sometimes when I read the Gospel to myself or proclaim it to you here, or when I am handling the holy things on the altar—when the words pierce us in a new way, or when the sacrament touches a wound we were not even aware of. “See, the Lamb of God, who was in the beginning,” we are told throughout the Scriptures and our worship together. And the only answer is the one John’s followers gave: to move, not just with our words but with our lives, to follow. Amen.
God's Work. Our hands.