I’ve always felt connected to John the Baptist. Years ago a church I served was doing its spring cleaning and discovered an old, grimy painting stuck away in the choir room. Nobody remembered where it came from or who had given it to the church; you couldn’t make out who had painted the picture or even what it was about. Before putting it in the yard sale someone decided to take it to the local museum and have it appraised. After the grime was cleared away, it turned out to be a portrait of St. John the Baptist by Andrea del Sarto, valued at a shade under a million dollars. The painting was sold to the museum, and the proceeds then funded my ministry, and are probably still funding ministry at that church.
After the portrait was sold, I visited the museum where it was on display. The artist had painted John the Baptist as a young man; and as John is often depicted, the young man is pointing toward a small, illuminated figure in the distance. This figure had been invisible before the painting was cleaned, but now could be seen. John is pointing toward a figure of the Lamb of God, accompanied by triumphal cross and banner, just as he is in our Gospel today.
John is the last and greatest of the prophets, and when he calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” he stands in the prophetic line. Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah wrote about the suffering servant, the “righteous one” who would “make many righteous” (Is. 53:11). As Isaiah put it, “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” (Is. 53:7). Here in the prophecy, we find the first foreshadowing of John’s designating gesture, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jo. 1:29).
What does it mean for Jesus to be the Lamb of God? In the time of the John the Baptist, the lamb was the Passover sacrifice, an offering that reconciled humanity to God. Human sin is what separates us from God: the things we have done and left undone; our secret shame and our public disgrace. We all know this territory no matter what, because we are human beings. But Jesus Christ takes away the sin of the world. His death and resurrection, the cross and empty tomb, restores us to right relationship with God. Jesus Christ is God’s restoring action who transforms us and makes us whole.
This transaction is mysterious: the way in which the sacrifice of Christ brings us into right relationship with God. We receive this gift through faith in him, by the grace of God. We still live with the consequences of human disobedience, with the contradictions of human life, yet we have renewed hope for the future through the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. New life has been given to us in him through Baptism, and we celebrate this new life each time we come to the altar to receive his Body and Blood. Whatever fault lies within us has been overcome as we are made one with Christ.
Our Gospel is also a story of call, and this merits our attention. John not only designates Jesus as the Lamb of God, but he also points him out to the first disciples. “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus” (Jo. 1:37). Andrew goes to fetch his brother, and Jesus invites them to stay with him. Jesus even gives Simon a new name, Peter, a sign of his new relationship with him.
Here’s the application of Jesus’ call: each of us gathered here today is called by God. If we are Jesus’ disciples then we are called to follow him, just as surely as Andrew and Peter. Walking with Jesus will mean exercising our spiritual muscles: being faithful in gathering for worship and attentive in prayer. This is our rehabilitation program. Jesus is the savior, we’re not; but with our spiritual muscles in tone, we are all called to share in his healing ministry towards the world. There are no spectators in the life of faith. All of us need to be on the field.
We are all called to witness to the things that we have seen and heard, and that means sharing with others the new life that we have received. Episcopalians are shy people: we all know that; but that can’t be an excuse for not sharing the light we’ve been given. St. John the Baptist gestured toward Jesus, pointing to the Lamb of God, and that’s part of our calling. We too are called to point to him, and to bring others into his presence. May this Epiphany season be a time in which the light of Christ burns brightly, and the Lamb of God is clearly seen and received, here at Grace Church and throughout the Diocese of Tennessee.