SERMON: Mary Had A Perfect Little Lamb
SCRIPTURE: JOHN 1:29-37
DATE: March 22, 2015
This morning I want us to think about this question, “Mary did you know that your Baby Boy is Heaven’s perfect Lamb?”
“How do you tell somebody about Jesus who has no relationship with Him?” That was the first question that the professor asked in my first preaching class in seminary. He went on to say that the art of good preaching lies in the ability to do just that, “Tell people about Jesus who have no relationship with Him, because the majority of the people to whom you preach in the course of your ministry will not have a real relationship with Jesus Christ. They will know about Him, but they will not really know Him.” That statement has remained with me down through the years. It has at times both challenged and discouraged me. And I think perhaps that’s the essence of the question that we have been pondering as we have moved through this Lenten season. Mary, did you know Jesus or like many of us, did you just know about Him? Because there are a couple of indications in scripture that even though Jesus was her son, in some ways at least she didn’t really know Him. The first occurred when Jesus was a twelve year old boy. Joseph and Mary and Jesus travel with a large party on a pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. And when they are a day into their journey back home, they discover that Jesus is missing. So they rush back to Jerusalem, panicked as any parent would be, and they find Him in the Temple, and when Jesus notes the panic in their faces and voices, He says, in essence, “Mother, don’t you know me? Don’t you know that I would be about my Father’s business?” And then there was a time, early in His ministry, when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and saying some things that apparently troubled some of the Jews, and so they say, “we’re going to tell your mother what you are saying.” And so they do and Mary comes to the synagogue to talk with Him and when Jesus is told His mother is outside and wants to talk with Him, Jesus says: “Who is my mother?” You see, I think based on the evidence of scripture, that the question “Mary Did You Know that your Son was all these things?” implies a second question “Mary did you just know ABOUT all these things?” especially when it is asked at the foot of the Cross. Because when confronted with the Cross, it seems to me, doubts can creep in about what we know as opposed to what we thought we knew. And so I thought about that as I read this passage from John’s gospel. In it, John the Baptist makes a rather amazing statement. He (who was the forerunner for the Messiah) says: “I did not know Him; accept that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came Baptizing with water.” In fact, he says, the only way he knew Him to be the one to Baptize was because God had told him to watch for the one upon whom the dove descended. John’s words reveal someone struggling to really know Jesus. Even though he was the one who was chosen to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, and even though he knew the prophecies, and even though he was his own cousin and had probably heard the story from his mother dozens of times of how he leaped in the womb when Mary came to visit, and even though he had seen the promised sign from God, he is confessing that he really did not know Jesus. He struggled to understand who he really was. And he really didn’t have a great deal of time to get to know him. Once Jesus was baptized the Gospels disagree somewhat on what happened next. Matthew and Mark say He went into the wilderness. John says he began the task of assembling His disciples. But one thing they agree on is that John the Baptist plays very little role after that. In fact, most of what we see of John is in this struggle to know Jesus. Here in this encounter and then later when he is imprisoned and sends disciples to ask if Jesus is really the Messiah, or he asks “should we be looking for another?” John is struggling to know Him. He had been pretty sure when Jesus came for Baptism, but then Jesus just didn’t act like he expected the Messiah to act and so he started to wonder whether he really knew what he knew. Sometimes when we experience difficult times in our faith experience we begin to wonder if we really know what we know. Just like us, John has to work hard to understand his relationship with Jesus. Well I wonder if Mary is struggling with the same kind of questions at the foot of the Cross. The questions of the song, take on a different tone when asked at the foot of the cross rather than at the manger of Bethlehem. They take on more of a past tense reflection of one facing death rather than the excitement and anticipation of a life to be led that surrounds the birth of a baby. The foot of the cross is a moment of truth. Mary did you know that your baby boy was the Lord of all creation, the deliverer, the sacrificial lamb. Because if you had known that, you would have known that the cross was inevitable. You can’t be Heaven’s perfect lamb, apart from the sacrificial altar.
And so what the Gospel describes here, I think, is John’s moment of truth. His foot of the cross moment. It was the day after the Baptism and John was with his own disciples when they saw Jesus approach. “We saw you Baptize that man, yesterday,” they might have said. “It caused quite a stir. Who is He?” How do you share Jesus with somebody who has no relationship with Him at all? Especially when you’re not sure about your own relationship with Him. The easy thing, of course, would have been to say that’s the Messiah, the one the prophets told about, the one I’ve been preaching about. But was He really. On the day after, John wasn’t so sure. He didn’t look like the Messiah. He didn’t look like one who could take on the Roman army and the religious establishment and prevail. The great king in the line of David. Or He could have used other terms. Terms that Jesus would later use to describe himself. Words like Good Shepherd, or Son of God or Son of Man. Words that would indicate His closeness and His Lordship. Or he could have described Him as the door or the way, indicating the path of righteousness that John himself had been proclaiming. The path of repentance. Or He could have said He was the Word fulfilled, as John the Gospel writer would later understand Him. He could have used any of those terms, and He would have been right. He was the Messiah. He was the Good Shepherd, The Way, The Son of God, The Son of Man, The Word become flesh. We have come to know Jesus as all of those and more. But that was not how John understood him. Dr. White, my preaching professor asked, “How do you tell somebody about Jesus who has no relationship with Him?” It is the fundamental question at the heart of preaching and sharing Christ. “It is really quite simple,” the professor continued. “You start with your own experience as a believer. Talk about your own relationship with Jesus and what that means to you. Only after that can you begin to speak about theologies and doctrines of the church.”
When Jesus came up out of Jordan and the dove descended, John did not see Him as Messiah, or King, or eternal word. He saw him in a completely different light. He saw Him as the lamb of God. “Behold, the lamb of God” he tells his disciples. It seems like such an odd way to know Jesus. Especially here at the beginning of his ministry. In the telling of Christ’s story we’d much rather contemplate the joy and miracle of the manger than the pain and horror of the cross. And yet John comes to know Christ for who He will be. The Lamb of God. Of all of the images that we have of Christ, I suspect that this one, when completely understood, is the hardest one for us to embrace. Because the lamb was the symbol of sacrifice. As prescribed in Exodus two unblemished or perfect lambs were sacrificed every day in the temple. Day after day, year after year, two lambs were led to slaughter. In many periods of their history, the lambs had become metaphors for the people of Israel. Weak and helpless, systematically led to slaughter. “Behold the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” That’s fine, but what about the Messiah. What about the King that the prophets had promised? It’s hard to embrace a Messiah who just turns out to be another sacrificial lamb. Israel’s history was filled with sacrificial lambs. But the difference was that the Jesus John came to know was not just another sacrificial lamb, He was the last sacrificial lamb. The priests sacrificed two lambs, one every morning and one every evening, to seek atonement, forgiveness, for the sinfulness of Israel. But John says of Jesus, “Behold the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” The lambs were offered in the temple to atone for the sins that had been committed, but the Lamb of God would save us all from all our sins, those that had been and those that will be. Now we are so far removed from the temple and the sacrifices that were made there, we don’t understand the vividness of that image for the First century church. We prefer our religious experiences to be neat and clean. We take great care to make sure that the sanctuary is neat and clean when we come to worship. When we take communion, we’re careful not to spill juice on the carpet. When we baptize, we concern ourselves with just using enough water to get the job done. We wear our nice clothes to church. We do all that we can to make worship a pleasant experience. We are careful to make sure everything is in place and sometimes we get unduly concerned if things seem out of place. And in such a sterile environment, we have lost some of the vividness of John’s understanding of Jesus as the lamb of God. Because the truth is that the altar of the Temple was one of the bloodiest, messiest places on earth. The priests kept incense burning constantly in the Temple, in part to cover the stench of blood and burning carcasses. To make an aroma that was pleasing to God. We are reluctant to bring the messiness of our lives into God’s house because we don’t want to mess it up. But when John first saw Jesus coming, he saw anything but a neat and clean Christ. He saw the sacrificial lamb whose blood would be poured out over the altar of the temple to take away our sins and spread above our doorposts to indicate His continued presence in the messy and even tragic times of our lives. Mark Flynn writes: To remember and glorify that sacrifice made for us means we cannot become obsessed with keeping worship neat and tidy. If we celebrate a God who is with us in every aspect of our messy lives, we sometimes have to get messy too. Neat and tidy worship might be comfortable, but we cannot allow our worship to become sterile. Because our life is often messy, so will our faith be. And we do not need a Messiah who comes only in the neat and clean times of our lives, we need the lamb of God whose blood covers us when things gets messy and God seems so distant. John knew Jesus as the lamb of sacrifice. Behold the lamb who takes away your sins. Behold the lamb who steps into the messiness of your world. Behold the lamb, who challenges His disciples to do the same. To move beyond the neatness and sterility of our worship and our faith and encounter a world in need of the atoning blood of Christ.
Mary did you know that the little lamb that you bathed and wrapped in swaddling clothes and nursed and cradled would one day be God’s lamb, Heaven’s lamb, beaten and bloody and naked, dying as the sacrifice for the sins of all humanity?
In just a short time, John understood Jesus in that way. The Messiah he had proclaimed was the Lamb of God. The one whom God himself brought to the Temple to be the unblemished, the perfect, sacrificial lamb. John understood Him in that way because that’s what he needed him to be. He was facing days of diminishing importance and influence. “He must increase and I must decrease,” he would say. He came to proclaim and Baptize Jesus, and he had done it well. Now it is Christ’s turn. It was time for John to retire. The preacher at the service in which I was ordained was a retired Bishop and I can remember him saying that he had fought retirement with every fiber of his being but then he said to those of us who were being ordained that night, “I’ve had my turn, now it’s your turn.” “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” is the way Paul described it. “And now there is in store for me a crown of righteousness.” In those moments of life, Behold the lamb, who comes not to replace but to restore, who comes bearing the crown for those who serve Him well. For John, the coming of the Lamb was not the end, but the fulfillment of a job well done. The Lamb is brought so that our lives may be filled, especially when we feel the most empty.
And certainly John would face days of isolation and loneliness. His disciples would leave him. The crowds would follow Jesus rather than Him. He would end up spending his last days in Herod’s prison. Alone. And in those days there must have been some moments of doubt. Are you really the one, or should we look for another? Do I really know what I know? Our faith can become cloudy in times of doubt and fear. But, behold the Iamb, who also would know the pain of His disciples turning away, the times of isolation and imprisonment, an agonizing death. Behold the lamb, who did not come to always lift us out of those times in our lives, but who came to share them with us. The sacrificial lamb who would die, not for himself, but for us. Behold the ordinary lamb who would turn even the most ordinary moments of our lives into those most extraordinary through His presence with us.
Behold the Lamb who pays the price to make our ordinary lives, our ordinary times, even our ordinary faith, something quite extraordinary. Behold Mary’s perfect Lamb. Mary do you really know what you know?
Long before John the Baptist understood Jesus as the Lamb of God, the prophet Nathan told King David, the shepherd King, a story about a poor man’s lamb.
Once there were two men who lived in the same town. One of the men was rich and powerful. He had many riches and many large flocks of sheep. In fact, he had so many sheep that he could not count them all. The other man, however, was very poor. He had only one tiny lamb. But everyone loved the poor man’s lamb. His children played with it all day long. They brought it to the dinner table at night to share what little food they had. They even taught the tiny little Iamb to drink from a cup. They treated it like a member of the family.
One day a traveler came to town and stopped at the home of the rich man. But the rich man did not want to kill one of his own lambs to feed such an insignificant wanderer, and so he sent his servants to the house of the poor man. And they killed the poor man’s lamb and prepared it and served it to the traveler. 2 Samuel 12:1-7
And when Nathan finishes, David thinks he knows what he knows. “Nathan who is this terrible man who killed the poor man’s lamb. I will find him and make him pay with his life for what he did unless he repays the poor man four times over for not having any pity on him.” “Oh David, you don’t know what you think you know. Because if you did, you would know that you are that rich man.”
Nathan told that story in condemnation of King David’s sin with Bathsheba, but surely it also foretells what would happen to the Lamb of God, deeply loved by Mary, but cruelly slain by those who were the so called “rich” men” of faith. The Lamb of God who paid the price to take away the sins of every traveler through this earthly life, even you and me.
I wonder if as Mary stood at the foot of the Cross, watching her son suffer and die, she looked at those scribes and pharisees and the Roman soldiers that had put Him on that cross with anger. I wonder if she thought, “they are the ones who ought to be dying instead of Him.” But Mary didn’t you know that your Baby Boy was Heaven’s Perfect Lamb? Don’t you know that He is on that Cross in the place of those scribes and pharisees and soldiers and Herod and Pilate and John the Baptist and Peter and Judas and, oh yes, He’s there in your place too Mary. And your place too church. And my place too.
Behold Mary’s perfect Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Mary did you know what you thought you knew?