Second Sunday of Epiphany, 19 January 2020
Picture Salisbury Cathedral Nativity installation, detail
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading John 1: 29–42
We are, it is said, a nation of animal lovers. It’s odd then that, while the English language has a few animal-inspired compliments - wise owl, busy bee – it has many more animal-based insults: chicken, dog, fox, gannet, louse, poodle, rat, shark, toad, vulture, weasel…exchange some more over coffee after the service.
Today John the Baptist calls Jesus a lamb, which doesn’t fit either category: it’s not an insult but (to our ears) it doesn’t exactly convey respect either. Adults use it of children, or of other adults who are in a spot of bother: ‘Poor lamb!’
John’s lamb, though, takes away the sin of the world. Think for a moment of the sin of the world – all the fear, the rejection, the betrayal, all the hurt. Can one person take all that away? And how can such a person be like this small, woolly creature, loveable but fragile, even a bit pathetic? William Blake wrote a poem in which a child asks a lamb a question, ‘Little Lamb, who made thee?’ and answers it:
…Little Lamb, I'll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child.
I love that poem, spoken or sung (as it was by our choir last week) to John Tavener’s setting. But does it sugar-coat Jesus? As if to redress the balance, the Church Advertising Network ran a pre-Easter poster campaign some years ago, showing Jesus as a Che Guavara figure. Slogan: Meek. Mild. As If.
The first people to hear John’s gospel would not have had this problem. When they heard ‘lamb’ they would remember those slaughtered in the Temple at Jerusalem until its destruction in AD70, and the lamb on every Jewish table at the Passover meal. So when John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, 'Lamb of God’, those words would speak not of saccharine but sacrifice.
And sacrifice is something we know about. It is something we do. In the birthday present, the flowers at a funeral, the (decent) bottle of wine taken to a party, the nicely cooked meal, you take something that has cost you money or time or care, and you give it to someone to say what words alone cannot fully express: thank you; I'm sorry; I forgive you; congratulations; you are my friend.
It is a way of demonstrating that the other person matters, and belongs in the same world as you, and that you are glad that they do. You need to do this when the bonds of belonging have got damaged – and keep doing it when the bonds are strong. Every good gift is a sacrifice, and sacrifice is a way of making communion between one person and another.
This is what God strives to do, to make communion with us, to demonstrate that we matter, that we belong, that we are loved. But because we are so scared of belonging to one another or to God, we need a really creative gift. So it is that God's own life is given to us. It is lived among us, and it suffers the things that break the bonds of belonging: the fear, the hurt, the rejection, the betrayal. That is the gift – the sacrifice – God makes in Jesus.
And to make the sacrifice complete, Jesus is slaughtered like the lambs in the Temple, put to death by those very things that break communion. Out of that he creates an unbreakable communion between God and humanity. Jesus takes away the sin of the world not by some grand act of abolition but by drawing people into a life in which sin loses its sting.
Embracing that life takes a bit of sacrifice from us in turn. It means giving time to be in church week by week, even when it is inconvenient or you don't fancy it; giving space in my head to be addressed (in the Bible readings and the sermon) and space in my heart to embrace not just my own needs but yours too, and those of the world (we do that in the prayers of intercession). It means taking the risk of letting myself be less tight-fisted, more open-handed (which is where the collection comes in). All this is what we call ‘the sacrifice of praise’ – our tiny response to that sacrifice God has already made for us.
We are drawn most deeply into the communion Jesus creates when – as this morning – we break bread together in Holy Communion where, in the giving and receiving of a meal, we take his life into ours.
And then we leave. We go back into whatever the world holds, where (it is widely agreed) the bonds of belonging are not what they should be. You hear that everywhere, from pulpits to the Labour Party leadership campaign.
Now, when the bonds between two people have been damaged, the sacrifice that might mend things may not be easy to make but you can probably picture it. But what about mending the bonds between communities and nations? We tend to think then not of sacrifice but, more modestly, of compromise: you give a bit and I give a bit and we hope to meet in the middle because we both see it is the sensible thing to do. The spirit of compromise is an underrated virtue, but sometimes it is not enough.
In two weeks, negotiations begin on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. That will be an exercise in compromise: give away the bits you value least; then concede a bit more if you have to, until you reach the non-negotiables, what we might call the Meat Loaf zone, when you say (in the words of the legendary rock vocalist) ‘I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that’.
Then, in November, other talks begin, in Glasgow. This is COP 26, the UN climate conference. Many delegates will go there with compromise in mind, ready to give a little – perhaps a little more than a little, if they really have to. But you can’t negotiate with the weather, so what if it is now too late for mere compromise? What if the thing that’s now needed is sacrifice: governments – which means societies, people – being ready to give away some of what they value most, partly for their own sake but also to demonstrate that the others matter, and belong in the same world, even if they are far away or not yet born?
How can the spirit of sacrifice be scaled up from the personal to the national, then the planetary level. I don’t know. Christian Aid is launching a chain of prayer from now until Glasgow, and that is a good place to start. We should pray especially for Claire Perry, former MP in our diocese, who is to chair the conference.
Societies can find the spirit of sacrifice in time of war, when a major motive is fear, and fear is certainly one thing we should feel. If fear gets millions acting and urging governments to act, then good. But fear can be a fickle, destructive thing. Much better to act out of another emotion too. As Sr Julienne says in Call the Midwife, there are only two reasons for ever doing anything: one is fear, the other is love.
In a few minutes we shall pray to the Lamb of God for mercy and peace. As we do, let us pray to be shown how to overcome the things that breach that peace and break the bonds of belonging, what John calls ‘the sin of the world’. For we are in the presence of the one who takes that sin away.