A friend recently drew my attention to this article in the February 2005 Minneapolis Roman Catholic Charismatic Renewal Newsletter. It was originally a homily preached by Fr Al Backmann, of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Columbia Heights, Minnesota. Great preaching!!!
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist says, “Look, there is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” And everybody looked.
Now that phrase is familiar to us, but can you imagine what those people must have thought when John said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” We hear that phrase all of the time, but for those people it must have been somewhat shocking. Here John was referring to Jesus as a lamb, as an animal. John didn’t say, “Look, here comes the son of Mary and Joseph,” or “Look, here comes Jesus, the Son of God.” Instead he says, “Look, here comes the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
I would like to share with you some background about the term “Lamb of God.” In the Second Book of Samuel, Nathan tells a story to David. He says there are two men who are citizens of the same town. One was rich and powerful; the other was very poor. The rich man had a large flock of sheep, more than he could even count; the poor man had only one – one tiny lamb.
But the poor man’s children loved that one little lamb; they played with it all day long, and they even brought it to the table to share their food with the lamb. Nathan says they even taught the lamb to drink from a cup. The lamb was like a member of the family. One day an important visitor came along to the rich man’s house. The rich man didn’t want to kill his own lamb to feed the guest, so he sent his servants to the poor man’s house and took his lamb and slaughtered it to feed the guest. That’s all in the book of Samuel. It’s a marvellous story.
The moving story of the rich man’s cruelty is one of the images John the Baptist had in mind when he said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.” Nathan’s story of the poor man’s pet lamb fits Jesus. Jesus too was deeply loved; Jesus too was cruelly slain.
There was another image in John’s mind when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.” That is the image of the lambs that were sacrificed in the Temple, the lambs that were daily sacrificial offerings. They were the same sacrifices that God told Moses in the Book of Exodus were, every day for all time, to be sacrificed on the altar: two one-year-old, unblemished lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening. And these daily sacrifices were kept all through the years. When John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” he had in mind the sacrificial lambs that were offered in the morning and in the evening. In effect what John was saying to his disciples is, “We offer lambs daily in the temple for our sins, but ‘this lamb’ is the only one who can save us from sin.”
Now long before John the Baptist, the prophets spoke of a mysterious servant of God who would some day suffer and die like a lamb. That was 600 years before Christ. Chapter 53 of Isaiah says, “..He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly. Like a lamb about to be slaughtered, he never said a word.” He was arrested and sentenced so that all sins would die. He was put to death for the sins of all people.
In the book of Jeremiah it says, “I was like a trusting lamb taken out to be killed. I did not know it was against me that they were planning evil things.” And so the Lamb of God has these two vivid images: The first one, about Nathan’s story of the rich man and the poor man – and the second one, about the temple and the suffering servant of God.
Now I want to relate the image that has the most importance for us, and yet most of us are not aware of it. It is in the Book of Revelation. Do you know the words “Lamb of God” are used 28 times in the Book of Revelation? Sometimes it is about love and affection – sometimes it is about suffering and sacrifice. Those were the two early images. But there is a third image that I want to talk about that is most important for us, and that image is of “Glory and Triumph.” Chapter 5 in the Book of Revelation is a good example of where the author describes his vision of a lamb on a throne, and the lamb is surrounded by people who were singing and praising the lamb with this song, “You were killed and by your blood you ransomed all people for God from every tribe, and language, and people and nation.” People are around the throne. He is called the Lamb of God. And they are singing to the Lamb of God. And they are singing what we sing.
You know, the reason we call the Mass a sacrifice is because of the “Lamb of God.” The Lamb of God was sacrificed. So when people ask if the Mass is a sacrifice or a banquet meal, the answer is “it is both.” It is a sacrifice because of the Lamb of God. He died for us. But we forget that the better theology and the fuller theology is that he rose! And the fuller theology of the Eucharist is to celebrate. But we were taught only the other one. We weren’t taught much about this tremendous celebration of the Lamb of God who rose. And it says right in the Scriptures, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever! And all the people said, Amen.”
That is in the book of Revelation, but we seem to emphasize more the penitential nature of sacrifice. So people have a tendency, even today, when receiving the Eucharist to omit the other side of sacrifice, the celebration. This is the time to ‘let loose’ from the revelation. Do you know that those words we sing, “Through him, with him, and in him,” are about the same as in Revelation? And then we all respond, “Amen!” That is called the “great Amen.” Amen means “we believe.” And that should always be our response to the doxology—through him, with him and in him. And they all said, “Amen.”
The title “Lamb of God” then, has three images. Suffering and sacrifice – affection and love – glory and praise. Now there are many titles for Jesus: light of the world – the good shepherd – the bread of life, but only one time in the Mass is He the Lamb of God. That’s what we share in the Eucharist. Yes, it is a sacrifice, but don’t leave it there. He rose! We have the book of Revelation, and so we celebrate. It says, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and praise.” And every creature on earth, and under the earth, and in the sea said, “Amen.”
So don’t lose track of the dual meaning. When we say, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” that is the sacrifice part; “Happy are those who are called to his supper” is the banquet part of the Eucharist.
Consider the words, “who takes away the sins of the world.” Christ died for our sins. It was the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross that removed our sins. On the cross, God piled all of human sinfulness on his only begotten son, in the image of the Lamb, weak and vulnerable. It took only a handful of soldiers and a few sharp nails to kill him. And yet, at the very moment that humankind dumped its worst sin on God by killing the very Son of God, God met that sin with the overpowering spirit of His love.
There is only one power in the universe that is more powerful than sin, and that is God’s power and determination to forgive. In the end, John tells us in the Book of Revelation that, when all of the world’s sin has been removed for all eternity, there stands one solitary victor in the midst of the throne room of God – and that is “the Lamb, Jesus Christ.” In the end, it is the Lamb who is victorious – worthy of glory and honour and praise. And we are reminded of this every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We hold the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and gaze upon the elements and say those memorable words, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” And all the people say, “Amen.”