Saturday, January 21, 2017

Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Psalm 40:1-12

Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism by John.  Today we hear John the Baptist preaching to new crowds.  Now  John testifies to what he saw and heard at jesus’ baptism, but instead of just repeating this is the Son of God, he now names Jesus the Lamb of God.  A new name, what does this mean to the people he is telling Jesus’ story to? 

When we hear the “Lamb of God” (and when the people heard John use this term), they must have been reminded of the story of Abraham and his son Isaac—the story of the sacrificial Lamb.  You will remember that in this story from Genesis,  God comes to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering.  Abraham and Isaac go to the appointed place on the mountain.  When they arrive, Isaac asks his father, where is the lamb for a burnt offering.  And Abraham reassures his son,  “the Lord will provide”.  As Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son, and angel comes and stops him, and they find the ram caught in a thicket—the ram for the burnt offering. 

This story reminds us that God is calling for our commitment, calling us to obey and offer the most cherished things we have—even our children.  Maybe most importantly, offering up ourselves to God.  Abraham offered himself, trusting in God and ascending the mountain to give his son to God.  In this relationship, of complete obedience, absolute trust—God acts and provides the burnt offering—the ram.   

We should hear in this story that the ram is the offering of praise to God.  The ram’s death is not the point of the story—the point is that by roasting the lamb on the altar, Abraham is honoring God.  The lamb, standing in place of his son is symbolically the most precious offering that he can make.   The ram is chosen by God as the offering, but it is Abraham’s obedience that makes this acceptable.

So when John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God” he is reminding his hearers that this person is both the one who has given himself over completely to God.  He has offered himself in absolute obedience.  And he is chosen by God as the most precious offering.   

When we hear the “Lamb of God”, we might have questions about exactly what that means.  Is this the Lamb who belongs to God?  Is this the Lamb who comes from God?  Is this the Lamb who is given to God?  The meaning are layered--we can understand this image from all of these perspectives. 

When John’s followers heard him refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God, they would have had this sense of the most precious offering, a sense of themselves in a deep relationship of obedience and trust with God and a sense that in this person, Jesus, God is to be glorified in new ways.  Just as the ram caught in the thicket symbolized the most profound relationship between Abraham and God,  so Jesus symbolizes the most profound relationship between John and his followers and God.

So in this profound relationship with God, John’s followers recognize Jesus—the one anointed by the Holy Spirit, the one who is the Lamb of God.  And they respond by following him.  “’Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” 

What does it mean to be a follower of the Lamb of God?  We know from many passages of the bible what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Jesus sent his disciples out to teach and to preach, to heal and convey God’s forgiveness.  We don’t forget these examples of what it means to be a follower.  And today our Hebrew Bible reading from Isaiah gives us another lesson about what it means to be a servant of God. 
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

And when the prophet doubts himself and his capacity to be a servant,  God responds:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

God has called Isaiah, Abraham, John and his followers and all of us to be in relationship with God.  A relationship of profound trust and obedience.  But it is not a passive relationship of waiting and obeying—it is an active relationship of serving.  And not serving in small ways, but in big ways that matter—“raise up the tribes of Jacob”,  “restore the survivors of Israel.”  Use our mouths like a sharp sword, be like a polished arrow.  God has called his servants to bring about a new regime, one in which all of God’s people will prosper.  He remembers that the rulers have oppressed and persecuted the people, and he calls for a restoration of the people of Israel who have been exiled.  He is calling for his servant to bring about a new freedom, a freedom that is God’s salvation.  God demands that we speak out, and act decisively to do God’s will.  This is what it means to be a follower of the Lamb of God.  This is what it means to be a servant.  God calls for his servant, not just to do this emancipatory work, the work for raising up the tribes, restoring the survivors—but he says,  “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Today when I hear this call to be a servant, and to be a light, I am mindful that tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  I think of how Martin Luther King Jr. understood his call to restore the survivors of Israel.  Martin Luther King preached and organized and marched on behalf of African American women and men who had been oppressed by racially defined systems protected by laws that kept people of color as second class.  His mouth was a sword, he acted like a polished arrow.  

Martin Luther King spoke on behalf of the descendants of slaves who had been brought to this country as property to be used for the benefit of white landowners and industrialists.  These slaves, like the slaves in Egypt had been freed from slavery, but were not yet restored as God’s people.  In the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. was working for racial justice, Jim Crow laws were still pervasive—keeping black people at the back of the bus, in segregated public restrooms, schools and jobs.  While African Americans have not been slaves since the Emancipation proclamation, they were certainly not “raised up as tribes of Jacob” or “restored” as God had commanded.  And so Martin Luther King understood that as a follower of Jesus he was called to work for true emancipation.  And he understood that he needed to work in the public realm, serving as a light to the nations, that God’s salvation was for all people and will reach to the ends of the earth.

When we hear this call today to be a servant, what will it mean for us to restore the tribes of Jacob and be a light to the nations?  Who are the tribes of Jacob who must be defended and raised up.  What freedoms are still incomplete?  Who are the survivors of Israel who must be restored?

As I look at our world, I am thinking about people who suffer oppression here in the United States.  The poor people in our communities who don’t have access to good food, good education, good health care.  Immigrants, people of color and women who have some rights, but are still lagging behind white men in terms of economic opportunities and status in our society.  While we have individual examples of true freedom, individuals who are “lights” to our nation—leaders who are people of color and women, immigrant families who have prospered, LGBTQ individuals who have become powerful government leaders, business leaders, church leaders. . .   These individual cases belie the reality that God’s salvation has not come to everyone to the ends of the earth.  The statistics are real:

“In 2015, female full-time workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent. Women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every single occupation for which there is sufficient earnings data for both men and women to calculate an earnings ratio. In middle-skill occupations, workers in jobs mainly done by women earn only 66 percent of workers in jobs mainly done by men”. –
See more at the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research: http://www.iwpr.org/initiatives/pay-equity-and-discrimination#sthash.n6eDV9lt.dpuf


In middle to upper wage jobs, black people and Hispanics made from 68 to 74% of white people’s wages.  (http://www.epi.org/files/2016/wage-inequality-2015.pdf) Black people are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites:  1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.“ (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/)

The LGBT community earns as little as $0.68 for every dollar that a heterosexual man earns, even when qualifications are equal or even greater for the LGBT worker. (http://brandongaille.com/37-shocking-lgbt-discrimination-statistics/)
As these statistics show, there is so much work to do to bring God’s freedom to God’s people. 

So as we prepare to celebrate this MLK Jr. holiday, let us prepare ourselves to follow the Lamb of God.  Let’ us put ourselves in a relationship of commitment to God, servanthood and praise.  Let us hear God’s words to Abraham,  promising to provide the lamb for burnt offering, let us hear God’s words to Isaiah calling him to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel.  Let us follow our Messiah, the Lamb of God as generations of the faithful have done.  Let us serve like Martin Luther King Jr., working for emancipation of those who are imprisoned by systemic discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.  Let us be what God has called us to be a light to the nations, bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.

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