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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 1/19/2014

The dictionary definition of the word epiphany is a sudden realization or a sudden intuitive leap of understanding.  To put it another way, an epiphany is one of those things that just all of a sudden comes to you or all of a sudden makes sense; the light goes on.  That definition makes today’s gospel from John particularly appropriate during this season when, in the church, we talk about aspects of Jesus identity being revealed.  In some cases these revelations about who Jesus is are largely intuitive, suddenly making sense to us, rather than being based on careful study and analysis and that is pretty much the case today. 

This year the lectionary focuses on Matthew in the gospel readings each week but today we do get this dose of John.  John is a good gospel for Epiphany because one could think of John as being something of a long reflection and meditation on Jesus’ identity.  Keep in mind that John was written 20 or 30 years later than the other gospels, probably between the years 90 and 100, so there had been more time to think about Jesus and what his life and death and resurrection meant; but even with that additional time for reflection there is still an intuitive feel to John; I don’t think anyone would describe the Gospel of John as being logical and systematic, quite the contrary in many cases. 

What John does throughout is to offer images of Jesus.  It’s in John that that you get Jesus as the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd and so forth.  None of those images exactly defines or identifies Jesus, it’s more like John throws them out there as something of a collage with an invitation for us, his readers to think about, to pray about what the images individually and collectively tell us about Jesus’ identity.  The images aren’t meant to be figured out, there isn’t a right answer; instead, we dwell with them.

Part of today’s reading is John’s version of Jesus’ baptism which we celebrated last week.  Twice though, in this account, through the words of John the Baptist, John the Evangelist throws out another image, identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God; the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus as the Lamb of God is an image that is quite familiar to us in large part because we sing those words every week as part of the communion liturgy but also because visually it’s an image that is around, we see it.  We’ve got the lamb in stained glass, it’s on one set of the white paraments, it’s on the purple Lenten paraments, it’s one of the figures around the altar rail, a version of it is on the cover of your bulletin.  It’s familiar, but surprisingly, the phrase actually doesn’t show up very often in the Bible.  Today, on the lips of John the Baptist, it kind of comes out of nowhere, it is something of an epiphany, and I think the two uses of it in this text are about the only ones apart from Revelation which also picks up the imagery with quite a few references to the Lamb who was slain which is also familiar to us from the liturgy.

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; for John’s first readers who would have been part of Christian communities that had formed, they would have been familiar with the concept of animal sacrifice, familiar then with a sacrificial lamb.  With that in the background, what this text then does for us is to provide a glimpse into the early church’s thinking about who Jesus was.  One of the things we know is that from earliest times Jesus’ death was connected to forgiveness of sin.  For us that might seem obvious because it’s what we’ve always been taught, it’s part of Christian doctrine, but it wasn’t necessarily that obvious back then; it’s not the most obvious conclusion one might draw from the death and resurrection of Jesus; it does represent something of an epiphany.  

 The life, death and resurrection of Jesus caused people to think about what they remembered about him and as they did so, it also caused them to think differently about some texts of scripture.  In Isaiah, early Christians found texts that talked about a servant; last week’s first lesson was one of them and so is today’s.  The servant would, among other things restore and gather the people of Israel, establish justice and be a light to the nations.  The servant would also experience suffering, being despised and rejected.  There had always been speculation about who this servant was, about who Isaiah was talking about because in good poetic fashion, Isaiah doesn’t say, but early Christians began to see Jesus in the servant. 

The beauty of it is, these “servant songs” as they are called, do allow for interpretation.  Who Isaiah had in mind at the time it was written might be of interest, but solving that, if we could, still wouldn’t end the conversation.  Other applications and interpretations can be made and that’s what early Christians did.  They experienced an epiphany, a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, as they found Jesus in the servant.

Servant though, doesn’t automatically equal the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But the verbs that are applied to the servant, verbs like gather, restore, raise up, verbs like that indicate that something is wrong, something needs to be fixed and the role of the servant is to fix it.  Broadly speaking, that something wrong is what is called sin and so perhaps, in another intuitive leap, in another epiphany, using imagery that would have made sense to a community familiar with animal sacrifice, John gives us the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world to help us better understand the identity of Jesus.  From there it became and still is a widely used image which is evidence that Christians have always been able to relate to the Lamb and to draw comfort from it.  They might not have known it at first, but the Lamb of God is what they were looking for.

Another feature of John’s gospel is questions.  The way he poses them can be confusing because they are often part of conversations where questions and answers don’t seem to follow logically but if you can get past the confusing dialogue and just separate out the questions, questions asked by Jesus might be thought of as questions addressed directly to each of us; questions posed by other characters might be questions any of us might ask.  Jesus’ question to the two disciples who began to follow him in today’s gospel was “What are you looking for?” and it certainly is one that could be addressed to any of us. 

Obviously it’s a question that has many levels, but in this case, coming from Jesus as he turned to the two who were following him, for us the question is, “When it comes to Jesus, what are we/you looking for?”  Just as the question has many levels, for each of us our answer might have many levels too.  In the text, the disciples didn’t really answer other than to call Jesus “Rabbi” and then to ask another question, but in calling Jesus “Rabbi” they did indicate that they were looking for a teacher.  That’s not a bad answer and for any of us, it might be part of our answer too, but there’s more. 

I can’t answer for all of you, I can only answer for myself, but my guess would be that my answer might also be part of your answer.  High on my list of what I’m looking for when it comes to Jesus, is forgiveness.  I know there’s something wrong; I know that I’m not always the person that God wants me to be both in how I relate to God and how I relate to others; I’m quite frequently not the person I want to be.  I also know that I can’t fix it.  I can try; I can always try and do better, but I know it’s not enough.  I know something is wrong and despite my failure to adequately address what’s wrong, I need to know that I am forgiven, that in God’s eyes I’m OK.  I’m looking for the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world because the sin of the world includes my sin.

The good news for me and for you, is that we have found the Lamb.  Through our own epiphanies, through the epiphanies of many who have gone before us, the Lamb of God has been revealed to us.  Like the first disciples that followed Jesus, we too follow, imperfectly to be sure, still with questions, but we follow the Lamb, the Lamb of God who does take away the sin of the world.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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