19 January 2020; Second Sunday after Epiphany; Epiphany 2A (RCL); Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42.
This is really the first narrative unit of John’s Gospel. Everything up to now has been prologue. This unit sets up what we can expect from John’s narrative. The first words spoken by a character in the narrative belong to John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” This is already stunning.
Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find a lamb sacrifice that takes away sin. There are burnt oxen as sin offerings for the priesthood, and lambs in fulfillment of vows. Of course, the most familiar lamb offering is the passover lamb, but that doesn’t take away sin. The real sin offering is the goat driven into the wilderness (alive) on the Great Day of Atonement. John (the evangelist) is inventing a whole new category here, on the lips of John the Baptist.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation (as opposed to the day of the feast), at the very hour the passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. So John (the evangelist) has connected the taking away of sin to the passover lamb, and that to Jesus.
The second time John the Baptist says, “Behold, the lamb of God,” two of his disciples hear him, and follow Jesus. Jesus turns to the two and says, “What do you seek?” These are the first words on the Jesus’ lips, so we should pay close attention. What are the readers of the Gospel seeking? John, of course, is writing his Gospel in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, and the confusion in Jewish identity in its wake. So, we are seeking what replaces the Temple, the contact point between the divine and created orders.
The two disciples reply, “Rabbi, where do you remain?” The verb ‘to remain’ (meno) occurs five times in these verses, and many, many times in the John’s Gospel (I remain in the father, etc.). Where does God remain, in the absence of the Temple? Jesus replies to their question, “Come and see.” We are being invited into the Gospel. Whenever John’s Jesus shifts his dialog from second person singular to second person plural, Jesus has turned and is speaking to us, the readers of the Gospel.
Of course, John’s Gospel ends (almost) with Jesus breathing on the disciples and telling them, “Receive holy spirit. The sins of whoever you forgive are forgiven them. The sins of whoever you retain are retained to them.” The Christian community, which eats the flesh of the Son of Man (the paschal lamb) and drinks his blood, has replaced the Great Day of Atonement.
The passage from Isaiah shows the sift of the vocation of the Servant from bringing Israel (the Northern tribes) back from exile to being a light to the nations. It is easy to see why early Christians fastened on the figure of the Servant as a lens for interpreting the crucified Jesus. For John, the Christian community has become the light to the nations, the locus of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What does it mean these days to be a light to the nations?