June 7, 2020

Homily for Second Sunday after Epiphany

Jacopo-del-Sellaio-XX-St-John-the-Baptist-1485-XX-Museum-of-Fine-Arts-Budapest

St. John the Baptist, Jacopo del Sellaio

John Testifies to Jesus
A sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, 2014

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

– John 1:29-34

“Thus, John unfolds for us here on the lips of John the Baptist a whole christology.” (R.E. Brown)

* * *

Today’s Gospel text is the second of three texts, presented as three speeches and actions of John the Baptist that took place over three days:

  • 1:19-23 – John testifies about himself.
  • 1:24-29 – John testifies about Jesus.
  • 1:30-42 – John sends his disciples to follow Jesus.

Thus, the Gospel transitions from the one who “was not the light” but who came to “testify to the light” (1:8). From here on, the story will focus intently on Jesus.

In this testimony, John the Baptist first points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. In his commentary on John, Raymond Brown points out three possible referents for Jesus as the Lamb.

First, in Jewish apocalyptic literature, the Lamb is a conquering King who destroys the world’s evil. This is reflected in other Johannine texts such as Revelation 17:14 – “…they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

As we read in the Gospels, John the Baptist proclaimed coming judgment and linked it with the One who would come after him. This vision of the conquering Lamb could well have been on his mind when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” If this is at least part of what he meant, then for Jesus to “take away the sin of the world” would include the destruction of evil at the putting right of the world.

Second, in Isaiah’s prophecies, YHWH’s Servant is the one who is led like a lamb to the slaughter, taking the sins of the people upon himself (Isa. 53). John’s Gospel does make connection between Jesus and that particular Servant Song in Isaiah (see John 12:38). “Lamb” would then point to Jesus as the suffering Servant.

Third, John may be referring to Jesus as the paschal (Passover) Lamb. The Fourth Gospel is well known for its Passover symbolism. Brown lists some of the most prominent:

  • Jesus was condemned at the moment the priests began slaying the paschal lambs (19:14).
  • Jesus was offered a drink on hyssop, the plant used to spread the doors of the Israelites with the lambs’ blood at the first Passover (19:29).
  • John 19:36 makes special mention that none of Jesus’ bones were broken, a reference to a requirement for the paschal lamb.

In other Johannine literature such as Revelation, the conquering Lamb mentioned earlier is specifically the Lamb who was slain, whose blood provides a ransom, to whom the Song of Moses is sung, and who provided living waters for his people (see Rev. 5:6, 15:3, 7:17, 22:1, 5:9).

In worship, as we come forward to take communion each week, we sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, grant us peace.” We, like John the Baptist’s first disciples, take our cue from his testimony. Pointed to Jesus, we rise and go to him.

Secondly, in his testimony John the Baptist points to Jesus as the preeminent One. He does this by insisting that Jesus existed before him and thus holds a higher rank than the Baptist.

It may be that this reflects, as do other passages in John and elsewhere, that some of the followers of John the Baptist had become sectarian and considered themselves his disciples rather than Jesus’. The Fourth Gospel strongly emphasizes that John had to decrease and Jesus had to increase, and that John encouraged or even sent his disciples to follow Jesus and not him. He was not the light; he testified to the true light.

This may also have to do with the situation of the community out of which this Gospel was written. Traditionally, the apostle John is linked with the church at Ephesus. Acts 19 shows us that John had a strong group of disciples when Paul journeyed there and that under his ministry they were baptized into Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the issue of following John the Baptist vs. following Jesus remained a live issue when the Gospel was composed.

The point is clear: only Jesus is central, primary, and worthy of ultimate allegiance. This story remains a constant reminder that other loyalties are secondary. Church history and contemporary Christianity is littered with examples of people who confuse other agendas with following Jesus alone.

baptism

The Baptism (detail), Piero della Francesca

Third, John the Baptist points to Jesus as the one anointed by the Spirit, the Son of God. John’s baptism of Jesus is not directly mentioned here; John only highlights one aspect of the event. He testifies that God had revealed to him how he would recognize the Messiah — he would be the one upon whom the Spirit descended and rested. And so it came to pass.

John took this to mean what all the Gospel witness: Jesus is the Son of God, that is the Messiah, the anointed King for whom Israel waited (see, for example, Psalm 2). Isaiah also pointed to him as the one who would possess the Spirit (Isa. 11:2). As the Gospel proceeds, we will hear Jesus talk more and more about the Spirit, because he is not only the one upon whom the Spirit rests, but the one who will baptize others with the Spirit. In particular, in the Upper Room Discourses of John 13-17, Jesus talks to the disciples about his going away and sending “another Paraclete” to be with them and in them forever.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is the mark of God’s creative work. From “the beginning” when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of chaos, to the days of John when the Spirit came down upon the waters of the Jordan at Jesus’ baptism, to the baptismal font, where the Holy Spirit creates new life and identity for each believer, from beginning to end God’s salvation comes to pass through the Spirit’s work. From creation to new creation, he brings life and health and peace to God’s people by uniting us with Jesus.

In these dark and cold days of winter, may our hearts be warmed and strengthened by the ongoing nourishment of feeding upon Jesus: Lamb of God, preeminent one, possessor and bestower of the Spirit.

Comments

  1. I assume the apocalyptic text referenced by Brown is the Testament of Joseph, in which the conquering lamb is mentioned in chapter 19. I am failing to find an origin of this writing; it appears most scholars agree that “Christian interpolations” were applied to these text in the second century and later. The text preserved by the Arminian Orthodox church in particular contains many Christian interpolations. It would be amazing if the conquering lamb allusion could be traced back to pre-Christian literature, but that appears to be inconclusive.

  2. And all God’s people said, “Amen!”

  3. I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.

    Why didn’t John know him? Weren’t they cousins?

  4. Excellent homily. It is always great to take a fresh look at familiar passages. Thanks for mining the depths so well with this presentation.