Epiphany 2A (19-01-2020)

In Praise of Messy

“Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (Jn.1:29)

I mentioned last week my time as chaplain at Deakin University, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  One of the stimulating aspects was being approached by students with questions about the faith; usually because, having started to take a more academic approach to their world, they were beginning to wonder about some of their long-held beliefs, particularly those which don’t seem to make much sense in light of their experiences in a modern world.  And if they were not questioning, they were being challenged by other students who were. In addition to on-campus contact, I had an e-ministry with Deakin’s 50,000 distance-education students, i.e. those who studied by correspondence.  I once received an email from one such student up north asking about five beliefs which she had held most of her church going life, but about which she now was having second thoughts.  Right at the top of the list of questions was: “Did Jesus really take our sins upon himself?”

Today’s gospel lesson begins with John the Baptist’s answer to this question:  “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

If the student… let’s call her Mable… was a died-in-the-wool fundamentalist, perhaps this text would have been sufficient to answer her question, but clearly, if she believed without doubt that the Bible was the literal word of God (that was her 2nd question), she wouldn’t have been asking me her questions in the first place.  I needed to do more than simply quote her a ‘proof text’. What do I say to her?

First let’s look at the image of Jesus as the lamb of God.  Why was the image of a lamb chosen for Jesus in the first place? Well, it recalls the ancient Hebrew rite of blood sacrifice in order to have sin forgiven.  This is referenced in Isaiah’s servant songs, where the ‘servant’ in 53:7 is described as “led like a lamb to the slaughter.”  

Not surprisingly this image might be less than clear today, and it probably would cause difficulty to a 21st century mind, even to the extent of undermining one’s faith or interfering in one’s growth in wisdom, commitment and understanding.  We no longer relate to a world in which people offer living sacrifices to deities.  Even the image of a God who demands sacrifice – who demands payment – for sin, rather than one who lavishes love, acceptance and forgiveness as taught by Jesus, makes it a hard sell these days.

So it is easy to understand why Mable had trouble with the belief that Jesus took the sin of the world upon himself. From where I sit, the notion of Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world has long passed its use-by date.  It is not a matter of whether or not it is true; it is simply an image which does not speak to the modern world.  

But does this mean there is no value in the image anymore? To understand the Christ as a manifestation of the servant described by Isaiah who is led like a lamb to the slaughter is, I think, another matter.  Has anyone out there ever slaughtered a lamb (or any other animal)?  _______, would you think it reasonable to do it up here on the communion table?  Why not?  It is messy, right?   We don’t like messy.  God likes messy though. 

“Build a temple,” God said to the Israelites, “a great temple where my name shall dwell.  And take animals into the temple, very small animals like doves and great big animals like bulls, and slaughter them there.  Take their blood and pour it over all the sides of the altar.  This,” said God, “is what I require of you.”  

‘But, God, we don’t like messy!’  Yes, we resist messiness, but to take seriously the image of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb helps return us to the appropriate messiness of the life of the Christian.

By messiness, I mean the reality that the life and death of Jesus was not a neat and clean affair, and furthermore, this is the messiness into which we are called.  To remember Jesus as the lamb of God who was led to the slaughter means that we cannot be obsessed with keeping our worship or our lives secure and neat and tidy.  If we celebrate a God who is with us in every aspect of our messy lives, we sometimes have to get messy, too.  Neat and tidy worship might be comfortable, but we cannot allow worship to become sterile if it is to be at all relevant to our lives and to the rest of the world.  

What do I mean by sterile?  Church researchers have found that one reason many hard-living people give for not going to worship is that they don’t think they have the right clothes to wear. Of course, this research was done in the U.S., where unlike Australia, people still dress up a bit for church.  But when worship is something one has to ‘dress’ for, then that is probably sterile worship.

Ask congregations why they don’t make efforts to reach out to the homeless or those with mental and physical challenges in their community, and they will talk about smells or how uncomfortable it makes them sitting next to someone with, say, Tourette’s syndrome.  This is sterile worship.

Go to the congregations around the nation and try to find children.  We may talk about being church family, but many churches don’t like crying or squirming in this family. Thank God we are not one of them, but then, we are hardly tested in this regard.  I have a friend who attends one of the largest, most famous churches in the U.S.A.; one that other congregations look to as an example a of a successful church, with thousands of worshippers, numerous services on Sunday and a budget that would rival some corporations. She once sent me a copy of their weekly Sunday news sheet, presumably so I would be impressed with all the things that were happening in this church.  Right on the front, in a very visible box in bold print, was the notice, “Thank you for not bringing your children into worship.  They will be cared for in…”   I kid you not!  I have been in congregations where, though this attitude may not have been plastered across their notice sheet, it was evident in the reactions of members of the congregation.  Friends, that is sterile worship.

Ask someone why they didn’t come to church last Sunday and they might tell you, as I’ve been told more than once, “My back was hurting and I didn’t think you would want me to get up and walk around in the middle of the service.”  God forbid!  That is sterile worship.

Sterile.  It not only means clean, it also means lifeless, unable to sustain life.  Is it surprising we live in an age when the church struggles with attendance?  Worship doesn’t seem relevant to people’s real lives, their real messy lives.

Life is messy.  Birth, illness, death and all parts in between are messy.  And God is involved in every one of them.  In fact, Jesus identified himself with those whose lives were, at best, untidy.  We are taught to see him in the outcast, the broken in society, so we need to be careful about inviting Jesus to our worship; it could get messy.  Yes, we need to be especially careful about following such a man, because it could very well involve us in a bloody mess just as it did him.

Nevertheless, life is to be found there with Jesus: to be a lamb with Jesus; a lamb led,  unprotesting, to the slaughter, where to die with him is to discover life with him. 

An open, virtual door to the world