Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Lamb for Our Slaughter - Advent Meditation

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, 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 before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
-John 1:29–34

When John the Baptist sees Jesus, this is his declaration: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”

When we hear that, I'm not sure what we imagine. Perhaps it is a description of Jesus's desirability – as attractive as a little lamb? Maybe it's his meekness. “Gentle as a lamb” is a phrase we sometimes hear, and there is a biblical element to it. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” the prophet Isaiah tells us. (Isaiah 53:7) There is something lamb-like in Christ's embodiment of loving one's enemies and turning the other cheek.

Yet John the Baptist is not commenting on Jesus's gentle character. He is lamb-like, for John, in that Jesus came somehow to “take away the sin of the world.” Indeed, Isaiah sounded the same note - “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) The primary way Jesus is like a lamb is not in His silence but in His slaughter.

In the exodus, as Israel is about to be supernaturally delivered from slavery in Egypt, God sends this stream of plagues. The final one, the culmination of that judgment, is to send the angel of death himself our for a reaping of the firstborn sons in Egypt. The story is told in Exodus 12 – God sends this angel, but left to itself its judgment would be indiscriminate. Israel like Egypt is under the curse of sin, and so it's sons would not be spared were justice to run its course. So God has the Israelites take a young, healthy lamb and kill it and paint its lamb on their doors to mark their houses as covered by God.

This image is the foundation of the whole Old Testament sacrificial system. Building upon it, Israel is given this whole structure of sacrifices – for sin and guilt, for thanksgiving and peace. The idea in all of these sacrifices is the same. It isn't that killing a goat or bull somehow actually pays for the evil things we do. God, though, mercifully chooses to consider it as payment.

We cringe, in our comfortable modernity, at the savagery of such a system. Yet we still believe it, deep down in our bones. It's the reason we engage in show trials of figureheads, feeling satisfied when a couple offenders are punished for the crimes of millions. It's the reason, when we wrong someone, our instinctive response is to try to pay them back. It's the reason we make ourselves suffer when we feel guilty – recognizing we cannot undo the past, and so hoping that flagellating ourselves in the present will somehow atone for our sins.

Yet none of these responses can really deal with sin. Scripture recognizes this about the sacrificial system. It wasn't true payment – it was instead representative. It anticipated a work of forgiveness God would perform at some point in the future.

When John calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he is announcing that point as come. That Jesus is the culmination of the sacrifices of God's people. God's way of fulfilling these sacrifices is to sacrifice Himself.

“And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:34) This is John's testimony. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus. God announces His special relationship with this Son. This Son who is also the lamb God gives, whose blood will ultimately allow God's judgment to pass over our sin.

We cannot separate Christ's birth from His death. Yes, Christmas is about more than the cross, but it is never about less than it. God sent Jesus not just to be an example or a messenger. He sent Him to be a sacrifice, God Himself standing in to represent His creation and suffering the judgment they deserved.

O Jesus Christ, our God and Lord,
Begotten of the Father,
O Thou who hast our peace restored,
And the lost sheep dost gather,
Thou Lamb of God, enthroned on high
Behold our need and hear our cry;
Have mercy on us, Jesus!

-Nicolaus Decius, All Glory Be to God on High

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