It seems oddly fitting that we are dedicating altar bells to the accompaniment of the Gospel reading of John announcing the arrival of the Lamb of God. Actually, there have been a couple of coincidences with the choosing and dedicating of these bells which have indicated a certain movement of the Holy Spirit; I love it when that happens, and you just know that God is smiling.
But to return to the Gospel: John announces, twice, upon seeing Jesus that here is the Lamb of God. He draws attention to the one that he has been talking about all along, the one who is greater than he, who will come to draw all people to God. But only now, seeing Jesus, does he offer this title, this caption or description: the Lamb of God.
The title might refer to the lamb of the Passover: at our Eucharist we say, after the breaking of the bread, “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” The lamb of the Passover was a common meal shared amongst all of the Israelites, hurriedly and ready to go out at a moment’s notice to do God’s will. It was a sacrifice whose blood was daubed on the lintels of the Hebrew houses, so that the final plague of their captivity in Egypt would pass them by. It was a meal shared between neighbours; if a lamb was too much for one family, they were to combine with another. If one couldn’t afford a whole lamb, their neighbour would invite them to supper. It represented community, faithfulness, and freedom; readiness to move on God’s command, protection; God’s watching over God’s people.
We talk, too, about the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Later, long after the first Passover, the lamb of a goat, a kid, would be laden on the Day of Atonement with the sins of the whole community which they would confess and lay on its head; then the goat, the lamb would be driven into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the people: the original scapegoat.
Isaiah (our favourite prophet here at Epiphany) described the suffering servant of God as a lamb: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
Back in Genesis, when Abraham and Isaac have travelled to the summit of Mount Moriah to make sacrifice, Isaac asks his father,
“Yes, my son,” Abraham replied.
“The fire and the wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” and it is sufficient for two of John’s own disciples to leave his side and run after Jesus. One of them, Andrew, will not rest until he has also found his brother and given him the news: “We have found him. The Messiah.” The Lamb of God, the one whom God will provide.
So what does this have to do with bells? The bells are designed, are used to draw our attention to what we are saying, what we are doing, what we are confessing and proclaiming at the altar: that here is the Lamb of God, the one whom God has provided to us for our salvation, our freedom protection, for us to share readily but ready, too, to go out at a moment’s notice to do God’s will in the world. On a weekend when we remember the sacrifice that many made, and especially Martin Luther King, Jr, for freedom and community, the bells remind us that as often as the body of Christ is broken, still there is resurrection, return, restoration.
The bells speak to us of the holiness of the offering, of the grace of God, of the mercy and magnificence of the sacrifice that God has made on our behalf.
Today we have our Annual Meeting. In part, it is a business meeting designed to elect faithful stewards of the church and report on certain designated activities. It is also a chance to reflect on the way in which we, like John’s two disciples, have responded to the news that here is the Lamb of God. Andrew ran and told his brother. They left what they were doing and followed Jesus home, eager to hear from him the word of God. Do we get so excited about the offering which God has made on our behalf that we would drop everything to do God’s will? Do we come to the altar like those prepared for a Passover meal, with our belts tightened and our staff in our hand, ready to run out at a moment’s notice to follow God’s command?
I don’t know about you, but I move a little more slowly than I used to. Still, I wonder, where is that excitement, that irrepressible joy and wonder that drove Andrew home to pick up his brother on the way? Do we have that? Can we find that? Will we share that?
If you ever listen to the nine lessons and carols from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve, the chances are that you’ve heard the strange and wonderful setting of William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb,” by John Tavener. In part, the poem reads,
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild,
He became a little child…
It is extraordinary that John’s disciples would up and leave him at a moment’s notice, just as though they were prepared for a hurried Passover journey, just because he saw Jesus wandering by and said, “Look, there goes the Lamb of God.”
But it is more extraordinary that Jesus would become the Lamb of God, the one whom God provided to be the perfect, sufficient sacrifice; to take away the sins of the world; to protect us from calamity and mark us as the chosen people of God. It is extraordinary that he returns, every day, in every city of the world, to meet us at the altar in the bread and the wine, a meal eaten with our shoes on and our belts fastened, ready to go out into the world and act on the word and the will of God.
That is why the bells ring out. Because it is, truly, extraordinary.