January 19, 2014, Epiphany 2 – No More Hiding
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“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…
Every week, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we consecrate the bread and the wine, asking the Holy Spirit to transform them into the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And after we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, I break the large host – it’s called the “priest’s host” because it’s the one the priest holds up during the consecration – and I break that host as a symbol of Christ’s death, his body broken for us and shared with us in the Sacrament. And after that we sing the words that John the Baptist called out on the day that Jesus came to him to be baptized, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”
When John called out that the Lamb of God had come, the one who takes away the sin of the world, that was the best news that had been heard in Israel – actually in the whole world – for a long time, in fact, forever. Except we might ask one thing: what does it mean that Jesus takes away the sins of the world? Because from what I can see, more than 2000 years after Jesus came and went, the world is at least as sinful a place now as it ever was. Things were bad back in John’s day, what with King Herod and the Roman occupation and tax collectors and prostitutes and poverty and sickness. But all you have to do is read the Watertown Times in the morning, or turn on the Channel 10 news in the evening, and it’s pretty clear that Jesus hasn’t taken away the sin of the world around here either. Actually, sometimes it seems like the world just keeps getting worse.
We might say that Jesus has only taken away the sins of the people who believe in him – if we didn’t look at ourselves too closely. Because try as we might, there are very few, if any, nights when we can look back on the day that has just gone by and feel entirely satisfied with every thing we did or said or thought, every attitude and action toward our friends and neighbors, every choice that we made. I suspect if I ever do feel completely satisfied with my every action I am either forgetting something or I am setting my standards awfully low. Most of us have been Christians for a number of years now. I have been a Christian my whole life, and a deliberate Christian for 42 years at least, and I have yet to have all my sins taken away.
No, not only did Jesus not make it so that we don’t do bad things anymore, he made it clear that it is pretty much impossible for anyone of us ever to claim be without sin, because he taught that sin was more than just the outward things we do. Sin is first of all a matter of the heart; sin starts with our intentions and our attitudes. Jesus taught: “You’ve heard the commandment “Do not kill.” But I tell you, don’t even hate, don’t even call your brother a fool: if you do those things you are already committing murder in your heart. And you’ve heard the commandment “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you, if you look at another person in order to lust after them you have already committed adultery in your heart.” You thought the commandments were hard to obey? Well, actually they are way harder than you ever realized.
But John didn’t proclaim that Jesus is the one who takes away the sins of the world because Jesus comes and makes us all behave. The truth of what John said, and the truth of what we proclaim every Sunday, is much better, and much more real, than that. Because what Jesus came to do was not to make everyone look righteous and good; he came to make us truly righteous and good. And the first step was to destroy forever the shame that kept us separate from God.
The first consequence of that very first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden, was that they were suddenly filled with shame. They looked at themselves with loathing, and they ran to hide so that no one else could see them. They especially couldn’t bear that God should see them, naked and exposed as they were, and when he came walking in the garden as he did every day they hid from him. The greatest power of sin is to make us ashamed, so that we hide ourselves from the only one who can help us and heal us.
Jesus did something much better than make us behave; he destroyed the power that sin had over us. The shame that lay over the world like a killing frost was lifted forever when God came to live with his people. The condemnation that convicted every single one of us rebellious and weak and selfish people to death was silenced forever when Christ took every sin upon himself and nailed it to the cross. Because he became one of us, because he lived and died among us, because he rose victorious and lives – in the flesh – in the heart of God the Father now and forever – we are free from the power of sin. We can come – we do come – to the Father every week in complete honesty to tell him we have not loved him as we ought to have done; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We come every week to tell the Father we have done the very things we hate, and we have not done the very things we know we should have done. We repent, we turn our hearts back to our Father, and he receives us with open arms, as his beloved children, because the power of sin to separate us from God is broken forever, as Paul wrote:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we never again feel shame, or that we never feel condemned, because I am pretty sure that all of us find ourselves feeling those things at one time or another. Sometimes we have done things that keep coming back to us, things that we said or did that we deeply regret, and we waste days or months or years hiding from God in shame and regret, hating ourselves and nursing our little grudges fearfully instead of bringing it all into the light, making our confession to God, and asking him to begin his work of healing in us. The good news is that those feelings of hopeless shame are a lie, because the only power sin still holds over God’s children is the power to deceive us.
But shame and condemnation have no real substance or power. A long time ago we used to take our children to the Museum of Science and Natural History in St. Louis, and there was a hologram of a T-Rex there. It looked very real and scary; it was life size and its mouth was wide open, of course, showing all its teeth. And you could walk around it and see it from every angle. But if you reached out to touch it your hand went right through – there wasn’t anything there, really. The lie of shame is like that T-Rex. Because Jesus came into the world, because he lived and died and rose again with us and for us, sin and death no longer have any power to destroy us, but they can and they do deceive us into forgetting the joy and peace that belong to us in Jesus Christ. They can – and too often they do – trick us into running and hiding from the one who loves us best and from the very one who stands ready to forgive and heal us as soon as we turn to him.
Sometimes shame seems to have its mouth wide open to devour us. But the truth is that we can come honestly before God, that we can bring our faults and our unkindness and our selfishness and our bitterness before him, without shame. We never need to fear that God will be shocked or disgusted with us. That is well worth repeating to ourselves: we never need to fear that God will be shocked or disgusted with us. He will never condemn us – not because he has decided to look the other way, like a permissive parent who doesn’t really care, but because he loves us so much that he has pledged his very life to make us well and whole and completely clean.
The amazing good news that John proclaimed is that we don’t ever again have to run and hide from God. Jesus – the Lamb of God – has taken away the power of sin to shame us or condemn us. And day by day, as we live in his company, as we are nourished by his word and Sacrament, as we are restored and forgiven in his mercy, and as his Spirit makes his home in our hearts to teach and guide us, he is transforming us, growing us up, until we, and the people and the broken creation around us, are finally healed and whole and good as he created us to be. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He took our shame upon himself, so that neither shame nor condemnation would never again have power over us.