Well, our readings today really move us away from our Epiphany story, don’t they? No more Magi. No more shepherds. No more star. No more Herod. No more dashing from place to place. But it’s still Epiphany, with its theme of “manifestation”, or “showing forth.” So, now our readings turn to passages like this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John that try to identify who Jesus was, and how Jesus was the “Son of God”, and the Messiah.
Now, John’s Gospel, referred to as “The 4th Gospel”, is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. When I was in seminary, which was a long time ago, they stressed that no one was sure who wrote it, or where it was written, or when it was written. But when John Roberts and I were in Turkey, they seemed to know all about John, and talked about him constantly. They knew where John traveled, who his family was, where he wrote. Most of us don’t realize that places like Ephesus and Constantinople (now Istanbul) were big cities, with very large Christian communities – much larger than anything down in Israel. So the feeling is that the Gospel of John was written as a “teaching tool”, probably written in what is now Western Turkey, probably in Ephesus, around 120 a.d., about 90 years after Jesus’ death. And this is why the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the language are so sophisticated, and so stylized. One characteristic that is so obvious is that the writer sees everything in “opposites”; light against dark, good against evil, divine against human, etc. That is Greek thinking that had not yet worked it’s way down into the Holy Land.
So we have the writer of John, up around today’s Turkey, trying to tell the story of Jesus and the events around his life, as he thinks would have happened 100 years earlier. John was not trying to write history. He didn’t know the history. He was trying to explain “why”, not “what”. The writer of Luke and Acts was trying to write history. But the writer of John was “reading back into history”, from a distance of years, and miles, and cultures, and making the “Christ Event” fit into a “divine scheme.” The writer was trying to show God moving in this creation from the beginning of time. He opens his Gospel with “In the beginning was the word…”, paralleling Genesis’ “In the beginning God created.” The writer of John is going all the way back to the beginning of time, and bringing time forward to the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Because for the writer of John, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of a whole new creation where all human sin has been forgiven, and creation starts new.
Well, in today’s reading, we get two very important symbols: “The Lamb of God” and “the Dove.” Let’s take the dove first. According to the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, any bird in the pigeon family was referred to as a “Dove.” They were non-aggressive, peaceful birds, sometime used to symbolize innocence, and sometimes seen as messengers from God. The rode the Holy Wind of God, and could go to the heavens where the divine was. We get Doves all over the place in both the Old and New Testaments. And when Doves appear, it usually means that God is acting. Strangely, they also are often sacrifices to God. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me why they would sacrifice God’s messengers, but that’s what we have.
So, in today’s reading, the Dove represents the “Spirit of God”, or the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Wind, or the Holy Breath of God, which becomes an element of the Trinity. To the writer of John, this Dove descending on Jesus fulfills the prophesy from John the Baptist, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And the Dove descends!
Well, “The Lamb of God” is more complicated. Sheep were very important to the tribal Hebrews. Sheep provided everything they needed to live comfortable lives.
Now there is a language anomaly here that may be important, or may not be. In the ancient tribal Hebrew language, the linguistic gender of all animals was male, except for one. Sheep were feminine. Scholars are never sure how far to go with this. Sheep were seen as gentle and innocent, sometimes with mystical powers like a unicorn. In lore, innocence and mystery always go together. Sheep were defenseless and had to be tended. That’s why they had shepherds. They provided the necessities of life.
BUT, it was the blood of a lamb that was put on the door of the Hebrews at the Passover, prior to the Exodus. A lamb is a young sheep, possibly representing a young virgin. Is the Pascal Lamb that is offered each year intended to represent a virgin? The ancient wandering Hebrews had small kind of “totem poles” that they put at their tents to identify their family connections. Archaeologists have found some of these, and it was not unusual for the 1st female child to be sacrificed and buried under the totem. So, they were practicing child sacrifice. To what degree does that relate to the Passover, and the Pascal Lamb, and the Lamb of God? Archeologists and scholars are working hard to try to figure this all out. Maybe there’s no connection. Maybe it’s just an anomaly, but the “sacrificial lamb” is a very powerful image to the Hebrews. And it becomes a major symbol to Christians after Jesus is crucified. All Biblical scholars will admit that it is really, really important. There’s just agreement on how it all fits together.
So, in today’s reading from John, we get these strange references to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” John is saying that Jesus was the perfect “Pascal Lamb”, the perfection of innocence, gentleness, and mystery. John is saying that the perfect Pascal Lamb has been offered to God on the cross, in the form of Jesus. And the Law of Moses has been fulfilled. All sins have been forgiven. A light now shines in the darkness. This is a new age, a new creation. Creation has started all over again.
And in our Eucharist this morning, in just a few minutes, when I break the bread, I will say, “Christ our Passover is Sacrificed for us.” And you will respond, “Therefore, let us keep the feast” – the feast of the Passover.
January 19, 2020