Sermon: Second Sunday of Epiphany, 19 January 2020, St John the Divine

Readings: Isaiah 49.1-7; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
Preacher: Revd Neil Summers

In John’s Gospel, seeing and beholding are central and recurring themes.  In today’s passage, we have two examples.  First, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and says, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.  But the more traditional language says, Behold the Lamb of God’, which, for me, carries a much richer meaning.  To ‘behold’ is to see with complete attention, to encounter something remarkable.  To behold is not merely to ‘look’; it is to see with the whole of ourselves – our sight, certainly, but also our wider senses.  And then second, when the disciples ask Jesus where he is staying, he invites them to ‘come and see’.

For the Jews, the title ‘Lamb of God’ carries a whole history of powerful symbolic meaning.  When we read the story of the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, towards freedom in the Promised Land, we read of the unblemished, sacrificial lamb, whose blood was smeared on the doorposts and lintels of Jewish households as a sign of God’s liberating power.  It was a sign that God had chosen to enter into the history of the Jews in a very specific and decisive way, marking them out as a ‘chosen people’.

Now the Jews believed no one could look upon the face of God and live. But now John the Baptist calls people to behold – to look upon – the one who becomes the liberator and Saviour God had promised; he is, indeed, nothing less than God in their midst.  We mirror this beholding every time we celebrate the Eucharist.  As the sacramental bread and the chalice are raised at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are called to behold, with all our attention, this exposition, this presence, of God.  If you come to SJD on a Tuesday evening at 6.30pm, the sacrament is the focus of our silent contemplation, as it is placed on the Lady Chapel altar, prior to the celebration of the Eucharist at 7.00pm.  Behold the lamb of God.  And if you look up at the triptych, you also behold, in the very centre, an artistic representation of the lamb of God.

There’s a passage in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell which describes the heroine, Dora, entering the National Gallery. It’s a passage that seems to suggest the nature of what it is to behold something deep within ourselves, and Murdoch captures the nature of revelation.  It’s quite a lengthy passage, so here’s an edited extract, not exactly short itself, but worth spending a bit of time on, I think.

Dora had been to the National Gallery a thousand times; the pictures were almost as familiar as her own face. Passing between them now, as through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending upon her. She wandered for a little, watching with compassion the poor visitors armed with guidebooks who were peering anxiously at the masterpieces. Dora didn’t need to peer. She could look, as one can, at last, when one knows a great thing very well, confronting it with a dignity that it has itself conferred. She felt that the pictures belonged to her and felt the presence of something welcoming and responding to her. She marvelled with a kind of gratitude that they were still here. And her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. The pictures were something real and outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones. It occurred to her that here was something real, something perfect… She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears. Dora looked anxiously about, wondering if anyone had noticed her transports. She found she was alone in the room. She took a last look at the painting, still smiling, as one might smile in a temple, favoured, encouraged and loved. Then she turned and began to leave the building.

To behold something deeply and to feel set free by it – favoured, encouraged and loved. Contrast that sort of ‘beholding’ with mere ‘browsing’, or the scrum there can be at popular major exhibitions, where you can get swept along at full contemplation speed (about 30 seconds per image!) through the galleries.  Distanced from the work by crowds and ropes, you may listen to your audio guide on the merits of the (usually deceased) artist, and soon you will be decanted into the bazaar of postcards, calendars, key rings, mouse pads and scarves, and, finally, with your souvenirs, head for home like visitors departing from a site of pilgrimage. 

What is important is the manner of our absorption, rather than the extent of our consumption.  Ever since I did an introduction to mindfulness course last year, I have been struck by the importance of trying to create space to behold.  It’s not easy.  What I am trying to express is the need – all our need – to give time and space. This is not just about looking at pictures, it is about creating time to see again; to see with all our senses.

Quite often, people come into this church, for a moment, maybe longer, just to be still and, for that moment, fully present.  They might light a candle or utter a tentative prayer.  For some of them, though probably not all, it is space to give attention to God’s presence.   I don’t think we can talk God into existence, but we can give generous attention to the God who is.  God, discovered in the attention we give to the lives of others and to the world we live in… to hear and see with the ears and eyes of the heart.  Beholding means becoming aware, allowing space for the divine presence with us, for our rhythm to be restored, a stillness, a simplicity, a window opening up and light flooding in.

Look at John the Baptist in our Gospel today. He makes space for the one he beholds. He does not try to convince or explain. In fact, as soon as he sees Jesus, he himself gets out of the way: ‘Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’ John opens himself to the one who comes.  He really sees. He is suddenly aware of the blessing of God breaking into the world.  How appropriate we read this passage in Epiphany, this season of revelation and manifestation.  John sees the heavens opened as he baptises Jesus, and the Spirit descending like a dove. There is a brave humility in his recognition, but John does not cling onto this blessing, or attempt to seize, control or manipulate it for himself as a mark of his own authority or power.  He makes space for God in his midst.  Here is an example to each one of us and to the Church. This blessing of God is for all to behold; it is not the possession of the institution to dispense.

How then do we respond? John lets go. He opens his hands. He responds to Jesus with a generosity which mirrors God’s own grace. He tells his own band of disciples to ‘behold the lamb of God’.  He points towards Christ and allows them now to follow him. ‘Where are you staying?’ they ask Jesus. ‘Come and see,’ Jesus replies. Come and see – the presence of the one who makes his home in our midst. The invitation is to become the ones who behold for ourselves Christ’s presence.  

So how about that for a New Year’s resolution?  Not merely to look, but to seek to behold.  We look for the keys or the glasses we’ve lost.  But we seek to behold the meaning of life.  The two activities are not the same.  A key part of the Christian take on seeking after a meaningful life is to behold Christ in one another; to behold his presence in our own lives; to create times of space, simplicity and silence… to ‘behold the lamb of God’  – not only in church or in the Eucharist.  To follow Jesus is not simply to accept a body of doctrine, or participate in the liturgy of the sacrament, though both have their important place.  But it is to try, with a proper humility, to share his life, and allow that life to transform us.

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