Second Sunday of Epiphany, 19 January 2014, St Mary’s, 11.30am

Reading:  John 1: 29-42

Preacher:  Revd Alan Sykes

In our culture, when we think of lambs, we tend to think of frisky little creatures gambolling in the fields as Spring begins to suggest itself – though I’ve never seen lambs gambolling in these parts unfortunately.

And if we are carnivores, we may think of succulent cuts of meat accompanied by such delicacies as mint sauce or Bisto gravy.

Either way, lambs don’t have a great deal of meaning for us beyond food or the passing of the seasons. But they had a great deal more symbolic meaning to the ancient Jews.

The primary meaning of a lamb for the Jews was to do with the Passover when the Israelites escaped from Egypt. It was the blood of a slain lamb smeared on their doorposts that protected the houses of the Israelites when the Angel of Death killed the first born of the Egyptians. So for them the lamb was associated with escape, freedom from oppression – a form of salvation.

Not only that but in the JerusalemTemple, every morning and evening, a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people. Lambs literally took away their sins.

Now the practice of sacrificing animals in that way is pretty alien to us modern folk. But the sacrifice of animals, the offering of sacrifices of various kinds, was a well nigh universal practice among ancient peoples. The Jews were unique in having come to believe in one God but they were not unique in offering sacrifices.

Given that context it was probably inevitable that Jesus’ followers would come to see Jesus’ death as a sacrifice – as the supreme sacrifice that put an end to all other animal sacrifice.

And the evidence seems to indicate that Jesus too saw his death as a sacrifice on behalf of others – a sacrifice for their sins just as those lambs in the Temple were a sacrifice for sin.

That’s why John the Baptist in our reading from John’s Gospel can call Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And, he might have added, the lamb takes that sin away for good.

The Church has never defined exactly how this sacrifice works in a theological sense, how it takes away sin, why it is effective. But we can see, I think, how – even in our ordinary lives – sacrifice, self-sacrifice, can be a game-changer. It can untangle knots, it can show a way forward, it can bring healing.

The key element here is self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice has an untold capacity to produce good. I think we instinctively know that – whether it’s Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity sacrificing their lives for the poorest of the poor, or whether it’s us performing some small-scale act of kindness, even something as apparently trivial as going out of our way to see someone across the road or opening a door.

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of acts of kindness, They are always in some sense acts of self-sacrifice.

We sense that self-sacrifice effects a change in the dynamics of what is going on. And if our self-sacrifice has such an effect how much more will the self-sacrifice of Christ have an effect – even as far as the forgiveness of sins.

Yet self-sacrifice of itself is not enough.

On Friday evening a suicide bomber in Kabul blew himself up and helped kill 21 people who were having a meal in a restaurant. In a sense you could say that that was an act of self sacrifice. The bomber sacrificed himself, no doubt in the hope that his action would be a game-changer in some way. Perhaps it will be – but not, I would suggest, in any positive way.

The truth is that, to be a positive game-changer, self-sacrifice needs to be motivated by love. Self-sacrifice motivated by anything else can only have a negative effect.

No doubt that suicide-bomber had love for people who hold similar opinions to the ones he held. Perhaps he even had some kind of love for God. But those are not enough. Selective love is not enough. Even love for God, on its own, is not enough.

Only love for God, coupled with love for all people, coupled with love for the whole world, is enough.

The sort of love displayed by Jesus and recognised by John the Baptist.

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