Sermon for the baptism of Robin, preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In art and iconography, John the Baptist is often pictured pointing. Other saints get depicted with symbols of their life or death: Peter jangles keys; Paul wields a sword or a book; poor roasted Laurence carries his gridiron; Mary Magdalene proffers ointment. But with John it’s often his finger that draws our attention – not to him, but beyond him, to the one to whom he points: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This is what we see happen in today’s Gospel reading. We, readers and hearers of John’s Gospel, know more at this stage than the first disciples. They haven’t had the benefit of hearing the Prologue to the Gospel read at Midnight Mass; they don’t yet know that the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was God is Jesus. But John knows that Jesus is the one to whom he is to point; the one he has been preparing for; the one he points out to his own disciples who promptly leave him to follow Jesus.
Behold the Lamb of God. And in this acclamation John both tells us something important about who Jesus is, and encapsulates the life of discipleship. In Judaism, the Lamb of God would make you think of the Passover, of the sacrificial lamb whose blood saved Israel from death. It would make you think of the yearly observance of this festival, with its command to take a lamb without blemish, and of the sacrificial system more generally, through which the people’s relationship with God was restored. It would bring to mind the prophecy of Isaiah, of the Suffering Servant of God who would be led like a lamb to the slaughter. And it would recall the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and Abraham’s faith that the Lord would provide a lamb.
So to acclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God says that he is the one whose sacrifice will save people from sin and death. This is the sacrifice that will end all sacrifices, for Jesus is the true, sinless lamb without blemish, God himself offering his life for his people. Yet this is not a picture of Jesus simply as victim, but as victor. His sacrifice means that there is nothing any longer that can separate us from God. Through him, the power of sin and death is overcome. When Jesus is killed it looks like sin and death have won: they have crucified the Lord of life. But on the third day, Jesus rises again, and through his resurrection the way to life stands open to all who follow him. That’s why in Revelation, when the bible gives us yet further images of the Lamb of God, we see the Lamb before the throne in heaven, worthy of all worship.
Behold the Lamb of God. John says it and his disciples follow Jesus. For this is not simply a statement of faith but an invitation. Our whole lives are given over to learning what it means to behold this Lamb. ‘What are you looking for?’ Jesus asks John’s disciples. Those are his first words in John’s Gospel, and to hear them is to hear them addressed to us, too.
What are you looking for? Those first disciples had already followed John and responded to his call to repent. They were people who were searching – for holiness, for renewal, for hope for themselves and for Israel. And John’s pointing finger directs them to Jesus: he is the one for whom they are looking. He is the one who will bring holiness and new life and hope – though they won’t understand how, not yet.
What are you looking for? Notice that Jesus’ question doesn’t go to our intellect but to our desires. What is it that you work so hard for? That your restless heart desires? What is it that you hope for, or hardly dare hope for? Like those first disciples, we will have different answers. Maybe it’s love, in a world that often seems ugly and unloving. Maybe it’s forgiveness and the promise of a new start. Maybe it’s strength and nourishment to face the demands of life, or community to share its joys and sorrows. Maybe we don’t even know what we’re looking for, but we know we’re looking for something, and wonder if here we might find something to help us ask the right questions.
What are you looking for? It’s a good question to ask at a baptism, for in baptism so many of the things we desire are given to us. Last week we celebrated the baptism of Christ, where the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended, and a voice declared Jesus God’s beloved Son. In a few minutes, through the ordinary stuff of water and oil, the heavens will open once again, the Spirit will descend, and through baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection Robin will be declared a beloved child of God. He will be set on the path of holiness by receiving the new life of Christ. And he will be made a member of Christ’s body: given a community so he will always have somewhere to belong – a community that promises to do all we can to support and uphold him as he grows up in faith.
And this service shows us what that means. Robin is brought for baptism: like those first disciples, he is at the start of the journey of faith with Jesus Christ. Later on in the service we will hear John’s very words ‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ as the consecrated elements are held up. For this is where the path of discipleship leads us: to this supper which is a foretaste of the heavenly supper, of the marriage feast of the Lamb. That supper is the place where our hopes are directed; where our desires will find their consummation; where our restless hearts will be stilled and poured out in love and worship, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
That’s the journey’s end: the journey that begins in baptism today leads to the vision of the lamb in heaven, to the fellowship of the saints, and to the place Christ prepares for us as he draws us into the life and love of the Trinity. And Robin, I need to tell you that this will not always be an easy journey. You’ve done well for parents and godparents, and they will help. You’re drawn into the fellowship of the Church, and some of us are saints, and some of us are weird, but we’ll help too. You’re given the scriptures to help you hear and attend to God’s voice, and the sacraments to draw you ever more closely into Christ’s life.
And being drawn into Christ’s life is what this is all about, so then we shouldn’t be surprised if that leads us to the sorts of places and people that it led him. For what you’re given today, Robin, you’re given to share: that’s why at the end of the service you’ll be given a lighted candle. That’s to help you: to bear Christ’s light for others, to carry it out into the world, living the sort of life, like John the Baptist’s, that points beyond itself to Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.