The Second Week after Epiphany: John 1:29-42
Today’s lectionary passage comes not from Matthew but from the Gospel of John:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
— John 1:29-42, NIV
There’s a lot happening in this passage: John mentions Jesus' baptism (the subject of last week’s lectionary reading); John declares that Jesus is the Lamb of God on whom the Spirit of God has rested; some of John’s disciples turn to Jesus, one of whom is Andrew; Andrew invites his brother, Simon, to come meet the man he believes is the Messiah.
In short: we could talk about baptism, about Jesus as the lamb, about following Jesus, and about evangelism. A rich passage indeed.
But one thing struck me in particular: twice John names Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” The first time John elaborates, describing the moment of Jesus' baptism. And in both this elaboration and in the first naming, John emphasizes that he did not know that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One.”
This constellation of statements fascinates me. Why does John the Evangelist emphasize both that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that John the Baptist did not at first recognize Jesus as the one coming after him?
I’m suspicious that John’s surprise has something to do with Jesus as Messiah and Lamb. Because just like the Magi at Epiphany, we expect a king to be, well, kingly. Born in a palace. Strong in battle. Charismatic. And if we’re going to choose an animal to represent those qualities, we’re not going to chose a lamb.
But this image of the Lamb who is also a king forms the central image in another text written by John the Evangelist. In Revelation 4 and 5, John has the central vision of God enthroned, surrounded by worshipping angels and elders. As chapter 5 begins, John writes:
“I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.
Jesus is simultaneously the Lion and the Lamb, the King who conquers sin and evil and death by humbling himself in the Incarnation, by submitting himself to human suffering and death.
This should be shocking. It seems to have surprised John the Baptist; in the lectionary passage, he now recognizes Jesus as the Lamb of God who is the Chosen One of God — but it took a direct sign from God for John to see this truth about Jesus.
I’ve been drawn for quite some time to stories about subversion in scripture, stories where what we expect is reversed. Typically, the character who is weaker, or younger, or generally less powerful is favored by God over the stronger, more powerful character. Once you start looking, this pattern repeats all throughout the bible.
And Jesus is the ultimate subversion: God become a human being — and a human being in a normal family in an Israel ruled by a colonialist foreign power. The most powerful being in the universe, the creator and king, becomes a lamb — and more, a sacrificial lamb.
This should, without question, mean that Christians have a radically different conception of power than anyone else. The one being in the universe who is fully entitled to claim all power and authority, who has the power to demand all allegiance, chose instead to live and die as a human being subject to the oppressive power of imperial Rome.
And yet Jesus' power remained in the weakness. Ultimately, by dying he conquered death itself: a far more significant victory than dethroning a single Roman emperor. A victory that could only be won by a king who is also a lamb.
This is something different, something new. Something a little frightening that upends our categories for thinking about the world.
Like John the Baptist and Andrew and, although he doesn’t know it yet in this passage, Simon Peter, we who are captivated by this Lamb who is a conquering king can do no better than to point to him. Look, the Lamb of God. Look, the Chosen One of God. Come and see the Messiah.
Because is there anything more amazing and more hopeful than a conquering king who is also a gentle lamb, a savior who lives and suffers and dies with us in order to bring us salvation from sin and evil and death?