Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
The Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is always graced by a reading from the Gospel of John. Instead of continuing the narrative from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on which year of the lectionary we are in, we instead hear from John, which has a fairly unique approach to writing about Jesus. We know that John is different when we look at the Gospels and see that instead of talking about a birth narrative, we start with this grand cosmic concept…”In the beginning was the Word.” An acknowledgment of the Christological nature of Jesus to start us off.
The fourth Gospel then drops us right into the ministry of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christ, and then on this Second Sunday after Epiphany, we have the first appearance of Jesus. If the Gospel of John were a movie, I imagine the Gospel of John starts out the way most Star Wars movies do. We begin with a narrative that sets the scene, explains to us where we are about to drop into the story, then we hit the ground running with Jesus’ adult ministry.
You might ask why the Gospel of John is given this particular place. Why do we always get to hear from the Gospel of John on this Sunday? I think it is a question worth exploring; and while you would really need to ask the authors of the Revised Common Lectionary for a direct answer, there are at least a few things we can be fairly safe to assume about the use of John. Chief among these reasons I believe is that the Gospel of John focuses far more on the mystical nature of Christ, and spends a lot of energy on this idea of Epiphany, of the appearing or manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
John also leans far more on the cosmic reason for God becoming human. From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we have John the Baptist calling out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I guarantee that this title being used here means huge things to the people that are hearing it from John the Baptist’s mouth. Recall that the Hebrew people expected their messiah to save them in a worldly sense. They expected someone to come and lead armies against whichever occupying force was ruling them at any particular time in history. They expected a strong warlord.
But John the Baptist says, “Here is the Lamb of God.” He doesn’t say, “Here is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah!” He doesn’t say, “Behold the general to slaughter our enemies.” Think about what lambs were used for at the time of Jesus. What would the, “Lamb of God” evoke for these people but an understanding of sacrifice? There is little doubt that the author of the Gospel of John focuses on this in a few places, that the author wants to convey that God has taken on flesh in part to be, and I use this term knowing how complicated it is, a ‘sacrificial lamb’ for the sins of the world.
Understanding Jesus as the Lamb of God ties directly to the understanding of Passover in the Hebrew mindset. The Passover Lamb was slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled on the lintels of doors during the escape of the Hebrew people from Pharaoh. This was done so that the Angel of Death would pass over their houses and only visit the houses of Egyptians during the tenth and final plague. Just as the Passover lamb’s life is given to save the Israelites, so then is the sacrifice of the Lamb of God to save all of humanity from ultimate death.
Later, in the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John, Jesus dies, “about noon” on the day of preparation for the Passover. This is the author of the Gospel assigning this time and day to coincide with the slaughter of the lambs being prepared for the Passover meals. The use of the image of the Lamb of God is strong and from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its end in the Gospel of John it is found throughout to emphasize the salvific nature of Christ manifest.
I know that you might say, “Wait a second! We aren’t even at Lent yet, and you’re moving us along to the crucifixion of Jesus!” Ultimately, even as we are in the midst of a celebration of Christmas, we must remember the cross. Without the cross, the manger, the wise men, the whole thing means very little. The whole incarnational narrative is important and every piece of it touches on the other. Even as we talk about Jesus’ baptism, the very nature of Christ must be discussed.
Mother Julia Gatta writes, “It is remarkable that Jesus begins his public ministry by submitting to John’s baptism of repentance since the New Testament and subsequent tradition never attribute personal sin to Jesus. What is Jesus doing in such a compromising situation? He is emphatically taking his stand with human beings in their sinfulness. He is defining the radical scope of his ministry from the outset. It is a position that will elicit criticism throughout his life as Jesus dines with public sinners and, finally, suffers a shameful (sic) death, crucified between two criminals. His life and ministry and, at the last, his death address our desperate plight: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
In John’s naming of Jesus as the, “Lamb of God” he is calling to the fundamental nature of Christ’s incarnation as one meant to bring eternal life to humanity. This is God’s plan from the beginning, to bring about the Kingdom of God, to bring eternal life to humanity. I do not believe there is anything in Christ’s death and resurrection meant to point to God being wrathful and bloodthirsty. God is the one who pays this ultimate price, who takes on flesh and submits to humiliation, pain, and death to tear the gates of Hell off their hinges and offer life once and for all.
I realize that when we dive into the Gospel of John, there is a chance we can get lost very quickly in the weeds. It is heady stuff, and calls on us to challenge and think about our faith and our theology. That is an important part of our growth as followers of Christ. It is easy to be lulled into the niceties of swaddled babies in mangers, or the general socialized cheap grace that is so often pedaled as Christian faith. This is our faith, this is why we gather, otherwise, why bother getting up on a Sunday morning? “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” Keep that question with you this week and be ready, because at any time, Jesus could be asking you the same.