Epiphany 2 11 Breathing Space
Isaiah 49.1-7, John 1.29-42
Behold the Lamb of God, says John the Baptist to his followers. This is the Messiah, the one God has promised – follow him, not me.
John’s words are familiar to us. Jesus is the Lamb of God. We’re used to that idea. We hear it in our prayers and hymns. We see it painted, sculpted and embroidered in our church buildings. But what do those images convey to us?
I’ve printed out a few pictures for us to look at tonight. The first is a detail from Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. The lamb stands on an altar, with blood gushing from him into a chalice. The second image, of the Lamb and flag, is as familiar on pub signs as it is in churches. It reminds us of the victory of Christ, his triumph over death. These are very obviously symbolic pictures. They remind us of the Eucharist, of the blood of Christ, of sacrifice, of the words of Revelation about the Lamb on the throne. But that’s the problem. The symbolism in these pictures is so rich that it can completely take over. We look at them and we see all sorts of things that remind us of Jesus, but we don’t really see lambs. When did you last see a real lamb standing on an altar, or carrying a flag? These lambs have really lost all their “lambiness”. And because they have lost their “lambiness” they have also lost some of the impact which they were meant to have.
That’s why, of the three pictures I have put here, the one I find most powerful is actually the third. It is by Zurburan, painted around 1640, and there is absolutely nothing about it to indicate it has anything to do with religion at all. It’s not a detail from a bigger picture. This is it, just this very realistic animal – you can see every hair – lying on a plain flat, featureless surface, with its feet bound, still and helpless. This lamb is well and truly tied. It isn’t going anywhere. Any fight it had has gone out of it. There is nothing it can do and it knows it. And we know, as we look at it, that soon it will be dead.
The only hint that Zurburan means us to see anything deeper in this picture is in the title - his title. “Agnus Dei” he calls it. “The Lamb of God.” And suddenly, to me at any rate, the reality of what it means to call Jesus the Lamb of God hits home. The simplicity of this image, far more than the rich symbolism of the others, captures what Zurbaran thinks it felt like to be Jesus, ostracised, persecuted, humiliated, powerless as he faces the slaughter that is coming to him on the cross.
Jesus had no status, no friends in high political places, no armies, no wealth, and while sometimes the crowds flocked to him, when it mattered, when he needed support, when he was arrested and killed, even his closest friends fled. He started his life as a helpless baby, bound in swaddling clothes and he ended it equally helpless, nailed to a cross – as helpless as this lamb is, looking to the world like a complete failure.
“ I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…” says Isaiah in our first reading. If this lamb could tell us what it feels as it faces death, I expect it would say the same. What is the point of living if it all ends like this?
But of course this lamb isn’t just meat for the pot. This is a sacrificial lamb, and that changes everything. Jewish people believed that animal sacrifice in some way repaired their relationship with God – it made a difference, even if the lamb didn’t know it. We don’t have to understand or agree with that view, but that’s what they thought. The early Jewish Christians naturally drew on that imagery they had grown up with when they thought about Jesus. They saw the difference he had made to them, the barriers that had been broken down, the lives that had been healed, the way he had drawn them closer to God and each other. And when his commitment to them led to his death, they naturally saw that as a sacrifice like that of the lambs in the Temple, a death which made a difference, not one which was meaningless. That is what Zurbaran is trying to tell us here as he focuses on the “lamby” reality of this animal.
We feel for this lamb. He brings us in close so we can hardly fail to. It reminds us of those times when we have felt hopeless, paralysed and bound by the sorrow and pain of the world. Can there be any point to it all? This picture hints that there just might be, that we might be able to find good, and find God, even when all the outward signs in our lives look hopeless.
The quote from Isaiah I used earlier wasn’t complete, of course. “I have laboured in vain, “he says, but then he goes on, “yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God.”
Tonight we give thanks for the Lamb of God, whose suffering was not pointless, nor his death a waste, and we pray for all in our world who feel like lambs sent to the slaughter, helpless and powerless, that they will know God’s presence with them, even in the darkest moments.