Not that anyone’s counting or anything, but this is the fourth Sunday in past eight weeks that John the Baptist has shown up in the appointed Gospel for the day, and I for one have heard quite enough, thank you very much, about John the Baptist hanging out in the desert, dressed in bad clothes from off a camel’s back and eating locusts and wild honey (imagine the smell!) – definitely not a good time guy – and then there’s the Baptist’s followers – they accusing Jesus of being a drunk and a glutton – well, heck, then I’d rather hang around with Jesus any day than with the buzz-kill Baptist (though I will admit that with my shoe collection and my closet full of clothes, I’m not so big on that thing Jesus says about going out into the world with one cloak and one pair of sandals).
That being said, however, the Baptist we hear from in today’s Gospel from the St. John the Evangelist is markedly different from the foaming-at-the-mouth Baptist who appears in Sts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In St. John’s Gospel, there’s no Baptist breathing fire, calling down brimstone, demanding repentance, calling people a “brood of vipers,” or shrieking about “the wrath that is to come.” No, the Baptist who shows up St. John’s Gospel is a kinder, gentler Baptizer than the one in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For starters, the Baptist in St. John’s gospel is a whole lot more humble – readily admitting that he really been sort of clueless and hasn’t known before this point who the Messiah might actually be; but John the Baptist comes anyway, baptizing with water just so that there be a venue, that there be an opportunity for the Spirit to descend and identify someone, someday, as the Son of God on whom rests the Spirit, as the Son of God who will in turn baptize with water and the Holy Spirit. Yes, absent from St. John’s Gospel is the pyromaniacal Baptist carrying on about Jesus coming to burn away the chaff with unquenchable fire. Instead, the Baptist simply points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” God, identified not as a lion, like Aslan in The Narnia Chronicles – God, not some hanging judge bent on wreaking vengeance upon any looking even remotely guilty – not God, some impassive watchmaker winding up the creation and then sitting back to let it run by itself – God, not a bloodthirsty deity come to bash in the heads of the enemy – but God – lamb-like. God – gentle. God whose power, God whose omnipotence, lies precisely in giving up power and becoming instead a servant to the servants, a friend to the friendless, and a lover to the unloved and unlovable. God as lamb. Gentle and soft, melting our hearts, not dashing them in pieces with a rod of iron. And the God to whom the Baptist points in St. John’s Gospel is certainly not the deity of Fred Phelps and clan who are still, after all these years, ranting on and on about an enraged – dare I say it? – “fag-hating” god – a god setting out to punish a nation moving toward full acceptance of LGBT people like me and the passage of laws that would ensure just and equal civil rights – not separate and unequal civil rights – for all people. No, today we hear John the Baptist proclaim God as a little lamb who, as St. John the Evangelist tells us in the third chapter, verse seventeen, “did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the whole world be made whole, restored, brought back to life.” The Lamb who is God takes away sin; the Lamb who is God does not condemn us nor does the Lamb who is God demand some sort of blood sacrifice from anyone, as the Psalm for this day proclaims.
What’s more (and I’m going to be a little bit repetitive so that we can truly hear it and remember it) the God to whom the Baptizer points – this Lamblike God is the One who is the actor – the one who does it all – the one who is the sole actor in taking away the sin of the world – though a better translation of world is cosmos. So here, pointing to Jesus, John says, is the Lamb of God who all alone takes away the sin of the whole cosmos. And sin – that gigantic gulf that separates us and all creation from a loving God – that very gulf is taken away, is overtaken by this Lamb. The Lamb doesn’t stand around screaming about how we are the ones who must strive to leap over the vast chasm separating us from God – instead, the Lamb comes to us – the Lamb is the God who everlastingly refuses to be separated from us – the Lamb is the God who overcomes the chasm between us and God without our help, the Lamb is the one who comes down to us rather than we having to climb some spiritual ladder to get to God. And the overcoming of this great divide between God and us – this taking away of the sing of the world, it’s not just for a special some, no longer just for a particular chosen nation or people or tribe – it is for the whole cosmos. And again, I repeat, it’s all God’s undertaking; it’s the Lamb who takes away the great separation – again, not something we do or have to do, or are even able to do – it’s all the work of the Lamb – not some work initiated by the Lamb that then needs us to make our response – the Lamb is not about our own search for God – but about God always searching for us and God always finding us – one way or another, even if it takes half of eternity.
One of the ongoing controversies in the Church has been whether God can forgive us if we have not first done our part – you know, confessed our sin and shown contrition and the desire to change our way of being. Martin Luther and some of the early reformers struggled in this area. The church in Luther’s day was teaching that unless you had confessed every single sin, had shown that you were truly sorry, and had promised not to sin again, you couldn’t receive Holy Communion – or if you did, it was not to your salvation but to your everlasting damnation. It was Pope Francis who addressed precisely this point a few weeks ago – the Holy Communion not a reward for the sinless, but medicine for the broken. Luther’s own rebuttal on this very point was, in part, to quote the Psalmist, was says that no one truly knows the depth of her or his sin – rather sin is complex, systemic, and all-encompassing – sin, a state of being that we cannot escape until the death of this body. But fear not say those who proclaim the true Gospel: God’s work of forgiveness is never dependant upon us having to do something to earn it. It’s the Lamb of God who takes away sin – not the Lamb of God and us – not the Lamb of God and some priest – not even the Lamb of God and the Pope or the Church. The Church’s function, the function of the priest, the function of the Pope in all of this is like the function of the Baptist: to point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole cosmos.” It’s all God’s doing – and not dependant upon us or anyone or anything else.
In addition to the appearance of the Baptist in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the first two of Jesus’ disciples show up. Now in the Christ Stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, good old Simon doesn’t get the name Peter – which means rock – until after he’s made his profession of faith – until after he’s proclaimed for all the world to hear that Jesus is the Messiah of God, the Son of the Living God. But not in St. John’s Gospel – here again, it’s all the work of God – Jesus simply looks at Simon – and then declares who Simon is to be: he will be the Rock – the foundation of the Church as institution. And poor Simon, now Peter, he doesn’t get any say in the matter. God has decided and that’s that – Peter in spite of all the stupid things he’s going to do and going to say – sinful buffoon that he is – he’ll be the rock upon which the Church is built. His sins, which will be many, are already taken away – his sins won’t be beaten out of him, a confession of his sins won’t be coerced out of him, and there will be no snarling lion just waiting to bite him in the butt. The Lamb of God has appeared, the one who is taking away the sin of the cosmos – the one who is healing the breach between us and God – not by demanding we leap the chasm that separates us from the God of love, but by coming to us.
I like the St. John the Baptist we hear about in the words of St. John the Evangelist. This Baptist really is about good news, and as such, he is the model of the Church. It is not the job of the Church to proclaim a God of anger, hate, or vengeance; it is not the job of the Church to put conditions on forgiveness – the job of the Church is to point: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the cosmos. And baptized and reborn in the image of Christ it is now for us, each of us, to say to the neighbor, to those around us, “Yes, I go to church. Why don’t you come with me and see? Come see the Lamb who takes away the sin of the cosmos – and yes, even the sin of people like Fred Phelps, George Wallace, Bull Connor and the members of the KKK who love to hate.”
And now to you who are here: keep on coming here to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of Every. Single. One of you here – and without any assistance from you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.