Sunday, 15 January 2017

Facing the Monsters

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
15 January 2017 11.00am

John 1.29-42  
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 

Exodus 12.1-14 

I wonder, when you were very young, were are you afraid of monsters?

It seems to be a fairly universal experience of childhood that we fear the unknown,
and fill it with monsters of our own imaginings.

From the void under the bed to the dark of the wardrobe,
            the lurking spiders of the dark have the capacity
            to assume monstrous and threatening proportions in our minds,
as we place onto them our worst fears and darkest dreams.

And let us not kid ourselves for even a moment
            that the inner world of a child is all innocence and light.

I can remember, even at a very young age,
            finding within myself the capacity to explore very dark thoughts and emotions,
            and I assume I'm not alone in this.

What is significant, of course, is how a child learns to process and cope with
            their developing sense of themselves.

What we do with our inner monsters
            is a key question of the process of reaching maturity.

And one of the things we do
            is to take those inner demons and externalise them,
                        we get them out of ourselves,
            and then we try to find ways to appease their gnawing appetites.

And so I remember that when I was very young,
            I had a teddy bear that I loved very much,
and I would dangle him over the edge of my bed
            so that he could see into the fearsome and unplumbed depths beneath me,
            and face the creatures that lived there on my behalf.

I used to promise him that I'd never let him go,
            that he was safe as long as I held his hand;
but I also took comfort in knowing that if anything happened to him,
            if the fear got too much for me and my grip faltered,
I could quickly withdraw my hand back to safety,
            leaving him as a sacrifice to the dark,
            to be collected in the morning if he survived the night down there alone.

The question I have, re-visiting these memories from my childhood,
            is who, or what is the real monster here?
And who, or what, is the sacrifice that is being offered?

And so to John's Gospel, to our lectionary reading for this morning.

"The next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared,
            'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.'" (1.29)

And I find myself wondering what we mean
            when we speak of Jesus as the 'Lamb of God"? 

What did John the Baptist mean
            when he greeted Jesus in this way,
and what did John the author of the fourth gospel mean
            by repeating it here at the start of Jesus’ public ministry?

The background to the phrase "Lamb of God" is well known,
            finding its origin in the two old Testament passages
            we had read for us earlier in the service.

The first of these is the story of the institution of the Passover,
            set in the time of Israelite slavery in Egypt.

Moses had been unsuccessful
            in persuading the pharaoh to release his people.
Despite the devastation of the nine plagues that had already happened,
            Pharaoh's heart remained hard, and set on slavery.

The final plague to visit to the Egyptians was that of the death of the first born,
            with the citizens of ancient Egypt bearing the horrific cost
            of their leader's dedication to domination.

But the Israelites were spared the angel of death,
            because they obeyed the instruction to kill a lamb without blemish
                        and to mark their doorposts with its blood,
            so that the curse of death would know to pass over their houses.

It is clear that the author of John's Gospel
            has the festival of the Passover very much in mind
                        as he tells the story of Jesus,
as, unlike the other gospels, we find that John’s Gospel
            gives us three specific mentions of the Passover (2.13; 6.4; 13.1),
with the events of the crucifixion taking place at the third of these,
            and the Passover being celebrated on the day following the death of Jesus.

The gospel writer clearly wants his readers to understand
            that Jesus is the Passover lamb,
with his death functioning to bring release from the empire of domination
            that, like the Egyptian pharaoh of old,
            still holds people in perpetual captivity.

But still, what kind of a lamb is this?
            What kind of a sacrifice is being offered here?[1]

And so we must turn our attention to the second scripture passage
            that lies behind the acclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God;
            the suffering servant passage from Isaiah.

This is a text which, like the Passover story,
            also finds its origin in a time of imperial oppression.

These words from Isaiah were offered originally to the Jews in exile in Babylon,
            and they gave the people of God a way of understanding
                        their present sufferings in exile
            in the context of God's activity for the release
                        of all who live in slavery and oppression.

As the sins of the pharaoh caused the suffering of many,
            so the sins of the many cause the suffering of the one,
who goes to his death like a lamb that is led to the slaughter (Isa 53.7).

However Isaiah's words were understood
            by those who first heard them,
John's Gospel is quite clear that Jesus is to be understood
            as the Lamb of God who goes to his death
                        because of the sins of the many,
            to secure the release of the many
                        from the dominating powers of sin and death.

"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." (1.29) 

But even if we are clear that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb,
            we still haven't resolved our question
                        of why this sacrifice is being demanded, by whom, and on what basis.

And here, I'd like to return to my childhood for a moment again,
            and think about the human experience
            of how we deal with our own monstrous desires.

There is a way of understanding the death of Jesus
            where God is like the small child, perched up on high,
                        safe from the monsters that live below,
            dangling his dearly beloved son over the precipice
                        and then letting go, as an offering to assuage the appetites
                        of the monsters that would otherwise devour the cosmos
                                    and all who live there.

Or, to put this perspective another way:
            God is in his heaven,
                        but the wages of sin demand a sacrifice unto death.
            Someone has to pay that bill,
                        so Jesus pays it, and the rest of us get off scot-free.

Many of us will have heard this, or something very similar to it, before.
            It is, in essence, the standard evangelical understanding
                        of the death of Jesus as the one who pays the price for our sins,
                        so we don't have to.

Sometimes, it even comes with diagrams,
            so that it can be more easily explained to those
                        whose sins have not yet been washed away by the blood of the lamb,
            which apparently (according to one way of reading the book of Revelation)
                        washes whiter than white (Revelation 7.14). 

However, I have something of a problem with this way of seeing things,
            because the more I think about it,
            the more it seems to me that in this scenario
                        the monsters are not dwelling on the earth,
                        or even under the bed.

The monster here is God.
            This is a monstrous view of God,
            who tosses his son to feed the encircling wolves of sin and death.

Just as the monsters under my bed as a child existed, in reality, only inside my head;
            so it is with God if we fashion him as the divine child on high,
                        projecting his own needs and insecurities onto his creation
                        before destroying his own beloved son
                                    to appease these demons of his own creating.

No, in the final analysis, I reject this understanding of the death of Jesus
            as an immature projection by humans,
in which we create God in our own image
            and then endow him with our own sinful characteristics.

It seems to me that, for any understanding of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb
            to be genuinely transformative of our human experience,
it must begin with an understanding of God as love.

If God is not love, and love unrestricted and freely given,
            then I would suggest that God is not God.

If God is violent, vengeful, cowardly, remote, or judgemental,
            then God is nothing more than a projection
            of our own psychological traumas.

For God to be God, God must be love,
            and therefore God's saving action in Christ
            must be an act of love, and not violence.

So here's a thought:
            what if it is not God who demands the sacrifice?

What if the sacrifice is not required by some immutable laws
            which God grandly wrote into the universe,
            but which now not even he has the power to overrule?

What if the monsters baying for blood
            are not projections of the tortured mind of God?

What if the monsters are really me, and you?

What if the sacrificial monster,
            demanding a sacrifice to expunge its guilt, is humanity itself?

This, I would suggest, changes everything.

By this understanding, the death of Jesus
            is not about paying some cosmic debt,
but rather is about exposing the sacrificial predilections
            that lie deep within each of us,
as we cast about for someone to rid us of the guilt
            of our own darkest fears and desires.

By this reading, Jesus is the one who bears our infirmities,
            and carries our desires;
he is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,
            and by his bruises we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray;
            and the Lamb of God comes from the father and returns to the father
            that we may be freed from the burden of our fallen humanity.

This is not God casting our sins on Jesus
            as an act of divine violence against an innocent victim.

Rather, this is God entering into the depths of human depravity,
            to expose to the light of his truth
                        our capacity to inflict violence on one another,
            in our quest for personal or communal justification.

This is the act of a God of love, who so deeply loves humanity
            that he is willing to take into himself the worst we can do to another,
                        in order that our desires for a violent solution to our plight
                        may be deconstructed.

Jesus the sacrificial lamb is not some spotless Lamb of perfected humanity,
            given to appease a vengeful God;
but the Lamb of God, given to bring release to human communities
            locked into cycles of scapegoating.

And, I would add, the world has never needed the Lamb of God
            more than it does at the moment.

We are locked into global cycles of violent scapegoating,
            where the "other" is continually and creatively held accountable
                        for the sins of the many,
            in order that the many might feel some brief glimmer of justification.

The sins of the world are many and grievous,
            as we victimise the powerless,
            and systemically extinguish empathy for the other.

It happens on all sides, and there is no way out
            without an intervention to unmask the darkness that lies within each of us.

The world needs those who will join with John the Baptist
            in the heralding another way.

It needs those who will cry to a world of sin:
            "Look, here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

The world needs to hear the story, and see the brutal reality,
            of the Lamb of God sent to his death by human hands;
because without this unmasking of our sins,
            we continue to misrepresent the victim as the enemy,
            and the spirals of sin and death continue unabated.

And this task of proclaiming of the Lamb of God to the world
            begins with and within each of us.

If it is not true for me, or for you, then we have nothing to say to others,
            because we ourselves are still trapped by our own monsters,
unable to step down from the safety of our beds,
            forever retreating into our own comfort zones,
and all the while scapegoating those who we deem expendable,
            requiring others to pay the price for our own sins.

We have to grow up, and to grow into Christ.

We have to learn to see Christ in the other,
            and to recognise the monsters in ourselves;
rather than seeing Christ in ourselves
            and monsters in others.

We need the Lamb of God to take away our sins.

And so we need the spirit of Christ to remain within us,
            that we may remain within God.

And, I wonder, what might this mean in practice?
            What does it mean for us to recognise in ourselves
                        our capacity to deny our own inner darkness
                        by demonising others?

I think it starts with self knowledge,
            with us learning to have the courage to stare into the darkness within,
            and to recognise our fallen state for what it is.

For me, this meant a year of psychotherapy,
            as I exorcised certain ghosts that had been haunting me
            for most of my adult life.

It was Socrates who famously declared
            that the unexamined life was not worth living.

But of course, merely learning to face the darkness
            is only the first step of the process.

Because to truly abide in Christ, the Lamb of God,
            is a process of surrendering to love,
            and of letting go of our driving sense of self.

It is allowing him to take from us the hatred, bitterness, pain, and guilt,
            that define our lives and our relationships.

It is becoming vulnerable to the ultimate other
            who comes to us in love
            and offers us release and forgiveness.

And this means becoming vulnerable to one another,
            as we surrender ourselves to the body of Christ,
the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.


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