Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
St Barbara’s Church; 15.01.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Back in the year 2000, to mark the new millennium, the National Gallery put on an exhibition entitled “Seeing Salvation”. Some of you may have gone to see it. It was an extraordinary exhibition, bringing together art from throughout the centuries, to represent the life of Christ. The exhibition proved incredibly popular, attracting thousands of visitors from all walks of life. I remember the day I went, jostling amidst the crowds, I stood looking at one picture and discovered that right next to me was David Trimble, the First Minister of Northern Ireland at the time. The exhibition made a lasting impact on many, including myself, even though the last thing I would describe myself as an art buff!
There were three pictures that particularly stood out for me that may help us to connect with our Gospel reading in a way that perhaps words alone cannot.
The first was a picture by a 17th century Spanish artist, Francisco de Zurbaran. The simplicity and starkness of the picture immediately grabs ones attention and emotions. The picture is entitled “Agnes Dei – Lamb of God”.
“Lamb of God” is the term John the Baptist uses to describe Jesus. That term would not have brought to mind some spring lamb gambolling about in the fields, playfully jumping over tufts of grass. Instead the image that would have been brought to mind would have been a bound lamb like this, ready to be sacrificed, awaiting death, bearing the sins of people. John, even before Jesus’ ministry begins, sees the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Here is a Messiah, a Saviour, who is going to sacrifice his life for others. John has already quoted the prophet Isaiah, when he described himself as a “voice of one calling in the wilderness”. Now he is making a clear reference to another quotation from Isaiah, the suffering servant of God who bears the sins of the people “like a lamb to the slaughter”.
This picture captures something of the meekness, the humility of Christ. The lamb is not struggling, straining at the cords, fighting against its fate. Instead it lies on the table, calm, almost at peace, ready for the act of sacrifice.
And that act of sacrifice, as John tells us, is for the purpose of taking away the sins of the world. In Christ’s willing act of sacrifice on the cross, the burden of the world’s sin is placed on him. He carries it instead of us. The promise of forgiveness, of reconciliation with God, of new life, is made possible through his sacrifice.
As we look at this picture, and as we sing the words of the Agnes Dei later in our service: “Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us. Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us,” we may be struck once more by our need for forgiveness, an awareness of our failings before God and others, and by the extraordinary self-sacrifice of Christ that brings us healing. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
A second picture that stood out for me at the Seeing Salvation exhibition, and one that many of you will know, is this picture by the 20th century artist Salvador Dali, Christ of Saint John of the Cross. It is an extraordinary picture, and one that no matter the angle one looks at it, Christ is always looking down on you and the world. Whereas de Zurbaran’s picture conveys something of the humility of Christ, his willingness to sacrifice his life for others, this picture conveys that even on the cross Christ is Lord and God, that death and sin will not be able to overcome him or constrain him. He is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, the Lord of the galaxies as well as the Lord of the fishermen you can just make out on the lakeshore, tiny beneath his gaze. His body, unlike most depictions of Jesus on the cross, is strong and muscled, not broken and gaunt, and despite the nails there are no wounds from his hands or feet.
John the Baptist leaves us in no doubt as to who this Jesus is. He is “the man who has surpassed me because he was before me”. John was older than Jesus, but he is meaning something other than age. Christ was before him, indeed before the very beginning of the world; he worked with his Father in bringing the world into being. He is part of the Father’s work of creation. He is part of the Father’s work of consummation too, the filling of the world with God’s Spirit. John may have occasionally been touched and inspired by God’s Spirit, but here is the one in whom the Spirit will remain, will dwell. He is God dwelling on earth. He is the bringer of God’s Spirit to transform our world.
Theologians use the term “the pre-eminence of Christ”. In other words, he is greater than all else. He comes before all things, and he will bring all things to completion. That seems a bold claim to make, particularly in a world where many people are withdrawing from making any claims about truth at all, for fear of being intolerant or judgmental, and others make truth claims with such stridency they readily fall into bullying and violence to uphold their views. The current political discourse in the United States, much of it played out on Twitter, is one such example; the statements of IS militants another.
And yet we can speak of Christ’s greatness, his Lordship over all else, without embarrassment or fear, because the Christ we point to is the Lamb of God, the one who is humble and meek, the one who sacrifices his all for others. We can speak of the uniqueness, the greatness of Christ with others who may not share our views, if we do so with gentleness, humility, if the one whom we speak of is the Lamb.
There is a third picture that I want to show you. It is Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World”. When this was first displayed at the turn of the 20th century people queued up for hours to see it. It was taken on tour around the world, to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand amongst others, for people to see it, before it was finally placed in its permanent home at St Paul’s Cathedral. It struck a chord with hundreds and thousands of people.
It is a simple picture. Christ stands at the door and knocks. There is no handle on the outside – the door must be opened from the inside. There is no force or coercion, instead a gentle invitation to open the door and allow Christ, the light of the world, to enter. At the bottom of the painting are the words from Revelation 3: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in and sup with him and he with me.” Even the picture is framed like a door.
When John’s disciples heard him speak of Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the Son of God they approached Jesus to find out more. His response to them, his first words in John’s gospel, are simple and wonderfully gentle: “Come and see”.
That is an invitation to each of us too. Whether we have been following Jesus all of our life, or just a few months, or whether we are still wondering whether to do so, Jesus says to each of us “come and see”, come and spend time with me, pray to me, read my words. It is an invitation of gentleness and grace. And it begins by opening the door of our hearts to him, to trusting him.
Today, why not ask yourself afresh, am I ready to open my heart to Christ, to welcome him in. Am I ready to come and see?