Jesus was a member of a circle of young men around John the Baptist. Men in groups tend to be very close and marked by the rivalry to be closest to the leader. I imagine the others first thought with today’s reading was “Why Him” and their second “What does the Lamb of God mean”? These are good questions for this weekend, and we will start with the second one.
A Lamb was a powerful symbol for Jews. It connected them to the exodus. In the exodus, God led the Israelites through the desert to the promised land, but it began with the Passover meal while still in captivity in Egypt. Jews celebrate the Passover meal every year and it requires a lamb. As they were now under roman domination many Jews felt that they needed a new exodus. But they wanted a lion: a general or a king who would throw off their captors. But this would be a single victory, there would always be a need for another. Jesus, the lamb, will not improve the world, he will change existence.
Lambs were also the sacrifice of choice in the temple. It was how the covenant between God and the Jewish People was proclaimed and maintained. If made with the right intention these animal sacrifices could show that God had forgiven an individual or group. Yet the idea that a person could be sacrificed for the covenant was never explicitly held in Judaism. That Jesus – the lamb – would take away the sin of the world, would be bewildering. His listeners would know that it was connected to the covenant and forgiveness but not how.
Isaiah speaks mysteriously in several passages of the “suffering servant”. Our first reading today is one of them. God tells his servant that: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. In another servant song, he writes “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth”. (Is 53:7) Not only will he not lead an army or even a political party he will accomplish this new exodus nonviolently. “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench Until he establishes justice on the earth the coastlands will wait for his teaching.” (Is 42:3-4)
John told his disciples that Jesus was “the” lamb of God, not “a” lamb of God. Because he has a unique relationship with God he could bring the kingdom, create a new relationship with God and each other and do so by complete obedience to the will of God.
This is so improbable that for the rest of this passage John lays out his proof: Jesus and his Baptism was greater than his and God revealed Jesus by a special and miraculous sign. He is so confident that he calls Jesus “the son of God”. We are reading this now because we believe that he accomplished all these things.
There can be only one the Lamb of God, but we need many Lambs of God to sanctify the world, MLK was a Lamb of God.
He first emerged in Montgomery Alabama in 1955. He was newly arrived in town and the least important minister. The black people of the town were no longer willing to be humiliated every time they took a bus and were planning a boycott. The only effective power was in the churches, but the more powerful ministers would not let a rival lead it, so they chose MLK. He was even then recognized as a polished and effective preacher who would make a perfect figurehead and mouthpiece.
He proved himself to be far more than that. The exodus was the favorite image of black preaching of his generation. I had the extraordinary experience of hearing Dr. Samuel Proctor and Dr. Gardner Taylor, the last of the breed, preach live. It was electrifying. This kind of passion cannot be faked and MLK perhaps surprising even himself moved people to leave the Egypt of segregation and force America to live up to its ideals. Taylor Branch’s great biography of Dr. King is subtitled “America in the King years”. He was the representative man of his time.
Branch also called Dr King the George Washington of the second American revolution, and he carefully referred to this revolution not as civil rights but as nonviolence. The kind of freedom that a lamb of God offers is not based on the force of arms or even of argument but in witnessing to the kingdom, revealing what the harmony that only God can give looks like. It may be experienced only for a moment but will inspire a lifetime. This is so radical an assault on evil that Dr. King awaited payback and expected to be assassinated. His final speech the day before he died is his mystical recognition and acceptance that his upcoming execution will be because of his commitment to Jesus. This speech may be found in the homily notes online. (YouTube: Martin Luther King Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” – April 3, 1968 – Final Famous Speech – 41 minutes in) Truly the suffering servant.
America seems to be stuck in another captivity. As a society we have discovered our mortality with Covid, the inescapable fact of racism with the death of George Floyd, the fragility of our political structures with an insurrection, and a slipping away even the desire for civility. The times call for leaders who can guide us through this wilderness, but they have not emerged. Where are people who have experienced God given peace and freedom and can communicate it to others? We lack servants who accept that suffering is part of the job description of a leader whose desires to free others not enrich him or herself. MLK day itself is the National Day of Service, I ask you all, particularly our young people, to ask if you are called to be a servant leader, a lamb of God.