Two Lambs – 15 January, 2023

Dickens famously started one of his books with the tale of two cities. Today I would like to tell you the tale of two lambs.

The first lamb I want to tell you about is the Lamb of Abraham. You may remember the story, Abraham was commanded by God to take his son, his only son, and sacrifice him on the mountain. So Abraham took his son, Isaac, and when his son asked him what they would sacrifice he only told him that God would provide. Then Abraham took his son, bound him, lay him on the wood and prepared to kill him as a sacrifice.

The God intervened and told him that was not necessary, and directed him to a lamb or ram in a bush nearby that was caught. Abraham took that lamb, and sacrificed him instead.

Now the importance of this incidence is that it marks a clear change in sacrificial needs in the pre-history of Israel. Human sacrifice was not practised again by them; in fact, they would see it as abhorrent. But other races, even the Romans at times of crisis, would still sacrifice humans. The reason for sacrifice is that it appeases the gods. People need to keep God happy, so they offer what is precious, and the most precious thing was life itself, and human life was the most valuable. 

So that’s the first lamb I want to talk about.

The second lamb comes from the passage we heard today in the Gospel, when John calls Our Lord the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our Lord would be seen as the perfect lamb that would offer his life as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, and would die meekly like a lamb on the cross. So the need of sacrificing lambs at the Temple would cease with the sacrifice of the perfect lamb.

Now, the odd thing about this imagery, is that a lamb replaces a human, with the lamb replacing Isaac the son of Abraham, and then a human replacing all lambs, with Our Lord taking the perfect lamb. It’s a lovely mirror imagery.

But the weakness is why Our Lord must be sacrificed. Now this is where we start to think about why did Our Lord die, what we call the atonement. If we see sacrifice as appeasing an angry God, then we start by sacrificing any human, then we go to lambs, then we go to a perfect human. The problem with all this is that why should God be angry with us? Now we do make mistakes, we do commit sins. But it’s not enough to say that we need to appease God for our sins, because that gives the image of God as an angry God. Much of our theology of what we call the atonement, why God dies for us, is based in ideas about either an angry God needing satisfaction, or a legal God needing the laws to be satisfied. That’s part of our inheritance though Augustine, Anslem and Calvin, great and wonderful theologians, but also thinkers reflecting their own times. What the Gospels present instead is a loving God, a loving God who loved us so much he gave us his only Son.

Instead of thinking about angry gods wanting vengeance we should start to think about us as beings who by shame try to make good our sins by offering something precious. God always is there to forgive: that is what love is about. We offer precious things like other humans, but God does not want us to take life. So God directs us to offer lambs instead. Finally, God sends the Son to teach us a new way that shows us that even this sacrifice is unnecessary: and God then allows his Son to die as a victim of our anger and injustice. But to show that God is not one of vengeance, God does not punish us for killing his only Son, God has his Son rise to life again to show us that the way of vengeance and anger is only a phase, and that true forgiveness and new life lie beyond.

Now we can start to ponder what John the Baptist says today: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John sees Our Lord as the ultimate lamb that finishes all the sacrifices of lambs in history. But a lamb was sacrificed for a person sins: this lamb takes away all sin, note how John says the sin, not sins of the world. The sin of the world is the need for vengeance, the need to sacrifice to take away our shame. Our Lord as the perfect sacrifice takes all that sin away. There is no need of vengeance, there is only the need for love.

It is also worthwhile to consider, that where in the past we offered the lamb to God, God now offers the Lamb to us. We offered the lamb to appease the anger of the gods: now God offers the Lamb in his Son, to appease our anger. It is God’s offering of the Son that takes away the sin of the world for in that we realise the extent of the love of God in that God withholds nothing from us, not even his Son. 

As an aside, in Aramaic “talja” means both “lamb” and “servant,” so it may also be referencing the idea of the suffering servant from Isaiah. So the Lamb of God is also the Servant of God.

When we come to communion, we use those words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It is the Holy Mother Church inviting her children to see that in the bread and wine, we take the body and blood, of the ultimate sacrifice for us, the Lamb of God. All thoughts of vengeance and appeasement are finished, instead we are presented with the love of God that withholds nothing. We are invited to come and receive him, not that we are worthy, but instead to be healed of the insanity of the cycle of vengeance and sacrifice. It calls on us to deal with our cycles of anger and vengeance, to learn to let go of this, and instead accept a God who took away all sin, and invites us to release and forgive instead, as he did.

Releasing the cycle of hate is one that we only accomplish by forgiveness. We see this forgiveness in the life and sacrifice of Our Lord. This is what we are called to practice. Now, people are more concerned about happiness than forgiveness I find, and that’s more to do with high or low are expectations are in life, most people start with high expectations and learn to lower them over time. But for Christians, we are about learning to become Christlike, and that can only be done by forgiveness. I think the secret to forgiveness is learning to be grateful for what we have, even when we have been injured by then sin of others. From gratefulness for what we have, we can learn that God takes even the blackest moments of our lives and redeems them. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, gives himself to us instead. That is the greatest gift that a God can give, and a gift for which we are eternally thankful.

The Holy Name – 1 January, 2023

There are always numbers in the church. We celebrate the forty days of Lent, which is actually more than forty days. We talk about the twelve days of Christmas, ending on Epiphany. We also regularly talk about Octaves, eight days, or seven if you ignore the first day. Octaves are well marked with often special starts and ends; or if a Saint’s day falls mid-week, it can be moved to the Sunday in the Octave, which we regularly do for St George here. Anyway, it is on the eighth day of Christmas that the church celebrates the Holy Name of Jesus.

We celebrate the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus on this eighth day of Christmas because it was on the eighth day that Jesus was circumcised and received this name. This story is told in a single verse of the gospel we just heard.

The shepherds, summoned by an angel, have visited the baby in the manger. They return home, praising God for what has happened. Then comes the focus of today’s celebration. “After eight days had passed,” we hear from the gospel, “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

“It was time to circumcise the child.” Following the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph have their child circumcised on the eighth day. Thus he becomes a participant in the covenant, a son of Israel.

Circumcision brings with it the shedding of blood. What happens to Our Lord on his eighth day is the first small step in the shedding of his blood for the redemption of the world.

His blood will be shed abundantly when his life draws to it close.

• In the Garden of Gethsemane he will pray so urgently that his sweat will resemble clots of blood falling to the ground.

• Blood will drip when he is scourged with whips by Roman soldiers, and when they press a crown of thorn branches deep into his head.

• Blood will drip as he carries his cross on the long walk to Calvary, and when spikes are driven through his feet and hands.

• And blood will drip even after he is dead, when the sharp point of a Roman lance cuts into his heart.

The blood shed at his circumcision is only a small beginning, the promise of what awaits him.

But something more than circumcision happens to Our Lord on his eighth day. He receives his name. Among the Jews, circumcision is when a boy is named. A Jewish boy is named by a ceremony of blood, a Christian starts by a ceremony of water: it makes you ponder John’s description of Jesus dying on the cross, when blood and water flowed from his side, John perhaps seeing a new way of Jews and Christians living in Jesus.

The name Jesus receives is heavy with significance. It is the Greek version of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who leads Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, tells Mary to name her child. It is the name that Joseph is told to name the child by an angel who appears to him in a dream.

And so it is not a name thought up by the baby’s parents. It is a name that comes from God. The name of the Saviour, the salvation he brings, and he himself all come from God.

We would miss the significance of the name of Jesus if we took that name as only a label, a way to distinguish one person from the next. The name of Jesus points us to who he is, who he is for us: the Saviour, the one who delivers us, rescues us; leads us, as did the Old Testament Joshua, into a land of freedom, a different way of life.

The name of Our Lord Jesus has long been held to be holy and special. The old Anglican canons, or laws, asked people to bow their heads at the name of Our Lord Jesus, a custom we maintain here at St George’s.

There are three great prayers in Christianity: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer.

The recitation of the Holy Name of Jesus is the third great prayer. One famous form of this is the continual recitation of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is a lovely and famous book from the eastern tradition called “the Way of the pilgrim” which became popular is the mid 20th C, about a pilgrim who travels through Russia in the 19c learning and living this prayer, saying it continually. The practice of learning to say this prayer over and over again is one of the great calming prayers of our faith. It is a prayer we should try and make part of our spiritual life for the challenges of our lives.

A new year lies before us. We do not know what it contains. But we can pray with devotion the Holy Name of Jesus.

• Perhaps some of us will die during the new year. We can leave this life at peace with God, with the name of Our Lord Jesus on our lips.

• Some of us may face great trials. We can meet them confidently, with the name of Our Lord Jesus on our lips.

• Some of us may experience wonderful joys, new opportunities, unique blessings. We can express our gratitude, with the name of Our Lord Jesus on our lips.

A new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Saviour’s Name with faith and fervour, a year when we discover that this world can be a very different place through the power of the Holy Name.

Based partly on a sermon by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker of the USA.

The Word Became Flesh – Christmas Day 2022

Let me tell you about one of my favourite poems, over a thousand years old from Anglo Saxon England, called the Wanderer. It is about a man who is, as we would say now, a stranger in a strange land. His people are dead, and he wanders with no true home, never at ease in a foreign land. Everywhere he goes he feels lost and he yearns for a past he cannot have. It is a feeling that many of us can relate to, maybe when we were younger, maybe when we migrated, maybe when we left home, and our parents are no more. It is perhaps more poignant at Christmas, too, when we miss family and homes. We might all feel a sense of homesickness of this time, for members of families, friends, or the past.

The Gospel that we read this morning has also a sense of homesickness. St John writes:

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.” (1:10-11)

It describes Christ’s “homecoming.” It is followed by a statement that reverses and fulfils:

“But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name:” (1:12)

Part of the Christian story was that God came to us, to make his home here, but we did not receive him.

That is why that within us something that responds to the phrase, “Stranger in a strange land.” The sense of homesickness, or a desire for “home,” is not erased by substitutes or marketing. If anything, we must describe our inherent homesickness as a gift from God. A quote from C.S. Lewis points to this:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Or as St Augustine puts it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

It is to Lewis’ credit that he managed, despite a young man’s atheism, to come to the realization that his heart was hungry for God, homesick for heaven, and that he needed to change course and set sail towards that Dawn that has no ending. It is of note, that it is likely that this longing was intensified by the death of his mother when he was a young boy.

Our own lives, indeed, the life of the world, is marked by many tragedies, disappointments and points of suffering. They are not the “cause” of our homesickness, but they easily contribute to its poignancy. I look back fondly and at times achingly to a time when my parents were alive and the Christmases then, for I am homesick for another time. But now I say my prayers for my dead parents. In one sense, they are not only part of my past but part of a future for I properly long. I am homesick for what is past, but I believe I will find a homecoming in heaven.

Even so, I know that much of my homesickness for the past is an illusion. Much of what I ever knew in the past was make-believe, or imaginary. For example, no child truly knows their parent. What we see of them is the tip of an iceberg, often surrounded with things we imagine to be true. A child might mention a moment that endures in their memory which the parent cannot even recall. All we could ever find, were we truly able to travel into the past, would be a shadow, a shade, a ghostly apparition that mocks reality itself. These things have no place in the true heart, the true home. The true heart, so often hidden from our awareness, is paradise. And, as such, it contains “many mansions.” Many things, even all things, dwell there, but not as they were. What we find in the depths of the true heart is Christ, and all things in Christ.

But our Lord came into this world to make it his home, but his own received him not. He knew the sense of homesickness as the home he offered all was rejected. We were as a stranger in a strange land indeed, a wanderer, seeking to show people the path of love.

This Christmas I would ask you to remember that Christ has come to us to make his home with us. There is no fuller way of living than to know the power of God who dwells with us if we let him. We will always be homesick if we do not receive Christ into our lives, and our lives will be filled with substitutes to try and fill that void. He has come to make his home with us, and to be our home, to welcome us strangers into the place that has been prepared for us. There we will be strangers no more; we may dwell in paradise – the heart’s true home.

Christmas Eve – 2022

Many of us have grown up with a widely held view that Christmas is a time for children. As children we believe in Santa Claus, but don’t look Santa Claus. The presents, the excitement, is a time for mounting excitement for children, with a stealthy Santa Claus making a climactic visitation on Christmas Eve to deposit presents under the Christmas tree while the children, hopefully, slept on. For adults, Christmas stirs up the memories of childhood. It brings seasonal rituals which unlock the past and move us by a strange compulsion to share childhood again with our children. We may gather around the tree to open presents, or share laden tables of festive food, pulling bon bons. Indeed, parents may so completely forget themselves that they end up on the floor having taken over their children’s Christmas toys! All this and much else tell us that Christmas is a time for children. 

Yet for Christians, Christmas itself summons us with a more compelling insistence which demands that we DO become as little children again. Our Lord himself tells us this is so; it is his Father’s plan for the whole of humanity — there is simply no room for those who consider themselves to be grown up, to be adult. For a Divine infant, a wordless Word, cries out from a stable in Bethlehem for the whole world to be silent and listen; so that we may learn to become as little children: as helpless, as vulnerable, as available for his Father, as he is. 

Our Lord does not offer us an adult world. Rather, He offers us himself. The adult world is one of nuclear madness and arms race insanity; impossible house prices and environmental catastrophe; ideological war and moral bankruptcy; technological enslavement and media addictive propaganda; of building walls rather than bridges. These, and a multitude of other ills, tell us all too clearly that it is adults who lay waste God’s world and deface God’s image in one another. But Christmas comes to rescue us from such destructive insanity, not by calling us to childish make-believe or adult fantasy, but by entering the miracle that is Christmas itself: God bringing to birth the Christ-child of Bethlehem, who is also the Christ-child who has come to dwell in you and me, and to destroy fear.

The angel tells the shepherds on that first Christmas: “Do not be afraid; for see: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

The first words of Christmas were “Do not be afraid.” The shepherds’ dark night sky was split open by blinding light, so the reason they were afraid is obvious to us, but these words, “Do not be afraid,” are words for us, too. 

The reason the angel gives for our fearlessness is that a Saviour is born to us this day. The world Our Lord was born into was full of problems and turmoil. The weight of the Roman occupation was felt by everyone, including these shepherds, it difficult for most people to see much hope. Every Christmas since the first one has happened in the shadow of war, famine, occupation, and uncertainty, even to today. Every Christmas since the first one has happened in a world where children have gone hungry and been abused and neglected. There has never been a perfect Christmas. Our Lord Jesus is always born into a adult world that is fearful and anxious.

Christmas brings a divine revolution to earth: the new age of the Child of which Christ is King. He is the infant Ruler who has set the stars dancing, the planets whirling, and the heart of all people alight with the joy and wonder of a Child. It is time to discover again this Child and his Divine Delight: to dance in time with the universe, sing for joy and laugh away the grimness of our self-destructive adult folly; to become the child I am at heart. Let this Christmas begin God’s revolution and his new age be its dawn. 

May the joy and Blessing of the Christ Child be with us all in this Holy Season, 

Based partly on a letter by Bishop David Robarts.