After the death of Quasimodo, Notre Dame needed another bell ringer. So they posted the position and a man came in with no arms wanting the job. The clergy weren’t sure he could do it, but he convinced them to let him try.
They climbed the bell tower and the guy ran toward the bell and hit it with his head. The bell rang out beautifully. So they gave him the job on the spot. He did this for the next weeks and month but then one day he went to ring the bell, tripped, bounced off the bell and fell to the sidewalk below. The priests ran out along with many in the congregation. One of the priests asked the other, “Did you know this guy’s name?” The second guy responded, “No, but his face sure rings a bell.”
Names are important. In our gospel reading today we hear, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Did you know that this name, “Lamb of God” is one that had never been used before in the Bible? People no doubt looked at John and wondered what he was talking about. You see, lambs were not used for sin offerings; they were used in other situations but the animals for sin offerings were typically bulls and goats. Jon was the only one who used this name, Lamb of God. He originated it and we heard it in today’s gospel reading twice.
So what is the significance of a title like this? Probably John had in mind the Passover Lamb. Later on St. Paul refers to Christ as our Passover Lamb. Every Sunday right after I break the consecrated bread, I say “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. This is a direct quote from 1Corinthians chapter 5. Lambs were used in the Passover celebration. During the first Passover, while the Jews were still slaves in Egypt they killed a lamb and then dabbed the blood of that lamb over the doorway and along the sides of the door. They did this so that the Death Angel did not come into their houses and kill their first-born children as he did in the Egyptian households. So the blood of a Passover lamb was used to avert death but the Passover Lamb was not used as a sin offering. John, being the son of a priest would know this.
So on the one hand we do not know exactly what John was thinking, but on the other hand the meaning of the phrase is quite clear. Jesus being the Lamb of God was going to be sacrificed in order to take away the sin of the world. An animal that was to be a sin sacrifice was tied up and put on the altar and the priest would slit its throat so that this animal would bleed to death in order to pay for the sin that was committed. A sacrificial animal used in Jewish worship was one that was supposed to be without spot or blemish, in other words, one that was perfectly healthy and not deformed in any way. The human corresponding to that state would be one who was without sin because sin causes us to be spiritually sick and deformed. So the human sacrifice would need to be without sin. There has been only one human without sin—the man Jesus Christ.
You should know that Jewish law strictly forbade human sacrifice. And yet, somehow, John knew Jesus was to be sacrificed for the sin of the world. He calls Jesus the Lamb of God, God’s lamb. The lamb God is going to use to take away the sin of the world. How does a sacrifice animal take away sin? Well, the animal doesn’t take it away exactly; it pays for it. This is something we as humans understand, doing wrong costs something; actions have consequences. A deliberately wrong action has to be paid for it somehow, someday. And this understanding is based on our ancient and maybe even unconscious understanding of justice. Wrongs need to be righted. Debts need to be paid. The books need to be balanced.
It is one thing to pay back money I have stolen or repair that what I have broken. It is one thing to say I am sorry to someone I have offended or hurt. But how are things made right that are too horrific to fix? How do we make right what horrors were inflicted upon the Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps? How do we make right the tortures and atrocities done by the soldiers of ISIS against the Yazidi and other Christians? All the horrors inflicted upon people under Stalin in the gulags; the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, the Trail of Tears against the Cherokees by the Americans, the crimes against slaves by slave owners not only in this country but over the past 6 thousand years all over the world. The list goes on and on. Time would fail us to reference all the horrible crimes done by humanity against their fellow humans. A simple “I am sorry” cannot make it right. A simple I repent and I will not torture or kill hundreds of people anymore will not balance the books. And how can things be made right when it is too late to take it back? In a more personal way, how can I make it right when it is too late to take back the harmful words I said; it is too late to take back my selfish actions. Or on the other side of the coin how do I make it up when it is too late to do or say the generous or kind thing I should have at the appropriate time? I know now what I should have done; but I did not do it. How can I make it up? How can justice be maintained? How do I pay back God for disobeying what He has told me to do, for rebelling against my creator, for committing cosmic treason?
The fact is, according to the Word of God, something has to happen to make things right again. Humanity’s evil needs to be rectified and must be atoned. My own misdeeds need to be paid for somehow. Your misdeeds need to be paid for. The wrong needs to be righted, the debt needs to be paid, and the books need to be balanced. Humanity is helpless. We are unable to right the wrongs that have been committed; we are unable even to pay our debts, unable to balance the books. Only someone without debt can pay the debt. Only someone in the right can right the wrong. Only someone who knows the full extent of the debts can balance the books. Only someone like God can do all this. Only Emmanuel, God with us, could help us. And so, since we could not help ourselves, God because he loves us, sent himself to help us. God provided a lamb, his lamb. God’s lamb paid for my and for your misdeeds, he paid for what you and I have done and what you and I have left undone. And beyond that, he has paid for the evil and sin of the whole world.
There is a story about Cyrus, the Emperor of the Persian Empire, the mightiest monarch of his day. In conquering a country he captured its prince and his family. When they were brought before him, the monarch asked this captured ruler, “What will you give me if I release you?” “Half of my wealth,” was his reply. “And if I release your children?” “Everything I possess.” “And if I release your wife?” “Your Majesty, I will give my life.” Cyrus was so moved by his sacrificial love that he freed them all.
This sacrificial love of God through Jesus is something that should move us; it should make us respond. In fact, it is being able to begin to understand this great love that God has for us that is fundamental to even becoming a Christian and it is imperative; it is mandatory to begin to grasp if we are going to grow as Christians. We should be moved by the great love Christ has demonstrated and should want to love God in return. It is out of responding to his love that we follow Christ with our time, abilities, and money. It is out of responding to his love that we try to help others around us.
Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. This name is important and what it means is important. May our understanding of Jesus being God’s Lamb who sacrificed himself for us, help us to once again to see God’s great love for us. Amen