Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Lamb of God (Epiphany 2 Year A)

Isaiah 49: 1-7
Psalm 40: 1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

We are still in the season of Epiphany . . . revealing, making known . . . where the God of Glory is revealed to humankind.

In some way each of our passages, this week, talk about this revealing of the God of Glory. However, I’m going to focus on our gospel passage. The revelation of Jesus as the lamb of God . John the baptiser proclaims, “here is the Lamb of God”.

Our interpretation and understanding of the phrase “the Lamb of God” is key to understanding how this proclamation reveals the God of Glory.

Typically, this has been tied to crucifixion, a lamb led to the slaughter, using imagery from Old Testament sacrificial law. Pictures (even those we make up in our own heads) always depict a pretty little lamb, happily skipping along to be sacrificed without a struggle or a murmur.

(This is not really true. If you want to know about the fear and resistance put up by God’s creatures as they are forcibly taken to be murdered ask Andy to recommend some of his animal rights’ videos like Meet your Meat)

This portrait of lambs, peaceful and calm is an image we have projected back onto our scriptures. We prefer it to the more truthful picture of violence and pain. Sometimes it is easier not to face the reality of the things depicted in the O.T.. Sometimes they are so out of our experience that they are impossible to imagine.

So we have to wonder about how those listening would take this title “Lamb of God” and see it as the revelation of God’s glory. John’s disciples were waiting for a strong leader, one who would stand up against the oppression and domination system they were under. How disappointing it would have been to see the mighty saviour revealed as a lamb. They wanted a revelation of power and strength not meekness and sacrifice! It would have been a bit disappointing for them

So, I want to read against the grain. That is when we look at the text and ask if there is another way of looking at the passage than the traditional way. I want to look for an alternative interpretation of the phrase “Lamb of God”. One that would make much more sense to me of how the revelation of Jesus as the Lamb of God would impact the people of that time. The impact was such that they would leave jobs, spouses, families etc. to follow him.

So I want to offer an interpretation that I actually found in several sources.

We must first understand how important watching the night sky and reading the constellations was to the people of the time. It was God’s way of revealing important events. At the beginning of Epiphany we read about the Magi following a star, reading the signs of the birth of the Messiah in the stars.

I want us to think specifically of the constellation, Aries. Both Jews and Greeks understood this as representing a male lamb.

Quote . . . “It is important to note that Aries is the first created, cosmic being, the first constellation in the zodiac, the centre and head of the cosmos as the astronomers say. Nigidius Figulus, first-century C. E., called Aries "the leader and prince of the constellations"; the Scholia in Aratum (545) relates that “the Egyptians say Aries is the head”; Nonnos says Aries “is the centre of the whole cosmos, the central navel of Olympus . . .”

This is taken from a large document which can be read here.

Also, it is worth noting that the passover was celebrated in their first month when Aries ruled the sky (high in the sky)

So, if we take our phrase “Behold the Lamb of God”, and read it in the mindset of the importance of the night sky we get a whole different set of imagery.

“Lamb of God” not a meek and mild sacrificial lamb but a rising, powerful, leader, centre of the universe, etc.

Perhaps this was what the followers of John immediately thought of when they heard John’s declaration. The God of Glory was being revealed. Their great hope of a powerful leader was being fulfilled. This hope would not only be for the Jewish people but would span many cultures.

I would want to add that this is a very male image. In some aspects could be thought of as almost warlike. Therefore we would need to continue to read against the grain other passages. Those which show that the power of Jesus was a very different sort of power. However, for today, I want to note that right at the beginning of the gospel, the author of John gives hope to the people. The Lamb of God is rising!

The Magi (Epiphany 1 Year A)

Matthew 2:1-12

We are now in the season of Epiphany.

The word Epiphany has the sense of making known, revealing. The commonest understanding of our passage is that the visit of the Magi showed Jesus as the one who would reveal God to humankind.

The Magi were visitors from the East. Although tradition now gives us three of them, our reading makes no such claim. It is interesting that for Matthew this is one of the significant events surrounding the nativity . . . no stories of the actual birth of Jesus, no mention of the stable, no shepherds watching their sheep by night. Interestingly, Matthew simply records the prophecy to Joseph that the child Mary is carrying will be the Messiah followed immediately by the Magi confirming this.

So who were these Magi?

The Encyclopedia Britannica says

magus plural Magi, member of an ancient Persian clan specializing in cultic activities. The name is the Latinized form of magoi (e.g., in Herodotus 1:101), the ancient Greek transliteration of the Iranian original. From it the word magic is derived.

Various theories have them travelling from Babylon (Iraq), Persia(Iran) or Arabia. They would not have wandered randomly to reach Bethlehem, but would have come via the ancient trade routes. Probably using horses initially and switching to camels for the desert. It was a journey of about a thousand miles and would take some considerable time. The infant Jesus would certainly have been well over a year old by the time they arrived.

As I read, again, the story of the visit of the Magi I see the values of inclusion and hospitality. (We will visit these concepts as we continue our journey through the Understandings)

This would have been an amazing occurrence . . .

God was doing something new and strangers were pointing the way.

Matthew, writing for a Jewish readership, tells how “outsiders” revealed the Sovereign One who was the God of glory.

This is a radical message the Magi are presenting “all are welcome”

To ponder . . .
if we had been present, would we have welcomed a bunch of strangers from Iraq or Iran even ones bearing gifts?

How would we have reacted . . .
Would we have been like Herod and wanted to kill them?
Would we have been like Mary and invited them into our home?

Hospitality is one of our community values. However, when I read this passage I realised our view is often too narrow, too small. It is not just about welcoming those who we know and like, but those who are radically different, total opposites. Those who we may consider ‘outsiders’ (Outside our faith, outside our values, outside our standards, outside our way of life, etc., etc. ) Yet, we never know, they may come bearing valuable gifts!

So we are here at the beginning of 2011. The years seem to be going by so quickly.

I pray that for each of us Jesus will be our star throughout this year. The one we follow, the one who guides and leads us. The journey may not be easy, may have some hazards along the way. (We may meet a Herod!). The journey may have unexpected turns and pauses. We may be given gifts by strangers. (Let us be like Mary and welcome them!)

My prayer is that we will all enjoy our journey and recognise those unexpected gifts in whatever way they are brought to us.