John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! - John 1:29
In this Sunday's gospel reading, John the baptist uses a phrase that anyone who knows our Sunday liturgy will recognize:
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.
We sing these words during the Eucharist many Sundays out of the year. It's one of those churchy phrases you get so familiar with that you can forget to pay attention to it at all. But calling Jesus the lamb of God is full of rich and ancient symbolism
The readers of John's gospel would have been well acquainted with the legacy of sacrifice. Throughout the old testament there are many stories of sacrifices made on altars, including the story we may find troubling with our modern sensibilities - the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Father Abraham was willing to give up even his own beloved son for God, and was about to do so when God provided a ram to sacrifice instead.
Human sacrifice was not uncommon in Abraham's time, but by John the Baptist's time, human sacrifice was no longer the norm. Instead, animal sacrifice was central to their liturgy. Worshipers would bring animals to the temple, often new lambs, as both an offering to God and as atonement for their sins. The priests would ritually slaughter the animal being careful about how the blood was poured out of the animal. They would eat some of it, and then burn the rest. By calling Jesus the Lamb of God, John was implying that Jesus was somehow God's sacrifice. That he would be ritually slaughtered. What a twist - God, not people, making a religious sacrifice.
We no longer sacrifice any living thing in our liturgy. However, during communion, we often name the Eucharist a "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.". Our Eucharistic prayers describe us as coming to the table to give ourselves - our souls and bodies - as living sacrifices to God. We proclaim Jesus' sacrifice by saying that Jesus' body is given for us. We say that his blood is poured out for us and for all for the forgiveness of sins. Next time you're at our service, notice how the image of sacrifice is interwoven into our prayers and our communion.
So what does this mean? Sacrifice is kind of a foreign idea to us. These days, we're more interested in having it all than giving stuff up. We understand that parents often sacrifice for their children, but few feel familiar - or comfortable - with the idea of parents sacrificing their children. Yet, Jesus often is quoted as saying that we are to put following God before everything in our lives - even our family.
Sacrifice is an important part of living a spiritual life. In the Christian tradition we say that we must die to self in order to live for God. What is that but sacrifice? Jesus advocates giving things away over and over in many different contexts - sacrificing those things that give us comfort and even a sense of safety in order to be ready to move when God calls. He advocates that we empty ourselves to make more room for God. And to quote John the Baptist, "He must increase, I must decrease."
The world is hungry for people willing to sacrifice their own comfort in order to serve the common good. We admire selfless leaders and people who choose to put others first. Organizations that do good in the world require their supporters to give of themselves sacrificially in order to move forward, either with their time, their skills or their funds. I'm sure we can all name people we know and admire who dig deep and give of themselves to causes they believe in. We may not like the concept of sacrifice, but we do know its value and its importance. And we can perhaps recognize that there is really good news in trusting that God so wants us to be healed and whole that God is willing to make sacrifices for us, also.
So while sacrifice is not a particularly popular virtue these days, the world really needs it - and as faithful people we need it, too. For it is in givingthat we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life..
I invite you to consider how you give of yourself - to God, to your loved ones, to your neighbors and to strangers. What do you sacrifice in order to serve something greater than yourself?