Lamb of God

Agnus Dei The AScapegpat by James Tissot

Agnus Dei The AScapegpat by James Tissot

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

This acclamation has been ringing in my ears, rising from my lips, filling my thoughts for the past few weeks. Now we are into Christmas and meditations on the Incarnation seem more fitting than those on Atonement, but the Spirit moves as it will.   Advent  2017 was for me a “little Lent,” more than I have known before – a time of repentance, reflection, and longing for a Savior.

I have been thinking about what it means to “take away the sin of the world.”  Why does John the Baptist say “take away” instead of “forgive” or “pardon?” Those are words which I heard more frequently in church growing up. Teachings on personal justification, the cross, and Christ’s sacrifice were plentiful, but I don’t recall hearing a sermon on this particular verse from John.

Before proceeding, I must warn the reader that I am no theologian.   What is written here is not meant as doctrine or a lesson in biblical languages.  I have never studied Hebrew or Greek.  Even so, I know the Holy Spirit delights in our contemplation of Scripture.  It is the Spirit’s work to grant wisdom and revelation.  I feel the Lord’s pleasure when I open  Blue Letter Bible and begin poking around, asking questions, so I am bold to record these thoughts for further contemplation.

The Greek word for “take away” used in John 1:29 is “airo” which means “to lift up” or “to lift and carry away.”  It is very similar to the Hebrew word “nasa” which also means “to bear” or “to carry.”  John the Baptist, of course, knew the Hebrew word “nasa.”  So did John the Evangelist who recorded, in Greek, this profession of Jesus’ identity.  Here is why that word “nasa” is so important.

In Exodus 34, when YHWH reveals the Name to Moses, He says:

"YHWH,  YHWH God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."

The word translated “forgiving” in the Name of God is “nasa.”  A more literal translation might be “YHWH… who bears away iniquity and transgression and sin.”  When John the Baptist cries out “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he ties Jesus to the name of YWHW in the ears of his Jewish audience.  Jesus emphasizes this connection to YHWH’s name when He prays to His Father in John 17.   “I have manifested Your Name.”  This was Jesus’ work on earth – to reveal the Father.  It has always been the nature of the Father to carry our sins. 

Is there a difference between “forgiving” and “taking away?” 

I know that God forgives sin, and I am beyond thankful that He does!  I desperately need forgiveness. I would die under the weight of guilt and shame without His mercy.  I long to be cleansed, changed and made pure.  I love Jesus for His sacrifice, for His personal promises.

But as I mature, I realize I need much more than personal forgiveness.   My sin hurts other people and personal justification does not heal the hearts of those I have wounded.  This world will never be right unless there is a Savior who can take away our sin, who can make all things new and set all things right.  I long for a Savior who will not only forgive me, but who can redeem the wrongs I cannot undo. Who will judge on behalf of the oppressed and lift the needy from the ash heap.  Whose salvation is so mighty, so complete that slaves stolen from Africa will bless His Name and rejoice forever in His justice.  A Savior so glorious that those lost in war, even in genocide, will count their sufferings as “momentary afflictions” in light of their joy and consolation. This world needs a Savior who can carry away the consequences of Adam and Eve’s primal sin – the sin which opened the door of death, sickness, and pain of all kinds.

In the in law of Moses, YHWH instructs Israel to observe a Day of Atonement once a year.  On this day of fasting and rest, three sacrifices are made.  A bull is sacrificed for the high priest’s personal sin and the sin of his family.  Then a goat is sacrificed for the sin of Israel. One goat for a whole people.  Rather amazing.  Regarding the blood sacrifice, the Lord says, “The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood which makes atonement for one’s life.”  This is the way I have grown up understanding the sacrifice of Jesus.  His blood makes atonement for my sin.  Thanks be to God!

But there is another sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement - the scapegoat.  In this sacrifice a live goat is brought to the high priest who lays both hands on the animal’s head and confesses all the sins of Israel.  Verbal confession of sin is not necessary for the blood sacrifice, but it is required over the scapegoat which then carries Israel’s sin away.  Lev. 16:22 “The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”   And yes, the word “bear” is “nasa.”  And the wilderness is where John the Baptist finds Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Jesus, I love you for taking away the sin of the world!  I long for You to return and make all things new. Merciful Father, YHWH , bearer of our sins, I believe You are true to Your word.  There is a day coming when “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  Even so, Jesus, Lamb of God, come quickly!

The Bride and the Cross - Part III

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. Dominic

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. Dominic

The Son was prepared for the wedding through the Incarnation and the Cross.

The Bride is also prepared for the wedding through the cross.

As we said earlier, a Bride and a Groom must share the same nature in order for a marriage to be valid.  The Son humbled Himself and took on flesh for His part.  But He was still sinless, and we were not.  The cross was necessary to take away our sins.

John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Bridegroom.  And he understood that his own ministry prepared the way of the Bridegroom.  John called people to repent of their sins, and this was crucial. It remains crucial for prophets and pastors to call people to repentance.  But when John saw Jesus approach Him, John called out “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  Friends of the Bridegroom call the Bride to repentance, but only the Lamb, only the Son, can take away her sin.

The cross is the means by which the Bride is washed clean.   The blood Jesus spilled on the cross takes away our sin. But the mystery of the cross runs even deeper.  In the Incarnation, Jesus took on our nature to become like us.  Through His death on the cross, Jesus invites us to partake of His nature.

Early church fathers saw a parallel between the creation story and the crucifixion.  In Genesis, God puts Adam into a deep sleep.  He then opens Adam’s side, removes a rib, and fashions Eve, his bride, from that rib.

In a similar way, Jesus was put into the deep sleep of death.  A spear pierced His side, and water and blood gushed forth.  Early church fathers saw the water and the blood as symbols of baptism and communion – the two signs by which Christians are marked and changed, separated from this world. This is the cleansing which transforms us into a fitting Bride.   Jesus said unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have no part of Him.  These are shocking words, but the transformation which must take place is shocking.  We must take on His nature, and the cross provides the only path for this transformation.

So just as the cross is the glory of the Son, it is also the glory of the Bride.
But there is a further mystery of the cross.  Jesus calls the Bride to take up her own cross and follow Him

Here I want to tell you a funny personal story about my courtship with Thomas.

Thomas began pursuing me when were both in college.  He spent a few months in Taiwan, visiting his aunt and uncle who were missionaries, and while he was there, he remembered me from our high school youth group and decided I might make a good wife.  So when he came back to Texas, he started calling.

What he did not know is that I had just sworn off men.  While he was away, I was breaking off a serious, but unhealthy relationship with another boyfriend.  So when Thomas started calling me, my heart was still hurting.  I was afraid that I could not be trusted with romantic relationships.  I was afraid that God was disappointed in me.  I was simply afraid, and so I did not return Thomas’ calls.  Now I am not sure why, but Thomas kept calling, for a whole month, and I did not respond.

I did not respond because I did not want to mess up another relationship.  But I knew that Thomas was an exceptional man!  I admired him greatly.  In fact, I had once told myself, “I want to marry a man like Thomas Cogdell” – never imagining that the real Thomas Cogdell would be interested in me.  So I went to my former boyfriend who knew Thomas from church, I told him my situation, and that young man spoke the wisdom of God to me.  He said, “Amy, you would be a fool not to date Thomas Cogdell!”

So the next time Thomas called, I answered the phone and agreed to see a play with him and his sister. This seem to encourage him, so he proposed another date. Here was Thomas’ idea of a good second date.

“Amy,” he asked, “would you come with me next Saturday to an abortion protest and get arrested?”

What young man in his right man proposes a trip to jail as a first date?
What woman in her right mind accepts?

Well, I did.  I was arrested for criminal trespass and spent the night in a very dirty, uncomfortable cell. I went to another protest, was arrested again, and ended up spending 30 days in jail.  30 glorious days coming to know the tender heart of Jesus for His hurting sheep.  30 days in which I saw Jesus heal people.  30 days which changed the course of my life.  Those days in jail are a treasure to me.

I was thinking back on those early days of courtship with Thomas recently, wondering whatever made me say yes to such a proposal.  The truth is that I had not thought much about the tragedy of abortion before Thomas invited me to be arrested.  I did not go to jail out of passion for a cause.

I did not go to jail for love.  At the time, my heart was still numb.  I was not in love with Thomas.

But I did admire him.  I respected him.  I trusted him more than I trusted myself.  If Thomas thought going to jail was the right thing, then I felt it must be.  Even though I missed class.  Even though going to jail jeopardized my grades and put a mark on my criminal record. Even though it was a little scary.

When I was thinking about those days recently, I laughed to think how much my earthly husband resembles my Heavenly Husband, Jesus.  “Take up your cross and follow Me,” is a daring invitation to one’s Bride.  Most people will say “no thank you” to such an invitation.  The promise of suffering does not sound so romantic to our ears.

But Jesus is good and can be trusted.  And for those who will take up their cross and follow Him, their cross becomes their glory and their victory, just as it is the glory of the Son.

At the last supper Jesus is praying to His Father and He speaks these words which are so beautiful, so powerful that we hardly dare to believe them. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one. John 17:22

What is this glory? It is to be like Jesus, to share His nature and character. We partake in His glory when we manifest the name of the Father, like Jesus did.  We carry His glory when we are kind and merciful, when we forgive sin. We carry His glory when we proclaim good news to the poor and the captives.  We carry His glory when we practice justice and defend the weak.  But we carry His glory most clearly when we suffer with Him.  When we take up our cross and follow Him

The first apostles were martyred for their witness, and in their death, they carried His glory.  St. Francis fasted and lived in extreme poverty, and in that suffering he also carried the glory of Jesus.  Our Anabaptist brothers and sisters refused to fight in the military; they refused to even to defend themselves, and so they chose to embrace suffering for the sake of Jesus.  The world takes notice when people lay down their lives for Jesus.

For the past five years, Thomas and I have had the honor of partnering closely with a team of friends, of spiritual fathers and mothers, in this work of Wittenberg 2017.  I have seen the glory of Jesus in them – Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Free Church brothers and sisters, Messianic Jews – and my heart is closely united with them.  I love them.  And in working with them, I have come to see the wisdom of Jesus.  Doctrinal discussion is good, but in itself, it will not bring unity. What unites us is the glory of Jesus.  When we carry His glory, we bear witness to His name – and if we love Him, we will love anyone who carries His glory.  And if we love Him fully, we will take up our cross and follow Him.  We will lay down our lives for one another, because that is the glory The Bridegroom shares with the Bride.

Pleasing vs Enjoying

 Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honour Christ as he desires. For a person being honoured finds greatest pleasure in the honour he desires, not in the honour we think best. Peter thought he was honouring Christ when he refused to let him wash his feet; but what Peter wanted was not truly an honour, quite the opposite!  - St. John Chrysostom

Drawing by Eric Carpenter

Drawing by Eric Carpenter

Some months ago I heard a marriage counselor speak at Hope Chapel on the topic of sexuality. He presented an idea which has changed the way I relate to God, and to my husband as well. He began by posing this question to the men. "What is more exciting and fulfilling to you as a lover - having your wife work hard to please you, or knowing she really enjoys your touch?" The answer is clear.  We all want to be enjoyed more than we want to be pleased.

The problem with trying to please a person is that we can never truly know when we succeed.  We cannot get inside another person's head.  But we are fully aware of our own pleasure, and we can communicate that.

God is a Lover.  Scripture says so.  Jesus became a man to woo, to win and cleanse a Bride. There is no more romantic story than that! As a Bridegroom, Jesus delights when we enjoy His presence, just as He loved Mary's attention when she sat at His feet in Bethany.  Mary chose what was best for her, certainly, but also what Jesus most desired.  This is what He still desires - the affection of the Beloved.

Of course there are many ways to honor and please our Lord.  Jesus is not only a Bridegroom. He is our Lord, our Teacher, our Savior and our Brother.  It is right that we should serve Him with the work of our hands, as Martha did.  In fact, this practical labor will serve as a basis for judgment. Jesus tells us that whoever feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, cares for  the sick and visits the imprisoned renders that kindness directly to Him. (Matt. 25)  It is beautiful that Jesus identifies with us this closely, and in doing so, He binds us to one another.

In doing the will of the Father, we become mothers, brothers and sisters to Jesus. This is a glorious calling!  Still, there is a deeper intimacy which Jesus longs for, but cannot demand, and that is simply to delight in His presence.

Fire and Flood

A photo of me walking through our 35th St. duplex after the fire.  March 31, 1996

A photo of me walking through our 35th St. duplex after the fire.  March 31, 1996

I mentioned in my last post that Thomas and I lost a home to fire when our first two children were very young. Fires are traumatic.  We didn't sleep well for awhile.  I had trouble leaving the house. Letting my children out of sight was harder still, even when they were in the care of trusted friends or family.  The biggest stress was a lack of privacy. Though we were able to move into the spacious Cogdell family home, it was not our own. I, more than Thomas, felt the strain of being a guest; and sadly, I passed that stress along to the little ones. Overnight our family patterns changed.  I no longer allowed Noah to get his own snacks, or make messes in the living room.  I felt uncomfortable taking a nap in the middle of the day, and since I wasn't sleeping well at night, I was chronically tired. I cringed every time the kids cried, worried about bothering Thomas' parents because I knew that they too had lost a great deal of peace and privacy.

But that fire was also a blessing we would not trade. Through it we learned how much we were loved, and how beautiful the Body of Christ can be. Before we could ask for help, people from our church were on the scene. They saw we were too overwhelmed to make decisions, so they quietly went to work, looking for tasks to do.  A group of women gathered every dish that was not broken, distributed them among themselves, and took them away.  A few weeks later they were returned, scrubbed clean from any trace of soot.  I cried knowing what a labor of love that was. Removing soot is no easy job!

Someone else bagged clothes that were not burned and took them home to wash.  Not many clothes were salvageable, but what a gift it was for someone else to do the sorting! The Red Cross showed up within hours, giving us coupons for food, shoes and a new mattress. Friends brought meals. Caroline took our children to play at her house while Phillip came with a giant shovel and scooped  ash off the floor.  I am not sure why that particular act of kindness touched me so much, but I will never forget the sight of Phillip wielding that shovel. I would not have had the energy or even the thought to clear the floor; but his quiet, solemn work brought order in the midst of chaos. It felt holy to me, rather like a burial.

I remember lying in bed talking to Thomas about how much love had been lavished on us.  We were humbled, changed, woven more closely into the Body of Christ by this great debt of love. I asked my husband several times, "What happens when a whole community is struck by disaster?  When everyone is so overwhelmed that there is no one to help? How do people survive without this kind of love?"

When I see photos of the flooding in Houston, this questions comes to mind again.  What happens when an entire city is traumatized? How will they experience the love of Christ and the provision of their Father in Heaven?

In the past 20 years I have become more confident of the Father's ability to provide in the wasteland.  I pray with hope that many brothers and sisters will experience Hurricane Harvey as a blessing as well as a trauma.  I know this will not be the case for all.  Much will depend on the way the Body of Christ responds to this disaster.  I am praying that we will love like the Good Samaritan, like Jesus has loved us.  Kindness like we experienced after our fire changes lives.

The homily from today's Office of Readings is particularly apropos.

From a homily on Matthew by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop.

Do you want to honour Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honour him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me. What we do here in the church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.

  Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honour Christ as he desires. For a person being honoured finds greatest pleasure in the honour he desires, not in the honour we think best. Peter thought he was honouring Christ when he refused to let him wash his feet; but what Peter wanted was not truly an honour, quite the opposite! Give him the honour prescribed in his law by giving your riches to the poor. For God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts.

Lord, have mercy!

 

A family in Houston waits to be rescued.  Photo from CNN.

A family in Houston waits to be rescued.  Photo from CNN.