Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
December 19, 2021
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29
When John the Baptist declared that he was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said, he was calling himself a preacher. John prepares the way of the Lord Christ by preaching. This is the only way to make way for the Lord, because Christ can only be received through faith. And faith comes by hearing. John prepares the way of the Lord by bringing sinners to repentance. We are familiar with John’s Law preaching. He calls the Pharisees broods of vipers. He warns that the axe is laid to the root of the tree ready to cut down any tree that does not bear good fruits. He tells people who have plenty to share with those who have little. He tells tax collectors not to collect more than they are authorized, and soldiers not to extort money, but to be content with their wages. John dies preaching the Law, as he preached against King Herod’s sexual immorality, which led to his head being cut off.
Yet, John is also the greatest Gospel preacher who ever lived. As he preached the Law in unwavering strictness, so he proclaimed the Gospel in sweet purity. John preached the Law in order to make way for the preaching of the Gospel; he exposed people’s sins, so that he could share with them the remedy for their sin-sick souls.
There are plenty of popular televangelists and radio preachers, with swaths of listeners, clinging to their “practical” advice and feel-good preaching. For centuries, churches have heard nothing from their pulpits but lists of rules and virtues they must follow in order to live a Christian life and be saved. And even today, although churches tend to be mostly empty, podcasts multiply continuously with innumerable listeners seeking knowledge and advice that will make their lives better. Yet with thirteen simple words, John the Baptist preaches more than these talking heads on television, radio, podcasts, and yes, in pulpits say in their countless hours of yammering and blabbering.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This is a sermon that gives more hope and comfort than a thousand sermons, books, or podcasts. This is a sermon you cannot hear too many times. It has sustained the church for two thousand years. It has been cemented into our Sunday liturgy. It is a message that will prepare your heart to face death and meet your Maker.
Behold! This means, “Look!” John is not one of those Old Testament prophets, who look and inquire into their own prophecies, trying to inquire what person or time the Christ would come (1 Peter 1:10-12). No, John can see Jesus Christ before his very eyes. You can follow the direction of his finger and see Jesus before him. “Behold! Look. He stands in the midst of you, he who comes after me, who was before me!”
And this address is as urgent to us today as it was to those who could see Jesus walking along the banks of the Jordan River. Behold! Look! Whatever you were looking at before, stop and give your attention to Jesus. Whatever is occupying your mind right now, set it aside. Something more important demands your attention. Christ Jesus is here. We are not ignorant as the saints in the Old Testament were of when or who he would be. We know him. His Gospel has been given to us. We have his Baptism. He offers us his body and blood. And so, the call of John rings out into a twenty-first century with no sign of being silenced anytime soon. Behold! Turn your attention to Christ!
The word, “behold,” is a call to repentance. There are two words most commonly used in the Bible for repent. The one literally means to turn. The other literally means to change your mind. The word, ‘behold,’ demands that you turn away from what you are doing, what you are thinking, and focus on the one, who alone can save you.
What are we supposed to turn our gaze to? “The Lamb of God.” The title, “Lamb of God” has implications easy to recognize for anyone who knows the Old Testament. Lambs had been sacrificed to God since God first commanded Adam to sacrifice a beast, so that he could clothe himself and his wife and cover their shame (Genesis 3:21). Abel continued this practice by offering the first of his flock and their fat portions (Genesis 4:4). And God established the Levitical Priesthood and commanded the priests to offer a lamb sacrifice every morning and evening, not to mention the yearly sacrifice of the Passover lamb and many other sacrifices to be carried out by the descendants of Levi and Aaron.
John the Baptist, of course, is a Levite, the son of a priest named Zechariah. His mother was a daughter of Aaron, the first High Priest. Yet, John does not grow up to be a priest. He does not sacrifice lambs at the temple as his fathers before him did. Rather, John points to the Lamb who ends all lamb sacrifices. John acknowledges that the priesthood of Aaron must decrease and the priesthood of Melchizedek must increase.
By calling Jesus the Lamb of God, he is calling Jesus the Christ, the anointed sacrifice, prepared by God to make atonement for all sin. God commanded that they shed the blood of lambs, because without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. Sacrificial lambs needed to be without blemish, the best of their flock. The connotation was obvious. Lambs had their blood shed in order to save the lifeblood of people. The blood of lambs was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites as death passed over their houses and then struck the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12). The firstborn of Israel were ransomed with the blood of lambs.
And so, by calling Jesus the Lamb of God, he is calling him a sacrifice without blemish. He is blameless before God. He is without sin. By calling Jesus the Lamb of God, he is declaring that he will shed his blood for others, that he will forfeit his life to save others. There is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood, but the blood of bulls and goats and countless lambs cannot take away sins (Hebrews 9:22; 10:4). Only the Lamb of God can take away sins. Only the true Shepherd of his sheep, who takes on human flesh and fulfills the Law in their stead, the only man ever to live without blemish, who truly is their God, can wash away their sins with his blood. This is a unique Lamb of God. He is the only one. And John tells us to look to him.
What will this Lamb of God do? John answers us, “He takes away the sin of the world.” Isaiah prophesied that the Lord would lay upon the Christ the iniquities of us all and that he would die for our transgressions, going forth silently as a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53). Christ is blameless as a lamb prepared for sacrifice. Yet, he bears the sins of all, so that he may take them away with his own blood.
There is no message more comforting and pressing than this. You have no greater need than the forgiveness of sins. Sin is the cause of your death. Sin is the cause of your anxiety. The reason you have a troubled marriage, why you have enemies, why you feel pain, why you feel guilt and shame, why you are afraid to talk about certain things, why you fear death, why you are going to die. This all has to do with your sin. Your sin separates you from God. It creates doubt in your heart. Your sin warrants you eternal punishment in hell. We use euphemisms to cover up the ugliness of sin. We talk about being broken, imperfect, flawed, and many other expressions meant to soften the accusations of the Law. But it is sin. This is convicting. Sin means that you have committed the wrong. It is your fault. Sin means that you have broken God’s Law, that you have harmed others with your selfish words and actions, that you have lacked love and been rich in hate. Even worse, sin means that your offense is against the righteous God, who has the right to throw you in hell. Whoever thinks his sin is no big deal, not something worth addressing or worrying about, is a fool. Unless it is taken away, your sin will damn you to hell.
Yet, John proclaims that this Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world. Well, are you in this world? Then this Lamb of God takes away your sin. Now you see why John tells you to drop everything and look to him. This Lamb of God sheds his blood for you, so that your sin will be washed away. This is the heart of the Gospel. This is what we sing every Sunday. And we will sing his sermon as a hymn of praise to the Lamb of God as he sits on his throne for ever and ever.
He takes away the sin of the world! This gives you confidence to speak to God, to call Jesus your friend. Pop-culture has re-casted Jesus as a soft-spoken nice guy, who is accepting of everyone, who doesn’t rebuke, but ignores sin. This is how churches and religious organizations, who support and defend the most horrendous sinful behavior condemned by Scripture, still claim Jesus as their leader. They simply have reimagined Jesus. But Jesus is not approachable, because he doesn’t call sin, sin. Jesus isn’t your friend, because he calls wickedness good and ignores what the Law of God says. No, Jesus is approachable, because he has removed from you what is offensive to God. Jesus is your friend, because he has taken your sins away.
This proclamation of John truly is the greatest sermon preached by a mortal man. These are words that you can shout to Satan to get him to slither back into his fiery hole. These are words you can use to bind up the broken heart and comfort the troubled conscience. This sermon draws you near to God to pray to him in confidence, to praise him as your God and Lord. This message of comfort causes true repentance, a turning away from evil, and a change of mind. This message prepares the way of the Lord into your heart, so that you receive him in faith.
Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! The time to behold him is now. The time to believe on him and call upon him is now. He is your Savior. He is your victory over sin and death. Let this sermon be imprinted on your heart forever, so that you may dwell with Christ in victory forever.
Let us pray,
On my heart imprint Your image,
Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation! Amen.