It’s possible for Jesus to be among us and unknown. John the Baptist says, “But among you stands one you do not know.” The words of John on Christmas Day remind us of this: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” Even John the Baptist says, twice in our Gospel, “I myself did not know him.” So God makes Him known. In John’s words, “The reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Thus, what happened in the Jordan River, of which we heard last week, served to reveal Jesus to John, so that now John can say, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God,” and, what’s more, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
All things serve this purpose, to reveal and make known God and His Christ. Psalm 19 said it, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Paul told the Athenians, “God did this,” created the world, determined all things, gives sunshine and rain, “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”
But creation isn’t enough. Creation only shows us god with a lower-case “g.” Creation and nature, along with conscience reveal higher powers and providence, power and majesty, but can lead to so much other than Christ because of our sinful natures. Evidence: one billion Muslims, and hundreds of millions of Buddhists and Hindus and so on and forth. The true Light that gives light to every man remains a mystery. Until God unveils it. Thus the Church, her preachers, her means of grace, by which I mean the written Word, Baptism and Holy Communion, and even the Holy Spirit himself, the one who makes things known and reminds us of what we’ve forgotten.
The Church, her preachers, her means of grace, even the Holy Spirit, then, draw attention not to themselves, but Christ, Christ, Christ!
So the Church isn’t about a spectacle, or meetings, or organizations, but about Christ! The Church and individual Christian churches exist for this purpose: to preach Christ crucified and risen from the dead, to display publicly before the nations God’s Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
Preaching, too, isn’t about the person, his personality, his talents or skills, his wit and cleverness, but about Christ! Thus pastors wear vestments, to cover up the man as much as possible, so that it might be about the message, about Christ.
The means of grace – God’s Word and sacraments – aren’t about the fine taste, the temperature of the water, the elaborateness or simplicity of the ritual, but about Christ! They exist to bring to us God’s promises: that He can be known, so He wrote about Himself; that He can wash away sins, so He gave us a bath; that He can feed our hungers, so He gave us a meal of forgiveness of sins!
Even the Holy Spirit isn’t just about the Holy Spirit. He spends His time descending upon Christ and authoring books about Christ! He spends His time as the Counselor, the Encourager of the Church, reminding us about Christ, teaching us about Christ, carrying along God’s prophets and apostles to make sure they got every jot and tittle, crossing every “T”, dotting every “I,” giving them the very words that increase Christ and decrease all else.
Because Christ, and no other, takes away the sins of the world, lifts them up, executes them, destroys them, takes them upon Himself, those sins attached to you, so that you no longer experience the punishment they deserve.
Not just yours, but the sins of the world, the cosmos, as the Greek has it in John 1. Jesus didn’t take some limited few sins, atone for some limited few, die for some limited few, become sin for some limited few. He takes away the sins of the world. Which is why we sing before we receive His precious body and blood: “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” Because it’s unbelieveable! “Can it be, really, for me?” And the Word proclaims that it is. In his lectures on Isaiah 53 Luther said, “These words, OUR, US, FOR US, must be written in letters of gold. He who does not believe this is not a Christian.”
We need this Word, we need these golden letters, for John himself convicted us of our need for such a taking away with a similar use of OUR, US, and FOR US in equally large letters – though now black and terrible, bloody and destructive. He called us to repent in Advent. He reminded us of the ax at the root of the trees, of our failure to produce the fruit that faith produces. He convicts all, because all sin. He kills us all, because we are all dead in trespasses and sins. We all look to ourselves as the highest good and for the highest good. We all selfishly serve our own needs first. We all foolishly think we know God better than He knows Himself and so decide to do this and follow that course of action. We go where and when we please where and when we will with little to no regard for what God says or desires. John doesn’t limit his indictment and verdict. It too strikes the world, the cosmos!
And what’s worse, this conviction, the preaching of the Law, takes nothing away. It heaps guilt upon us. It causes us to perceive our sin, as Paul says in Romans 3, make us conscious of our sin. But guilt remains, in fact increases. The Law seems to harm us, because getting killed hurts. And the Law kills with its accusations, it heaps up sin in abundance: “Don’t lust! Don’t hate! Don’t hurt! Don’t harm! Don’t overindulge! Don’t look the other way! Don’t compromise!” God’s law heaps up sin upon us without limit and kills us without limit.
But again, neither is God’s grace limited! This is how gracious and merciful God is. Epiphany reveals this about God: “The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world!” Epiphany reveals that where sin increased, grace increased all the more. Epiphany reveals that while the whole world is subject to sin, Christ came and took away the sin of the whole world.
But, as we learn from the Gospel today, not just in some invisible transaction did this removal take place. A real transaction happened, visibly. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world, He became sin for us, our sin. He took the challenge of being righteous and holy, to fulfill all righteousness, and He knocked it out of the park. He also took the challenge of becoming sin and an offering for sin. And knocked that out of the park too when He let Himself be forsaken by God and nailed to the cross. The proof is in the resurrection: God declared Him with power to be the Son of God by raising Him from the dead. For us, for our justification.
But that happened two thousand years ago. I can’t kneel at the cross and drink Christ’s blood. I can’t put my fingers into His wounds. As Luther says in the Large Catechism, all this is done and accomplished. Christ did what Christ needed to do for us. It’s an historical fact and reality. But it remains only that, historical fact, unless the Holy Spirit brings what Christ did to us, or, in Luther’s vivid picture, if the Spirit makes sure to dig up and unbury this treasure so it might be received and enjoyed. Thus Paul speaks of faith: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith.” And later, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” Or, in the words of Ambrose, which our Lutheran fathers incorporated into our own confession of faith, “But he who is righteous has righteousness given to him because he was justified from the washing of Baptism. Faith, therefore, is that which frees us through the blood of Christ.”
These things the Spirit keeps in his quiver to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify work. John points to Jesus and says, “Look, the Lamb of God,” and his disciples immediately peel off. They follow Jesus for an afternoon, listen for an afternoon to the Word, and Andrew cries to Peter, “We’ve found the Messiah!” Faith! Saving faith! In Christ! Righteousness credited, as to Abraham!
It boggles the mind that God, who whispered the universe into existence, would work in such a mediate and resistible way. That He would choose to tell me everything I need to know about sin, death, forgiveness, and life, that is, about Jesus, in Words, water, meal, through fallible preachers and a sin-ravaged Church. That He would assign His Holy Spirit, God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, such humble looking work. That He would blow like the wind, where and when He pleases, so that some believe, but not others. Oh, heavy burden!
But believe it or not, this is how God cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of war! He sends John with water, with Baptism, with a voice. He sends the Spirit as a dove. He tears open the heavens and speaks. All to see! “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” Pinch yourself. Are you flesh and blood? Ask the man next to you, “Am I here?” You are. You are of the world, thus condemned by your sins to eternal death in hell. But you are also of the world whose sins Jesus took away. God speaks this forgiveness. God pours this forgiveness upon you at the font. God lets you taste and see how good He is when you receive Christ at the altar. You. Me. Us. Our sins. For us. For our salvation. No longer unknown. Amen.