Sermon preached at Clam Falls Lutheran Church, Jan. 15, 2023.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…
While all Scripture is inspired by God, not all things it says are as important as others.
In our Gospel reading today we hear one of the most profound and important statements from all of Scripture:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
What does this mean?
First and foremost, most study Bibles in their notes will make an immediate reference here to Exodus 12, where we read about the Passover event that finally caused Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
Here, the Israelites were commanded to paint the blood of a lamb over their door, and when God’s Angel of Death passed over them that evening, their firstborn sons would be spared.
Unlike the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. They, alternatively, would pay the price for their sins against the Lord and His people.
To put it bluntly, God would demand their blood.
Cue Isaiah chapter 43, as God speaks to His chosen people Israel:
“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life…”
Likewise, Proverbs 21:18: “The wicked become a ransom for the righteous, and the unfaithful for the upright…”
Throughout the Old Testament in fact, God is often reminding the Israelites that they were saved in part through the loss of the Egyptians’ firstborns.
In short, their firstborn children were sacrificed that the Israelites might have life!
God’s justice here is truly a help to the oppressed godly ones – a balancing of the scales weighed against them!
Defeat to those who rebel vs their God and His eternal will!
To them, God’s righteous anger, born of His Father’s heart for His children, is Gospel.
Come quickly Lord Jesus!
Yes, God desires all – without qualifications – to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Pharaoh’s stubbornness aside, the Lord really would have His Word be preached to all, and means that it would be effective (or efficacious) when and where it pleases Him… as the Christian faithful have always insisted.
And God gets all the glory for this!
That said, the road is narrow. Not all will be saved, and those who aren’t get all the blame for this.
During the course of time, some who resist Him, in fact, will perish that others will live…
Salvation and damnation go hand in hand, and one will not be had without the other…
And believers will rejoice in God’s good victory.
Still, the Exodus passage might seem like an odd passage to think about when hearing “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
While it is true that Jesus Christ, being the Lamb of God, is the fulfillment of the lambs that were sacrificed so that the Angel of Death would pass over homes covered with animal blood…
…the flip side of that is that the Lord does not appear to be taking away the sins of Israel much less the world here!
Rather, again, we see here that the sins of the world demanded blood… their own blood… the blood of their firstborns.
Some real violence was involved…
So should we really be thinking of this in regard to the Lamb of God passage in John?
Perhaps we might find some more understanding by looking at passages from Leviticus 16:21-22?
This is the passage about the “scapegoat”.
Here, Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron, laid his hands on the head of a live goat, confessed over its head all of Israel’s sins, and simply sent it into the wilderness.
The goat, then, took away, carried away, all of Israel’s sins…
And yet today many people talk about scapegoating in an interesting way, bringing violence back into the picture.
This culminates in scapegoat theory, featuring the “scapegoat mechanism”.
The idea here is that when things get hard and people are in denial of their own role in said difficulties, they, unconsciously or unknowingly, shift the blame onto innocent victims.
As a definition of “scapegoat theory” puts it: it is an
“an analysis of violence and aggression in which individuals undergoing negative experiences (such as failure or abuse by others) are assumed to blame an innocent individual or group for causing the experience…”
One passage from an encyclopedia I looked at explains this theory – articulated most fully by the French Christian philosopher Rene Girard – in the following way:
“When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy… The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.”
While there are certainly all kinds of things to question in Girard’s thought, we certainly can see that there is at least something to it.
We might think, for example, of what actually happens later on in the Gospel of John. In John 11, right after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, we read:
“Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man[, Jesus,] is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
Very interestingly, the Gospel of John goes on:
“Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one.
So from that day on they plotted to kill Him….”
So, yes, violence is certainly back in the picture here…
Even if the Bible’s picture of the scapegoat is a bit different – and does in fact seem to be a great candidate for just what the Baptist had in mind when he exclaimed what he did about Jesus – it is truly interesting the parallels that one can find in the world that seem to go hand-in-hand with the “Scapegoat Mechanism “idea…
I wonder if we could possibly say that even some of the best of fallen people… those of us who do less evil than most… nevertheless are at times at least unconsciously tempted to resort to scapegoating…
…in efforts to keep or restore power, privilege, and/or peace…
Anyway you slice it, ritual acts of violence, ritual acts of sacrifice have always been a part of our world.
Sometimes it is quite overt. God consistently warned the Israelites to avoid the pagan nations around them who sacrificed their own children to their gods such as Molech…
Ever since the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, all animal sacrifices were swept away in the Western world’s major cultural centers…
And so, some one thousand years later, when the Conquistadors of Spain came to the Americas and encountered a massive system of human sacrifice among the Aztecs, they were absolutely horrified and shocked by the unimaginable things they discovered.
And even when it is not so overt, the reality of the need for sacrifice and atonement – for blood – is always at least just above or below the surface of man’s life.
In his book The Revenge of Conscience, explaining that “[t]he need to atone arises from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid” and that the conscience can go very wrong (being wrongly formed), J. Budziszewski shares one jarring example of this from many he learned about.
A woman had two abortions. The first was to punish her husband who had an affair. The second she said was to punish herself for taking the life of her first child. Trying to atone for her sin apart from God, she said she wanted to be able to hate herself more for what she did to the first baby. 
In addition to all of this, animal sacrifice has been a part of Hinduism for thousands of years. While cows are sacred, goats, chickens, sheep, water buffalo, and many other animals are sacrificed to Hindu gods and goddesses.
In Orthodox Judaism and Islam today, sacrifice remains a critical component of their religion. Concepts of forgiveness and God’s favor are tied up with the meritorious sacrifices that are offered by those seeking to be justified by the Divine.
And not just to gods. Lutheran missionaries in Madagascar today will talk about in the animist religion that remains there, men and women will often offer sacrifices to their dead ancestors, in order to appease them and get them to be favorably disposed to them.
None of this is what God desires…
However, on the other hand, perhaps many in these cultures and communities understand something that Christians often forget:
When we feel like we deserve earthly blessings and are entitled to them, we are less apt to be thankful, and then find ourselves getting caught up in things that take us away from the things that matter most, like attending to God’s commands….
…not primarily out of some servile fear, of course, but out of genuine love for Him and all the goodness He has shown us… who don’t deserve any of it.
A pastor friend of mine put it this way in one of his sermons:
“In [non-Christian] cultures, religion is more about giving and sacrificing. Yes, it’s a worship driven by fear not love. But there is a sense, in the best versions, that the creatures owe the creator worship and praise; and he owes them nothing. Theoretically, even if there wasn’t an afterlife, it would still be worthwhile going to the temple, to pay respects, give thanks and adore God…”
Again, all of this also relates to the Christian religion as well.
Unlike the pagan counterfeits that have mimicked the true God and true faith since the time of Babel, Christianity never promoted human sacrifice.
And, of course, the blood of bulls and goats and lambs was never supposed to be a way to get an angry deity on your side – it was rather the means that God provided to bless and forgive the sins of His people, to connect with them, to dwell with them.
So with that in mind, there are a few more aspects of sacrifice from the Bible that we should mention, things that our text for this morning should make us think about: The Day of Atonement and the daily sacrifices…
The Day of Atonement was a key festival in Israel’s life. On this day, the High Priest would offer a sacrifice for the nation’s sins, as they repented with fasting, dust, and ashes…
And not only this, but sacrifices involving lambs were also performed daily at the temple in Jerusalem… Every morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people (see Exodus 29:38-42, for example)…
All of this is why a friend of mine, in his role as a religion teacher at a Lutheran High School, would annually take his classes to a farm in order to witness an animal being slaughtered.
He had the right idea.
It is critical that we understand the cost of life, the weight and the heaviness. And that the life is in the blood – and that there is likewise no forgiveness of sins without the corresponding shedding of blood….
For as the book of Revelation puts it, the Lamb of God was slain from the very foundation of the world.
God instituted the sacrificial system in the Old Testament for a reason.
Even though it, like the indulgences racket in Reformation times, was abused and became a massive system willing kill even thousands of animals a day and take advantage of the common people in its efforts to perpetuate itself… (see Jesus’ anger in the Temple Courts) it was nevertheless originally set up by God to comfort His people and to point them and us to the the True Lamb of God….
And again, the Lamb of God was slain from the very foundation of the world…
God foresaw Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and before they were even actually created decided to go forward with His project, with the Lamb of God slated to come on the scene, clear up the mess…
…and bring not a good creation to maturity or perfection or completion, but a fallen creation suffering and groaning immensely from its sin to maturity or perfection or completion….
So we see through all of this though that it is not only that the blood of God’s enemies must flow because of their sins….
The sins of God’s people themselves have always needed to be dealt with, and they are definitively dealt with in the death of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who is not only the Savior of those who believe, but of all men.
When the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23 writes that the wages of sin is death, he does not mean that these are the wages for some men, but all.
And all of a man’s sins – by which God demands their blood, their life – are finally committed against God alone.
David writes in the Psalm a line that I am sure most all of us here know well:
“Against You, You only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in Your sight…”
He goes on to say, however:
“…so that You may be proved right when You speak
and blameless when You judge.”
So David confesses as he does primarily because matters pertaining to our accountability ultimately lie in the Lord’s hands and judgements…
And, of course, the Lord judges that when people sin against His people, they sin against Him as well!
So, one would be reading this passage incorrectly to conclude from it that since every sin is really finally against God… that the sins that we commit against others do not matter!
Oh, they do. They certainly do.
When we do not treat others the way that God commands that we treat them, we hurt them.
Yes, sin hurts people. And when we think about hurting others, we can and should think about wounding them, physically or otherwise.
This really is not just a metaphor I am using.
Of course, the most graphic picture of this is the blood that flows because of the wound, because of the hurt. And of course, given that the life is in the blood, with the loss of blood is the loss of life, resulting in death…
These terrible wounds that cause this terrible spiritual bleeding and imminent spiritual death are not, however, always so clear.
For the trick is that when we talk about sin and the hurt it causes, sometimes people know with confidence they are sinning vs. others, transgressing vs. others, and sometimes they do not.
Sometimes people know with confidence they are being sinned against, transgressed against, and sometimes they do not.
Still, God’s Law accuses and condemns our sin, not just subjectively, but objectively.
And it is not the law that makes us objectively guilty, but the law rather reveals our sin, which, again, we may or may not experience guilt about subjectively.
If we do not expose our children to the Word of God, for example, we really and truly do hurt them, regardless of how we or they feel.
For we all find life in the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ.
And His Words are Spirit and life. All truth is God’s truth (Justin Martyr), and we are all meant to live from truth, from true words, from true teaching… we are to live from every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth.
If we do not give the young what they truly need we stunt and even diminish the growth in grace that God means for them to have.
And, this, of course, is the underlying cause of all of the problems, the hurt, the blood, the death, in this world.
And since the Fall into sin, it has ever been such, world without end…
But there is redemption as well, so that this world without end will be renewed, and be a place truly worthy of God’s and our eternal dwelling…
How is all of this made new?
Because of the Lamb sacrificed on the Altar.
God allows, and Jesus embraces, being punished in our place.
Being crushed for our iniquities.
Being pierced for our transgressions.
All as Isaiah prophesied.
How does all of this work? Why does this happen?
Some Christians shy away from these questions. They want to simply talk about how Christ’s death removes sin, but not really go further.
The vicarious satisfaction for sin?
Propitiation of God’s wrath?
And yet, there are many atonement passages from the earlier church fathers (which Eastern Christians respect) that go hand-in-hand with the concerns that Western Christians typically focus on:
- John Chrysostom talking about the punishment we deserved.
- St. Cyril of Jersualem talking about how Jesus “staved the wrath of God”
- And [even] Gregory Palamas states how a sacrifice was needed reconcile the Father on high with us… the human race.
Why does Christ die?
It is because sin kills Him.
Our sin kills Him.
We, in our sin, blindly kill the One who loves us more than anyone!
And more: we kill our Perfect King and Master!
Our Leader who shows us strength, courage, humility, and a steely kindness that is known to all…
And yes, injustice abounds! Therefore, in this, we actually bring more sin – and punishment – on ourselves.
Sin increases. The cup is filled to the brim with sin, as God’s wrath is satisfied in this truly unique way.
What do I mean? In effect, the following occurs:
God “gives us over” to our evil (look at Romans 1) to the nth degree.
Through us, the King who takes all the evil that we have to offer – collecting all of our evil into Himself – is executed according to God’s will.
He dies the shameful death of a criminal on a cross, being numbered among the transgressors.
Nevertheless, God can rightly accuse us through His apostle “You did this!”
Again, God gives us rebels over to our sin, allowing us to do our worst… to kill our own good King, the new Adam and Head of the human race!
And yet, we do not despair about this.
Because as “new creations in Christ” (see 2 Cor 5) we realize that He — the Enduring Love — would not have us actually bear the guilt and punishment due to us for our sins against His law, even for our role in His unjust crucifixion!
For Love for us it at the bottom of all of this! Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God…
– who has drunk the cup of wrath for all our sins – and come out alive! Death could not hold Him.
In fact, amazingly, we are forgiven because of the crucifixion!
For again, the Lamb of God is, after all, “slain from the foundation of the world.”
God is so good and strong and wise that He finds a way to clean our slate even for the crucifixion – by the crucifixion!
We are justified (Rom 4:25)!
We are healed (Isaiah 53, Matthew 7)!
Because of Christ’s completed work—cross and resurrection—we can now even say the cross is good news!
Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world indeed!
Again, the fact of the matter is that nothing impure will finally enter the Kingdom of glory: we sinful men not only need Christ, but the whole life of this just and innocent and pure Lamb of God—to stand before God.
One is holy!
One is worthy!
See me, O Lord, in Him alone!
This is all that we can claim, and He gladly gives us the right to claim it.
We now live by grace through faith in Christ.
Go in peace, the true and enduring peace that only the sacrifice of the Lamb of God can give.
This action went hand in hand with other actions performed on the Day of Atonement (along with the daily sacrifices), where burnt offerings of bulls and goats were offered for the nation’s sins…
Also, Benson’s commentary notes: “ the reader must observe that, when a sacrifice was to be offered for sin, he that brought it laid his hand upon the head of the victim, according to the command of God, Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 3:2; Leviticus 4:4; (where see the notes;) and by that rite was supposed to transfer his sins upon the victim, which is said to take them upon itself and to carry them away. Accordingly, in the daily sacrifice of the lamb, the stationary men, says Dr. Lightfoot, who were the representatives of the people, laid their hands upon the lambs thus offered for them; and these two lambs offered for the daily sacrifice were bought with that half shekel which all the Jews yearly paid, εις λυτρον της ψυχης αυτων, εξιλασασθαι περι των ψυξων αυτων, as the price of redemption of their souls, to make atonement for them, Exodus 12:3; Exodus 12:14; Exodus 12:16….”
 https://iep.utm.edu/girard/. More key info: “Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat (indeed, Girard considers that, prior to the rise of Christianity, ‘innocent scapegoat’ was virtually an oxymoron; see section 4.b below); rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.”
 See footnotes above.
 Peter Leithart, with some provocative thoughts: “Yoder thinks. He says that the project of Christianizing the state is doomed. The time when that could happen has long ago passed away. If he is right, we are facing nothing short of apocalypse. I believe that here too Yoder is wrong, and that we can escape apocalypse. But this can only happen on certain conditions: only through reevangelization, only through the revival of a purified Constantinianism, only by the formation of a Christically centered politics, only through fresh public confession that Jesus’ city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward to be baptized. (342)”
 See: https://warhornmedia.com/2022/09/13/ancient-mass-child-sacrifice/
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy talks about Girard’s interesting claims here:
“Girard considers rituals the earliest cultural and religious institution. In Girard’s view, ritual is a reenactment of the original scapegoating murder. Although, as anthropologists are quick to assert, rituals are very diverse, Girard considers that the most popular form of ritual is sacrifice. When a victim is ritually killed, Girard believes, the community is commemorating the original event that promoted peace.
The original victim was most likely a member of the community. Girard considers that, probably, earliest sacrificial rituals employed human victims. Thus, Aztec human sacrifice may have impacted Western conquistadors and missionaries upon its discovery, but this was a cultural remnant of a popular ancient practice. Eventually, rituals promoted sacrificial substitution, and animals were employed. In fact, Girard considers that hunting and the domestication of animals arose out of the need to continually reenact the original murder with substitute animal victims…”
 “The need to atone arises from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid. One would think such knowledge would always lead directly to repentance, but the counselors whom I have interviewed tell a different story. One woman learned during her pregnancy that her husband had been unfaithful to her. He wanted the child, so to punish him for betrayal she had an abortion. The trauma of killing was even greater than the trauma of his treachery, because this time she was to blame. What was her response? She aborted the next child, too; in her words, “I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby.” By trying to atone without repenting, she was driven to repeat the sin.” https://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/06/the-revenge-of-conscience See also: https://www.epm.org/blog/2017/Apr/12/six-rationalizations-abortion
 Still, it points to this need: “The thing that the world wants is to have sin dealt with-dealt with in the way of conscious forgiveness; dealt with in the way of drying up its source, and delivering men from the power of it. Unless you do that, I do not say you do nothing, but you pour a bottle full of cold water into Vesuvius, and try to put the fire out with that.” (Maclaren)
 It is very likely that when the sinner of Luke 18 stands in the court of the temple and will not even lift his eyes before God, beating his chest and saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” that he is saying, “Oh Lord, let these sacrifices be for me!”
Gill’s exposition: “the Jewish doctors say (d), that “the morning daily sacrifice made atonement for the iniquities done in the night; and the evening sacrifice made atonement for the iniquities that were by day…”
More, from an older sermon, dealing with the Old Testament sacrifices and other ceremonial processes originally given through Moses:
“But when Jesus comes, no sacrifice for sins is left, as the shadows recede! If it helps, think of shadows like these as the temporary scaffolding for the real Sacrifice, Priest, and Temple, Jesus Christ…
Not only this, but we should also realize this: In the Old Testament, these sacrifices provided safe access to a Holy God.
Sins of course were always an issue here, but then there is also original sin — the sinful infection that we all share from birth. It is like a spiritual leprosy.
Gasoline burns in the presence of fire – God’s holiness is gracious but also destructive. He cannot abide the sin – the leprosy, the uncleanness – within us (Kleinig).
This is why in the Old Testament we see so many of these signs, these shadows, these “divine object lessons”.
Finally, these externals are often “typological” of the internals of human life.
Therefore, with leprosy, for example, even the external signs of leprosy/infection, like corrupted clothing, are a sign of the *real* inner infection that infects us all and causes the outer infections. The leper or menstruating woman is “unclean” and “unworthy”, but this is really meant to serve as a symbol for the greater uncleanness and unworthiness that infects us all.
For we all, in our fallen nature, are the contaminated who contaminate… And this also, of course, is why we die. The wages of sin is death…
While we are at this stuff, let’s go on. Unclean animals also serve a similar function as a divine object lesson – spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection, not oddities. (what one author called the “no oddballs allowed” principle).
One biblical scholar, Gordan Wenham, expands on the matters these object lessons point to, putting it like this:
Imagine two poles of existence, there is the positive and the negative. The positive has to do with God, life, order, normality and being clean… The negative has to do with chaos, death, disorder, deformity, and being unclean….
So, what finally, to take away from all of this? God’s overall message here, in the Old Testament but especially in the New Testament is this:
I am not like the Gods of the other nations. I am holy. Do not get excited because of your blood descent, ethnic pride, success, or your righteousness…
Instead, be glad because I really am concerned about you – I am yours and you are mine and I desire that you would know true joy and peace in true justice, true mercy and abundant life.
Be invigorated because I want you to be holy as I am holy! Through the pardon and power I give you in the blood of my Son, Jesus, I am separating you out – making you distinct!
You will not, like the nations, sacrifice your infants, partake in ritualized temple prostitution or disregard the elderly and the poor…
You will live as people who live according to and by my word — because I love you even as you continue to have sin…
Instead, come out and be separate! Be holy, and not unclean!
As the old hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” says:
“Love to the loveless (i.e. because of the leprosy of sin, the uncleanness of sin) shown that they might lovely be”… ]”