"Behold! The Lamb of God has Come!"
Second Sunday after Epiphany
St. John 1:29-42a
January 19 and 20, 2008
IN NOMINE JESU
Today, in addition to hearing God's Word read and proclaimed in your midst, you get to learn a couple of Latin words: Agnus Dei. Anyone who has followed a setting of the Divine Service in a hymnal has likely come across these two words. But what is less certain is whether we know what these words mean. These two words, Agnus Dei, are Latin for "Lamb of God." As you look in your worship folder—later—you will see the English translation next to these Latin words immediately prior to our singing the canticle bearing this Latin name. Most of the canticles in the liturgy of the Church have Latin names, named after the first few words of the canticle, and the Agnus Dei is no exception. It has a long history of use within the Divine Service. In fact, many composes have written choral settings of the Mass over the centuries. For the most part, each composition of the choral Mass has six major components: the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus and the Benedictus (which are now one piece in our settings of the Divine Service), and the Agnus Dei. What we sing today is the song our ancestors in the faith have sung for centuries. We will return to our examination of this canticle later. It is a benefit for us to learn of these words today because these are the words exclaimed by John the Baptizer when he saw the Lord coming toward him: "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (v. 29b). John made this announcement for the benefit of his hearers, for it was John's God-given vocation to prepare God's people for the coming of the Messiah, the Lamb of God. John made this proclamation twice in our text, the other time in the hearing of two of his disciples, so that they would no longer follow John but the Lord. John knew who this Lamb of God is, for the entire Triune God revealed the Messiah to him at the Jordan River, when John baptized the Lord, after which event the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son as a dove, and the Father's voice boomed from heaven that this is His beloved Son. John knew. God revealed this eternal truth to him. He revealed it to us last week as we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord. He reveals it to us today as he has given us the words the Holy Spirit inspired St. John the Baptizer to speak and St. John the Apostle and Evangelist to write. Both of these holy men named John were given the divine charge to announce to us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Because our Lord has spoken these words to us first, we get to repeat them, speaking them back to Him as we prepare to receive Him who comes to us in His body and blood. What is the benefit of such a repetition of words? What is so great about using the same words those before us in the faith have also used? We have an answer in one of the hymnals of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which reads in part: Saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is His Name, which He put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are His. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where His Name is, there is He. Before Him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed, and forgiven acclaim Him as great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words He has used to make Himself known to us. [LW, p. 6]
And in the Introduction of our new hymnal we find these words: The Lord's service calls forth our service—in sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to Him and in loving service to one another. Having been called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we receive His gifts with thankfulness and praise. With psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we joyfully confess all that God has done for us, declaring the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Our song joins with the song of every saint from every age, the new song of Christ's holy people, declaring: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" (Rev. 5:12). [LSB, p. viii]
We are the blessed recipients of nearly 2,000 years of singing the Church's song, for her song has come to us from the Lord Himself and His Word. "How best to do this we may learn from His Word and from the way His Word has prompted His worship through the centuries. We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day—the living heritage and something new" (LW, p. 6). In this light, we are blessed to not only hear that the Lamb of God has come, but we get to praise God using His own words, for there is nothing truer and surer than the inerrant and infallible Word of God. However, such words are not pleasing to the lips of sinful man. As sinners, we have little, if any, use for the Word of God. The human ego gets in the way of the tongue and causes the lips to utter words that are not as true and sure as the words God has given us. The ego would rather have us spew forth our own words. We want to pat ourselves on the back for devising all sorts of creative ways to worship God. Our sinful flesh wants to pat itself on the back, but our Lord says that "the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (4:23-24). What is at issue here is the focus of our worship, and who that focus is. We need to ask ourselves how we look at Jesus Christ. If we look at Him and think we need to come up with as many ways as we can to serve Him, we have lost our focus on Christ and put ourselves in the limelight, for our faith would then be nothing more than works-oriented, and we become false gods. However, if we look at Christ as the beautiful Savior that He truly is, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, then our focus is where it belongs: on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. This is the focus of the historic and yet timeless Liturgy of the Church. It focuses on Christ and what He has done for us. God is the Actor in the Divine Service. He runs the verbs. He acts, and we respond. He comes to us in Word and Sacraments, and we return to Him our prayers, praise, and thanksgiving. In a few moments we will get to respond to our Lord's coming to us in His body and blood as we sing the Agnus Dei, as we unite our voices with John the Baptizer, singing this ancient hymn to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, beseeching Him to have mercy upon us and to grant us His peace, that peace which the world cannot give. These gifts our Lord freely gives in His Supper, giving us His mercy and peace in the forgiveness of sins, and, as Martin Luther teaches us, "where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation." The Agnus Dei has an interesting origin within the Divine Service. Centuries ago, after a presiding bishop had consecrated the elements for the Lord's Supper, he then had to break the loaf of bread into enough pieces for all the communicants. As churches became larger and attendance increased, the need for more pieces of bread was greater. However, during this time there was an awkward period of silence. This hymn was added to the Liturgy initially to fill in that awkward silence. The choir would continue to sing this canticle, and repeat it if necessary, until the bishop had enough pieces of bread for the Distribution. The introduction of the Agnus Dei filled a practical need. The continued inclusion of the Agnus Dei communicates to us a sacramental reality, for, as the Lord came toward the Baptizer in human flesh, the Lamb of God comes to us today in His body and blood. The Lamb, who has come to take away the sin of the world by dying on the cross in our place, comes to us today to take away our sins in this sacramental meal. The forgiveness He won on the cross He gives to us in His Word and in His body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. By the Holy Spirit at work within you, you have the comfort of "knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God" (1 Pet. 1:18-21). And as we hear from the prophet Isaiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth" (Is. 53:6-7). Truly Christ is the Lamb of God, who takes away our sin. On account of the faith our gracious God has given us, it will be our joy to hear spoken of us in heaven: "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:14b-17). "Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20b). "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (v. 29b). In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. SOLI DEO GLORIA
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