I want to start this morning by recalling a hilarious scene from the old movie ‘Notting Hill’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, in this movie Julia Roberts basically plays herself—the most famous actress in the world, in this case named Anna Scott—and Hugh Grant plays Will Thacker, the humble bookstore owner who ends up falling in love with her. You’d think that everyone would instantly recognize the most famous actress in the world, but there are one or two who don’t. Will takes Anna to his sister’s birthday party where she strikes up a conversation with his friend Bernie, played by a very young Hugh Bonneville. Bernie asks her what she does, and she says, “I’m an actress.” Bernie immediately starts to commiserate with her, telling her about actor friends of his from university who are barely scraping by on seven or eight thousand a year.
He then asks her what sort of acting she does. “Films, mainly, she replies. “Oh, splendid!” he says. “Well done! How’s the pay in movies? I mean, the last film you did, what did you get paid?”
“Fifteen million dollars.”
“Right, so, that’s fairly good.”
You see what’s happening here? Bernie doesn’t know who Anna really is, so he’s making a fool of himself by approaching her with all the wrong questions and comments. It’s funny for those who are watching, but not at all funny for Bernie!
One of the reasons John’s Gospel is written is to teach us who Jesus is, and then to encourage us to put our trust in him. Earlier on in chapter 1, John the Gospel writer introduced us to John the Baptist, a man sent by God. ‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ (John 1.7-8).
So Jesus is the true light, the one who gives light to everyone in all the world. John the Baptist isn’t the light; his job is to bear witness—or, as Tom Wright translates it, to ‘offer evidence’—so that we will be convinced of who Jesus is. And he does this not just by sharing stories but also by using names and titles for Jesus. Those names and titles are important, because they help us understand the different ways Jesus is good news for us. This morning I want to look closely at two that appear in today’s Gospel reading.
The first is in verse 29. We assume John’s at the Jordan with his disciples, preaching and baptizing, and he sees Jesus in the crowd, coming toward him. “Here is the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sin of the world!”
To Jewish people, that’s sacrificial language. They offered lambs as sacrifices to God, often for the forgiveness of their sins. If you’d committed a sin, this is how you received forgiveness. You spent your hard-earned shekels on a lamb, took it to the temple, and gave it to the priest. You would go to the altar with him, lay your hand on the lamb and confess you sin, symbolically transferring the guilt to the lamb. The lamb was then slaughtered, its blood was collected, some of it was sprinkled on the altar and some on you. And so your guilt was taken away, and you could go home in peace.
Many preachers will draw this connection today: Jesus is the one who died on the Cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and that’s why he’s the Lamb of God. But I think the picture might be a little more complicated than that. In the Book of Leviticus there’s a description of the ritual for the annual Day of Atonement, the day above all days when the high priest confessed the sins of all Israel and made atonement for them. To do this he offered several sacrifices and also performed an interesting ritual with two goats. One of them was sacrificed in the usual manner, but the other was not. The priest was to lay his hands on its head and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel—we assume he gave a summary, or he would have been at it for a very long time! The goat was then taken away into the wilderness, banished from the community of Israel. Leviticus says, ‘As the goat goes into the wilderness, it will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land’ (Leviticus 16.22, NLT).
Now it’s true that Leviticus talks about goats and John calls Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’, not ‘the goat of God.’! But nonetheless, when John says that Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’, I can’t help thinking he might have had that goat in mind. Do you know what that goat is called in Judaism? The scapegoat. All the blame for all the sins of Israel is laid on its shoulders, even though it has done no wrong, and it is then banished from the community, removing the guilt.
Now, what can that possibly mean for us today? We’re not in the habit of performing weird rituals with sheep and goats. How is this relevant for us?
It’s true that we’re not in the habit of sacrificing lambs, but we’re still very familiar with the burden of guilt. In fact, I think the age of social media has increased the burdens of people with a sensitive conscience. Social media is all over our imperfections. If you’re against misogyny but you don’t also fight for social justice for LGBTQ people, then you’re a hypocrite. If you’re a politician and you slip up in even the smallest way, your digital accusers are all over you. If you struggle with your body shape, images of perfection are presented to you all day long. And so it goes on.
We may not use the language of sin today, but we’re well aware of the burden. I’ve often mentioned Francis Spufford’s lovely definition of sin: our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’!). Many of us are well aware that we’ve caused all sorts of distress and pain in the lives of other people, intentionally or unintentionally. We know we don’t measure up. We don’t even measure up to our ownstandards, let alone the standards of others, or of God! Francis Schaeffer said that on the day of judgement he imagined a tape player hanging around everyone’s neck, on which are recorded all the negative judgements we’ve ever spoken against others. When it comes to our turn to be judged, God will simply lean forward and press ‘play’, and let our own words be our judges. I can’t think of many things more devastating than that!
So what do we do with this burden of guilt? One of the truly profound insights of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is the power of sharing our burden with someone else. Step Four of the Twelve Steps encourages us to conduct what it calls ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.’ Then in Step Five, we’re encouraged to ‘admit to ourselves, to God, and to one other person, the exact nature of our wrongs.’
This is called the ‘Fifth Step’, and of course clergy are often asked to be the ones who hear these confessions. There are many other situations in which we hear people’s confessions as well, both formally and informally. I’ve been at this for over forty years, and I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me things about themselves that they’ve never dared to tell anyone else. And in every case, the simple act of telling the absolute and unvarnished truth, and hearing words of forgiveness spoken instead of words of judgement, lifts a burden from their shoulders.
I would suggest to you that this can be a powerful way of understanding how Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’. Psalm 32 talks about the happiness of those whose sins are forgiven by God. The writer talks about his experience with guilt:
‘While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ (Psalm 32:3-5)
God, we assume, is not in favour of sin; certainly God’s Old Testament people would have assumed that. So it would have come as a big surprise to them that Jesus, the Son of God, was gentle toward sinners. Over and over again in the gospels, when people come to him with a burden of guilt, he forgives them. He reaches out to prostitutes and crooked tax collectors and all kinds of people the righteous had no time for. ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’, he says, short-circuiting the whole process of going to the Temple to offer a lamb. You don’t need to do that anymore. He’s the Lamb of God; if you confess your sins honestly to him, rather than being a play-acting hypocrite, then he acts as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Like the scapegoat going out into the desert, he takes the burden off your shoulders, and takes it away to a place you’ll never find it again.
So John the Baptist is preaching the Gospel to us. He’s encouraging us not to wear a mask with God, the kind of mask that pretends we’ve got it all together. We don’t need to do that. We can come to Jesus and share the burden of our guilt with him. We probably won’t hear him with our ears, but we can be sure he’s saying to us what he said to sinners so many times: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ As the first letter of John puts it, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1.8-9).
But that’s not the end of it. Jesus doesn’t just take away the burden of our guilt but leave us unchanged. He gives us access to a power beyond ourselves, to make real change possible. This is the second description of Jesus I want to talk about in today’s passage. Look at verses 32-33:
‘And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’”.
In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is the power of God active in the world. The Spirit of God descends on warriors and gives them strength to defend God’s people against their enemies. The Spirit descends on prophets and gives them words to speak in the name of God. The Spirit descends on kings and gives them wisdom to rule God’s people well. But the Spirit isn’t given to everyone. In the Old Testament, the experience of the Holy Spirit is reserved for people with a special place in God’s plan.
All that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel points forward to our day:
‘Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my Spirit’ (Joel 2.28-29).
This is the promise of Jesus in the New Testament: “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.13). The same Spirit that gave strength to warriors and wisdom to kings and words to prophets now lives in you and me. That’s one of the gifts we were promised in our baptism.
John the Baptist uses vivid imagery here. He had been sent to baptize people in water, he says, but the one to come, Jesus, will baptize people in the Holy Spirit. ‘Baptizo’ in Greek means to immerse, to sink, so that the immersed object is completely surrounded and filled, like a ship sitting on the bottom of the ocean, or a sponge totally full of water. That is obviously a very powerful experience of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives.
But I need to say that it doesn’t always feel like a powerful experience. Sometimes it does; some people testify to a strong sense of the joy and love of God’s Spirit. Our friend Joe Semeniuk, who died a couple of years ago, had an experience like that. He told some of us that on his confirmation day, when Bishop Jane laid hands on him and prayed for him, he distinctly felt the Holy Spirit coming down on him and filling him from top to bottom. It was such an amazing experience that every Sunday after that, when he came up to receive communion, he tried to stand in the same space, because he liked to remember, and to relive the memory!
But not everyone has that experience. What tends to happen for most of us is that we find ourselves facing a task God has asked us to do. Maybe it’s to control our temper. Maybe it’s to offer ourselves for some ministry in the church. Maybe it’s to love someone we find it hard to love. We’re daunted by this task, because we know deep down that we don’t have the inner resources to complete it. It demands too much love, too much patience, too much self-control.
So what do we do? We make the choice to do it anyway, but before we do, we pray that God will fill up whatever’s lacking in us with his love and power and wisdom, so that we can do what we’re being asked to do. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. So we ask the Spirit to fill us and make us equal to the task, and then we step out in faith and do it. And when we’re finished, we look back and think, “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!” And then we remember that we had access to help beyond ourselves.
What happens when we make a habit of this? What happens is that gradually God changes us. In Galatians Paul compares this to a tree growing fruit: he says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Galatians 5.22-23) It’s fruit, so it grows slowly and steadily, not quickly and magically. It grows as we step out in faith, do what God has called us to do, and call on him to strengthen us in our weakness and inadequacy.
But I don’t like displaying my weakness and inadequacy. I’d much rather have you all see how strong and capable I am! And maybe this is one of the reasons why I don’t experience baptism in the Holy Spirit as often and as vividly as I’d like. Maybe I’m too scared to step out in weakness and trust God’s power. Maybe I need to remember that instruction that’s given in the Bible more often than any other command: “Don’t be afraid!” And maybe you need to remember that too!
So here’s the good news; Jesus takes our burden of guilt on his own shoulders, and in its place, he gives us access to all the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And this means that our future doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of our past. Our sins and weaknesses and failures don’t have to define us. The Lamb of God can take away our guilt, and the Spirit of God can give us power to change.
So when you come for communion this morning, come ready to receive what Jesus has to offer you. Be honest about your sins and failures. Share the burden with him; he’s more than ready to carry it away. Hold out your hand to receive the bread, and with it receive God’s forgiveness and God’s strength. Tomorrow can be different from today. God can make that happen. So let’s trust in him and not be afraid.