I hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Now we flip the page and enter the season on the church calendar known as Advent. Advent is different from Christmas. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Messiah, but Advent is re-entry into the story of waiting for his coming.
Advent means arrival and it’s filled with tension. It’s a season that stands between two worlds—we look back at the first coming of Christ, and we look forward with anticipation to his second coming. Karl Barth may have summarized it best when he wrote, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent.” As if to say, we are always between these two affirmations “Christ has come” and “Christ will come again.” It’s in this liminal space that we seek to live out action in waiting.
In so many ways, Advent is about awakening. Awakening to the story we are living in and living out. In a world that can often lull us to sleep, Advent beckons us to come awake and focus our attention on the once and future King. During the Advent season, we look back to the baby born to a teenage mother and we dip our lamps into the manger to ignite them with faith, hope, and love—lamps that we then we carry into this present darkness knowing that one day he will return to rule and reign.
To that end, we’re going to spend our season of Advent looking at one word that shows up numerous times in the Christmas story—“Behold.” It reminds me of what poet Mary Oliver beautiful called us to: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
That’s what the word “behold” does. It’s intended to be an arresting word. One that stops you in your tracks. You behold when you see an accident or when you drive past a hillside covered in flowers. The word beckons us: “Look!” “Hey, don’t miss this!” “Take notice!” “See this afresh!” “Pay attention!” It’s an exclamation point demanding to be read with inflection.
It’s the word John uses when he announces the arrival of Jesus. He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John turned himself into “Dude with a Sign.” Do you know who Dude with a Sign is? He’s a guy who writes things on cardboard and takes pictures of himself holding it up and almost eight million people follow him on Instagram.
John’s sign says, “Behold the Lamb of God!” You have to imagine what John looks like making this announcement. He’s adorned in camel hair, a scraggily unkept beard, maybe a little bit of honey still in the corner of his mouth and he starts to shout, “Behold! It’s him!”
John was wild and fearless—untamed and a bit unpredictable. He was who Isaiah prophesied centuries earlier, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa. 40:3). God’s people needed a herald; after all, they had been waiting hundreds of years, fighting back the fear that God had forgotten them.
So, John takes it upon himself to announce Jesus, who ought not be missed. John calls our attention to the same thing this morning. In our digitized distraction that often lulls us into a zombie-like existence, John comes to us with crazy hair and a beard adorned with locus shells, “Behold!” He knows there’s a lot on the line in recognizing Jesus and we could miss the Messiah. Many missed him then; many miss him now.
John wants us to behold the Christ and in so doing he tells us WHY Jesus has come. Why did the incarnation take place? What was the point of Christmas?
Why Jesus Has Come
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Dale Bruner said,
“This twenty-ninth verse is the Mount Everest of John’s witness to Christ.” Jesus is THE Lamb, not one of many lambs. He stands alone. Jesus is taking way sin itself, not just many individual sins. By that I mean that he came to our core problem and tore it out by the roots. John places the verb “takes away” in the present tense. Our Savior’s atoning sacrifice, though it was but once offered, is perpetual in its effect.
Why would Jesus, God incarnate, come to deal with sin? We have to pause here to name and acknowledge that sin is our foundational problem as a human race. This sounds a bit foreign to our modern ears. We think progress will eventually free us from what ails us, but the scriptures tell a different story.
When you hear people talk about the problems in our world today, very rarely is sin mentioned; and yet Scripture is clear in stating that it’s the root problem we all face. Every other problem we have—death, sickness, division, wars, famine—all finds its inception in sin.
John’s announcement is that Jesus was born so that your sin might die. Christmas isn’t just about a baby given, it’s about sin taken. Our biggest problem is being eliminated. Christmas is about God coming, but it’s also about sin leaving. Christmas isn’t just about giving presents; it’s about carrying sin away. Behold: Jesus was born into obscurity to bear the sin of humanity.
It reminds me of these junk removal companies. Did you know that 1-800-GOT-JUNK? is a
$300 million company? We will pay people a lot of money to haul our used, broken, useless stuff away. But in a spiritual sense, Jesus is coming to us with the same offer. He’s offering to carry away the junk; the pain; the anger that’s been weighing us down.
And here comes one of the grand revelations regarding this announcement. John is telling us incarnation is a rescue mission, not an instruction manual. The point of John’s announcement is not, “try harder.” It’s “Behold.”
My guess is you’ve been in situations where an instruction manual wouldn’t get the job done. When we moved to Escondido, the moving truck was three weeks late and they arrived on a Sunday demanding $3200 to unload the truck. The bank was closed, and I’d tried everything. Venmo, Zelle, you name it. Nothing worked. I was in a bind. A friend called me and said, “How are things going? Anything you need?” What I didn’t need was advice, I needed cold hard cash. Nothing else would do. My friend said, “I’ll be over in 15 minutes. I’ve got you covered.” Jesus has done the same thing for us. He didn’t give advice, he brought rescue.
The Lamb of God has taken away sin. Your sin. My sin. It’s gone! This confronts all of the idols of self-sufficiency and achievement, but it’s truth. In fact, Jesus’ very name suggested a saving vocation. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The name Jesus in Hebrew is Yehshua. The more appropriate translation for Jesus' name is "God rescues." To believe in Jesus' name is to believe that God actively cares about and enthusiastically goes about rescuing doomed humanity.
The Lamb of God
In order understand how Jesus saves, we need to unpack the moniker John used to describe Jesus; he is “the Lamb of God.” John is pulling from imagery that Isaiah utilized in pointing toward the Messiah.
(Read Isa. 53:6-7)
This is so important. Jesus takes our sin away by taking it upon himself. Our sin was laid upon him; the Lamb. He became our substitute, and in so doing also became our Savior.
The Jewish people had 600+ years of viewing the suffering servant as a lamb. However, even before Isaiah’s prophecy, Israel had history with lambs who saved. See, one of the foundational narratives of Jewish life was that of the Exodus.
The Israelites were in slavery for 400 years under the Egyptians. God promised to free them, and he sent Moses to tell Pharoah, “Let my people go!” Pharoah said, “No way, Mos-e” and God sent 10 plagues to get his attention and pry his hands off God’s people. The last plague was death of the firstborn sons of Egypt. Harsh, I know. But remember, Egypt epitomizes sin in this story and sin always leads to death. The way the Israelites avoided the peril of losing their firstborn sons was by taking the blood of a lamb and putting it on their doorposts (Ex. 12:12-13).
The blood of the lamb saved them from death. The lamb gives life by giving its life. The blood on the door was a sign that blood had already been shed in that home. That the people in that house had already surrendered to God what the angel had come to collect. However, the story didn’t end with the Israelites avoiding death; the whole point was them exiting slavery and walking into freedom to worship God in the Promise Land.
The lamb allowed the Israelites to avoid death and walk into life. Exodus is more than a story, it’s an archetype of humanity’s journey. It certainly happened, but it also happens.
When John exclaimed “behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” I believe he had all of this in mind. Just like the lamb’s blood provided a way for the Israelites to walk into freedom, how much more does Jesus’ blood provide a way for us to walk into freedom? It’s by faith in Jesus that we are freed from the power and punishment of sin.
Removal of Sin Allows Us to Release 4 Things
We all have our Egypts. And we all have a Pharoah. What Jesus has removed; we can release. What he carried; we don’t need to cling to. And there are four things that the removal of sin allows us to release. They don’t need to dominate our story any longer because of what Jesus has accomplished.
Destroy the Works of the Devil
The first benefit is found in 1 John 3:5, 8, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin … The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” If you were to ask John what the reason for the season is, he’d say, “Destruction is the reason for the season!” The incarnation was warfare! He defeated our enemy. Jesus was born so that the hold that the devil had on humanity had would be destroyed. When Jesus was born, it was the beginning of the end for our cosmic enemy.
The devil is still doing his work, but he will not be victorious against the children of God. Some of you are living in captivity, but I assure you, it’s Stockholm Syndrome. You have freedom, you just need to walk in it. We have been given the resources to confront and live victory. In Christ, we can escape the devil’s tyranny and walk in victory.
Second, when Jesus, the Lamb of God took away our sin, he conquered fear. I think we’ve been reminded over the last few years that fear has the potential to cripple. Fear can cause us to do all sorts of things that rob us of life. However, when we talk about the connection between sin and fear, there are two things the Scriptures draw out for us.
First, because of Jesus we don’t have to live with any fear of judgment or punishment. First John 4:17-18 says, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love,
but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
We will all one day face judgment. That’s a reality for every person who has ever lived. But John says we can be confident in looking toward that day because of God’s love. Does sin deserve punishment? Absolutely. But Jesus took that punishment upon himself. In so doing, he also removed God’s wrath and punishment. The weight of that beauty will only sit on you if you let the weight of the punishment sit on you as well. “Behold the lamb of God who takes away sin.”
By removing sin, Jesus has removed the fear of death. Death is a big deal. How’s that for an understatement? It’s such a big deal that Jeff Bezos is spending part of his fortune trying to figure out how to live forever. He’s investing millions into Alto Labs with the goal of cracking gene reprogramming. The idea is that if genes could be taught to reproduce themselves, then we can dramatically slow aging or maybe even stop it altogether. That’s right, Bezos is trying to conquer death itself. But Bezos is late to the game. Jesus already beat him to it (Heb. 2:14-15)!
In that Hebrews passage, do you notice the connections to Exodus and freedom. Jesus took on flesh (incarnation) in order to free us from the slavery of death. A new Exodus is being told. When he did this, he effectively rendered the devil powerless over our lives because to live is Christ, to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21) As Charles Wesley wrote, “Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.” Truly, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
When we don’t have to fear judgment, punishment, or death, what can touch us? Will you let Jesus remove your fear this Christmas? He can remove fear of COVID, rejection, hopelessness. Let him carry your fear away with your sin.
Removed Our Guilt and Shame
Next, when the Lamb of God removed sin, he removed our guilt. We need to nuance this a little bit, because if you do something wrong and feel no guilt, that doesn’t make you a Christian, it makes you a psychopath. We don’t want that!
Sometimes guilt is a good thing. It’s our conscience or God’s Spirit alerting us to the fact that what we did was wrong. The question is what do we do with that guilt? Paul wrote about that in his second letter to the Corinthians. He said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
We can approach grief or guilt in a worldly way or in a godly way. A worldly way might include things like blaming others, trying to do penance for what we’ve done wrong, or minimizing our sin. By way of contrast, godly grief is the freedom to confess, repent, and see forgiveness, knowing the Lamb has already carried our sin away. Remember, there’s a big difference between conviction—that initial feel of guilt—and condemnation—being crushed under the weight of guilt. Feeling guilt can be a sign of the Spirit’s conviction, carrying and integrating guilt is a tool of the Enemy.
Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Maybe this Christmas you receive the gift of guilt removal. It might not be guilt you need removed; it might be shame. Guilt is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the belief “I am wrong.” “I am wrong” is a statement about identity that goes to the core of our being.
Adam and Eve were created to walk with God and each other in intimacy; as the scriptures state (Gen. 2:25). But that didn’t last long. When sin entered the world, they started to hide. Shame always causes us to hide. It repeats the story, “You’re worthless, no one could love you, if they know the real you, they’ll reject you.” The devastating thing about shame is that the longer we believe the lies, the truer they become of our lives. The narrative shame tells eventually becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy. When Jesus carried away our sin, he overcame our shame.
I love the way professor Lewes Smedes captured it when he said, “Guilt was not my problem as I felt it. What I felt most was a gob of unworthiness that I could not tie down to any concrete sins I was guilty of. What I needed more than pardon was a sense that God accepted me, owned me, held me, affirmed me, and would never let go of me even if he was not too much impressed with what he had on his hands.”
Christmas is about the revelation of the Lamb, but it’s also about the renewal of humanity. I don’t know what story you’re telling yourself about yourself, but I know what story Jesus is telling about you. He’s telling the story of your great worth because you’re created in the image of God. The story of his great love for you displayed through the Cross. The story of new life that’s found in him. Tell yourself that story, live that story. Let the Lamb remove shame this Christmas.
One last thing, just in case you’re doubting whether or not this is for you. Notice, it’s “the sin of the world.” The whole world! The word “world” can mean various things based on context, this case it means people. All people. Everywhere. For all time. In the same way that Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The scope of Christ’s work is breath-taking; don’t dilute it or limit it, this is for the whole world. The entrance into Jesus’ saving work is simple, believe, don’t complicate it. His work is sufficient for all, but only effective for those who believe.
The Devil’s main strategy today may be to blind you from beholding. That might look like the thought: I don’t need my sin taken away, it’s not that bad. I don’t need saving, I’m strong and can save myself. This is for everyone else, but it’s not for me. I’m too bad. Those are lies. Let the Lamb carry them away today and carry you to freedom.
Today, behold him. His life began in a manger covered in the muck and mire of animal feed, and it ended on a Roman cross covered in your sin and mine. Today, behold him. Look long enough to see your sin there too. Don’t look away. Don’t blink because it’s uncomfortable. Look at him carrying away your sin.
Maybe you make this Christmas about addition by subtraction. Make this a minimalist Christmas. What Jesus carried; you can release. Maybe your greatest gift this year won’t be something you receive, but it’ll be something you release. Can you accept this gift?
Remember Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” John did just that, let’s do the same.