Have You Ever Been Harrowed?
The Son of God, the Son of Man, the Ancient of Days, Emmanuel, the Good Shepherd, the Holy One of Israel, the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Living Water, the Root of Jesse, the Lion of Judah, the Rock of our Salvation.
These are just a few of the names by which we know Jesus, our Savior. We could spend every week in our sermon time talking about the names of Jesus and stay busy for a year.
But today we’re going to spend some time talking about another particular name of Jesus: the Lamb of God.
This term is one of the very oldest for Jesus. It comes straight from our gospel lesson today.
In John 1:29, John the Baptist cries out when he first sees Jesus coming up to town, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
Now consider this for a moment.
John the Baptist is not a gentle person and it seems odd that he would choose such a gentle sounding name to proclaim the Messiah’s arrival.
John eats locusts and tells the people if they do not repent they will be burned with unquenchable fire.
He gets everyone all worked up and excited and then Jesus arrives and John announces, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
I just would have expected something with a little more punch to it.
Behold the Conqueror of Iniquity or behold the Prince of Angels or behold the One from On High With Whom You Do Not Want to Mess, or something.
The Lamb of God.
Well, John obviously expected us to be impressed, so let’s think about why.
The roots of this name for Jesus go right to the heart of the history and identity of Israel.
You might recognize the other name for the Lamb of God: the Paschal Lamb.
Pascha is a Greek word meaning “suffering,” but over time it has come to stand for Easter, what we call the Paschal Feast.
But the roots of the Lamb of God are much older.
The people of God first encountered the Lamb of God in the Passover Lamb.
All the way back in Exodus, God commanded the Israelites to slay a lamb and smear the blood of the sacrifice on their doorposts so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes and not harm them.
Then they had to eat the lamb, remaining in readiness to escape from Egypt as soon as the signal came that it was safe.
The Passover Lamb is a powerful symbol of innocence and sacrifice to save the people from persecution and death.
Those ideas translate to the Lamb of God as identified with Jesus, and so we have a better sense of why John the Baptist chose the term to describe Jesus.
The theme of the persecuted innocent who dies for the sins of others comes shining through.
But we are in danger of making Jesus too meek and mild, an object of pity.
Jesus often chooses to work in paradoxes, defying the great powers with his strength through his own surrender to humiliation and death.
The Lamb of God, particularly as he is illustrated in the Book of Revelation, takes one particular action that Jesus does not accomplish in any of his other roles as Bread of Heaven or Living Water.
It is an act we think about so seldom that I sometimes wonder if we forget that it happened, but it is actually in the Apostles’ Creed.
It is called the Harrowing of Hell.
Listen to these familiar words: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
He descended to the dead.
It’s easy to skip right over those words, but they’re important.
Jesus did not just hang out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb for three days after he was crucified, nor did he go to heaven to be with the Father.
He was finishing his work, and what happened in that time period is called the Harrowing of Hell.
Paul talks about it in Ephesians: “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people. When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”
It’s a remarkable idea, and it has sparked the imaginations of artists and composers and iconographers throughout history.
There are images of Jesus wielding a sword and battling demons, rescuing trapped souls, and bursting back to earth in the resurrection, breaking down the doors of death.
Just when I think I can’t be any more awed at the power of Jesus’ love, of how far he would go to save and protect and care for us, something like this happens.
He had just been through the most painful, degrading and lonely experience imaginable, beaten and bloodied and abandoned on the Cross, left to die by his friends and his Heavenly Father.
It was so awful that it actually killed him.
It makes me wish he had simply rested for three days before awakening to tackle the unbelief of the disciples.
But no, he would not leave one solitary soul unsaved.
He was determined to recapture every single one of them who had been trapped by sin and death.
And part of what’s most powerful about the Harrowing of Hell is that Jesus does it in what we had first assumed as a meek and mild incarnation: the Lamb of God.
In many Episcopal churches, often in a stained glass window, behind an altar, or right on the front of the pulpit, you will see an image of a Lamb holding what looks like a thin golden staff with a white flag at the top that has a red cross on it.
This is the Lamb Victorious.
He has just returned from the Harrowing of Hell, and his standard, his flag, is leading the liberated souls to paradise.
It’s a fabulous image, the Lamb who was slain risen triumphant and joyful.
For generations people thought of heaven and hell as literal places located physically under the Earth and up in the sky.
We don’t think of them in that way today, but spiritually the ideas still matter.
The central image of Hell is being trapped and tormented, in bitter isolation from God.
By that definition I will guarantee you that every person sitting in this room has experienced Hell at some point in their lives.
Suffering is real and it happens every single day on this earth, to you and to your loved ones and to people around the world, and that is why these doctrines matter.
There are things that happen to people that are tragedies—car accidents and grave diagnoses of chronic or fatal illnesses.
And then there are things that happen to people that are evil—domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse, persecution and violence for the color of your skin or your sexual orientation, being held your entire life as a political prisoner, being murdered by a friend, a family member, a random stranger.
The people who experience these things and the people who love the victims of these experiences and cannot help them or save them—they know that Hell is real.
Many times even the people who perpetrate these evil things experience Hell on Earth, the Hell of feeling that the sin they have committed is unforgiveable.
I will bet that every person in this room has also been in that Hell at some point in their lives.
I know I have.
It is so easy to think of Jesus as far removed from our experiences of sin because he was without sin himself.
But the truth is that Jesus was on intimate terms with our human failings, not only because he was fully human himself along with his divinity, but because he comes down into the depths of our sin and suffering after he dies on the Cross.
He follows us to Hell, the Hell of our own making and the Hell of tragic circumstances we cannot control, breaks our chains and drags us back to the light.
One of the worst parts about being in Hell is that we quit searching for the light.
Our pain and shame is so great that we become self-centered, deaf to anything but our own suffering.
We’re not going to find our way out on our own.
It takes a mighty liberator, one whom we might not even recognize because he comes in so gentle a guise: the Lamb of God.
The next time you find yourself trapped in Hell, be it next week or a year from now, ask yourself: are you ready to be harrowed?
Are you clinging to your chains or do you believe that rescue is possible and on its way?
Jesus will never force us to accept salvation and life and hope.
But he will storm the gates of Hell itself to make sure we have the chance to take his outstretched hand.
And then the words of John the Baptist will come to our lips: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”