Agnus Dei

The old theologians had famously said, “lex orandi, lex credenda,” that is, the law of what is to be prayed is the law of what is to be believed. Or you might have heard it said, “If you show me how someone prays, how they worship, I can tell you what they believe.” At the very least it is an assertion there is a definite connection between how a fellowship worships and what they believe. The actions and words of a worship service are important, they are not just thrown together in some random way. There is a purpose to what we do here. There is a reason behind our worship service, and it flows from our confession of the work and gifts of God in our midst. Our worship shapes our understanding of things, every church’s worship does. The ancient liturgy of the church as it has been handed down through the Lutheran Church has formed me since my youth, just as it formed those who went before me, and now is forming my own children.

In this old liturgy there is a song we sing called the Agnus Dei. It comes in the service right after the words of institution are spoken and right before the people of God receive the gifts of the Lord’s Supper. Right there at that critical juncture, we all sing the Agnus Dei, which simply means, “Lamb of God.” “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” We sing these words as sort of a preparation to come forward, to gather around the altar and receive the body and blood of our Lord for the forgiveness of all our sins. We sing for the mercy and peace of the Lamb of God. This simple song confesses what is happening in that moment of the service. It is a beautiful thing.

But these words did not begin here in our service. They were first proclaimed by John the Baptist. John the Baptist, the guy who was out there in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. He was the one who baptized Jesus, the one who had a front row seat as the Spirit of God descended upon him. John’s ministry was to point others to Jesus. This is why in many of the famous paintings of John the Baptist you see him literally pointing to Jesus. Whether it is the infant Son of Mary or as He comes to be baptized or even as He hangs on the cross, if John is pictured in the scene, he is found pointing to Him; pointing to Jesus and declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John bears witness to the identity and purpose of our Lord.

To declare Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, is a loaded term. It is heavy with meaning we may not easily see. Either we do not know the history of the term or we have just grown so accustomed to hearing it we no longer put much thought into what John is saying. To speak of the Lamb of God is to conjure up images of the ancient people of Israel and Yahweh’s use of lambs and goats in the giving of His gifts. In Exodus, of course, you have the great Passover account, the deliverance of God’s people from the house of slavery. It was the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintels of their homes that spared them from the Angel of Death. In Leviticus we are given the establishment of the great day of atonement, where two goats are brought forward. One goat is sacrificed upon the altar and on the other the high priest lays his hands and confesses over it all the sins of the people. This is the scapegoat which bears the sins of the people away from them out into the wilderness, out away from the camp of God’s people. These images ought to be in your mind when John points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John is saying Jesus is the sin bearer, the scapegoat, the solution for our sin and condemnation.

Now bringing this all the way back to what we do here in church is a stunning thing. We get to see a bigger picture of what is happening and how our worship focuses our faith. We get ready to come forward, to come to the rail, to receive the gifts of Christ and we sing the words of John. We sing how this is the Lamb of God, this is our sin bearer, this is our hope, our confidence, our salvation. The one who comes to us in, with and under the bread and the wine is the one John baptized, the one upon whom the Spirit of God descended like a dove.

But here is the thing, when John speaks these words, he does not do it during a worship service, he does not do it in a synagogue or even the Temple in Jerusalem. No, John is making a public declaration of the Lamb of God. He is not whispering to his friends and saying, “The Lamb of God is over there.” No, he is making a declaration saying, “Behold!” Behold, look, there He is. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As a result, some of his own people begin to follow Jesus; all eyes are turning from John to Jesus.

Perhaps there is something critical for us to learn in this. Perhaps these words that we sing so sweetly together as we receive the blessings of God ought to drive us out from this place into the lives of others. Perhaps we need to be reminded how the gifts we gather around in this place, the blessings we treasure for our strength and our hope, are not just here for us but to be proclaimed to others. We need to hear John’s great, “Behold!” See, the Lamb of God has come into your midst. He has come to do what you could not, to give certainty and hope and strength. But He did not come to remain hidden away. He came to be proclaimed, declared from the rooftops, to be spoken into the hearts of all you come in contact with.

You are to declare the “Behold!” of the Lamb of God. You are given the joy and freedom to proclaim this Good News. Like John before you, you have a message about the identity and purpose of Christ, and it changes the world. The “Behold!” happens in your relationships, it happens where you live, it happens where you work. John tells Andrew and Andrew tells Peter declaring, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Someone told you and now you get to tell another.

You may be thinking, “Pastor are you saying we need to go around and knock on doors, like the funny guys on the bicycles wearing ties? Or do we need to stand on the street corner with a bullhorn and soapbox to get the message out there?” Well, maybe. But perhaps it does not need to look like that. Perhaps proclaiming the “Behold!” of the Lamb of God has nothing to do with street evangelism or uncomfortable conversations with strangers. Perhaps it is a lot simpler than that.

It happens when you have been hurt by someone and they see their wrong and feel regret and you speak a simple word of, “I forgive you.” It looks like believers proclaiming the “Behold!” of the Lamb of God. It manifests itself when you sit with someone in their pain and doubt, so they despair less and are reminded they are not in this alone. You speak the “Behold!” when you love those who are undeserving of your love or go out of your way to show kindness and care for the hurting. You declare His Good News when you speak the truth in love, even if it is unpopular or difficult, as you hand on that which you have received. In it all, you are speaking the hope rooted in the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, who takes away the sin of the world.

Let us be such people; people who gather here around the gifts of the Lamb, people who are forgiven and loved. Let us proclaim it to others. Tell them of such powerful love and love them with your own love. As you do, you will be pointing like John the Baptist to our Lord and saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”