Sunday, January 19, 2020 “Is This Our Mascot?”

Sunday, January 19, 2020 "Is This Our Mascot?”

The message for Sunday, January 19, 2020 “Is This Our Mascot?” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00 Worship service. 

“Is this Our Mascot?”     Jan. 19, 2020       John 1:29-42

Our society might not be as religious as it was several decades ago in terms of going to church, but it is certainly just as spiritual as ever in terms of believing in the power of symbols.  Sports teams are a perfect example.  Thousands of people will proudly wear the symbol of their favorite sports team in order to conjure up spiritual strength and moral support for their favorite team.

This is championship weekend for the National Football league and if you have ever seen a professional football game on TV then you’ve seen thousands of people wearing the image of their team’s mascot on their shirts, on their heads, or even painted on their faces.  They do this because they hope to inspire their team to have the speed and the strength that those mascots symbolize.  They chose certain animals because they hope to send the message that their team is faster and stronger than the other team.

But not all mascots of sports teams are rough and tough like you’d imagine. Some are actually quite silly and comical.  Here are some of the top ten that might fall into this category in college sports.

First we have the University of Delaware Blue Hens. (first slide) The mascot is called YouDee and although he looks fun, the image of a hen doesn’t exactly leave opponents shaking in their boots. (next slide)

Then there is the  University of Irvine Anteaters, what are they going to do? Lick the other team?  (next slide)

You may have also heard of the University of California at Santa Cruz  Banana Slugs.  I hope their athletes are faster than their name would suggest.  At least slugs move, however.  (next slide)

Scottsdale Community College seems to have forgotten that the term “vegetable” has been equated with a person in a comatose state because their mascot is the Fighting Artichokes.  The folks at Scottsdale aren’t the only ones who think vegetables can fight, though, (next slide)

because the mascot at Delta state University in Mississippi is the Fighting Okra.

As un-intimidating as these mascots are, (blank slide) however,  Christians can’t say too much.  After hearing today’s reading from John it sounds like our mascot isn’t any better.  The animal that gets named as representing our faith doesn’t seem to invoke a strong confidence any more than these silly college mascots might.  According to the reading, this is our mascot. (picture of a lamb)  Twice in today’s text we hear John the Baptist call Jesus the “lamb of God.”  John is out baptizing the crowds by the Jordan river when he sees Jesus coming and declares, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  The next day he is standing there with two of his disciples and Jesus walks by.  John turns to them and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

I don’t know what marketing team helped John come up with this image, but I would have liked to have been on it to offer a few suggestions. What about a falcon?  Some of the desert tribes used those birds of prey to hunt.  Or what about a lion?  The people at John’s time knew about lions and how fierce they could be.  Even a camel would have been better for goodness sakes!  A camel can carry heavy loads and is a symbol of endurance.  But a lamb?!?  A lamb is a symbol of weakness.  A lamb is small, vulnerable and helpless.  There are a lot of other animals John could have picked that would have sounded stronger and more powerful.    Why equate Jesus with a lamb and initiate what would become a symbol of the Christian faith that doesn’t seem to instill much confidence?   (show slide) The comedian George Carlin picked up on what seemed to be the ridiculous nature of this symbol as he quipped, “So if we take the Bible literally and Mary was the mother of Jesus and Jesus was the lamb of God, does that mean Mary had a little lamb?” (blank slide)

It is definitely true that when you don’t know the story behind a symbol, that symbol can have a hard time making sense, especially when it appears to be out of character with what you would think should be portrayed through that symbol.  But when you look at the origin of a symbol, it can begin to have more meaning.

Let’s look again at some of those silly college mascots.  For instance, the University of Delaware blue hen mascot traces its origin back to the American Revolutionary War, and the Battle of Trenton.  It’s said that  soldiers from Delaware, under the command of Jonathan Caldwell would often times carry about chickens with blu-ish feathers into combat in order to hold cockfights as entertainment when the fighting died down or there was time to spare.  As the regiment became known for its bravery and courage in battle they were given the nickname the “Blue Hens.”   In 1911 the University of Delaware connected with the region’s history and took on the symbol of the Blue Hen for its school teams.

Even the fighting artichoke and okra become more meaningful when you realize they are symbols that show local character  and a connection to a particular community. They represent food crops unique to the area around those colleges which provide for the local economy.  They remind people of their identity and are a source of local pride.

When John takes the image of the lamb and uses it to symbolize who Jesus is, he is reminding his listeners of their identity as God’s people.  He is using an ancient image in a new way to remind people of the character of God and the connection they have to the community of God’s people.  The image of the Lamb is seen throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is a prominent symbol of freedom in the story of the Exodus.  If you recall, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God sends a series of plagues upon the Egyptians in order to set them free.  None of them work, until the very last one, when the Angel of Death strikes down the first born sons of Egypt.  The sons of the Israelites were spared, however, because God gave them a sign to protect them.  They were to put the blood of an animal above their doors so that death would pass over their house.  It was the blood of a….lamb.  The lamb was a symbol of freedom from death and slavery.

The prophet Isaiah talked about a suffering servant who will come from God to “bear the sins of many.”  This suffering servant will be “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.”  The servant of God does not come like a conquering warrior.  Instead, the servant comes like a silent sheep, and yet this lamb has the power to bear the sins of many.  It has the power to take away those things that would keep the people from connecting with God and others. The lamb is a symbol of freedom from sin.

In the Book of Exodus (Exodus 20:24)  and then in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 28:3, NIV)  God tells Moses to say to the people, ‘This is the food offering you are to present to the LORD: two lambs a year old without defect, as a regular burnt offering each day.’ This is a ritual that is referred to throughout the Old Testament.  It was a sacrifice that was made to re-connect the people to God.  The Hebrew word for burnt offering literally means “that which goes up.”  As the smoke went up for the sacrifice, it was as if all the sins of the people were going up in smoke too and they could be right with God again.

The idea of sacrifice,  being set free from sin, being set free from slavery and death, all of these things were wrapped up in the symbol of the lamb for the Jewish people.  So when John calls Jesus the “lamb of God,” he could be referring to all the history that goes with that image.  It is like he is putting all these powerful spiritual concepts onto Jesus.  This could be what gets stirred up in John’s followers who leave him in order to go become disciples of Jesus.  Maybe they were thinking, “This Jesus can set us free from sin?  Could he set us free even from death?  Would he really be willing to sacrifice everything for us?”  That kind of leader would definitely be worth following!

The idea of self-sacrifice is a powerful one indeed.  Someone who has the power to take life can get others to follow him through fear, but someone who is willing to give up his life can inspire others through the even more powerful spirit of love.

Over the years many artists have given us images of the lamb of God. One of them is portrayed in this stained glass image. (next slide).  You can see that behind the lamb is a cross, slanting down.  You can also see what looks like blood coming out of the lamb into a cup that looks like the cups we used for communion in church.  This symbol connects the image of the lamb with the cross of Christ and the sacrifice that saves us from our sins.  It seems to be showing the way God comes to us in Jesus.  As one commentator writes, “this Lamb is ‘of God’.  He is not our lamb.  He is not our offering. …Jesus is not a cultic victim but the one through whom God enters the human story, offering it reconciliation with him….it is an old symbol that is being used in a new way.”  (Mohoney, p. 59)   ( slide)

Having a relationship with God is not about having to make a burnt offering anymore.  It is not about that which goes up.  Rather, it is about that which comes down.  It is not about us having to prove how good we are or working our way up to God.  Rather, it is about God coming down to us in Jesus Christ.  It is about Jesus willing to give the ultimate sacrifice in order that we might be free from sin and death.

[last slide]  So, I understand that the symbol of the lamb might seem a little strange at first.  I get that the image of a lamb can seem kind of weak and small.  But when you know the full story behind that lamb—when you realize that God is reversing our image of real power from that of domination and force to that of self-sacrifice and unconditional love—when you realize what God has done for us—well, then that lamb becomes a mascot to be proud of.

-Pastor Erik Goehner