This Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 1:29-42 begins with John the Baptist saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s an affirmation that John repeats again when he sees Jesus the next day. This text is the subject of Matthias Grunewald’s famous picture of John the Baptist at the foot of the Cross pointing at Jesus, with the Lamb of God looking on, in the Isenheim Altarpiece.
It was through Karl Barth that I discovered the image, he refers to it several times in the Dogmatics and it is the featured front piece in his biography. In the Grunewald image Karl Barth famously saw the “hand of judgment and grace” in the pointing finger of John the Baptist.
But as I have contemplated the image over the years I see in it a message specifically for preachers. The text from John 1 is familiar and comfortable. The phrase “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is an integral part of the liturgy. The metaphor “lamb of God” has so many great preaching possibilities. It’s easy to get lost in the potential of John the Baptist as a character and the phrase as a literary springboard.
And this is always the temptation for the preacher. How many times have I heard that someone attends a church because the pastor is such a great preacher? (Actually, I heard it again yesterday afternoon smoking with some other pastors and priests at the local cigar lounge.) How seductive is it for the preacher to put all his energy into a great sermon because great preaching gets exactly that result?
But in the Isenheim Altarpiece we see a glimpse of authentic preaching. Truly great preaching operates on two levels. On the one hand it is “beautiful” in the sense that it is accessible, understandable, winsome, and attuned to the subject at hand. This is the spotless lamb at the prophet’s feet. But at the same time great preaching is terrifying (and here I have in mind the original meaning of “awesome” – full of awe) because our God is an awesome God. And if the message comes across in the treacly manner that the cloying praise chorus of the same name comes across, preaching has utterly missed its mark.
Reality is a point in life that is sometimes mystery, sometimes utter befuddlement, sometimes happy, sometimes terror, and often very ugly. Reality is a point where life actually lived encounters the true God who is seemingly inaccessible because he is encountered at that point of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness. Great preaching is pointing to that very spot of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness and showing that God-in-Christ is right there in the midst of it. This is the disfigured and pock-marked Jesus hanging on the cross, weighted down so heavily with our burdens that the cross-piece on which he is hanging bends toward the earth.
And the congregation? They don’t even seem to realize the pointing prophet exists. They are on the other side of that radix of reality looking upon Christ weeping (with horror? with sadness? with joy? No, all three!), because at this specific point where they find themselves, God-in-Christ truly dwells, as revealed in the truly great sermon.
Later (in John 3), John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is indeed what we see in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and precisely what truly great preaching embodies.