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Weekly Bible Notes and Worship Resources 

Second Sunday of Epiphany Year A, Colour = White


John the Baptist described Jesus as 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Why does he compare Jesus to an animal, and how does Jesus take away sins?

On the Wirral close to Liverpool is the Lady Lever Art Gallery. There you will find the picture shown above called 'The Scapegoat' by William Holman Hunt. On the frame of the painting is written the title 'Scapegoat.' Hunt learned that on the Festival of the Day of Atonement, a goat was ejected from the temple with a scarlet piece of woollen cloth on its head. It was goaded and driven, either to death or into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the congregation. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the scarlet cloth would turn white. Hunt recognised that John the Baptist was thinking of Jesus in this way, the death of Jesus cancelled the sins of the people. 

It is difficult for us today to understand the practice of animal sacrifice, how people could imagine that the anger of God at sin would be appeased by the killing of a defenceless animal. However with Jesus came a new understanding God shows up in person in Jesus and brings to an end the killing. No more lambs to kill, goats to drive off into the wilderness, Jesus comes and shows us that he is prepared to die himself to bring the old ways to an end.

Opening Verse of Scripture Isaiah Chapter 53:4-6

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Collect Prayer for the Day — Before we read we pray

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. CW

Eternal Lord, our beginning and our end: bring us with the whole creation to your glory, hidden through past ages and made known in Jesus Christ our Lord. CW

First Bible Reading   Isaiah Chapter 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.’And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength – he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’ NRSV

Second Reading  1 Corinthians Chapter 1:1-9

From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. NRSV

Gospel Reading  John 1:29-42

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter). NRSV 

Post Communion Prayer

Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your Word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.


Jesus is called several things in the passage today, he is Rabbi (v38) and he is Messiah (v41). In the following verses he is also called Son of God and King of Israel (v49). To really confuse things Jesus eventually refers to himself with the title ‘Son of Man’ (v51). All of these titles mean different things but the one I want us to think about today is where John the Baptist describes Jesus as 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  Jesus is called Lamb of God in our Holy Communion, Agnus Dei, and the phrase has been used so much in much in music and literature.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi… Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world

This is a most important description of Jesus, but surprisingly it is also an unusual one.  John 1 is the only place in the entire Bible where it is used. No Old Testament prophet ever referred to God’s Messiah as “the lamb of God” and no New Testament writer will repeat this exact phrase either.  Even in the Book of Revelation, where the apostle John mentions the image of the Lamb, the exact phrase “the lamb of God” is not repeated.

This new phrase would have raised questions in the minds of those who heard it. The people had long been looking for the Messiah, but in the form of a king, a warrior, a hero. So calling Jesus a lamb would hardly have conjured up the idea of the Messiah. What exactly does it mean when we speak of Jesus in words which liken him to an animal? And how does Jesus take away the sin of the world? You may also find it surprising that John the Baptist who spoke of one coming with and axe his hand was also a lamb.

When John calls Jesus “a lamb,” it could have been perceived a couple of different ways. Lambs are often a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability. In this sense, calling Jesus a lamb could have been a nice thing to say, but it would hardly be the type of description that would fit the Messiah. No lamb was ever going to kick out the Roman occupying force.   

At the time of Jesus lambs were used as sacrifices for sin. To say that Jesus would “take away the sin of the world” clearly associated Jesus with his own death as a sacrifice. The ‘paschal lamb’ was the sacrifice mandated by the Torah at Passover when lambs were killed in the Temple. The father of John the Baptist was Zechariah and he was a priest, so no doubt John had seen and heard the killing of many lambs.

The people would call to mind lamb from the Suffering Servant songs of the Prophet Isaiah, who by his sacrifice, will redeem his people. “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he didn’t open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7). This certainly became an important part of the church’s understanding of Christ.

However Jesus isn’t just another sacrifice which will wash away some of guilty secrets in the hearts of his followers. Note that John tells everybody that Jesus will wipe out the sin of the world ! This was something which temple sacrifices could never do and Jesus was going to do something which would change everything. This starts to make sense when you read it alongside the other great quote from John’s Gospel 3:16 which says that  ‘God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only son Jesus’  

John clearly has in mind the fact that Jesus is one who will bring about healing and restore the broken relationship between God and all he had created.

We read that after this John encourages his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus instead. John fades from the picture and we see him only once more when his disciples ask him about Jesus, who has become quite popular (3:26). John tells them, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30). One of the disciples who leaves John to follow Jesus is Andrew and we know that after he has started to follow Jesus he goes to Simon Peter and calls him to follow Jesus as well. This is of course how the good news of who Jesus is spreads, through relationship and witness. If we had gone on a bit further this morning with the passage from John we would have read that Philip followed Jesus and he went and brought along Nathanael. We don’t get far by tub thumping but each one of us has a ministry to share Christ and sometimes it is just a matter of saying ‘come and see’    Charles Royden


Christ Church Hong KongAgnus Dei By The Reverend Ross Royden in Hong Kong

I hope that you have all recovered now from the festivities of Christmas and the New Year. Here in Hong Kong and China, of course, we are now getting ready for what is a much bigger celebration in terms of the effort that goes into it, that is, Chinese New Year. Not having liturgical significance, this is a celebration I rather enjoy!

At the moment, however, I am preparing for the sermon on Sunday and it has led me down some interesting paths. I am going to be preaching on the Gospel reading from John 1:29 specifically John the Baptist’s words: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Lamb motif, the Agnus Dei, is in effect the logo of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong. We have it as a mosaic outside our church and it appears on our literature. This was something I inherited when I came here and have been more than happy to use.

In the past, I have spent some time looking up its use historically in attempt to understand where the symbol originally came from. Fifth century Rome seems the most likely answer, although it only comes to prominence in sources from the ninth century onwards. It was later widely used by the Knights Templar during the Crusades.

What I have been wondering this week, however, is why it was adopted by Christ Church. True, the Lamb represents Christ and we are Christ Church, but I have been at many Christ Churches and it has not been used in this way by them. I have started to enquire into its usage here and interestingly no-one seems to know when, or why, it came to be used. Enquiries are on going and I will let you know!

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Perhaps more interesting is something that I uncovered in an essay by Richard Bauckham in his recent book: The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. He discusses the use of gematria in St John’s Gospel. Gematria is where a numerical value is assigned to a word. In Hebrew and Greek, he writes, the letters also represented numbers. Similarly, we sometimes do this in English with A having the value of 1, B equalling 2, and so on. He cites an interesting piece of graffiti from Pompei: ‘I love the girl whose number is 545’. That is, the girl the letters of whose name add up to 545.

Gematria is also behind the number of the Beast in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 13:18 it says:

‘This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.’

The writer is telling his readers who the Beast is. It most likely is the Emperor Nero. The sum of the letters Nero Caesar written in Hebrew is 666.

Why this is interesting as I prepare for Sunday is that, according to Bauckham, in Hebrew the numerical value for the name ‘Jesus’ and for the ‘Lamb of God’ are the same, that is, 391. To quote Bauckham:

So when John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (1:29, 35-36), he is interpreting the name Jesus by gematria.

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Much more important is the question of what it means to say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The use of gematria that I have just referred to shows that the ancient Biblical writers used techniques with which we are not immediately familiar nowadays. This means that we miss things that would have been obvious to the first readers. But it isn’t just in the area of literary techniques that we run into problems.

The sacrifice of animals was a familiar practice in the ancient world. At Passover Jews in Jerusalem sacrificed lambs in their thousands. This is not something we do or understand the point of. In fact, we rather regard the whole business as barbaric and primitive. This makes understanding the concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world also hard to understand. Indeed, it perhaps why some modern day Christians recoil from the idea of Jesus being a sacrifice for sin. As one recent writer puts it: ‘isn’t the idea of God sacrificing his Son a form of cosmic child abuse?’

We live in different worlds in more ways than one. The problem is that because we think we are more advanced than them in scientific and technological ways, we are also more advanced theologically. This is cultural and historical arrogance. We are back to the fact that God chose this time, 2,000 years ago, to give the supreme revelation of himself, the Word made flesh, as we have just celebrated. If we believe this, we are going to have to swallow our pride and accept that in this conceptual world we find so foreign, lie truths that are timeless and eternal, and which we ignore or dismiss at our peril. Ross Royden - Hong Kong

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.  


  1. Wild and lone the people's voice (Aberystwyth) ST 189
  2. There is a redeemer (as) with instruments. MP 673
  3. No weight of gold and silver (Passion Chorale) HTC 138
  4. Come, let us join our cheerful song (Nativity) MP 810
  5. Crown him with many crowns 
  6. Your mercy flows upon us like a river  It is a thing most wonderful (Tune Heronsgate)
  7. I will sing the wondrous story (Tune Hyfrydol)


Prayers for Sunday and the week ahead

representation of prayer as seed growing

"Prayer is a plant, the seed of which is sown in the heart of every Christian.
If it is well cultivated and nourished it will produce fruit, but if it is neglected, it will wither and die."

Increase your grace in us, O Lord, that we may fear your Name beyond which nothing is more holy; that we may love you, beyond whom nothing is more loveable; that we may glorify you beyond whom nothing is more worthy of praise, and that we may long for you beyond whom nothing is more desirable; and grant that thus fearing, loving, glorifying and longing we may see you, face to face; through Christ our Lord. Amen Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536

Give thanks for the joy of human love and friendship
Take from me, O Lord, all desire for worldly praise and all uncontrolled anger and remorse. Give to me a humble and lowly heart, and a mind tender with kindness and compassion. Grant to me also, good Lord, fullness of faith, firmness of hope and fervency of love, that my one desire may be conformity to your gracious will; through Christ our Lord. Amen Thomas More, 1478-1535

For world peace - God our Father, as the rainbow spans the heavens when the sky is dark, so our strife and enmities stand under the judgement and promise of your over-arching love and righteousness. We praise you for signs of hope and for the fact that enemies can become friends. As your Holy Spirit draws the scattered flock of Christ together so may the nations find a unity that eliminates war. Help all who look to Christ to identify the common enemies of humanity - poverty, hunger, disease and injustice - and work to create the structures of peace, for his sake. Amen
Kenneth Greet, Methodist Peace Fellowship

Additional Resources


The passage from John's Gospel today reminds us of the words of John the Baptist who described Jesus as 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

This is a most important description of Jesus, but what exactly does it mean when we speak of Jesus in words which liken him to an animal? And how does Jesus take away the sin of the world?

As you know Liverpool that great city remembered as European City of Culture, as well as being the home of a great football team, is also home to many wonderful cultural places -art galleries, museums etc. On the Wirral is the Lady Lever Art Gallery where you will find the picture shown above called 'The Scapegoat' by William Holmann Hunt. On the frame of the painting is written the title 'Scapegoat' and the following scripture

'Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted.' (Isaiah 53: 4)
'And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.' (Leviticus 16:22)

The passage from Leviticus 16:20 is as follows

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

The painting by William Holmann Hunt was made during his first stay in the Holy Land. He had the idea for the picture while studying the Talmud (the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings that forms the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism. Hunt learned that on the Festival of the Day of Atonement, a goat was ejected from the temple with a scarlet piece of woollen cloth on its head. It was goaded and driven, either to death or into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the congregation. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the scarlet cloth would turn white.

This background of sin and Old Testament sacrifice is helpful for us in understanding what John the Baptist meant about Jesus when he referred to Jesus as a 'lamb' who took away sin. Hunt recognised the Old Testament scapegoat as a prefigurement of Jesus Christ whose suffering and death similarly cancelled the sins of the people. 

In the Book of Leviticus the goat bears the iniquities into a land that was not inhabited. So Hunt set his goat in a landscape of hideous desolation - it is the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance. In his diary Hunt described this setting as 'a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness' and he saw the Dead Sea as a 'horrible figure of sin', believing as did many at this time that it was the original site of the city of Sodom.

It is difficult for us today to understand the practice of animal sacrifice, how people could imagine that the anger of God at sin would be appeased by the killing of a defenceless animal. I would expect that most of us would make an immediate call to the RSPCA if we witnessed a poor animal being killed or driven off into the wilderness and certain death. Yet at the time people wanted to know that God did not hold their sins against them. People needed to know that God forgave them and loved them and at the heart of this lay the killing of innocent animals.

This Old Covenant (agreement) was made clear in the rules of the Old Testament. However with Jesus came a New Covenant, a new understanding, which we can read in the New Testament. In the New Testament with Jesus there is the dawning of a fantastic new understanding of sin and forgiveness, which people in the Old Testament stories could only dream about. God shows up in person in Jesus and brings to an end the need to kill any more animals. No more lambs to kill, goats to drive off into the wilderness, Jesus comes and shows us that he is prepared to die himself to bring the old ways of Judaism to an end.

Quite rightly we must understand that Jesus was a Jew, his followers were Jews and those of us who follow Jesus today are Jews as well. We stand in history in that line of belief which comes from Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and the Prophets. But we are not old Jews, stuck in the Old Testament, we are new Jews, new covenant  Jews  - Jews who see Jesus as the way to know forgiveness of sin. And rather than call ourselves 'New Jews'  we call ourselves Christians after Jesus, because we believe him to be the Christ, the one promised by God to save people from their sins.

Of course when Jesus died he died the once and for all, there was no need for an ongoing sacrificial system based around the Temple killing animals, all that became redundant and so did the priests who were needed to administer that operation. Jesus stopped those priests shedding the blood of animals and he became the last priest and best priest that there has ever been. What better priest could we have than one who does not kill a poor defenceless sheep but willingly gives of his own life. If ever we needed confirmation that God loves us and forgives us, then this is it, that God dies to make it abundantly clear.

I read recently of a most horrific murder and I stopped reading about it because I thought it was so depraved that surely just to read it would be corrupting in itself. Today we look around us and we see and read about the most dreadful things and we might feel at times as if we are in a wilderness place of desolation and sin. For those without faith it is a frightening place because they are faced with the depravity of humankind and there is no indication that humanity is getting any better. However for us we have hope. We believe that the scarlet red sins of this world, can be transformed by God and forgiven, so that the sins of our community too can be turned from blood red to the whiteness of snow.

I don't know when the last time was that you saw snow, but if you can remember, snow is beautifully white. It is so white that even sheep who look white on a green field, look depressingly grey when looked at in a snowy field. I am not sure how often Isaiah saw snow, perhaps before global warming there was more of it about. But, Isaiah was making the point that God's forgiveness transforms our present muckiness into something wonderfully new and fresh. This is what the forgiveness of God is like - and don't we all need it.

Isaiah Chapter 1:18

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Charles Royden


People were following John the Baptist and clearly hoping that he would be the promised Messiah. John refutes these hopes and instead he points his followers in the direction of Jesus. John puts himself in a lower position and recognises that he is just the warm up act, now he must take a back seat and let Jesus rise to his rightful place. John is assured of who Jesus is because he has seen that the Spirit is with him. Others had received the Spirit before but the Spirit not only came to Jesus, Johns says it ‘remained’ (meno) on him.
Those who followed John were therefore told to go and follow Jesus instead and accordingly some of the disciples of John follow Jesus instead. They did this not because Jesus was a better teacher, or was more charismatic, they believed John that Jesus was the one who had been promised by God as Messiah.

There have been many words written about what John the Baptist meant when he called Jesus the ‘Lamb of God.’ It has been noted that the Passover lamb was never considered in Judaism to be a sin offering.
However whilst in Judaism, the Passover lamb was not viewed as a sacrifice for sin, the early church quickly reinterpreted Passover symbolism in the light of the eucharist (e.g., 1 Cor 5:7-8). Indeed, in the Fourth Gospel Jesus’ crucifixion is linked to the slaughter of the paschal lamb. For example, the writer of John’s Gospel links Jesus’ unbroken legs at the crucifixion (19:33) with the Exod 12:46 teaching about the Passover lamb (19:36)” When the Gospel was written perhaps 60 or more years after the death of Jesus it is difficult to imagine that the term ‘Lamb of God’ could be used without thinking of the sacrificial aspects of the crucified Jesus. This is not a Jewish sacrifice, but should be understood in the context of the life and teachings of Jesus, not least the Last Supper. The Last Super is a Passover meal and the death of Jesus is a eucharist. This Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, including all human beings.

The first words of Jesus in John's Gospel are in response to the disciples who come from John, 'What do you want'? It is a searching question, ‘What motivates you?’ ‘What is that you really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being?’ ‘What are you looking for?’ We will see throughout the Gospel that different people want different things from Jesus, some want miracles, some free food, some people simply want to want to kill him. The two disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and what they want is to be with Jesus and they say 'Rabbi, where are you staying?'

The word ‘Rabbi’ is an interesting one which some have commented was not used at this time. It means literally ‘my great one,’ and was a common term of honour used by a student to their master. It is true that by the end of the first century AD the word was used in a more restricted sense to refer to those who held office after qualifying through a course of rabbinical instruction. However it was used at this time as a general title of respect and used for Jesus (1:49, 2:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8), even by Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council (3:1-2). Note also that it is a term used for John the Baptist by his own followers (3:26) !

So the disciples ask Jesus ‘where are you staying.’ It is significant that the same word (meno) is used as we read earlier of the holy spirit remaining (meno) on Jesus. It is also used repeatedly through the Gospel, indeed over 40 times. It is the primary word to express the intimate relationship into which the disciples and we are invited and is often translated as the word we remember from ‘abide’ in John chapter 15 where Jesus speaks of himself as the True Vine. Jesus responds 'Come and see' and they go off and they stay with him.
So from the beginning we know that discipleship is about staying with Jesus. As the ‘True Vine’ Jesus will tell his disciples to 'Abide' in his love (15:4,9) and he promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10).

Being a disciple is about a state of 'being with Jesus' being in his presence learning and copying his ways. 'Discipleship is about how we live, not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being.' It is not just about learning facts and information, it is about being with Jesus and remaining in his presence. We learn that it is Andrew who brings Simon to Jesus announcing to him that he found the Messiah. The term Messiah included the Old Testament hopes of one who was to come, promised by God, a royal priest, a king. At this time Andrew’s brother is called Simon Son of John. Jesus renames him and says that he will be called ‘Cephas.’ which meant ‘Rock.’ Jesus clearly at the outset of his ministry identifies this newly named Peter as somebody who will have a foundational role in the formation of the church. None of these early disciples at this stage understood what these titles for themselves of Jesus really meant. Indeed the forthcoming stories throughout the Gospel show how inadequate their faith was. Yet they were drawn to Jesus and gave their lives to him as they embarked on a journey of faith. They came into a relationship with Jesus and their understanding grew, only really beginning to fully grasp what was going on after the crucifixion and resurrection. For the first disciples their weak faith, lack of comprehension and repeated faltering were not a barrier to following Jesus and speaking to others of who he was. Neither should the same weaknesses prevent us from belonging and speaking his name. Charles Royden



Southwark Cathedral BellsMeditation

The bells shown in the photograph wereraised into the tower of Southwark Cathedral. The bells have been restored since ringing from the 14th century, calling faithful Christians to prayer and marking special occasions such as weddings and funerals. I went to see them, it seemed a fitting thing to do after I had visited the Shard. Once the Cathedral with these bells would have towered above the local landscape, now it is the Shard only a few hundred yards away which has taken the higher place.

Church bells are traditionally blessed and dedicated in a special church service in which they are named and anointed. They will serve an important purpose from their lofty chamber calling people to worship. The blessing of bells has much in common with Christian baptism and it is often referred to as a baptism with the priest or bishop using baptismal water and the bells dressed in christening gowns.

The picture shows how the artist Angela Wright has produced a remarkable river of wool and pools around the larger bells. It is reassuring to see the care with which Southwark cathedral have undertaken the process of restoration. We should not forget church bells and the faithful who ring them. Bells are often now more complained about and many have fallen silent, their peal must be replaced by Christian voices who continue to speak and call others to worship.

God of our life, may we grow in faith and love with confidence in you; vibrant, prayerful,
passionate, alive in Jesus Christ. Amen. Prayer from Southwark cathedral




Hymn “Renewed by Grace

Renewed by grace we come to pray,
to seek again our way and call;
we trace the gospel narrative,
and know that God is all in all.

The covenant that hist’ry claimed
was sealed against all human hope;
remains and we will praise again
and trust the scandal of love’s scope.

Amazed by grace, confirmed by love,
assured of hope that faith can give,
we are no longer ours but God's
and through the grace of Christ we live.

Within the love of God we stand,
for grace dispels all fault and fear.
The spirit gives us confidence,
we stand secure for Christ is here.

We trust that God will guard our way,
through joy or labour, doubt or pain
as on this day we make this vow,
to consecrate ourselves again. Amen.

© Andrew Pratt (


God with us

On this Sunday each year, the Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus comes to the River Jordan to be baptised. 

There is often debate among theological scholars about whether things in the Bible actually happened exactly as they are reported. Nevertheless even the most skeptical of scholars believe that the episode today in which Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist must have taken place. It is hard to imagine the early church making up the story of Jesus’ baptism; it was too much of an embarrassment to them. 

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins. From some of the first earliest documents written by Christians we know they believed in the sinlessness of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). These two facts seem to contradict each other. If Jesus was sinless there would have been no need for him to submit to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. John recognised this point himself and tried to persuade Jesus not to bother. There is a significant contrast between Jesus’ willingness to be baptised when he did not need to be and the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ refusal to repent when they needed to.

This strikes right at the heart of what the whole ministry of Jesus is about. On the 4th. Sunday of Advent we heard about the dream Joseph had. In it he was told the true identity of the child Mary was carrying. The child would be called, "Emmanuel, God with us." Now we begin to find out exactly what that means. God is with us and he goes the whole way. God is not like an absent military General who gives orders from a bomb proof bunker. He marches alongside the troops and shares the same dangers and trials. God does not address sinners from a safe distance, he gets his hands dirty and joins our sinful and world. In Jesus God was not sending another messenger, this time he is coming alongside us himself!

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the baptism is that Jesus shows the attitude of God towards us sinners. If God was human he would stand at the side of the river and criticise the miserable lot who turned up. Jesus shows just how different God is from us. Instead of condemning the sinners, Jesus jumps into the water with them. Right at the beginning of his ministry Jesus is showing what his attitude is going to be. It is not one of self righteousness and criticism, but rather of forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus is not ‘God above us’ or ‘God better than us’ Jesus is instead Emmanuel ‘God with us.’ Jesus stands alongside us in human life, he is flesh like our flesh and with baptism in the cleansing waters, he associates himself totally with humankind.

And so Jesus came on that day and entered the water. In Matthew's account of the baptism, Jesus enters the water and the heavens open, then the Spirit of God descends like a dove and a voice from heaven speaks words over Jesus "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased." 
The appearance of the symbolic dove has occasioned much speculation. Since Tertullian it has often been connected with Noah’s dove: the former dove announced deliverance from the flood, the latter dove deliverance from sins (cf. 1 Pet 3:20–1).

The words from heaven are very similar to the ones we hear in the passage from the prophet Isaiah, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him." The words are given not just for Jesus, but for all who were there. It was a message from God to them. As the presence of Jesus puts the stamp of approval on what John is doing, so now the presence of the Spirit shows the approval of God on what Jesus is doing. Moreover, soon the Spirit will descend not just on Jesus, but on all who follow into baptismal waters.

We might see this humble submission as a foreshadowing of the “baptism” of his bloody death upon the cross. Jesus’ baptism is his submission entirely to his Father’s will. Out of love he consented to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. Now it is for us to enter into that same acceptance of the will of God for us. In Romans Chapter 6:4 The Apostle Paul tells us ‘We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Jesus is still Emmanuel, God with us. He gives us his Spirit so that we are not left alone throughout our lives. Now we must follow his example, as we ask the Holy Spirit to forge this same attitude of humility and obedience in our hearts. Perhaps as we do a part of heaven will heaven will open for us as well. Charles Royden


Additional Material about Hunt

Hunt spent about 10 days on the edge of the sea painting in the landscape and making sketches and notes. He took a white goat with him but he left blank that part of the picture that the animal occupies and did not paint the beast until he returned to his Jerusalem studio. Whilst at Osdoom, Hunt's life was at risk from hostile tribesmen. The insistence of his guides that they get away from this dangerous spot led to his leaving earlier than he wished. He took back samples of mud and salt to help him finish the foreground. In Jerusalem Hunt also bought or borrowed sheep and goat skulls and a full camel skeleton.

‘William Holman Hunt , to Thomas Miller of Preston 31st March 1856

I beg to write to inform you that I have brought back with me a picture which altho' not a figure subject I feel it necessary to submit to you before sending in day when I have to show it to several friends who will then visit my studio.

The subject is the "Scapegoat" as suggested by the description of the ceremony on the day of Atonement in Leviticus XVI and the particular passage, "And the goat shall bear upon him all the iniquities unto a land not inhabited." When in Jerusalem it recommended itself to me as one which — with the opportunity I had of choosing an appropriate scene from Nature as a background, demanded illustration as the most evident type in the old Law of our afflicted Saviour and accordingly I made a journey along the plain of the Dead Sea to select a fitting spot which I decided upon at Asdoom and where I returned with all proper materials and located myself until I had painted the Mountains of Edom and the lake and salt encrusted marsh below.

I found an interesting account of the manner in which the ceremony was performed in the Talmud which supplied me with some additional hints...

I have supposed the goat to have been wandering three days, driven from all resting places within sight of man to this desolate region — which is the probable site of Sodom — and there while the sun is sinking and the full moon is rising behind the reddened Eastern Mountains the weary animal has turned towards some calm land locked water, from the shore on to the treacherous surface of salt from which he is now with little hope attempting to extricate himself, but this point I have left unexpressed seeing that the Bible is silent on the ultimate fate of the sin burthened animal...
The picture is 55 inches in length and 34 inches in height and the price I have to ask for it exclusive of copyright is 450 Guineas.’