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Sermon – “Lamb” – April 28, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2013

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

“Lamb”          Psalm 23; Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30

A retired laborer, a big man, heard that his stepdaughter’s husband was beating her. He went to see the man, told him what he’d heard, and grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the floor. He held him up against the wall. Then he reached into his pocket with the other hand and pulled out a revolver, and pressed it into the man’s nose. “If you lay another hand on her,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”

I tell you that about him so you can hear this about him in the proper light. He was reminiscing with another older man about growing up on the farm. They talked about the different seasons of farm life, and what impressions remained from their boyhood. The subject of lambs came up, and the old laborer folded his hands together and looked down. “I never could stand that,” he said, shaking his head with a faint smile. He looked up and held his hands out expressively. “My father would take the lamb and slit its throat,” he said, “and I never could stand that. It was so small and helpless.”

I’m not trying to make vegetarians out of you, though a person can live very well as a vegetarian. I’m talking about the quality of a lamb as an animal to be butchered which is an element both in Judaism and Christianity. I’m not saying that there was something psychological about bloodletting involving lambs that made it seem especially appropriate to cast the lamb as the substitute victim for the firstborn child, but that is what Passover has done. It was the blood of the lamb smeared on the doors of the house which fooled the Angel of Death, and made it pass over the homes of the Israelites. Their own flesh and blood was spared because the lamb had been sacrificed.

There are two distinct sacrificial traditions in the Jewish religion which get mixed in people’s minds. Indeed they are mixed in the minds of the writers of the New Testament, and so that confusion has become part of the official perspective. One practice is that of the scapegoat, on which the sin of the community is transferred, so that the price of sin might be paid in a way which spares the people. The other is the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover, which provides an adequate sign of death to decoy and turn away from Hebrew households the Angel of Death which has come to slay every firstborn in Egypt. The first of these two ritual slaughterings has to do with satisfying the price required by sin. The second has to do with warding off the inevitability of death.

These themes are mingled in the New Testament, and I am not going to disentangle them. It is not possible. It is possible to point out that Jesus’ self-conscious sacrifice at the culmination of his ministry is made at Passover, and not at the festival of the Day of Atonement. That would support the idea that if both the theme of the undoing of death and taking on others’ sins belong to Christ’s nature, that the primary one is making it possible for the community of believers to survive the arrival of death. That the two ways of reading the meaning of Jesus’ death are inextricably connected

is seen in a single New Testament book. John’s gospel begins with John the Baptist saying of Jesus “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John’s narrative, on the other hand, has Jesus journey to Jerusalem three times for the Passover festival, either because that’s his community’s historical tradition or because it reinforces the significance of the number three, which can relate both to the span between crucifixion and resurrection or the incipient identity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not only is it the death-dodging holiday which is central, but in the passage we have read from John’s gospel today it is his ability to confer immortality and protect and preserve the sheep given to him that Jesus proclaims. No one being able to “snatch them out of [Jesus’] hand” is a metaphor for their security, not for their innocence. We see that despite Jesus being introduced as One “who takes away the sin of the world” that the other theme, that of being the Passover Lamb making death go away, is at least equally strong.

The combination of images may have something to do with the idea that resurrection into the presence of God is going to require people to be made acceptable. After all, the Bible’s instinct is that the “wages of sin is death,” as Paul puts it. Though the sentence was deferred for Adam and Eve, and though its being executed was deliberately commuted by God, at least for a lifetime, in the case of Cain, this logic goes back to the earliest Bible stories. Too, every sacrifice offered to God, including the Passover Lamb, must be without blemish, and so the perfection of the sacrificial victim itself may inevitably grow into the sacrifice’s making perfect those on whose part it is made.

This is one of those things in the New Testament which, the more you think about it, the less you unravel it. I don’t want to get you chasing down alleyways of meaning, because in this world there is no map to lay this all out. My main point is that there are at least a couple of ways the Easter miracle is read in the New Testament, and that gives sincere readers of the Bible latitude in what they choose to emphasize in their own understanding of who Christ is and what Christ accomplishes for us. If the most meaningful way to think about your faith in Jesus has to do with your sins having been nailed to the cross, you have warrant for that. If the most meaningful way for you to think about Jesus as the Lamb of God is as a Passover Lamb preventing death’s destruction from getting you, you have warrant for that.

I will point out that the New Testament tends to think of resurrection being secured in a way that it does not tend to regard sinlessness being attained. Paul mentions both provisionally–he knows he is not without sin, and he doesn’t presume he will be worthy of resurrection from the dead–but generally speaking, the New Testament trusts that God will resurrect us in the next world, but recognizes in this one the possibility always to be beset by sin.

The “valley of the shadow of death” is one in which we will fear no evil, if we can achieve the trust declared by the twenty-third psalm. God’s rod and staff comfort us– it is not God’s overcoming death by any means, nor God’s overcoming sin by any means, to which the psalm refers. The psalm counts on God as a living presence, protecting the faithful follower from harm even in those places where doom seems all around.

We read this psalm at Christian funerals because the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that this confidence in death’s being unable to separate us from the loving oversight of our Lord remains true despite dying. Here, again, as in Jesus’ words about no one being able to snatch the sheep from his hand, David’s language about confidence in menacing surroundings has to do with divine sufficiency to protect. It is an analogy of the role of the shepherd which David knows from his own experience of safeguarding sheep.

There is an image from the New Testament of the Lamb upon his throne. All kinds of Biblical themes get combined in this. The firstborn and the lamb which takes his place are put together, Jesus as the firstborn of all creation and as the Passover lamb. The lion which lies down with the lamb is incorporated into the lamb, at lest in his character as king of the beasts–and as a strong animal which can represent the conquering power of God. There is an ancient church way of speaking of both animals being combined which goes back at least to Augustine. Casting the lamb of God as a lion didn’t begin with C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories.

As an image of the heavenly ruler the Lamb has the appearance of innocence and vulnerability which makes clear that he is gentle and will do no harm to those in his care. Enthroned, with all the power of heaven at his disposal, he is also all-powerful, and able to protect those who shelter in his care, and see to their every need.

The white robes of those who surround the throne may refer to the requirement of wearing white for purity as part of the preparation for the Passover ritual, but the washing in blood may imply being purified from sin. The image of their happiness in the care of the Lamb which also is Shepherd, however, more clearly echoes the kind of wise and benevolent nurture which preserves life which begin Psalm Twenty-Three: “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul.” Listen again to what this vision of living under the rule of the Lamb of God:

“…the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and the will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

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