“Shepherd, Lamb, Savior” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! We are several Sundays out from Easter — the fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, and we get a group of lectionary texts about Christ, the good shepherd. Our Call to Worship was based on Psalm 23, which is familiar and beloved in part because of its brevity — I bet many of you have it memorized, or could say it with some prompting, as we did after the Morning Prayer. Psalm 23 has wonderful pastoral imagery of green grass, still water, and God’s protection and care for us. It is no coincidence that “pasture” and “pastor” sound so much alike: a pastor is the shepherd who takes the flock to safe pasture. So it is a wonderful Sunday, as is any Sunday, to welcome new sheep to the flock. The pastor welcomes you to our pasture.
Even if you did not know the history of the Hebrew patriarchs of our faith, even a cursory reading of the Old Testament — including the psalms — would give you some clues about their economy and culture. There are hoofprints all over the Old Testament: our spiritual ancestors began as nomadic herdsman; sheep and goats, primarily. Wealth was measured in animals: Abraham had flocks, Isaac met his wife when he was drawing water for his flocks, Jacob worked for his father-in-law for 14 years and figured out some breeding practices to build up the flock which he would keep. Moses tended goats for years, King David’s first job was watching sheep, and so on. It is no surprise that the Old Testament is filled with stories about sheep, and poetic allusions to God’s people as sheep — especially given our human tendencies to be dim-witted and willful, to wander away, and need to get saved from danger. The shepherd is the one who leads the sheep, cares for the sheep, calls the sheep, goes out looking for them, and brings the sheep back to safety. It is natural to think of God as the shepherd. Are you with me so far?
Sheep had another function for the Hebrew people, especially as the Jewish religion developed. This goes way back to the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Part of our loyalty to God is to offer the best we have to God: if you’re farmers and herdsman, you offer produce and animals. Pound for pound, animals are worth more than grain or vegetables, so they are a more valuable sacrifice. The more perfect the animal — think 4H grand champions, you can ask Cathy Barwick about these — the more valuable the sacrifice. A whole sacrificial system developed around this idea, and it was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover was the greatest feast day, when Jews remembered — and still remember — their liberation from Egypt, when they put lamb’s blood over the doors of their homes, and the angel of death passed over them.
Given all that foundation, it was not a huge conceptual leap to think of a person in the role of a sacrificial lamb. I mean, we were already collectively part of God’s flock: New Testament authors as early as the gospel of John identify Jesus as the Lamb of God. That designation would have carried a lot of freight for a Jewish audience: someone who was perfect, spotless, and destined to be killed in order to take away our sin. New Testament theology about Jesus and his sacrifice for our sake is something you’ve probably heard about before: I think I’ve mentioned it from this pulpit.
So all of that build up is to say that Revelation adds a whole extra dimension to this Shepherd, Lamb, Savior thing: the layers of meaning which have accrued from the Old Testament stories, poetry, and New Testament gospels and theology. Revelation smushes these images together and invites us to look at them through the lens of the resurrection. Don’t attempt this at home. By which I mean, if you read this passage from Revelation 7 without the Jewish/Christian context which I just barreled through, or if, God forbid, you try to make this passage make sense in some literal way, you could get tripped up in the imagery, and you might end up missing the point.
Here’s the point: it’s the point of the entire vision of Revelation; it’s the point I have been trying to drive home for the past three weeks; it’s the point which is our hope for today, tomorrow, and eternity. Let’s see if you remember. Who wins? Christ wins. Say it loud: Who wins? Christ wins. You might tuck that away for next week, too.
This passage from Revelation 7 is about worship. That is, where we pledge our allegiance. And this pledge of allegiance, we’re told in verse 1, is greater than any single country or government: these worshippers are from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. And they proclaim, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne [check — worship God] and to the Lamb!” The Lamb? The Lamb is Jesus Christ, right? The spotless sacrifice who was killed to take away our sin. Wait, the Lamb is back? That is not how sacrifices usually work. We bring animals and they are killed, and they bleed and they die, and they stay dead. What is this Lamb doing in the middle of God’s throne room?
Of course, this Lamb is worthy of our worship because this Lamb rose from the dead. This Lamb is worthy of blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might. Amen! Verse 17 tells us that this Lamb will be our shepherd, and will guide us to the springs of the water of life, and will wipe away every tear from our eyes. The Lamb being the shepherd does not make any sense in a practical animal-husbandry kind of way; it makes all kinds of sense as a way to understand the coming kingdom of God. All of history — not just Judeo-Christian history — all of history, has been building up to this event. Who wins? Christ wins. It is foundational to an understanding of who we are as Christians, and especially to who we have claimed to be in the Church of the Brethren, how Christ wins. Christ doesn’t win by having the most powerful or the best funded military. Christ doesn’t win by controlling the news media. Christ doesn’t win by having the most Twitter followers, or having support on social issues, or by lowering interest rates or gas prices. Christ wins by allowing himself to be killed. That is a terribly difficult teaching, and it is at the heart of our faith. It is what we model in baptism — including Steve’s Behr’s baptism which happened this week. We don’t die literally — at least, I’ve never drowned anyone, yet — but allowing ourselves to be pushed (gently) under the water of baptism is a witness that we have died to ourselves and our former desires and behaviors so that we can receive new life in Jesus Christ, the Lamb. The Lamb can be our shepherd and guide us on this journey of life and even through the valley of death, because the Lamb has been there before. The Lamb was slain and has been resurrected by God. Christ has defeated death. Forever. The Lamb is worthy of our praise, our allegiance, and our worship. The Lamb is our Savior and Shepherd and King. All glory and honor and power and might be to the Lamb upon the throne. Praise God from whom all blessing flow. Amen.