Monday, April 30, 2007

Shepherd and Lamb: a Sermon for Easter 4C

“Shepherd and Lamb”
Revelation 7:9-17
April 29, 2007, Easter 4C

Every so often a reading comes along in the lectionary cycle, which cause us to sit up and take notice. For the last three weeks the lectionary has offered selections from what is probably the most hotly debated book in the bible, the book of Revelation, and this morning, we are going to bite.

But first, we have to ask ourselves, exactly how are we going to approach this text? My introduction to Revelation came when I was about 13 years old, and someone gave me a copy of Hal Lindsey’s book The Late, Great Planet Earth—which has been reissued, I noticed recently, in packaging that makes it look suspiciously like those behemoth best-sellers, the Left Behind series. And it is the Left Behind approach—an outlook theologians call “premillennial dispensationalism”—that predominates popular conversation about Revelation, at least, if the sales figures are to be believed. This is the approach that reads Revelation as, essentially, a blueprint for the end of history. But this is just one approach to Revelation (and a relatively recent one at that—it sprung up in the 1830's). There have been a number of other approaches throughout Christian history, and they all deserve at least as much airplay as the LaHaye/ Jenkins version.

One way of looking at Revelation is that it is a description, in code, of first century Christianity struggling to survive in the midst of the hostile Roman Empire. Seen through this lens, the reader can try to match the grand metaphors of the text to the historical events of that era. That’s one approach. But Revelation can also be seen as a kind of mythic/poetic dreamscape, a kind of diary of the journey of the human soul towards Christ. Looked at this way, it is an intensely personal document about its author—but it is also an invitation to each reader to find our own dreamscape, our own journey to Christ. That’s another approach. Finally, Revelation can be seen as a lens through which to interpret all of human history. Viewed in this way, you could say that it is a story about empire and oppressed religious minorities—a story we see playing itself out over and over again.

However we approach Revelation, we would do well to heed the advice of Annie Dillard and lash ourselves to our seats and put on our crash helmets. The text is explosive, filled with whiplash-inducing turns of phrase, and maddeningly obscure and double-edged symbols—despite the fact that this book is called by a name that means “revealing.”

So here we go. We open to our passage, and find that we are stumbling into the middle of a worship service—and we all know how that feels. Awkward! Where shall I sit? Will I know what to do and when to do it? I take a bulletin and try to slip unobtrusively into a pew. And, there is such a huge crowd at this worship servive—countless multitudes, we are told—that hiding out just might be possible. Every race and language and tribe is present and accounted for, and they are all robed in white—like Jesus when he stood atop the mountain and was transfigured, or like the angels at the empty tomb. And they all hold palm branches, just like those crowds of nobodies who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They cry out in a loud voice—imagine the roar of the crowd of ten New Orleans’ Superdomes. They are saying; “Salvation belongs to our God…and to the Lamb.”

There was possibly nothing that so confused me as a little child growing up Christian as the image of Jesus, the Lamb of God. I am sure I was limited by my context: I grew up in suburbia, with no direct contact with anything remotely bucolic or agricultural. My experiences of “lamb” were twofold. First, Lamb Chop, the little puppet hoarsely voiced by Shari Lewis, and second, that item we sometimes had for dinner with mint jelly. So to be in a worship situation and hear Jesus praised as the “Lamb of God” was truly puzzling to me.

I imagine if you grew up on a farm, or, perhaps within walking distance of the Temple in Jerusalem, you might have a different take. You might instinctively know things about lambs that make this image more comprehensible. It wasn’t until years ago, when I read the following story, that I began to get a glimmer of the meaning of this symbol. I imagine this story has been retold in many a sermon. It’s about a Methodist college chaplain who had an unexpected opportunity to learn something about the “Lamb of God.”

The chaplain [was] driving one day across the eastern part of Washington State. He was forced to stop when a large herd of sheep was being shepherded across the road. As he waited, watching the sheep, the phrase "Lamb of God" drifted through his mind. Seized with the notion, he leapt from his car and bounded up to the shepherd and asked, "What does ‘Lamb of God’ mean to you?

The shepherd was initially startled by the abrupt question from this total stranger, but sensing a level of sincerity, he looked the chaplain squarely in the eye and answered, "I know exactly what 'Lamb of God' means."

"Each year at lambing time, there are lambs and ewes which do not make it. A ewe whose lamb has died is filled with milk, but will not nourish any…lamb she does not recognize as her own. An orphaned lamb could starve because no ewe will accept and nourish it. So the shepherd takes the dead lamb, slits its throat, and pours its blood over the body of the living lamb. Recognizing the blood, the ewe will now nurse, and save the orphaned lamb."

The Lamb of God. This image has something fundamental to do with God taking us in, as orphan lambs might be taken in, and nourishing us. And behold, in one of those whiplash-causing turns of phrase I warned you about, our passage tells us that the multitudes “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”

There is more, though. There is more than animal husbandry going on in these images. We notice, at this surreal worship service, that the Lamb is at the center of the throne—and not only that: we are told the Lamb will be the people’s shepherd. This worship service is getting a little tough to follow. How can we keep up with all theses strange reversals?

We heard Psalm 23 this morning, read and sung for us, so beautifully. This is an image—God as Shepherd—that makes so much more sense to us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd—who leads us to green pastures and beside still waters, who gives us rest and anoints our scarred and battered faces and hearts with healing balm. In this image, we are the sheep; we are the lambs! And we are more or less comfortable with that notion.

First century Christians knew the image of the Good Shepherd, as it related to God. But they had another, more mixed association. The king was known as the shepherd of the people. And by the time Jesus walked the earth, by the time the dynasty of the Herods arose, this was an ambiguous image at best. The kings, in a long line back through Ahab and right to the sons of David, had not led the people well. The kings had allowed their desire to amass power to be their overriding concern, ahead of the worship of God, ahead of the good of all the people. The kings had served their own needs and ends, and the people had suffered.

But now, Jesus, the Lamb, will be their Shepherd. And this is a notion so radical, a reversal so colossal, it is hard for us to properly appreciate it. The lamb is powerless. The lamb is totally dependent on others for its care. The lamb is for sacrifice, or for consumption, or for both. To say that Jesus is the Lamb is to say that God allowed Godself to be totally emptied of divine power. To say that Jesus is the Lamb is to say that God identifies with, and stands alongside, the utterly powerless.

The image of Jesus as Lamb of God is a beacon of comfort to those in pain, those in distress, those who are victims of powers and systems they cannot hope to battle or even to protest. People like the early Christians—those multitudes we are standing with, awkwardly, at this strange worship service, those who have whitened their robes with blood. People like the more than two million men, women and children who have been displaced from their homes in Darfur, and who now live in refugee camps in Sudan and Chad. People like the 37 million Americans who live below the poverty line, and who, because of mental illness, disability, addiction, crime, institutional racism, and lack of education, are stuck there. People like those who lived for a nightmarish few days in the New Orleans Superdome. People like those whose doctors turn to them with a CT scan report in one hand and a slightly embarrassed look in their eyes, saying, “I’m so sorry.” All these people know what it is to be utterly powerless. And all these people might, they just might find consolation in the idea of a God who allowed himself to be powerless too.

What does it mean for us to believe in a God who stands firmly alongside the powerless? For one thing, it might mean that we are called to do the same. There is a professor on this campus who defends the people no one wants to befriend—those on death row. In addition to arguing their cases before circuit courts of appeal or the Supreme Court of the United States, he goes to their mothers’ homes, their children’s baptisms and high school graduations. And for some of them, he stands on the other side of the plexiglass partition as they breathe their last.

Not every Christian is called to that particular ministry. But all around us, all around us, people are going through their own ordeals. Maybe you know someone who is suffering with depression, or someone whose addictive behaviors worry you. In the name of the Lamb, God may be calling you to be with that person. Maybe you know someone who is going through a terrible break-up, or who is in a life or death struggle to remain in their program of study. In the name of the powerless one, God may be calling you to accompany them on this leg of their journey. Maybe you know someone who is battling a terrible, unfair illness. In the name of the one who stands with us, God may be calling you to stand with them.

We can probably take off our crash helmets and undo our seatbelts now. Because whether we view it on a cosmic scale or on an intensely personal one, the book of Revelation is finally, simply, about God’s love for us. That’s all. That worship service we stumbled into is going to continue, day and night, because, like a Good Shepherd, the Lamb promises to provide the people with all they need—to lead them to green pastures and beside still waters, to give them rest and anoint their scarred and battered faces and hearts with healing balm. In the end, it’s all about the love of God for us… the radical, world-altering love of God that promises to wipe away every tear from our eyes, even as we wipe the tears away from one another’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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Mother Laura said...

You are such an amazing preacher, Mags. Thank you.