Following Lamb and Shepherd
Based on Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
Life is mysterious and often gives us the appearance of a paradox. Paradox is something that at first glance appears contradictory. Things like having taller buildings but lower occupancy; wider freeways, but more congestion and slower travel. We spend more, but value less; we buy more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses, smaller families and still need storage units to hold all our stuff; faster technology, but ever shorter attention spans; more knowledge, but less wisdom; more experts, yet fewer solutions; more medicine, but loneliness and isolation go untreated. We do larger things but they are most often monuments to our enlarged egos rather than important communal achievements; we write more, but say less, we are busier than ever, but accomplish less. Life is full of paradox!
Our scriptures today present us with a paradox as well. We hear God referred to as both the Lamb of God who takes away sin and the Lord as shepherd. The Christ is both leader and guardian of the sheep and a sheep who died for us so that our sins might be forgiven for all time; who died so that we might live. The one whose red blood flowed so that the martyrs to come could have their robes washed white in it. Sheep and shepherd, leader and follower, sinless and yet died for our sins – died so that we could have abundant life; gone but yet coming again. These are important paradoxes for us to spend time with today. Let us turn to God to ask for the wisdom to unravel this holy paradox of Lamb as Shepherd…
John of Patmos is still in heaven in the Book of Revelation and has witnessed 144,000 persons (12,000 from each of the 12 Tribes of Israel) be sealed before the four avenging angels could do harm to the earth. We pick up with our reading and John witnesses the countless number of martyrs of the faith from every nation who are dressed in white and worshipping around the throne. These, an elder tells John, are the ones who have been persecuted and have given all for the faith; their robes have been washed white with the blood of the Lamb. The elder tells John that the one on the throne will shelter them and wipe away all tears, and that the Lamb will shepherd them to the waters of life.
Jesus has been teaching about his role as the “good shepherd”. His sheep know his voice and follow him – they will not follow a stranger. We pick up our Gospel reading today with Jesus in dialogue with the “Jews” in the temple. They want to know if he is the Messiah. Jesus tells them that if they don’t believe by this point after all they have heard and witnessed then they are not His sheep. The Jews are offended and make like they will stone Him, but once again He leaves unharmed.
The 23rd Psalm is a song of comfort and relationship with a God who seeks to lead us and live with us our whole life long. God the shepherd gives us what we need so that we are not in want, helps us to lie down in the abundance of God’s grace, keeps us calm beside the turbulent waters of life. There is no point along the way where God’s leadership falters – even in valleys dark and filled with death. God protects us with rod and staff. We are anointed children of a loving God who invites us to feast freely with enemies so they might become friends. It is no wonder that this is the most beloved and recited song in the Psalter!
How do we reconcile the paradox of the Lamb of God as good shepherd? I believe that our dualistic minds prefer the clean either/or, us/them, we/they dichotomies. Jesus the Christ is unity, however; one with Father and Holy Spirit in a holy dance, distinctly know in three persons but of one essence. Therefore, while at first it seems to be foolish to call the Lamb the Shepherd, there is something perfectly understandable about it all. If Jesus is both the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd, then He truly knows and understands the reality of the world in which the sheep live. Additionally, if He is the Good Shepherd, then He has the power to not only act empathically with the sheep but to intercede on their behalf to protect, feed, nurture, defend, and care for them (as he tells them in John’s Gospel and as we hear in the 23rd Psalm and Revelation). The Lamb who is simultaneously and seamlessly our Shepherd speaks with a voice we recognize — the voice which speaks life into a world of darkness filled with sin, death, injustice, disappointment, suffering, oppression, sorrow, and struggle. He is The Good Shepherd in part because He is one with us.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is not a title He claims for Himself but the very promise of the Father come down through the last prophet, John the Baptist, who said of Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is the reason He was born – to become the penultimate sacrificial Lamb whose blood removes every sinner’s stain and whose death can pay the price not for one but for the whole world (see our Revelation text). He was born to be this Lamb for us, the perfect sinless sacrificial victim. Our death cannot free another, not a child or parent or spouse, neighbor or enemy. Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God, without blemish or defect of sin, holy and righteous. His death had the power to atone for all the guilty – not just a few. The one and only innocent whose death can atone for a world full of the guilty.
He is the Lamb of God who died a human death to pay the full price of our sin. This is the Lamb of God who visited the cold emptiness of the tomb and hell itself, and rose to victory over every enemy, including death, through the Resurrection. After he arose, He did not abandon us to our own devices or to the evil and sin which had been defeated, but is still active in our world. No, this Lamb always understood Himself to be the Good Shepherd as well, as our Gospel reading reminds us.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep. He knows us; Peter said it last week…”Lord, you know everything”. He knows us intimately – the hidden, the dark, the shameful, the hurting, the embarrassment, the sadness, the lament and every opposite emotion that makes us soar to the heights or crash to the depths. Jesus not only know us, but He knows the sin and evil which gets in our way of loving God with all that we are and neighbor as self. He knows our enemies as intimately as He knows us — everyone and everything that works against us to live fully into the image of God within us. Jesus is not merely the forgiving Shepherd who is there for us to run to when we get lost, He is constantly working within us and through us. He is the Good Shepherd who continues to walk with His sheep and lead them no matter what, by paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
The Lamb of God is and always was the Good Shepherd… and we sheep are the ones who benefit. The Lamb IS our Shepherd, wise to our needs, knowledgeable of our condition, smarter than our enemies, more powerful than the predators who continually attempt to prey on us.
The imagery that Jesus chooses is clear, the metaphor is not mixed, it is the great Christus Paradox that is the culmination of all of the blessings throughout the biblical canon. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the sheep is the Good Shepherd of those sheep. Still confused by this paradox? You are in good company and we all need to come to terms with living life in but not of the world. Our discipleship path tells us to listen to the sound of the Good Shepherd’s voice which we all know, to seek to be in right relationship so that we come to know Him as He knows us, and to follow Him to eternal life in the here and now. And all of the sheep of the Lamb who was slain and rose again said…AMEN!!