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I hear these sheep passages differently since moving to Sonoma County … because I see sheep more often.
I didn’t see sheep too much in Berkeley. As the old radio ad said, Berkeley has cows, grazing up in the East Bay hills, but the only sheep I used to see there were petting-zoo sheep at the Little Farm in Tilden Park.
But here they’re just kind of around more. I saw flock after flock driving down Lakeville Highway toward a meeting in Vallejo last Friday. Last fall we went to the Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol and my daughter Abby watched a sheep-shearing demonstration, starting with a sheep shaped like a barrel and ending with a skinny buzz-cut sheep and massive, luxuriant piles of wool all over the ground. This is a place where people really raise sheep.
And they do it for various purposes. Wool, certainly. Milk, often. Meat, sometimes, too—we Americans don’t eat nearly as much lamb as folks in Australia or New Zealand, but there’s still a market for it.
One thing we don’t see a lot of sheep raised for today is sacrifice. And that’s a big difference between how we think about sheep today and how people in the Bible would have. People in the Greco-Roman world, and people in ancient Israel, used sheep for wool and milk and meat just like we do. But they also used sheep, and other animals, to worship with. You would take your animal to a shrine or temple, and a priest would help you ritually slaughter it, and offer up some or all of it on a smoking altar, as a gift to the gods, or if you were an Israelite, a gift to the One God. In the Temple in Jerusalem a lamb was sacrificed each morning and each evening as a continual daily offering to God, and each year at Passover each family was to sacrifice its own lamb and eat its portion as part of the festival dinner.
It can be hard for us to imagine just how central sacrifice was to religion in the ancient world—because what was a commonplace of everyday life then is almost completely absent for us today. There are reasons for that. When the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, Jewish worshipers no longer had a place for sacrifice. They began instead to understand their prayers as themselves being a kind of sacrifice, replacing the physical sacrifices from before. Meanwhile Christians had come to understand the death of Jesus as a kind of sacrifice that fulfilled all other sacrifices, so that no more animal sacrifices would ever be needed again. And they too began to speak of their prayers as a kind of sacrifice. We still use that language today when we ask God to accept “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” in the Eucharistic Prayer.
But we need to keep those images of sacrifice in our minds as we hear these scripture readings today. This Fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday, because the readings for today always feature passages about sheep and shepherds. Psalm 23 is maybe the most famous passage from the Old Testament about God as our shepherd. In John’s gospel we have the basis for our central stained glass window, as Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd. And that’s not unusual in itself. Not only God but also kings and religious leaders in the Old Testament were often described as shepherds, charged with caring for the people.
But our passage from the Revelation to John throws a twist into things—because it gives us a shepherd who is also a Lamb. “The Lamb will be their shepherd,” it says, and echoing Psalm 23, “he will guide them to springs of the water of life.” This Lamb is none other than Jesus, the Good Shepherd who was not content just to take care of the sheep, but who loves the sheep so much that he became one of them.
A chapter earlier in Revelation, a heavenly elder has offered to show John a conquering king who he calls “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” But when John sees this king, it turns out this lion is really a Lamb, as the passage says, “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”
Pause for a moment and appreciate the paradox of that line. Slaughtered lambs don’t stand—not unless, after being dead, they have been raised up again.
Now everyone knows that lions kill, and lambs are killed. Lions are powerful, lambs are gentle. So for God’s Anointed One to identify as a lamb is something strange and new. The world says that power comes with the blade of a sword or the barrel of a gun. The world says that lions always win. But God says no. The Lamb that was slain stands again. God says that real power is Lamb power.
Our society today may not practice ritual sacrifice, at least not so overtly as those societies of the past. But that hasn’t made us nonviolent. Far from it. Indeed, we continue to sacrifice one another day after day, not in temples, but on streets, and in schools, and in synagogues. Not to gods like Zeus or Apollo, but to gods like racial ideology, or frustrated male rage, or simple economic profit.
The shooting at Chabad of Poway Synagogue was just two weeks ago. Since then not one but two more school shootings have made their way through our headlines, one in North Carolina, one in Colorado. Each time we hear the story again, numbingly familiar at this point. A person full of hate or alienation or both enters, bent on destruction, a predator, a roaring lion.
Lori Gilbert Kaye was trying to shield her rabbi from gunfire when she herself was shot and killed. Riley Howell, a student at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, died after charging the gunman in his classroom, saving the lives of other students. Kendrick Castillo did the same thing at his school in Colorado.
Today as we honor and mourn these brave people, we may well imagine them standing among that great multitude of martyrs, robed in white, with palms of victory in their hands. And we can say with utter certainty that God does not want bloodshed. Not ours; not our friends’; not our enemies’. God stands on the side of the victim. God stands on the side of the innocent. The Lord who is our shepherd is the Lamb who was slain.
It is Eastertime. And we are still rejoicing in the risen Christ, not in a naïve way that says everything is happy and easy now that Christ is risen. The suffering of Jesus is still taking place in the suffering of the world. In the resurrection of Jesus we have seen the first installment of God’s victory, the victory of nonviolent courage, the victory of the Lamb. The fullness of that victory is still to come. There are tears being cried today, and there are tears still left to cry. But at the last day God will wipe them away from every eye.
May the Good Shepherd guide and nurture us. And may we be made bold to live in the way of the Lamb, who was slain, and who now lives and reigns for ever and ever.