Texts: Reflecting on Psalm 23, John 10:11-18
and Revelation 7:9-17
There are few Biblical passages better known that the 23rd Psalm. It is the most common reading at funerals often because many of a certain generation memorized it as children. Outside of funerals, the fourth Sunday after Easter features it. Not surprisingly sometimes today is called “Shepherding Sunday.” All of the readings evoke the comforting images of a Shepherd and sheep. The 23rd Psalm along with the other readings provide some of the most comforting images of our faith.
For many of us, the sheep and shepherd imagery was what we were raised on as children, so much so that now the 23rd Psalm has become almost universal at funerals today. Some may remember it from childhood, and it provides a sense of comfort when we grapple with life’s end. Yet in the same way with well-known, dearly loved images such as this, there is such a thing as being too familiar with it. So it’s good to revisit these old standbys, these foundational images of our faith, not just to hold onto for comfort, but to re-learn why they are so powerful even all these years later.
There are few images as reassuring as the Good Shepherd. The Psalm evokes scenes of perfectly manicured green meadows, radiantly blue skies, still pools of crystal-clear water, and little white dots of sheep covering the countryside. It’s better-than-postcard quality.
But that’s the trouble… we’ve lost the context. Those who originally heard stories of sheep and shepherds knew that shepherding was not an idyllic, quiet, pastoral postcard. It was a dirty, smelly, and often thankless job, working with extraordinarily stupid and skittish animals who could drown or injure themselves if panicked and flee into a river or off a cliff. Those who heard “the Lord’s my shepherd” for the first time would instantly feel a connection to God, who is willing to get dirty hands in caring for the sheep. In the gospel of John, this goes even further, that the Shepherd is willing to risk or sacrifice his life for the safety of the sheep. This is certainly less tranquil, but a much more down-to-earth image. It may actually be more comforting or at least reassuring than the picture postcard: God is already with us in the midst of life, amidst all the dirt and hard lessons that is a part of life. The Lord is my shepherd… the one who is willing to be with me to guide me when I am scared and skittish.
And yet as much there is this image of the Good Shepherd, the Gospel of John, and others also use a contrasting image: Jesus as the Lamb of God.
The book of Revelation, plays with this to reveal the nature of God. I’ve mentioned this before when I led the Reclaiming Revelation study a few years ago, and it’s coming up again when I cover the book in the last session of the Evolution of the Bible seminar in a few weeks.
When John first introduces the image in Chapters four and five, it comes off like a Monty Python sketch. It’s all in the build-up. It is a magnificent scene of heavenly worship, images of four living creatures, and elders surrounding the throne of God from which lightning and thunder flashes. As the scene focuses in onto the throne, there is the image of a scroll in the right hand of God, and the call for the one who is worthy to open it. This one is called, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, the one who conquers! It’s a strong and powerful image! We know this to be Jesus, already, identified earlier in the book… after all this build-up, we’re expecting a powerful, shining, kingly figure to stride onto the scene, grab that scroll and begin dispensing its contents with some force! Yet when the camera finally focuses in… it’s a lamb! A cute and fluffy lamb with big beady, innocent eyes! We don’t get the real sense of this, but in the language that John uses, he uses a term that makes the lamb even more vulnerable and innocent than it already is! Translated from Greek, the best English equivalent is Lambykins… This is an image that would easily win the “Daily Squee” –so cute that your brain might explode. In fact, the picture that I’ve selected to go along with this sermon on the website might give you an idea, and an incentive to go look it up this afternoon.
The image of the shepherd is something we can live with… because even that exudes a gentle protective strength… but a helpless, newborn lamb? We don’t expect this, because we’re looking for something strong, something powerful. Our natural reaction is to say… okay, very funny… where is he really? Where is the Lion of Judah? Where’s the Root of David? After all this build-up where is this chosen one? What? is he behind the lamb?
No… he is the lamb… and that’s precisely the point. Did I mention that parts of Revelation reveal a writer with a sense of humour? Like the best of all jokes, it makes us laugh and makes us think at the same time. John reveals Christ in the image of one of the most helpless images imaginable. Yet in this vulnerability, we begin to learn something about God’s strength. In the reading from this Sunday, John brings back that image of the lamb as a proclamation of hope, saying “…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17) It is the only place in the entire Bible where lamb and shepherd come together in the same passage. These contrasting images are brought together… and they make an incredibly powerful point. Using the most vulnerable image imaginable, John shows that even evil at its strongest instant cannot overcome God’s weakest moment.
The shepherd is the Lamb, the lamb is the shepherd… as one of us… more vulnerable than the weakest of us. Yet when we really think about it, that is precisely what the Easter message is all about. God’s strength revealed through what everyone else judges to be weakness and vulnerability. There’s also something else here, that is even more comforting, and more powerful than the image of God as shepherd alone. As comforting and caring as the shepherd image is, it can still be distant: the guy with the crook over there someplace looking out for those dangers, to protect with rod and staff. The image of the lamb as the vulnerable one is far more intimate: in our midst, who is far closer than we can ever know, and leads us as one of us.
The problem is, in 21st Century North American culture, we have come to value strength and resolve, toughness and personal moral fortitude. Political leaders are afraid to show any sort of vulnerability. It has gone so far as officials are patently unwilling to admit their mistakes… and attacking those who dare point them out. Experience shows that this doesn’t end well.
Perhaps we need a reminder that even Winston Churchill admitted to personal vulnerabilities and mistakes. After all, part of the Christian claim to faith is that it is precisely in those moments of vulnerability that we realize God’s power.
God fundamentally understands what it is to be weak and helpless. That’s what the cross represents… but Easter also reminds us of what real strength is… God’s strength. That once it was all said and done, once Jesus had become the weakest and most vulnerable… like the sacrificial lamb… God showed us that not even death itself has the final say. Easter morning teaches us that. The lamb is the shepherd –a great comfort to us in the midst of no matter what we might face in life. It’s something that even twenty centuries later, we’re still learning.