In my last year of seminary I wrote a sermon on the latter portion of Romans 8 and entitled it “Dead Sheep and Victory.” At the time my (now) colleague Stan Mast was an assistant professor in my preaching class, and, after seeing my sermon, he kidded with me that it seemed I was enrolled in the TV preacher Robert Schuller’s school of provocative sermon titles. Of course, in later years, when Stan was the pastor of a big church in Grand Rapids that published his weekly sermon titles in the newspaper every Saturday, I kidded back to him a few times that many weeks he seemed to attend the same sermon title school as I did!
Beyond just being provocative, though, the title to my student sermon over thirty years ago also captured what I perceived to be a central dynamic of not just Romans 8 but of the gospel generally. What’s more, it’s a dynamic captured repeatedly in the New Testament through imagery related to sheep and in particular to a lamb. John the Baptist seems to have been the one to kick it off in John 1 when he saw Jesus approaching and declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The next day John the Baptist repeated a version of that statement. This image of Agnus Dei is now so well known from musical pieces and stained glass windows and so much artwork that we easily forget that, as a matter of fact, John 1 is the only place in the whole Bible where that exact phrase, “the Lamb of God,” occurs. It has no Old Testament forerunner and is not repeated anywhere else in the New Testament either.
It seems as if John the Baptist coined the phrase. If so, one wonders how it sounded in the ears of folks back then hearing it for the first time. Because in Israel there was a connection between lambs or sheep and sacrifice, it might have been perceived as a cruel thing to say, almost the equivalent of “dead man walking.” Or, because sheep are not generally renowned for their intelligence, being called a sheep or a lamb might have sounded like calling someone today a “dumb bunny.” Either way, or both ways, on the day it was first uttered, calling Jesus the “Lamb of God” may not have had the lyric resonance we associate with the phrase today.
The image of the lamb does come up again in the New Testament, most particularly in the book of Revelation. But over and over again, when Christ is seen as a lamb, it is immediately pointed out that this is a slain lamb, a lamb that had clearly been slaughtered at some point. And yet this is the symbol of hope and resurrection life—a once-dead lamb! As I said in my student sermon, it would be like trying to whip up enthusiasm by waving a flag on which is pictured some roadkill and then hoping folks would rally to your cause. Or like a steakhouse in my city whose logo is an upside-down cow with X’s for eyes. It’s a dead cow. Now, when you are hungry for a juicy steak, seeing a dead cow may be a good thing, but in most circumstances in life, seeing a dead animal is not exactly inspirational.
Yet a once-slain lamb who still clearly bears on his body the marks of that death is the source of all victory and hope when the lamb in question is Jesus. We were saved by weakness. We were saved by the Son of God letting the world do its ugly best on him to quite literally cross him out. X’s for eyes, X’d out just generally. A dead sheep.
Especially in Lent, but really at all times, this needs to be the heart of what we preach in the church. We need to be reminded that God knew the world would not be saved from the top down, through raw muscle and power, but from the bottom up, through weakness and sacrifice. It’s a paradox, and it is also what C. S. Lewis called—in applying this to how Aslan the lion saved Narnia from the White Witch—the “deep magic” of the universe. You would not think it could work. But then it does.
Due to the global pandemic of COVID-19, the whole world has been thinking a lot about vaccines for a long while. But as I have noted before in many places (and it was Neal Plantinga who first pointed this out to me), a vaccine is a perfect example of like curing like. The people who first invented vaccines figured out that an otherwise counterintuitive idea was correct: you had to put some version of the disease you want to ward off into the bodies of people so that antibodies could be built and remembered. Take a small amount of smallpox or an inert version of polio, inject it into people’s arms, and voila: the body now has a way to fight off that very disease the next time it comes knocking.
Death, it turned out, required the same method to be defeated. Christ tasted the full scourge of death for us all and now in baptism inoculates us from death. Like cures like.
The problem is that some preaching in the church recently has not exactly reveled in humility, sacrifice, weakness, or death as the key tools God used to build our very salvation. Instead, as Kristin Kobes DuMez pointed out in her important 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne, churches in America in particular (but now being exported globally too) have adopted a sort of macho, he-man, muscular form of Christianity that seems to think the gospel is communicated best through bravado and swagger. In some churches, even how people responded to COVID-19, the wearing of masks, or the suspension of in-person worship for a time was influenced less by Jesus’ humble, lamb-like example of sacrifice and more by a chest-thumping “Don’t be a weak wimp!” message. It is less Jesus as lamb and more Jesus as John Wayne’s tough cowboy image.
Yes, it is also true that in Revelation Jesus can be an awesome and towering figure. He is that Christus Paradox of both lion and lamb. But when the songs of heaven are heard by John and reported on in Revelation, it is the worthiness of the lamb that gets celebrated the loudest. The reason is clear: it was Jesus’ lamb-like sacrifice that saved us. This surprising gospel dynamic remains a key part of the witness of the church today and needs to be the touchstone for our preaching during Lent and at all times.
During Lent many churches often sing the lovely hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” One of its stanzas asks, “What language shall I borrow to thank you, dearest Friend?” We preachers also have to ask what language we should borrow to proclaim the core dynamic of the gospel that through a dead lamb we gained victory. But of course the gospel gives us this language already. It’s all right there in Scripture. We swap out that sacred language for other cultural forms of speech and imagery at not just our own peril but the peril of anyone really being able to understand who we are to be in this world in imitation of that slain Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.