So, since we last spoke, o Blog, I have had minor surgery and went to the Holy Land for two weeks. January was wonderful, but did not involve tons of preaching.
Therefore, I am playing a bit of catch-up. First up is a sermon that I am personally fairly proud of because I managed to get one of the better-known mythical creatures in there.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
January 19, 2020
Epiphany 2, Year A
Lambs are intrinsically confusing.
This may not sound right to you. You may be thinking “Lambs are straight forward: it’s a baby sheep, right?”
And yet, you might be surprised to know that during the Middle Ages, it was accepted as scientific fact that there was such a thing as a ‘vegetable lamb’—called a borometz—that grew in southeast Asia. This was a plant, it was maintained, that came up out of the ground like any other, but produced a gourd, out of which emerged a living sheep. On the end of a green stalk. The lamb then after it emerged from the gourd (!) would eat the leaves and the surrounding foliage until it eventually ran out of food and starved. OR—or, you could get the lamb off its stalk, harvest its wool and produce….cotton. This is how Europeans thought cotton grew.
Right up until the 19th century, when trade really picked up between Europe and the far East, and people also figured out how sheep worked, and how a sheep can’t survive underground, what kind of nonsense is that.
Anyway. Lambs are apparently quite confusing. But they have been a feature of religious ritual for as long as they have been domesticated, which is to say, as long as there has been human civilization. Or—rams have. Ancient religious gods loved to show their power and might through taking the form of a ram—it showed up all over the place. IT was powerful! IT was the head of the flock! You blew on a ram’s horn to begin religious observances!
And in today’s gospel, John the Baptist makes a reappearance, and has this odd sort of encounter with Jesus.
A few things are happening here at once. John sees Jesus coming towards him, and calls out “Look, here’s the Lamb of God!” (this happens twice, which might lead one to suspect that John has blanked on Jesus’s actual name.) The first time, John then describes what it was like at Jesus’ baptism—the heavens parted, the Spirit descended, it was great.
So, the second time John encounters Jesus, and he names him Lamb of God, two of John’s disciples decide to switch allegiance and to follow Jesus. And then one of those guys is so entranced by what they discover, that he invites his brother to come along. And so, Jesus gains his first disciples.
Part of what’s happening here is an actual pastoral concern with the disciples of John the Baptist. Because John the Baptist did, and does, have disciples of his own. They’re called the Mandeans, and they still live in Iraq, Iran, Syria…and now, many live in New Jersey. But in the early days of Christianity, there was a particular concern to both honor John the Baptist as Jesus clearly did, and to make it clear that Jesus was the one that we should be paying attention to. So the gospels have stories like this one—which try to walk that delicate tightrope.
But that does not entirely answer the question of why John the Baptist starts calling Jesus the Lamb of God, seemingly out of nowhere. And why that would inspire his disciples to switch teams at the drop of a hat.
Rams, after all, and not lambs, were the focus of most religious-based sheep involvement. Lambs were weak. Lambs needed constant attention from their mother sheep. Lambs were only featured as the Passover sacrifice in Judaism, and that wasn’t an offering for sin. Lambs, it would seem, as a symbol speaks mostly of weakness, and vulnerability and powerlessness. Hardly commanding.
Yet—in Isaiah (yes, Isaiah strikes again) there’s a similar sort of thing happening. The prophet announces that everyone should listen! That God is about to do A Thing! It will be GREAT. Then….kinda peters out.
Apparently it’s not going well. No one is listening, the prophet’s health is faltering, people are rebelling, being obstanite. So the prophet complains to God about how this is a bad plan and will never work.
In response, God says something along the lines of “You know what? You’re right. It was a bad plan. It was too small. It is too light a thing that you should be sent only to my people Israel, but I shall give you as a light to the nations. The whole earth shall learn of me through you.”
This is a typical God-move right here. Isaiah complains that the job is too hard, he can’t do it, and God is like, exactly! So let’s do a HARDER ONE.
God, it would seem, is not interested in human displays of perfection or might. God doesn’t seem interested in rams—those mighty leaders of the pack. Because, what need do rams have for God? What need for God do we have in the places where we are perfect, in the moments when we have it all figured out, after all?
Instead, God sends lambs to accomplish the work of the kingdom. God sends the confused, the imperfect, the anxious to do God’s work. God sends those of us who panic, and then point out to God that this is an impossibly bad idea and it is going badly. God sends those of us who have no choice but to rely on God rather than our own knowledge, confidence, wisdom or grace.
Andrew and John follow Jesus because they see in Jesus not a conquering hero, but someone who understands their own doubts, fears and insecurities. So much so that they run to tell Peter, who discovers the same thing. And we know that Peter was basically a bundle of bad-ideas-said-out-loud. But Christ calls this motley collection of lambs to follow him not because they were the best or the brightest, or the most talented, but because they could rely the most on God’s love and wisdom.
God doesn’t demand from us perfection. God doesn’t demand from us unthinking, unquestioning compliance. God asks from us only the willingness to be vulnerable and faithful. God asks from us only the willingness to try, to step out in faith, leaning on God’s might, and see what happens. God sends us out as lambs—confusing confused lambs, in a world that knows mostly how to deal with rams, with powerful animals, but God promises us that it is through the Lamb of God that sin is washed away. It is through the Lamb of God that the barriers between God’s reign and the kingdoms of this world are broken down. It is through our weakness and our very humanity that God’s power is made the most clear.
So don’t fret over what you cannot do. Don’t worry over what seems impossible or too hard. Where we fall short, that’s where God steps in. Where we stumble, that’s where God shows up. Where we lambs hesitate, that’s where God comes in, and saves the world.