That hymn we just sang didn’t make any sense, did it? How can someone be both a prince and slave, a peacemaker and sword-bringer, crucified criminal and God of glory at the same time? What on earth is an “everlasting instant”? While that hymn may appear to be pure nonsense, it actually is a beautiful description of the many of the paradoxes of the Christian faith – with special focus on the greatest paradox of all: Jesus himself. Today we focus on one of the most comforting and familiar paradoxes in Scripture – that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is our Good Shepherd. On its face it doesn’t make any sense – a helpless little lamb would normally make for a pretty pathetic shepherd – and yet, our salvation hangs on this paradox. And when God leads us to believe this paradox, then we will better understand some of the more troubling paradoxes in our own lives as well.
The author of Revelation, the apostle John, knew firsthand how puzzling and paradoxical life could be for a Christian. He had personally recorded Jesus’ promise: my sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27) And yet, as he wrote the words of Revelation, roughly 60 years after Jesus had been crucified and raised to life, you couldn’t blame him if he had some doubts. John had lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. He had seen his fellow Christians persecuted and forced to flee their homes and country. He had outlived every one of his fellow apostles – because they had been for preaching the Gospel. He was writing these words from exile on the island of Patmos, alone and far from his fellow believers. I can’t really imagine John humming “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb” as he’s sitting in isolation on a deserted island while the Roman Empire is systematically persecuting the Church.
And John isn’t alone, is he? When I look out there, I don’t see sleek, strong, self-sufficient sheep – I see little lambs who are harassed and weary. I see how the harsh realities of life have taken their toll. I see Christians who sometimes struggle to see Jesus as their Good Shepherd. And the devil is very good at fanning struggle into full-blown doubt. “If I’m really Jesus’ little lamb, why can’t I get ahead financially, why does it seem like every time I take one step forward something happens to put me two steps back? If I’m Jesus’ little lamb, why does he let me hurt so bad, why doesn’t he do something about it? If Jesus is a Good Shepherd, why does he let so many of his sheep wander out of the fold and fall prey to the wolves of the world? I’ve followed Jesus’ voice my whole life, why do I struggle while my unbelieving neighbor thrives?” Maybe we finally get to the point that we pray “Lord, why don’t you just take me home?”
While I cannot answer those questions, I can tell you this: the book of Revelation was written for you. The Lord gave John this series of visions specifically to sustain and strengthen his faith in the face of suffering and doubt and hardship. It is a bird’s eye view of what’s really going on in the world; it reveals the epic behind the scenes battle for souls between Christ and the devil. While much of Revelation uses vivid picture language to describe the horrors of the End Times battlefield, the words before us are an interlude in which the Lord gives John a brief but glorious view of the Church triumphant, the Church in heaven.
And what does it look like? Well, against all odds, it looks a lot like God said it would, doesn’t it? Remember how unlikely it was when God promised Abraham – who had no children – that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. (Genesis 22:17) And here John sees a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. It looks like a victory celebration: the Church that seemed so small and so helpless is clothed in white robes and waving palm branches – and instead of mourning, they are singing: salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. It looks like a family reunion: all believers of all time are there along with the angels and four living creatures (probably cherubim).
Why does Jesus give John this vision of heaven? Just to tease him and rub his misery in his face? No. Jesus is teaching an important lesson about suffering. Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes – who are they and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” John wisely appealed to a high authority: “You’ll have to answer that for me.” And he said, “These are they who have come out (Bad translation. Literally “are coming out”) of the great tribulation.” The picture here is not the one held by so many Christians – of a seven-year tribulation and secret rapture of believers. The picture is simply that of believers dying, one after another, and being delivered out of this fallen world to the glory of heaven.
In contrast to the widely-held but nonetheless false belief that true Christians shouldn’t suffer in this life, the elder is helping us to see that all true Christians suffer in this life. Not a single saint in heaven avoided it. Suffering is not only a universal result of sin’s curse (Genesis 3:13-24), but a specific result of following Christ. Jesus promised his disciples: in this world you will have trouble. (John 16:33) Paul and Peter warned that we must go through many hardships (Acts 14:22) and suffering (1 Peter 3:14) before inheriting eternal life. The path Jesus blazed is the one all Christians must follow: first the cross, then the crown. The good news is not that being Jesus’ little lamb will mean a peaceful and trouble-free life now, it is that one day Jesus will remove us from this troubled life forever.
Do we believe that? Is that the lens through which we see life? Do we patiently endure tribulation now trusting that it can’t compare to the glory that will be revealed? (Romans 8:18) By God’s grace, as Lutherans, I don’t think we have a knowledge problem, I don’t think we expect this life to be trouble-free, because we know better. But it’s one thing to talk about suffering, it’s another to handle it in a God-pleasing way. The Greek word for tribulation is thlipsis. The picture is of being pressed or crushed from all sides – from within and without. Our generation is infamous for its inability to handle pressure and stress – for going to extremes to avoid or minimize pain and discomfort of any kind. What about us? An opioid epidemic is sweeping our nation – people seeking relief through the misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers; has its toxic tide rolled into any of our lives? Marriage – the lifelong union of two sinners – can be a daily struggle. The world says “it’s not worth the struggle, find relief through divorce” – has that thought ever crossed our minds? Raising – and especially disciplining – children is hard – to the extent that the world says that killing them before they are born is a viable option – and even if we would never go to that extreme, aren’t we tempted to turn our parenting responsibilities over to someone else? There’s great pressure on each of us and the Church at large to conform to the ethics and morals of the godless world – what will we do? Go along with the crowd or stand firm on the Word? When Jesus said if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8:34) he wasn’t speaking hypothetically – he says that the cross is a necessary part of life as a Christian.
How can we possibly withstand the pressure? How can we survive the tribulation? How can we ever hope to escape this world and stand with that multitude in heaven? Well, remember what the elder said – how did those saints get there? Just one thing unites them all: They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Starting with the very first Passover, God required his OT people to sacrifice thousands and thousands of animals. These bloody and violent ceremonies made two things very clear: first, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); second, that animal bled and died in their place, as their substitute. This is why the focus of the glorified Church’s joy is not themselves, their faithfulness, their suffering – but the Lamb. Because it was the life and death of the Lamb that took away their sins. Nothing but the blood he shed on the cross could cleanse their filthy robes. All of that pain, that suffering that we have sometimes sinned to avoid – Jesus took it on his shoulders and paid for it with his life. It’s really no mystery at all why we suffer – we are sinners living in a sinful world. No the greatest mystery is why the sinless Lamb of God should suffer the death we deserved. That’s the mystery of grace. That’s why the multitude sings: salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
If only those who have perfectly white robes will stand in glory in heaven, then the most important question for us is: How do we wash our robes in the Lamb’s blood? Many churches have a stained glass window or paraments that show the Lamb with a deep wound in his side standing on a book with seven seals. The Lamb’s blood flows into a chalice. The picture is clear enough, isn’t it? Only by drinking from that chalice we are washed and cleansed in Jesus’ blood. When we confess our sins and when we approach the altar for communion – we are bringing our filthy robes to the cleaners, to have the blood of Jesus wash our sins away forever. More than that, when we confess our sins, we are not merely confessing our violations of God’s Law – confession also includes the weight of sin in a world that presses us from every side. We should look forward to confession, not only to be relieved of our burden of sin but also our burden of stress and distress – that’s what Peter meant when he wrote: cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
On Mother’s Day, maybe we can picture it like a hurt or scared child running and jumping into his mother’s arms – trusting her to calm every fear and fix every problem. Although, if you are a mother, maybe that’s not so comforting. Not when you have a family expecting you to solve every problem every day. Does anyone in the world have more thlipsis, more daily pressure than mothers? You’re expected to heal every wound, find every lost toy, know every answer, dry every tear, get everyone where they need to be, make every meal delicious, put up with us husbands who don’t understand even on the rare occasion they are actually listening – yours is a 24/7 tribulation, how can you handle it all? Jesus is your Good Shepherd too! He invites you to run and jump into his arms and throw your stress on him. When we cast all our cares on you, cast your cares on Jesus. Take some time every day to be alone with your Shepherd in his Word. Then, even as you lead your little lambs by the hand, you will know that your Good Shepherd is leading you, too!
He’s leading you, mothers, and all of us, both now and forever. With John, in the midst of great tribulation, surrounded by persecution and stress and suffering, Jesus gives us this vision to help us see beyond the boundaries of this world to the green pastures of heaven. Today he has led us again to the quiet waters of his Word to find peace and comfort for our souls even as we still wander under the shadow of death. Whatever trials you are undergoing, whatever pressures you are feeling, whatever tribulations you are suffering, realize that it is not evidence that your Lord has abandoned you but is rather proof that your Shepherd is leading you in his path, the path of the cross. And never forget where the way of Christ, the way of the cross leads:
Therefore “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” May this vision of the heavenly glory that awaits us grant us the rarest and most precious paradox of all: peace and joy in the midst of tribulation. Amen.