In addition to the Passover lamb and the lamb of Yom Kippur, there is a third lamb of God in the Jewish tradition. This one is probably the least well known and the least recognized. Yet of the three lambs used in Jewish worship, I believe it has been the most influential in understanding the life of Jesus. This lamb of God, for example, dominates the portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, causing that gospel to be radically different from all the others.
This third lamb first appears in Judaism in a portrait drawn by one of the greatest of the Jewish prophets. It was said of this lamb that it was “silent before its accusers.” It was a “lamb being led to its slaughter.” In this text this lamb had other names by which it is even better known in Christian history. It was also called “The Servant” or “The Suffering Servant.” The story of this lamb was appended anonymously to the scroll of Isaiah. Today it constitutes chapters 40-55 of that book, so we refer to these chapters as “II Isaiah.”
It is a powerful and popular part of the Bible, made even more familiar to us when George Frideric Handel set much of it to music in his magnificent oratorio called “Messiah.” People, however, think that Handel is talking about Jesus, when in fact he is describing another Jewish lamb of God. I turn now to the story of this lamb that was used by early Christians to interpret both Jesus and his death.
II Isaiah was written in the most difficult, fearful and traumatic experience of Jewish history. In the early years of the 6th century BCE, the little nation of Judah was attacked by the army of the Babylonians led by its warrior chieftain, Nebuchadnezzar. The Jews were besieged, but held out for two years before the Babylonians breached the walls, poured into Jerusalem and destroyed the city. In their regular pattern of dealing with conquered people, the Babylonians rounded up the defeated Jews and marched them off into captivity in the land of Babylon, where they would become the underclass of cheap labor.
These exiled Jews would never again see their homeland for this exile would last for more than three generations. These conquered people, however, vowed to make national survival their highest priority. They believed they had to stay intact as a people no matter how many generations it took for they had a deep sense that God had laid upon them and their nation a unique vocation. They were chosen, they believed, so that through the Jewish people, all the nations of the world would receive the blessing of God.
That is why in exile, these Jews developed three customs designed to keep them separate from all non-Jews: they refused to work on the seventh day of the week, they would eat only kosher food prepared in a kosher kitchen and they placed the sign of Judaism on the bodies of every Jewish male in circumcision. Each of these customs was rigorously enforced. Separatism was to be their method of survival. As the years went by, their dreams of their homeland were no longer informed by those who had actually once lived there, but rather by their fantasies of past glory and their yearnings for future glory. They viewed the land of Judah through what might be called “Technicolor” or perhaps rose-colored lenses.
Finally, in the latter years of the third generation of their exile, hope dawned. Cyrus, the king of the Persians, defeated the Babylonians in battle and, as Babylon’s new conqueror, he announced the policy of allowing captive people to return to their homelands. With hopes running high and with dreams exploding into ecstasy, these Jewish survivors now planned to make the journey homeward and there to reclaim their land and with it their vocation to be the messianic people through whom the blessing of God would be extended to all nations.
Small fact-finding expeditions were organized and sent ahead so that a full return could be prepared for all the people. The unknown prophet we now call II Isaiah was surely on one of these early expeditions. When his small group arrived, the shock caused by what they saw was so profound as to be debilitating. The country of Judah turned out to be nothing but a wasteland. The Holy City of Jerusalem was little more than a heap of rubble. Not one stone was left on another in what was once their Temple. Reality crushed their dreams and left them devastated. Whoever II Isaiah was took it all in, felt his hopes and dreams die and sank into a deep spiritual depression. Judah, he thought, would never be restored; never again become a respected nation. The vocation, which they held to be so sacred, was now little more than a pipe dream. This broken state would never be a blessing to anyone. In the mind of II Isaiah the covenant, the nation, Jerusalem and the Temple were gone forever and none of them would ever rise again.
How long this dark night of the soul lasted for this nameless prophet we do not know, but when he finally emerged from depression he took quill in hand and sketched out a new vocation for Judah, one that had never occurred to anyone before. The Jewish people must accept, he began, the vocation of service. They would have to learn to live as powerless people. If they were to bless the world, it must be done through weakness. They were like a lamb, silent before its accusers, a lamb willing to be abused, violated and finally led to slaughter.
As this unknown prophet wrote of this lamb, he said these things: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” Of this figure he would also say: “He was despised, rejected, a person of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” For the Jews to live out their vocation, he wrote, they must be willing to absorb the world’s hostility and even to return it as transforming love. Becoming the messianic people could be achieved, but only in weakness, not in strength, in defeat, but not in victory. The Jewish people, he said, were to do what no nation and no individual in human history had ever before been called to do, namely to transcend their own survival instincts and to give their lives away for others. In this way alone, he said, they could live out their vocation to be the people through whom all people of the world would be blessed.
It was an awesome portrait, but not a popular one. So II Isaiah’s vision languished in Jewish history, but because it had been added to the scroll of Isaiah, it continued for about 500 years to be carried in the Jewish consciousness as a kind of minority report.
In the first century of the Common Era, a Jewish man named Jesus of Nazareth appeared to his followers to have lived out this minority role and so they began to interpret him through the words of II Isaiah. In his ability to love beyond the boundaries of tribe, prejudice and gender, he called a new community of people into being. In his freedom to live for others, he invited people into a new authenticity and into an ever deepening sense of personhood. In his capacity to love beyond his own security system, he enabled his followers to love in remarkably life-giving ways. In his courage to be himself, he freed others to be all that they could be. In his unwillingness to retaliate for pain received, he created a new sense of what it means to be human. He was II Isaiah’s lamb.
When John wrote his gospel near the end of the first century, he surrounded Jesus with these images of II Isaiah’s lamb. Jesus was the servant who suffered willingly. That was how the cross became for this gospel writer, not a place where the punishment for sin was received, but rather the place where the portrait of a life, no longer driven by survival, could be painted. When one was so whole, so complete, so lacking in that human ritual of building oneself up by tearing another down, that became the moment for John when the face of God was seen in the face of Jesus.
This Jesus, John wrote, could drain from others the poison of their own anger, their fear, their destructiveness, replacing it with a call to embrace a new humanity. When we read John we watch this portrait develop. When Jesus was denied, he loved the denier. When he was betrayed, he loved the betrayer. When he was abandoned, he loved those who had abandoned him. When he was persecuted, he loved his persecutors. When he was killed, he loved his killers. In doing these things, Jesus lived out a whole new understanding of God. God was not the judge before whom we were expected to kneel, who elicited from us pleas for mercy and who controlled us by guilt and fear.
For John, God was the power of wholeness through which each of us could learn that there is nothing any of us can ever do and nothing any of us can ever be that will finally separate us from the love of God. In John’s Jesus we discover that in living fully, we can be empowered to give our lives away and that in that act of giving, the God who is the source of life will be experienced as present in us. We also discover that in loving wastefully we create in others the ability to love. Then the barriers that divide us in fear melt away and God, the source of love, is experienced as present in us. Finally we learn that in having the courage to be all that we can be, we allow others to be all that they can be. That is when we experience God as the “Ground of all Being.”
John’s Jesus understood that God is not an external being, but the presence in which our life and being are grounded and that the pathway into divinity is identical with the pathway into the depths of our own humanity. In the language of the mystics, John could have Jesus say such things as “the father and I are one,” and “if you have seen me, you have seen the father.” That is also why John had Jesus apply to himself so frequently the divine name “I AM.”
In the Fourth Gospel, the portrait of Jesus is dramatically shaped by the image of this lamb, the servant of II Isaiah. That is why in this gospel we discover that the secret of Christianity is not the story of God entering into the life of the human, so much as it is the story of the human transcending all of our limits and entering into the life of God. That is John’s meaning of the cross and that is his insight into resurrection. That is also the basis on which, I believe, we can ultimately build “A New Christianity for a New World.”