I’ve always enjoyed sports nicknames. Chocolate Thunder is the best nickname ever, but there are plenty more that are great. William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry was the best of the 80’s. Marion Barber is called Marion the Barbarian. Christian Okoye, formerly of the Chiefs, was the Nigerian Nightmare. Deion Sanders was called both Neon Deion and Prime Time; Kenny Stabler was called the Snake. Jack Nicklaus had the best nickname in golf, I think, the Golden Bear. The movies gave us the Italian Stallion, which would be hard to beat for toughness.
Note, however, that none of them were called the Lamb. We heard today in our Gospel lesson that John the Baptist “calls Jesus “a lamb,” which could have been perceived a couple of different ways. Lambs are often a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability. In this sense, calling Jesus a lamb could have been a nice thing to say, but it would hardly be the type of description that would fit the Messiah. Certainly the average politician wouldn’t be very successful in getting elected if the main way people thought about him was that he was a real lamb of a guy! But, of course, in Jesus’ day, because there was that long history in Israel of using lambs as sacrifices, there was another sense in which hearing Jesus called “a lamb” might have struck some people as cruel. Maybe it would be like today calling someone a “turkey” or a “dumb bunny.” Calling Jesus a lamb may have sounded like the equivalent of accusing Jesus of being a little dumb, someone easy to gang up on….John could just as easily have said, “Behold, the one who is going down the tubes! Behold the loser, the victim, the dead man walking.” How odd it must have sounded. The next day, though, John repeats it, letting you know that it wasn’t some foolish slip-of-the-tongue on John’s part. ”1
So what is going on here? We can assume that John the Baptist was not insulting his cousin Jesus, and it’s clear that John knew the true nature of the man he was calling a lamb. And so we look to what John said next : “John adds the kicker line that somehow this particular lamb-like Jesus would “take away the sin of the world.” So now we have the image of a lamb and the concept of sin in the same sentence. But since the only traditional connection between lambs and sin had always involved the death of the hapless lamb, John is clearly introducing a very dark theme. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d say about someone who was on his way to the top of this world’s heap.”2
This was something you would say, however, about someone who was on a mission from God. Believe it or not, this reminds me of the Blues Brothers, the classic Akroyd-Belushi film about Jake & Elwood Blues, in which they go on a mission from God to save the Catholic home where they were raised. Being on a mission, what did they do? First, they went to their forerunner, in this case Cab Calloway, who points out that they are the ones for the job. Then Jake and Elwood go off to find the members of their band and spread the word of their mission, all the while causing the biggest car chase in the history of film. Then their fans flock to the big concert at the end and they raise enough money to fulfill their mission of saving the orphanage.
What does this have to do with Jesus, you ask? This week’s Gospel picks up where last week’s left off, when Jesus went to His forerunner, John the Baptist to be baptized; this week we hear John identify Jesus as the only man for the job of taking away the sins of the world. Then Jesus picks up the members of His bad, His disciples, and they start off to spread the news of their mission, the saving of the whole world.
But it’s not a big concert at the end that saves the world, right? The mission here was too big; to fulfill that mission, the Lamb of God would do what lambs have always traditionally done, to lay down His life for the forgiveness of sins, to be sacrificed so that we might be fed the Bread of Life.
By the power of God that Lamb that had been slain is alive for us, and His mission is constantly being fulfilled in us and by us. The Lamb still might not be the fiercest nickname for one of us, but I think that Jesus makes lambs look pretty tough. Are you signed up for His mission?
1Scott Hoezee, This Week