A Lamb for the Slaughter
My wife and I like mutton and lamb, but it is hard to get these meats where we live. This is very much beef and pork territory, and mutton and lamb, when they are available, are very expensive. So when a farmer friend offered me a sheep at a good price, I was very interested.
“How do we take care of the slaughtering and butchering?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about that.”
“No problem,” he said, and gave me the phone number of a local abattoir and meat processor.
I called them to make arrangements. “Well, we don’t see sheep too often, but we can do it next week for you,” said the butcher. “Just bring it on Monday morning, and we’ll take care of it. But are you sure it is a sheep and not a goat? People round here often don’t know the difference. There usually isn’t enough meat on a goat to make it worth your while.”
I called my friend back. “They said you can take it in next Monday. But are you sure it is a sheep and not a goat?”
He sounded a bit offended. “It’s a sheep all right. I’ll bring it by on the way and you can check for yourself if you like?”
“No! Don’t do that.” One glimpse of the doomed sheep on the way to the slaughter and my wife would undoubtedly give it a reprieve and I’d end up with a pet sheep instead of a freezer full of meat. (My wife does not like to be reminded that steaks, chops and hamburgers were once parts of living creatures.)
Two days before the sheep was to be dispatched to the abattoir, they called us and asked, “How do you want this meat?” We hadn’t thought about that.
“Er…what do you mean?”
“You want us to cut it up and package it, right?” Yes. Emphatically right. “So do you want all of it?”
“Yes, I guess so.” We assumed he meant the legs, shoulders, chops – the usual cuts you buy at the supermarket.
“Yeah, I know. But what about the brains, liver, kidneys…?”
“No!” said my wife firmly. “We don’t want those yucky bits. Just the nice bits.”
So a few days later I drove out to the processing plant, and picked up two large boxes of frozen cuts of mutton. Just the ‘nice bits’ – neatly wrapped and labelled, ready to be put in the freezer. We enjoy them from time to time. And as we do, we don’t stop to remind ourselves that the delicious meal was once a part of a beautiful animal.
But let’s think about it now.
Lamb of God
I’m not talking about becoming a vegetarian. And although I am not one, I certainly have no criticism of people who are. But let’s think for a moment about another sheep that was led to the slaughter – I mean Jesus. The Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, slaughtered in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. As I write, it will soon be Good Friday, when most Christians across the globe commemorate that terrible day when the human race killed their Creator.
Crucifixion was a brutal business. Most depictions of Jesus on the cross do not begin to show what it was like. Frankly, you wouldn’t want realistic pictures of the real thing – a human being, already beaten to a pulp, forced to stumble through the streets carrying a heavy, rough-hewn beam, to which he is then nailed and left writhing in agony, exposed to the elements and the taunts of the crowd, until death came from exhaustion and suffocation. We don’t like those ‘yucky’ details. We prefer a cleaned up version.
And so it is with our Christianity. Thankfully, very few readers of this magazine have ever faced serious persecution or death because they are Christian (and probably never will). I know Christianity is on the decline, and the church no longer has the influence it once did. But most people who read this do not live in fear because we are disciples of Jesus. We get ridicule perhaps, and maybe discrimination in some cases. But not death, and certainly not death by crucifixion. So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)
The way the Gospel is often marketed today it sounds like a programme to make you rich and healthy. That is perhaps understandable. People who have no sense of sin have no need for a Saviour. But don’t we all want to be richer and healthier? So it makes good marketing sense to focus on those aspects of the Gospel message which offer benefits in this world, along with the vaguer promises of life after death. Advertise Christianity as a good deal, and overlook the small print.
Actually, ‘deal’ is not the right word. Jesus does not offer us a ‘good deal’. We have nothing to offer with which to make ‘a deal’. Christ died for us while we were unrepentant sinners (Romans 5:8). Salvation is God’s gift, unearned, undeserved – but freely and lovingly given. Jesus offers us all the privilege of citizenship in His Kingdom, now and for all eternity.
However, accepting that offer brings with it responsibility. He cautioned those who wanted to follow him to ‘count the cost’. Some sacrifice would be needed, for the ways of the Kingdom are not the ways of this world. After his initial ministry on earth was complete, Jesus did not ‘escape’ to heaven to wait, in safety and comfort, until it is time to come back. He remains, to this day, intimately involved with this world and its needs. In His parable of the sheep and the goats he shows that He identifies with the hungry, the poor, the widows, orphans and prisoners. He feels it personally when their suffering is relieved. He does not turn his back on the ‘yucky’ needs of humanity, and He expects His fellow citizens to share the burden.
Professor Rodney Stark has done extensive research of the rise of Christianity in the first centuries. His book, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus movement became the world’s largest religion, combines the sensitivities and insights of both a historian and a sociologist.
He has shown that the faith spread not through elaborate campaigns or glitzy evangelism. Rather it was through the generosity, self-sacrifice, concern for the poor and downtrodden of those first followers. It was because the Christians showed the harsh world of the Roman Empire that there was another way to live. They did not just pray ‘thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. They tried to live that way, and in doing so, they ‘carried their crosses’.
It is no different today. The Epistle of Titus sums it up well: ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14).
We do not do these things so we can be saved. We live like this because we are saved. The sacrifice of the Lamb made that possible.
Accept it all – not just the ‘nice’ bits.