When I was ten years old, our Sunday School leader told us a story about a lamb. Harold had just learned of his mother’s death and he wanted to tell us of a very important experience he had with her.
He began, “How many of you have a puppy or a kitty?” We raised our hands. “When I was a small boy in Africa where my parents were missionaries, I had a pet lamb. I would run on the paths in the bush and play with my lamb just like you play with your pets. One day, my lamb stumbled and could not get up. I scooped it in my arms and ran home. As I placed my lamb in my mother’s lap, it died.
“My mother found that it had been bitten by a poisonous snake. She put the lamb down on the dirt floor of our home, picked me up, and explained, ‘Harold, I believe that Satan meant that snake bite for you. But God arranged it so that your lamb was bitten instead.’ Then she told me about God’s Lamb.”
But why a Lamb? Why does God have a Lamb? Here is Scripture’s answer in three short stories.
1. Isaac was off his mat and out of the tent before sunrise. His father was saddling up the camels and they were heading for Mount Moriah. The boy pictured crossing the desert sands with the Judean mountains on their east.
“Oh, daddy. Thank you for taking me along!” “Isaac,” his father said gravely, “I could not go without you.”
For three days young Isaac sat tall in the saddle of his camel. Each night by the campfire he begged his father to tell him stories of the ancient city of Ur, of the war against the kings, and of the three angels that came to announce his birth. But these nights his father was pensive and quiet and Isaac contented himself with counting stars and finding Orion and Pisces.
Finally, majestic Mount Moriah loomed before them. In the Kidron Valley they dismounted and tethered their camels. “Let me carry the wood! I’m big enough now.” His father took his long knife from his saddle bag and placed it in the sheath on his belt. In his left hand he carried a torch lit from their morning campfire. Ascending the mountain, a strange thought came over Isaac. “Dad, we have the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” All Abraham would say was, “God will provide himself a lamb.”
Slowly they climbed around the rocks. Once on top Isaac dropped the wood. “Whew! That was heavy.” “Let’s build an altar,” Abraham whispered hoarsely.
“Is this rock OK?” “Let me help you put the wood on the altar, daddy.” “What are you doing? Why are you tying me up? Why are you putting me on the altar? Why are you reaching for your knife? Daddy? No! No!”
“Stop!” cried out a voice.
The next moments happened so fast Isaac hardly could take it all in. His father sliced off the ropes. Isaac was on the ground again. They both saw it at once, a ram-lamb caught in the brush. His father’s powerful strength returned. The animal caught, killed, and burning on the altar. Isaac kneeling alongside in wonder as his father sang praise upon praise to God.
As Isaac skipped down the mountain hours later, old Abraham scooped his son into his arms and let out a giant laugh. A long, happy silence ensued. Finally, Isaac asked, “Daddy, why a lamb?” “Because, Isaac, only a lamb could take your place.”
2. Sarah and her family were making their trek to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur, the Great Day of Atonement. “Imagine,” she thought, “Jerusalem with all those shops and young men from all over Israel.”
But her visit to Jerusalem was not at all what she expected. Instead of shopping, they stood in long services at the temple singing the ancient songs of David. Instead of sampling real food from the many vendors, they ate very little. On the eve of Yom Kippur, they fasted the entire day. And the young men from all over Israel? They seemed to be more interested in long prayers than in Sarah’s long hair.
She stood reluctant and bored on the Great Day, standing among thousands, until her disinterest was disrupted by the sound of a tiny animal cry. That bewildered bleat and the deafening silence following arrested her attention. Looking up she saw the high priest enter the temple, dressed in a white tunic now mostly red. Long minutes later he took a second goat, placed his hands on the young goat’s head, and began to pray.
“What’s he doing, father?” “He’s praying.” “I know, but what is he praying?” “He’s praying our sins onto the young goat.” “Sins? What sins?” “Oh, all the ways we miss God’s ideal—when we are more concerned about how we look to ourselves in the mirror than how we look to God. Even my own attitude toward my brother is included in his prayer.”
What happened next took her completely by surprise. The high priest took his hands off the young goat; a man approached and led the tiny animal away. “Where’s he taking it, father?” “He is leading it out into the wilderness. The animal is carrying our sins away from the presence of God.” “What will happen to it?” “Oh, Sarah. That is the terrible part about sin. The man will push the goat over a cliff and it will be left there to die.” “But why, why such a young, innocent lamb?” “Because, Sarah, only a lamb can carry away our sin.”
3. Jesus is in an olive garden. It is almost midnight. Listen closely and you will hear low groans and loud cries, “Daddy, is there some other way?”
Soldiers arrest him and mock him. The high priest declares that Jesus ought to die. The governor capitulates. Instead of a knife they use nails. Instead of a cliff they use a cross. Near the very spot where Isaac had once laid down the wood, Jesus lays himself down on the wood of the cross.
No voice shouts, “Stop!” From the darkness he cries out, “Daddy, why me? Daddy, why a lamb?” And the Father whispers in heaven, “Because only My lamb can save the whole world from sin.”
Rev. David Veum, D.Min, serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as president of Lutheran Brethren Seminary.