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The Wrath of the Lamb

Sometimes the process of preparing to teach Sunday School takes interesting turns, at least for me.

I’m currently teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, and I was thinking about the transition from the beatitudes to the discussion of fulfilling the law. Sometimes we get so used to the way Scripture passages read that we don’t really notice the impact they would have had. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness …” transitions to “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” We’re used to thinking of Pharisees as bad guys, and we can immediately translate that statement mentally into something less than it would have been to those who first heard it.

It’s easy to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount does not represent some singular sermon, and that perhaps the beatitudes and the teaching on the law contained in Chapter 5 weren’t really run together that way when Jesus taught them. Indeed, the different settings for portions of the sermon in Luke might suggest that we have compilations of sayings rather than complete sermons.

But, and it’s an important ‘but’, someone thought these two things went together. I love form, source, and redaction criticism and believe they provide important insights, allowing us to learn from the prehistory of the text in front of us, but in a case like this, they just kick the ball down the field a bit. We still should ask just why the passages go together.

Let me skip my own answer, which I already had in mind, and go with the experience of thinking about the passage. I like to read what I’m going to teach very early, usually the Sunday afternoon after the previous lesson, and then think about it through the week.

In this case, I had just gotten a new audio Bible (NRSV) for Audible (unfortunately it is no longer available). I wasn’t actually intending to think about the passage, and I just let the audiobook continue from where I had last left it, which happened to be in Revelation 6. I got to 6:16, and heard the words “the wrath of the lamb.” Or “hide us … from the wrath of the lamb.”

Now here’s another phrase that doesn’t always have full impact. It takes on that “scriptury” sense in which we imbue it with holiness and piously let the jarring nature of the statement slip by.

So picture a cute, wooly, harmless lamb. Now picture crowds of people calling for mountains or large rocks to fall on them — splat! — to save them from the wrath of, well, that fluffy bundle of cuteness. For Monty Python fans, let me note that it calls to my mind vorpal bunnies.

So we go back a bit in Scripture to Revelation 5:5-6:

(5) One of the elders said to me: ‘Do not weep; the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the shoot growing from David’s stock, has won the right to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ (6) Then I saw a Lamb with the marks of sacrifice on him …

Revelation 5:5-6a

I could spend all kinds of time on this, but I’m just looking at one thing: The Lion is the Lamb. Of course, if you read the texts I first reference in context, you’d also note that the fear of the wrath of the lamb was combined with fear of the one sitting on the throne.

In this case, we have a direct literary relationship. In chapter 6, John is doubtlessly connecting referencing this lamb, who is also not just a, but the Lion. Slightly more intimidating than the wooly lamb I evoked earlier.

So this turned my mind to something I get from orthodox theology, in this case the incarnation. Jesus is presented as totally human and totally divine. Compare Hebrews 2:17-18 to Hebrews 7:26-28 display a combination of incompatible features. One plus one equals one. Not normal logic.

I like to distinguish belief in three ways. There is believing that. One can believe that something is true without absorbing it or responding to it. I believe that an aircraft is airworthy and safe, but I stay on the ground. Then there is believing in. In this case belief leads to a trust in the thing in which we believe. I believe that the aircraft is airworthy and safe, so assuming the crew is good as well, I get on board and fly. Then there is believing through. That is when I use one belief to impact the way I understand and respond to other things. In the case of the aircraft analogy I now learn to put reasonable trust in things in which it is reasonable to have confidence.

In Christian terms, I go from believing that Jesus rose from the dead, to putting my trust in “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and from there to living a life defined by not just by the hope of the resurrection but of the character and power combined of one who gave himself to death and arose. There is some room here to live in hope. The hope comes from seeing other things in the light of my belief in the resurrection.

Now back to the incarnation, and lions, and lambs.

There are many things that thinking conditioned (transformed?) by the incarnation can be, many of them at the same time. One is that we lose the binary sense. To take us back to Revelation 5, we can see in one person the Lion and the Lamb. We can see gentleness and sacrifice on the one hand and wrath on the other, all in the form of a wooly lamb, one that someone already sacrificed. That’s seeing these things through our belief in an orthodox doctrine. I have heard folks argue forcefully for an orthodox statement of doctrine, but seeing it only as a thing that must be affirmed to be true, and not something that impacts the rest of our lives.

I maintain rather that if you really believe in something like the incarnation, it will reshape your thinking all over the place. Constantly. Irrevocably.

I recall hearing Deanna Thompson, author of the Deuteronomy volume in the Belief Commentary series. She is a feminist and a liberationist. She recalled wondering why she should be the one to write a commentary on Deuteronomy. But she said that as she wrote the commentary, she realized that “a God without wrath will never liberate anybody.” A God such as the one presented in Deuteronomy.

The Lamb is the Lion. They are not incompatible.

And then another thing came to mind. I recently watched the movie “Aristocats” again. It’s a favorite of mine. It includes a song with the line:

Everybody! Everybody! Everybody wants to be a cat!

Aristocats

At this point I imagine you’re thinking I’m a bit odd in the things I connect. I also assure you that I like cats.

But if you look around church, everybody wants to be a cat. That is, we want to get to the Lion part of the act, or the rider on the white horse. We long (as the readers of Revelation did) for the avenging God who does nice things for the good guys (surely this includes us!) and gets all the bad guys. If possible, we want to skip over all the lamblike stuff, and definitely that “slain” stuff.

So I wind back toward my original topic again, as I know you’re wondering what all of this has to do with Matthew 5? And indeed, in listening to Revelation I had every intention of not working on my Sunday School lesson.

But Matthew 5 challenges us in a similar way. Jesus is here both the lamb who has humbled himself and is living as one of us, the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and also the one who says our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (remember that the audience would see that as a high standard), that we must be perfect, and that even being angry or insulting a brother can lead to hell.

The Lamb is the Lion. Love and wrath work together. It’s not either-or, but both and.

Featured image by Catherine Stockinger from Pixabay

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