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“A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, the guilt of all men bearing; And laden with the sins of earth, None else the burden sharing! Goes patient on, grows weak and faint, To slaughter led with out complaint, That spotless life to offer; Bears shame, and stripes, and wounds and death, Anguish and mockery, and saith, ‘Willing all this I suffer’.”
–The Lutheran Hymnal, 142, verse 1
The hymn “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth”, written by Paul Gerhardt, was first published in 1648. It has been called “the masterpiece of all Passion hymns”. And whether you care for the tune or not, you have to admit that Paul Gerhardt succeeded in encapsulating some of the most precious images of our suffering Savior in this hymn.
As all great hymns, this one springs from the words of the Bible. Gerhardt found his inspiration in Isaiah 53, verse 6-7 where it says,
“6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:6-7 NKJV).
These words were penned by the prophet Isaiah around 700 years before Jesus was crucified. They don’t identify by name the “He” on whom the iniquity of all was laid. But John the Baptist had no doubt in his mind when he pointed to Jesus and said,
“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NKJV).
To us, sheep and lambs are distant creatures. Here in the metropolitan regions of the Pacific Northwest, your neighbor might have a coop of chickens in his backyard, or maybe even pigeons, but probably not a herd of sheep.
But to the Israelite people, to whom these words were originally given, sheep were a familiar sight. All the way back to Abraham, the Jews had been herdsmen. Their greatest king, king David grew up tending flocks near the hills of Bethlehem.
In Jesus’ day flocks of sheep were a common sight near Jerusalem. The endless sacrifices offered at the Temple needed a pool of animals to draw from. And so, even if you weren’t a shepherd by trade, the sight of a flock of sheep, or the sight of one shaggy, wandering beast was all too familiar.
The first image of sheep that Isaiah offers us is of a huge flock that has fallen apart. Each animal has chosen its own path, wandering far from safety. Isaiah says,
“6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all“ (Isaiah 53:6 NKJV).
We don’t have to try very hard to figure out what Isaiah is saying here, do we? Each of us has made our own sinful choices in life. Instead of choosing God’s path, which leads to safety and blessing, we’ve chosen to follow our own sinful desires. Desires which we think will get us what we want. But, desires which instead lead to pain, heartache, guilt and shame. And, if the Bible is to be believed, these sinful choices make us unacceptable to God. Destined only for eternal separation from Him in hell.
Which sinful paths have you been following lately? I could easily relate which ones I’ve been on. The introspection and inner searching that the season of Lent encourages highlights our own sins very clearly. If we actually take the time to honestly look back on our lives, we’ll see a meandering path of bad choices, mistakes, and sin.
What if I asked you to make a list of the ten most horrible things you’ve ever said, thought or done? What would you write? What would the worst be? I’m not sure what you’re all doing for your own personal meditations this Lent, but that wouldn’t be a bad start. A list of the worst you have to offer God.
This would be good exercise because Isaiah says that “the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all”. If we made that list, we could look on it and be sure that those sins were laid on Jesus. Because all our sins were laid on Jesus, they are no longer on us. Through Christ we stand forgiven. That’s what Isaiah says.
Like I said earlier, the Jews were familiar with the sight of sheep. But this familiarity wasn’t just from seeing sheep in the field. Every year they would bring one into their own home. Every year the Passover feast was held, which required that each household have its own lamb. Little children growing up in Palestine would have remembered dad coming home with a lamb before the Passover meal was held.
These lambs would be slaughtered, and the blood painted on the doorways of their homes. This was to remember how God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The final plague that God sent on Egypt was a plague of death. Every firstborn child and animal in the land died in one night. But wherever the blood of a lamb had colored the doorway to a home, the firstborn of that home was spared – passed over. And in the morning, the people of Israel were free, and on their way to the Promised Land.
These lambs that were killed were not troublemakers. Not animals deemed dangerous to society and slated for destruction. They were gentle, innocent creatures, sacrificed to save the children of God’s chosen people.
This is the image of our Savior that Isaiah paints for us to see. A gentle, innocent, lamb. Meek and quiet. Sacrificed to save others.
When a sheep a silent before its shearer, or before its butcher, it is silent because it doesn’t know what’s coming. But Jesus was silent for an altogether different reason. He knew what was coming, and refused to seek escape. He went willingly to the cross to erase the record of our sins.
On the night when they arrested Jesus, they dragged Him in front of a court of priests and religious leaders of the people. There they called false witnesses to accuse Jesus of all sorts of blasphemous words and actions. And though He had done nothing wrong, He refused to defend Himself.
When they dragged Jesus in front of the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, and accused Him of stirring up a rebellion, again, the innocent Jesus refused to speak up in His own defense.
When Pilate sent Jesus to king Herod, Jesus had the opportunity to lobby for Herod’s help. But far from taking this opportunity, Jesus wouldn’t answer a single question from Herod.
When Pilate received Jesus back again and took Him aside, Jesus had yet another opportunity, in private, to lobby for Pilate’s help. Perhaps if Jesus had laid His case out before Pilate He could have been saved from the horrific death that was in store for Him. But again, like Isaiah’s prophecy foretold – Jesus opened not His mouth.
If this tells us anything, it tells us that Jesus was not only willing to go to the cross, He was determined to go to the cross. He was determined to endure oppression and affliction and death in order to release us from the hell that sin earns the sinner.
Now, the gift of God’s forgiveness in Christ, is so radical, so different from what we usually experience in life, that our hearts try not to believe it. Even though it’s for our good! Your heart may try to convince you that, sure Jesus was willing to die for some people, but not for me. Maybe Jesus would die for good Christians, but not a doubting sinner like me. If your heart tries to pull this one on you, then just remember what Isaiah wrote,
“…the LORD has laid on Him THE INIQUITY OF US ALL” (Isaiah 53:6 NKJV).
And remember what John the Baptist said when he pointed to Jesus,
“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away THE SIN OF THE WORLD!” (John 1:29 NKJV).
This includes your sins, and mine. In Christ we stand forgiven.
And if your heart still tries to cast doubt on the love that Jesus has for you, then remember His silence. To find some comparable image, God had to go to the world of animals! What human being would do what Jesus did? What human being, confident of their own innocence, would remain silent in the face of all that suffering, to save someone who was utterly guilty?
Jesus was silent so that we would know that He was all in. He was dedicated to our salvation. He loved us with everything He had.
So, when the world around you screams that you’re worthless, when your conscience inside you repeats your shameful sins, remember the silence of Jesus. Remember how He opened not His mouth. And when He does open His mouth to speak to you through the pages of Scripture, what He says is this, “You are forgiven”.
“And when Thy glory I shall see And taste They kindom’s pleasure, Thy blood my royal robe shall be, My joy beyond all measure; When I appear before Thy throne, Thy righteousness shall be my crown, - With these I need not hide me. And there, in garments richly wrought As Thine own bride, I shall be brought To stand in joy beside Thee.”
–The Lutheran Hymnal, 142, verse 6