According to historians and scholars the lambs which were raised and reared in Bethlehem were very special indeed.
The shepherds of the Christmas story would almost certainly have been looking after these special sheep in their special flocks so they would produce these special lambs.
So what was so special about them?
At the time of Jesus’ birth the Jews still operated under the sacrificial system whereby you would demonstrate your inner repentance of sin by an external act of animal sacrifice.
The sacrifice would cost you something and make a tangible link between your sin and its consequences for you and everything around you.
By the time Jesus was born the whole system for the Jews had become a profiteering racket by an incredibly wealthy group called the Sadducees. Their methods and accumulated wealth would put most of today’s ‘casino’ bankers to shame.
The Sadducees had manoeuvred a system whereby only sacrifices offered at the temple in Jerusalem were valid, and they controlled access. Any money offerings required the ‘temple coin’ which meant currency exchange from the common Roman currency at extortionate exchange rates. Any animals offered couldn’t be your own as they weren’t ‘pure’ enough and so you would have to buy one of their officially verified animals, again at extortionate prices.
These were the special lambs which were being watched by the shepherds that first Christmas night as Bethlehem was the best place within easy reach of Jerusalem to rear flocks of sheep. They were special because only these lambs could be offered as a sacrifice for sins, and no other lambs would suffice, which made them extremely valuable.
What does this have to do with Jesus and Advent?
One of the images given to us in the Bible to help us understand what Jesus has done for us by dying for us is that of a perfect lamb, without blemish, being offered in our place and atoning for our sin.
Jesus is the ‘sacrificial lamb’ – the Lamb of God – who takes away the sins of the whole world. In a culture where the image of animal sacrifice and the continual practise of it would have been imprinted firmly on the cultural consciousness, presenting Jesus this way would have been a radical shift in understanding the purpose and role of the whole sacrificial system.
The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament describes this brilliantly and sums up the whole thing with this amazing verse:
“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb 10:4 ESV)
This verse shows us that there’s something else going on and it’s really not about the blood of the animal or the ‘life for a life’ that many would have believed was the purpose.
The writer goes on to say,
“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.'”” (Hebrews 10:5-7 ESV)
Jesus has come to show us that it’s all about doing the Father’s will because that’s what we were made for and it’s how we express back to Him the love He has shown us in making us His children.
It’s not – and never has been – about making sacrifices to appease an angry god.
This is not good news for the Sadducees and history shows that their whole system was unsustainable in God’s economy.
Jesus has come into the world as the ‘Lamb of God without blemish or sin’ to show us, and model for us, the life which we are all called to live, because that is the life of a son.
His death finalises the whole sacrificial system in one act of sacrifice on our behalf, and his resurrection breaks the cycle of sin and death and proves that it’s not about paying the price, but about living the life we were made for.
That first Christmas the special sheep in their special flocks kept to produce special lambs were replaced in one night by the birth of a little baby boy.
His birth removed the need for the sacrifices and instead came to show us the life we’ve always wanted to live but didn’t know how.
This Advent, may you know that the blood of bulls, goats and even special lambs cannot take away sin but Jesus can.
May you know that Jesus is the special Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the whole world.
May you know that he has come to bring you the life you have always wanted and today it’s yours if you want it.