Illustration: In 1991, a story surfaced from Operation Desert Storm about a soldier who got a "Dear John" letter. While others around him were getting wonderful love letters from their girls back home, this poor guy gets the letter from his girl that says they're through. Worse than that, she was getting married to someone back home! Adding insult to injury, she wrote, "Will you please return my favorite photograph of myself? I need it for my engagement picture in the newspaper."
The poor guy was devastated. His girl was marrying someone else, and now she wanted her photograph. It was too much defeat. When a buddy found out what had happened, a plan was hatched. From every corner of the camp, soldiers handed over extra photos of their girlfriends. There were hundreds of photos. The jilted soldier put all the photos in a shoe box and mailed it home with a note. "Please find your picture," he wrote, "but please return the rest. For the life of me, I can't remember exactly which one you were!!"
With a bit of a different picture - a different perspective - life was different for both the soldier … and the surprised girlfriend!
Our perspective of Easter is on the other side of the ocean, too. For many, Easter is marked by candy, a Santa-Claus-imitating bunny, and bright new clothes. Even in our churches, very little of the ancient, Middle Eastern backdrop of the Resurrection surfaces in our churches.
Instead of a candy-carrying bunny, Easter is much more about another animal. Easter was all about a lamb.
When Jesus lived, lambs were a central part of the spiritual life of Israel. If you were Jewish, there was no need to explain the significance of something so commonplace. For centuries, Lambs had died for the sins of the nation. Inside the walls of the Temple, two lambs died every day (Exodus 28:29-31), one at 9 a.m. and the other at 3 p.m. When the lamb died, a priest would sound the shofar, a ram's horn, and even people who didn't witness the event would realize that a lamb had just died for the sins of the people. It had been a sacrifice marked by blood, for the literal meaning of "sacrifice" in Hebrew is, "to slit the throat."
In addition to the twice-a-day sacrifice of lambs, there would have been countless lambs dying on the major Jewish holidays. It happened year after year, century in, century out. How many hundreds of thousands of lambs had died for the sins of the people? Did they number in the millions? As shocking as a single sacrifice might be from our perspective, could there have been an opposite impact 2,000 years ago? Could the death of a lamb become so common that it had lost its punch? Could the fast work of things at the Temple made the entire process too clean, professional, and even too far removed from the people? Could so many lambs have become - in a sense - invisible to the people who were so used to religion?
The lambs weren't invisible on Passover.
Maybe that's why Passover was such an important holy day for the people. This was the most personal connection between people just like us and the blood sacrifice God required for sin. For a few days, every family in Israel would have a lamb, and every person in that family knew that the lamb in their home would have to die for sinful choices he or she had made.
Step back in time and imagine, if you would, a family preparing for Passover, some 2,000 years ago. Most families didn't have flocks of sheep ... most families would depend on the shepherds to bring the lambs to Jerusalem every spring. A few days before the holiday, each family would purchase a lamb.
The father bargained for the lamb, and purchased it. The family took it home, and you can imagine what an impact it had on that home. Families had to house the lamb for a few days. Children would pet it. Mothers would feed it. Everyone would hear it and smell it.
More than likely, many tried to ignore the lamb. After all, it was a condemned creature. That, however, would have been impossible.
That's what made Passover so different. Unlike the daily sacrifices, which most people didn't see, everyone lived with the Passover lamb for a few days. And everyone realized why this lamb would die when the hour came. "This lamb," a child would quickly come to understand, "will die because of my sin."
There must have been a nationwide flood of tears over such a loss.
It was quite an object lesson these Hebrews were taking home with them.
Jesus died while the entire nation of Israel was celebrating Passover. That's not a mistake or a coincidence. It was the most remarkable object lesson in all of history, and it shouldn't have surprised those who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaiah the prophet had included the idea in his writings about the Messiah. The Christ, he said, would be like a lamb led to slaughter. John the Baptizer had proclaimed it down at the river: "Behold the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sins of the world." (John 1:29)
After the resurrection, as the early Christians changed their perspective, Peter called Jesus "the Lamb" in his first letter, and the apostle Paul called Jesus the ultimate Passover lamb. In Revelation, John refers to Jesus as the Lamb an astonishing 28 times in 18 chapters!
Our main scripture passage this morning is a short one. It's from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, and the passage, in its context, has nothing to do with Easter. He is in the middle of writing a word of correction to his church in Corinth, a word of correction dealing with sexual sin, of all things. But in that word of correction, he says this: "For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Corinthians 5:7b).
That's a short Bible passage for an Easter message, and it's even out of context. But that's really the point. Paul made such an assumption that we would have a clear understanding of the lambs of Passover, he didn't even explain it. He just said it in passing: "Jesus was our Passover Lamb ... and he's been sacrificed."
If we could somehow reverse roles with Paul and write him a letter, perhaps we'd mention riding down the Interstate, or going to the grand-opening of a new shopping mall, or perhaps how we'd just watched some children play soccer. Without a lot of study on his part, Paul wouldn't have a clue what we were talking about. If he was to understand our letter, he'd have to understand our culture, our times, our lives.
We must do the same with the time and culture of the Bible, and this little statement is a profound example of that truth. Beyond understanding the culture of ancient Israel, we also must understand the truth of what the Bible says is true right now. Now, the Lamb of God sits at the triumphant right hand of God the Father. Jesus is powerful, majestic, and completely worthy of worship. The song of heaven is this, according to Revelation 5:13: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!"
What made the difference? What transformed this image of a lamb from a silent, defenseless, small lamb dying for the sins of the world, to a suddenly powerful, unstoppable, worthy-of-worship Lamb of God in heaven? The resurrection made the difference. It's Easter that made the difference!
Consider the truths the Bible tells us about this Lamb of God.
I. God communicated His love for us through Jesus' death
There were years of my life when I wondered why God would drop the Savior of the world off in such a forsaken, out-of-the-way sliver of a place like Israel. Why the Middle East? Why in such a time? Couldn't there have been a more efficient place and time?
In reality, it was the perfect place and time.
In that day, Israel was the physical crossroads of the world. Merchants and travelers had to use Israel - just a thin sliver of safe passage sandwiched between the sea and the desert - to reach major destinations in Asia, Africa, and Europe. After centuries of warfare, after the rise and fall of various world empires, the world was finally armed with a common language, safe roads, and frequent travel. For the only time in Israel's ancient history, the nation also had its own seaport, just built by Herod the Great. Israel was literally the most visible, accessible place in the entire world, at the very time the world was finally prepared for a fast dissemination of the most important story every told.
The message of that story? That God loved us. He had loved us so much, God had actually given His only son to die … and whoever believes that message shall have eternal life.
The people at the center of the story had been prepared for centuries on the significance of an innocent lamb dying for a sinful people. For more than 2,000 years, lambs had been dying as a sacrifice of sin. When Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, the question from the boy was, "Father, the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb?"
Lambs had been dying as a substitute for sin for centuries, just to prepare the way for the day when God would communicate His ultimate love for us, through the Lamb of God.
II. Through Jesus' death we understand the high cost of our sin
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8
It's the sin that is so painful. Had a family ever lived an entire year sin-free, they could have released their Passover lamb. But none could ever do such a thing. No one could today. The Lamb had to die.
But the price of sin is so high. It's so personal. It's the feeling of millions who exited the showing of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ understanding the reason such suffering took place was because of their sin.
It was my fault.
Jesus was convicted by a Roman ruler, and carried away by a mob intent on bloodshed. But the reason Jesus died, exactly where he died, and exactly when he died was to pay for our sin.
III. The resurrection of Jesus makes the ultimate difference in life
There's a sense that the rules all changed with the resurrection. Never again would a lamb die for the sins of people. The Lamb of God died, and it was truly, forever finished.
The tomb was empty on Sunday morning. God the Father loved the Son so much, that not one second of morning sunlight would be wasted. When daylight came, the earth shook, the stone moved away from the entrance, sleepy soldiers fell down as if they were dead, and angels waited for the first of the believers to come and see the difference a resurrection would make.
It would make a difference of joy. Mary's tears of heartbreak turned to speechless celebration because of the resurrection. Each one of the disciples was transformed, because of the resurrection. Thousands began to believe, and then millions, because of the resurrection. In time, over the last 2,000 years, entire governments, cultures, and educational processes have been changed, because of the resurrection.
Ironically, a war raked over Jerusalem just 40 years after the resurrection, and from that day until now, Passover lambs haven't been sacrificed. Could it be that God was sending another message to the world, that since the Lamb of God had died for sin, there was no need for further loss of life?
Because of the resurrection, we can have eternal life. We can have abundant life. We can have a life free from the bondage of sin. Remember the passage from Corinthians, when Paul quickly referred to Jesus as our Passover Lamb? The context of that passage was a call to a major change of behavior because of the resurrection. Because of the resurrection, Paul taught, Christians needed to walk away from sexual sin!
The resurrection makes a difference in every aspect of our lives ... if we choose to let it make a difference.
Henri Barbusse tells of a conversation overheard in a dugout full of wounded men during the First World War. One of the men had been terribly wounded, and he knew he has only moments to live. He had a friend with him, one who had already seen a bad start to a bad life. He'd made wrong decisions. He'd already served time in prison. In fact, he was wanted, back home, by the police again. The wounded man, the dying man, pulls the wanted man down, close to his face. He takes his dog tag, his ID chain, and presses it in the hand of his buddy. "Listen, Dominic, you've led a bad life," he said. "Everywhere you are wanted by the police. But there are no convictions against me. My name is clear, so, here, take my dog tag, take my wallet, take my papers, my identity, my good name, my life and quickly, hand me your papers that I may carry all your crimes away with me in death."
That is the same offer the Living Christ makes to us through his saving death on the cross - and his life-changing resurrection.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, still offers to take your sins to the cross with him. And because of the resurrection, you can take his good name ... Christ ... you can be a Christian ... and live in freedom.