“Jesus thrown everything off balance.”
So says Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It’s as true as the globe tilts and spins on its axis. To understand why, you need to hear, really hear, the Christmas story. It’s an important story to tell. And it needs to be told well because it is at the same time simple and intricate, endearing and profound, joyful and sober. Behold The Lamb of God, by Andrew Peterson and his friends, is a Christmas record that tells the story well.
You will not find renditions of Christmas classics here. What you’ll get instead is the telling of a story that takes an epic sweep across the whole of redemptive history. Reaching all the way back to Genesis, Behold the Lamb of God takes us through the unfolding of God’s plan to reconcile His people to Himself.
The arch of the story is of a grand magnitude. But what makes this album so effective is that it also faithfully and elegantly captures snapshots of the events that transpired that night in Bethlehem.
It’s the story of patriarchs, prophets, priests, kings and kingdoms, but it’s also the story of a young girl with a baby in her belly, and a brave yet frightened husband, and a paranoid tetrarch and shepherds and wise men. It’s the story of the mystery of our salvation found in the incarnation, the taking on of flesh and blood by the second person of the Blessed Trinity.
Christmas is a time for celebration. But it’s the kind of celebration that is part exultation, part gasp. We should be as blissfully drunk on the intoxicating good fortune that’s come our way as we should be speechless at the “grotesque” reality that the incarnation occurred so that the body of this tiny babe might be offered up for you and for me. Andrew contends this is as much an Easter meditation as it is a Christmas one—which makes it all that much more a truly excellent Christmas record.
Track 2, “Passover Us:” Only Andrew Peterson can deliver a line like “Denial ain’t just a river, you know,” without making us roll our eyes. That line comes in “Passover Us.” This song is a gasp—the people of God, enslaved to Pharaoh, praying as they apply the blood of the lamb to the doorposts of their homes, “Lord, let your judgment pass over us. Lord, let your love hover near. Don’t let your sweet mercy pass over us. Let this blood cover over us here.” Already Behold the Lamb is presenting Jesus as the “long awaited Messiah.” There’s an urgency to this song… a desperation that cries out for a more permanent and more perfect sacrifice.
Track 3, “So Long, Moses,” is to me what “The Color Green “was on Rich Mullin’s Liturgy, Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band. That is about as high a compliment as I can offer— what I consider the best song on the best recording by a great artist. And I say that as a fan of Andrew’s entire catalog. I link these songs because until I heard “The Color Green” I regarded Rich as a great songwriter, but that song let us all know he was more than that. He could actually draw us deep into this world where “the streams are all swollen with winter, winter unfrozen and free to run away now…” I couldn’t listen passively to that song. I had to enter in and feel its weight.
(I realize I may be making such a subjective reference here that only I can appreciate it. But if Ron Block is right, there are enough absolutes to the craft of songwriting that maybe Rich Mullins fans will know what I mean.)
Anyway, “So Long, Moses” tells of the people of God eagerly waiting their King to come, imagining what He’ll be like. They were looking for a King like David, and David was such a hero in their minds that they figured they’d be able to tell the Messiah by the fact that he would be more “David” than David was. But when the Messiah comes, Isaiah says, “He will bear no beauty or glory. Rejected, despised, a man of such sorrows we’ll cover our eyes. He’ll take up our sickness and carry our tears. For His people He will be pierced. He’ll be crushed for our evils, our punishment feel. By His wounds we will be healed. From you, O Bethlehem, small among Judah, a ruler will come, ancient and strong.” I don’t know how Andrew came up with this song, but its bigger than him. That much I do know.
Track 6, “Matthew’s Begats,” is an unbelievable achievement. It is Matthew’s Genealogy put to song. I once preached on this text, and rather than reading it, we played this song over the house system. I would not have done that if the song skipped generations or played around with the text too much. It doesn’t. And Ron Block’s banjo makes all the difference. You just have to hear it to appreciate it. And the genealogy is so important to the story, too. It reminds us that these events took place in real time and space.
Track 8, “Labor of Love,” is a powerful portrait of Jesus’ birth; of Mary and Joseph on the cold, hard stone and straw. Jill Phillips takes us there so beautifully. Man, she’s got a gift. There I was driving down the highway minding my own business, and then this song came along and all the sudden I had tears to deal with. Thank you Jill.
Track 11, “Behold the Lamb of God “ (and the reprise that ties in at the end) is worshipful, rich, and beautifully layered. As the song builds, it plays like a montage of everything that’s played before it, capturing in bits and pieces these images Andrew and friends have presented along the way.
There are no throw away songs on this record. It holds together, faithful to its objective to tell the “True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.” This disc is a great gift to give, and an excellent way to prepare yourself and your family for Christmas. May your celebration of Christmas be marked by your worship of Jesus. And if you could use assistance pursuing that end, this record is a very helpful guide.
Here’s the track listing and the featured vocalists:
1. Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come (Andrew Peterson)
2. Passover Us (AP)
3. So Long, Moses (AP)
4. Deliver Us (Derek Webb)
5. O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Instrumental)
6. Matthew’s Begats (AP)
7. It Came to Pass (AP)
8. Labor of Love (Jill Phillips)
9. The Holly and the Ivy (Instrumental)
10. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (AP)
11. Behold the Lamb of God (Composed by AP and Laura Story)
12. The Theme Of My Song/Reprise (Everyone)
Andrew sells this disc individually and in bundles at a discount on his website.
That’s my review of the album. What follows here is a meditation I’ve written on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. And in the interest of giving credit away, my inspiration to write it came from listening to Behold the Lamb of God many, many times.
Isaiah 53:1-6, 12 “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all… Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
God told Isaiah, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 53:8) Higher? As the Heavens are higher than the earth? Oh, the paradox of salvation! What looks backward to us, He calls “higher.”
God’s people look to the east, watching for their King to arrive in majesty. But God quietly sends his angel to a poor teenage girl in the out of the way town of Nazareth.
God’s people expect His Messiah to be known by all upon His arrival, but God brings His arrival under cover of darkness into the shelter of a cave doubling, this night, as stable and maternity ward.
God’s people anticipate strength, and are delivered a fragile baby. They seek inspiration they can follow, and are given one who would be countless times rejected. They long for their suffering and oppression to end with His coming. And yet He came to suffer, afflicted. They looked for impenetrable strength in His person, and yet He would bear the wounds of us all.
To all this, God tells us His way is higher than ours. His plan is to ours what Heaven is to earth. We have our plans. God has His plan. His is higher.
We did not know what we needed. When we thought we needed a figurehead, God gave us a sacrificial lamb. When we thought we needed inspiration, God gave us a man of sorrows. When we thought we needed strength to overcome persecution, God gave us One who would become subject to it, even unto death.
Ah, but when we thought we were healthy, He took up our infirmities. When we thought we were righteous, our iniquity was laid upon Him. When we thought our own righteousness would save us, by His wounds we were healed. When we thought we were safely “in the fold,” never transgressing God, He was counted among the transgressors. He bore the sins of many. He makes intersession for the transgressors.
His thoughts are not our thoughts. This is more than a comparison of intellect. His thoughts transcend time and space—and His eye pierces through all the veils, known and unknown, we throw up around our hearts.
His ways are not our ways. This is more than a comparison of ethics. His righteousness is complete and unlimited—and His holiness shines through all the blindness, intentional and accidental, we fumble around in as we walk.
His thoughts conceive what we need—this man of sorrows on whom our iniquity would be laid. His ways bring about what we need—a tender shoot with no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him.
And yet by the score we are attracted, but by what? Our way is to be drawn to what is beautiful, majestic, strong.
But we are none of these things until we are made these things.
Our thought is to be saved through changing our minds. But “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him…” (1 Cor 2:9) What has God prepared? Who is this tender shoot from the stump of Jesse? And who are we that He should come?
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).