Saturday, April 28, 2012

Worth dying for

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 

Did you know that there are 1 million beef cows and 100,000 dairy cows in Florida?  Did you know Florida ranks 11th in the nation in the number of cattle? Along with the cattle, Florida’s livestock inventory includes 26 million poultry, 500,000 horses, 100,000 swine, 30,000 goats, 10,000 sheep, and millions of companion animals. 
With only 10,000 sheep in Florida, it’s no wonder we don’t know much about them. In our Bible study conversation we decided that sheep are not like large puppies. Let me say a few things about sheep.
They will follow a leader, either another sheep or a human. They would just as soon knock you over as go around you. They will butt each other in dominance battles, but otherwise are pretty defenseless. They will eat the grass down to the roots, and not move to a new field, and as a result get very sick. They are obstinate, wanting to go their own way, do their own thing. Because of the nature of sheep, shepherds need to stay with them, to keep them safe, to make sure they have fresh grass, and don’t wander off the right path.
Does that sound like us humans? We like to make our own decisions; we like to think God doesn’t know what we are doing; we like to resist God’s guidance; we don’t like to change, even though it’s better for us; we like to go our own way, even though we have been warned it could be dangerous, physically and spiritually. Don’t we need a Good Shepherd?
In Jesus’ time, sheep were herded at night into a fenced area called a sheep-fold. The fence was made of stones or wood gathered nearby. There was no gate on the sheep-fold. Instead, once the sheep were all inside, the shepherd sat or lay in the doorway to keep the sheep in and stray animals out, especially wolves. So the shepherd was literally the gate to the sheep-fold. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is the gate to God’s sheepfold, in order to keep us safe and gathered together as God’s flock.
The shepherd put his life in danger, whether the sheep were in the open or in the sheepfold, because wolves were a frequent predator. It was the shepherd’s job to keep the wolves away from the sheep, usually by throwing rocks or sticks at the wolf. If the shepherd was a hired hand, it made a lot of sense to let the wolf have the sheep and keep himself safe by running away. If the shepherd owned the sheep, he had much more invested in saving the sheep. That was his family’s livelihood. He would be willing to give his life to save his sheep.
Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is willing to give his life to keep us safe. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has already given his life for us, and he would give it again and again, if it would help.
I’d like to suggest another image of Jesus for you using modern situations. How many of you put on the brakes when you see a squirrel or a bird in the road ahead of you? ... How many of you speed up and try to hit the squirrel? J ... How many of you would jump in front of a bus to push your child or grandchild out of the way, even though you would get hurt or killed by doing so? Jesus has jumped in front of the bus for us.
In the Bible, and in the history of the church, there are many explanations for why Jesus had to die. The one thing they all have in common is that Jesus had to die. One prevalent theology is that Jesus’ death was the ransom God paid to Satan to release us sinners from Satan’s grasp.
Another prevalent theology says that Jesus’ death is necessary so that God could forgive sins. Sins were serious problems, condemning us to death. Once God called a sin a sin, God could not change the rules and forgive the sin. Jesus’ death made it possible for God to forgive us. Jesus’ death was the scapegoat taking away the sin to make it possible for us to be forgiven and made right again in God’s eyes.
However, especially in John’s gospel, the purpose for Jesus’ life, ministry, and death is not to make it possible for God to forgive us. God has always forgiven us. In this theology, the purpose for Jesus’ presence on earth is to reveal God’s true heart to us. Jesus makes it clear how much God loves us, how much God wants a relationship with us, and how ready God is to forgive us.
I guess we could say that John makes it clear that God is willing to let Jesus run into the street in front of the bus, with no one to save him, so that no one else would ever get run over by the bus. Or, we could say that Jesus is willing to jump in front of the bus in order to save us from being run over, even though it means Jesus would die in the act of saving us.
John’s gospel makes it clear that God, in Jesus, wants us to know we are worth dying for. In spite of our sheep-ness, our tendency to stray, to follow our own path, to run in front of busses, to do things that put our lives and our relationship with God at risk – in spite of all that, we are worth dying for. Jesus would die to help us know the extent of God’s love.
Jesus would die to bring healing to any broken heart, any damaged spirit, so the person could know the extent of God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus would die to help a drug addict quit his addiction. Jesus would die to help a career criminal stop committing crimes. Jesus would die to help a child or spouse abuser or bully stop beating their victims.
Jesus would also die to help a believer become a disciple, become a servant willing to give their life in praise of God. Jesus would die to help us know we – all of us – are worth dying for.
Let’s make this even more personal. YOU are worth dying for. That’s something we all need to hear, isn’t it? I’d like you to turn to a neighbor and say this to each other: “You are worth dying for.” .... Now say it to yourself. “I am worth dying for.” ...
Jesus, our Good Shepherd, says that you and I are all his sheep, and we are all worth dying for. I don’t know about you, but I need to hear that regularly. I need to hear that I am one of Jesus’ sheep and that I am worth dying for. And, whether I like it or not, I need to hear that others, too, are Jesus’ sheep, and they, too, are worth dying for. How about you? Do you need to hear that you are worth dying for?
And, do you know someone who is hanging out near the front of the bus? Do you know someone who thinks they are not worthy of God’s love, God’s forgiveness? Why don’t you tell them they really are one of Jesus’ sheep and they are worthy of Jesus’ life, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ forgiveness, Jesus’ death? Why don’t you tell them that they, too, are worth dying for? Hearing that might just push them out from in front of the bus, into the sheepfold, and into Jesus’ flock.
Please pray with me. Jesus, we can’t imagine how hard it was for you to die for us. But we’re glad you did. Help us to accept your extreme love for us, and to acknowledge for ourselves, and for those we know, that we are all worthy of your death, worthy of your love, and worthy of your forgiveness. Amen