Saturday, April 11, 2009

the shepherd's sacrifice

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The underlying assumption behind Jesus’ words is that the sheep have gone astray. We are those sheep. While Good Friday is about the work that God accomplished through the death and suffering of Jesus Christ on the hard wood of a Roman cross, a proper understanding of Jesus’ death does not begin with God, but with us. We cannot speak of healing until we understand that we are sick. We cannot speak of salvation until we understand that we are lost. We cannot speak of resurrection until we understand that, left to ourselves, we are dead. We all are like sheep that have gone astray.

Jesus teaches that the first and great commandment is to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our mind, and that the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. God’s command to love means that we put God first, others next, and ourselves last. Somehow, we have managed to reverse God’s life-giving order. We put ourselves first, our neighbors next, and God somewhere in the background. The very act of putting ourselves first makes us estranged sheep. We are self-centered sheep inclined to talk, but not to listen; inclined to argue, but not to submit; inclined to criticize, but not to love.

“We all like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” To acknowledge that we have gone astray is the first step out of denial and into truth; out of darkness and into light; out of death and into life. As 1 John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Perhaps even more poignant are John’s words that “if we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar.” In other words, the beginning of all truth, of all wisdom, and of all sanity begins with a clear acknowledgment that we have turned away from God. Our natural inclination is not to worship God, but ourselves, and because of this we find that we are wayward people in the midst of a wayward world. The evidence of our wayward ways surrounds us. Some of this evidence is quite obvious – war, global hunger, and the abuse of creation. Most of the evidence is more subtle. For example, since promises are inadequate, we need contracts. Since doors are inadequate, we need locks. Since laws are inadequate, we need police. Such is our world of estranged sheep.

To say that we have gone astray is to confess that we are sinners, and in doing so we condemn not our society but ourselves. Even more, to speak of ourselves as sinners is not to merely say that we sin; although that is certainly true. To speak of ourselves as sinners is to speak about our character. In other words, our very nature is prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, prone to go astray; our insides have become corrupted. Our hearts, that central place within us that governs our lives, have become defiled. This message naturally angers us for such a claim insults our pride. Yet, the reality of our defiled hearts stems from the teachings of Jesus himself and is in fact aimed at shattering the very pride offended by this truth. “For from within,” Jesus says, “out of the heart of a person, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things,” Jesus continues, “come from within, and they defile a person.” In other words, we don’t sin in spite of who we are. We sin because of who we are. We are sheep who have gone astray.

If we are to understand the meaning of the cross, we must first acknowledge that that we have gone astray. If we are to understand why the Good Shepherd chose to die, we must first acknowledge that we are estranged sheep. If we are to understand Jesus’ words, “it is finished,” we must first acknowledge where we all begin. In the history of humanity no person deserved to die on that cross and experience the penalty of humanity’s sin less than Jesus of Nazareth; and yet, no one but him could offer a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Jesus’ death was no accident, a mere tragedy that befell him; no, Jesus died for us. Jesus’ death was the work of God on our behalf – an intentional mission undertaken for people in need by the only person competent to meet that need. Jesus’ competence lies in the fullness of his divinity and love. Our need lies in our sin. “We all like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.”

“And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

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