I’m the sort of person who feels uneasy if I am not in control of a situation. I think that’s why I suffer from aerophobia. If I was at the controls of the airplane, then I would probably feel safer. Although since I have no flight training, I wouldn’t recommend getting on the plane with me.
One of the things that is unsettling about our current situation is how out of control the virus seems to be in places like Italy and New York. We can do our little bit to bring control in our lives, by quarantining and social distancing, but there’s still the uneasy thought that our invisible enemy could strike at any moment.
But there’s something even more frightening than any of that. There is one supreme way to lose all control and have no ability whatsoever to regain it – by coming under the power of the greatest enemy of all, death. That’s what Jesus faced the prospect of in the garden of Gethsemane. Up until this point he has had a degree of control in his life. He could choose whether to do the things his father asked him to do, all of which led to the point where the religious authorities were ready to arrest him, try him and deliver him to the Romans to be crucified. He had power to avoid it all, and in our reading today he is in the garden of Gethsemane wrestling with fully trusting God and his plan versus clinging onto a semblance of control. In his prayer he asked God to remove the cup from him (Luke 22:42). That opportunity to escape the cross, along with the power of prayer and the strengthening of the angel (v.43) meant things still would have felt like they were under control. But shortly all of that would be gone. He would be arrested, tried and nailed to a cross. Even then, however, he could have called on twelve legions of angels to take him down from the cross. But when the soldier pierced his side to confirm that he was dead that was the end.
What Jesus went through is the ultimate expression of faith and trust in God. When you’re dead there is nothing you can do. You are at the complete mercy of a God and his willingness to raise you from the dead. That’s why the doctrines of the Trinity and immortality of the soul remove any element of faith from the crucifixion. If Jesus lived on in some way, then he still had control of the situation. But our Lord’s example for us is about utter surrender to God. And that’s a them that runs throughout our reading in Luke 22.
For instance, in the same breath as asking for the cup to be removed from him Jesus said, “nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (v.42). Giving up control of our lives to God is the true mark of faith. But it’s also a way to lift the weight off our shoulders when we realize, despite what our fleshly impulses want to tell us, that God being in control is a good thing. It’s the principle underlining the new covenant, which Jesus memorialized in the upper room when he said, “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (v.20). The physical act of pouring out wine from the cup is symbolic of the way Jesus gave over complete control to his father by submitting to his will. When you look at the language of the new covenant you see the principle of God taking control, come out very strongly. Hebrews 8, which contrasts the new covenant with the old, in quoting Jeremiah 31 uses the phrase “I will” continually – “I will establish a new covenant… I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my laws into their minds… I will be their God… I will be merciful toward their iniquities… I will remember their sins no more” (v.8-12). Contrast that with the old covenant, which is about our ability, most famously in the ten commandments like “you shall not kill” and “you shall not steal”. The new covenant is about God’s ability to work in our lives and forgive our sins. When we surrender to God, submit to his will, and let go of our natural inclination to want to be in control, we are grasping hold of the power of God to save us out of every situation, even death.
Even the token of the new covenant in the Old Testament taught the same principle. When you look at the language outlining the new covenant in Jeremiah 30-32 you will see it’s based on the covenant God made with Abraham. We know what the token of that covenant was – circumcision – the cutting off of the flesh. One of the most dramatic ways in which the meaning of circumcision was demonstrated was when Joshua led the children of Israel into the land. They had not practiced the rite during their wilderness wandering, so Joshua had all the males circumcised. That’s the very first thing they did when they entered Canaanite territory. How absurd is that from a human point of view! For a while now every fighting man was incapacitated, and the children of Israel were at the mercy of the enemy. They had to fully rely on God, which again is the mark of true faith.
When Jesus faced his greatest enemy, death on the cross, he put himself firmly into the hands of God. The people in Joshua’s day did the same. The enemies we face today, whether it’s the pandemic, economic meltdown, or whatever other giants we face in our lives, might be too strong for us but they are not too strong for God. His promise is that he will look after us, he will direct our steps, he will save us from our enemies. Our part is to believe it, really believe it, to the point that we stop wrestling for control and say “nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done”.
Simi Hills, CA