Fear & the Fixed Game of Following Jesus

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #2, 3/19/2011
Text: Mark 14:32-42

One of my favorite books is Where the Wild Things Are. How many of you read that book when you were little? I remember my dad telling me after reading it that if I had scary monsters in my dreams, I should ask them to play with me and it really worked. Sometimes fears have simple solutions, but that isn’t always true. So what are you afraid of? How many people are afraid of monsters? How many people are afraid of the dark? How many of you are afraid of someone breaking into your home and hurting you or your family? Who’s afraid of making a fool of yourself? What about going to the doctor? How many of you are afraid of conflict?

One thing that every type of fear has in common is the dread of facing our lack of control. I’m afraid of burglars because I can’t control what they’ll do. If I bought a gun, I wouldn’t be afraid of burglars, but then my fear would shift to the fact that I can’t control what my sons might do with the gun. These past couple of months, I’ve had a pain in my stomach that’s made it hard to sleep. I was afraid to go to the doctor for a long time because I didn’t want to find out that something was growing inside of me. It was easier to pretend that I had the situation under control. Well I finally went this week and got a CT scan which came back clear. So I went to the store and got some heartburn medicine and I think that may have been the problem all along. So how many of y’all have a man in your life who would rather suffer quietly than admit that he’s not in control of a situation? I’m guilty.

Now there’s a way that this dread of our lack of control at the root of every fear is the basic hurdle we have to overcome to be ready to spend eternity with God. The default position that we start out with as humans is to think that the world revolves around us. All toddlers have to go through the traumatizing experience of learning that Mommy is not just a milk-cow and snuggle-mountain created for their convenience. My son Isaiah stopped nursing a year ago but he’s still fighting hard against the notion that his mommy exists for any purpose other than his needs.

To some degree, everyone graduates from the complete self-centeredness of a baby. But not entirely. As we grow, the form of our self-centeredness changes; it becomes the delusion of self-sufficiency. We no longer think that everyone else in the world exists to make us happy, but we find it important to believe that we are the masters of our own destinies. I may not be the center of attention for the whole universe, but there are things that are mine because I earned them and inside my castle, I am God. In this delusion, we try to deny that anything can happen to us beyond our control. We can keep up this front of denial as long as life plays along and does nothing to shatter it. But ultimately, nobody can avoid the absolute loss of control that is death and there is no ruder awakening than to spend a lifetime building a castle of self-sufficiency only to see it crumble to pieces at the very end.

What Jesus Christ has given us through His life, death, and resurrection is a safe way to let go of our delusions of self-sufficiency so that we can adjust to the reality that we’re not in control. Jesus makes it okay to admit that we don’t have our lives under control through renouncing control of His own life and even His own body to a horrible death on the cross. One aspect of Jesus’ journey to the cross is that it gives us a model for the right way to face fear.

So how does Jesus face fear? Is he calm about what he has to do? He says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” That doesn’t sound calm. The gospel of Luke is very graphic about his physical condition, saying that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He knows what His destiny is; He knows why He has to do it; and yet He asks His Father, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken away.” That sounds like fear to me. It sounds like Jesus really didn’t want to do what He had to do.

Of course somebody might try to be smart and say, “What’d he have to worry about? He’s the Son of God. Didn’t He know His Daddy was going to bring Him back?” The way one person put it was to say that Jesus was playing in a “fixed game,” where He knew what the final score was going to be before the game even got played. It’d be like Coach K pretending to be worried that Duke might not win the national championship when Kyrie Irving is back in the lineup. So is Jesus just playing along? Is He just acting? I know that some people can cry on cue, but I’ve never heard of anybody learning how to sweat bullets on cue. And just because Jesus trusted that His Father had Him covered didn’t mean that the cross wasn’t going to hurt.

Jesus could have pulled out of the situation. He had divine powers. He could have called down lightning or an army of angels or whatever He needed. But He didn’t, because despite the fact that He was afraid, He was absolutely committed to following His Father’s plan for saving humanity. And so at the end of His prayer, after He tests the waters to see if His Father will give Him an out, He says, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That little phrase encapsulates what it means to face our fear perfectly. Let’s practice saying that. Not my will, but Thy will be done. Remember how I said fear is about not being in control. Well facing our fear is about trusting the One who is in control and believing that whatever His will is, all will be well in the end.

The fact is that we’re playing in a “fixed game” ourselves. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the game – we’re going to lose some friends and gain other ones, we’ll have career successes and disappointments, our kids will make us proud and embarrass us, people we love are going to leave this life before we’re ready, and one day we will reach the finish line ourselves. But what we can trust is that God is going to win the game, and if we trust in His plan, then whatever crosses stand between us and the finish line of our lives, we will join our resurrected savior in glory.

God doesn’t expect us to pretend like we’re not afraid. We can and should admit it whenever we are afraid just like Jesus Himself did, but we should also trust that God’s plan will achieve the final victory and hold onto the promise of Romans 8:28 “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Now just to be clear, this promise is not some kind of underhanded hint that if we prove our love for God by putting lots of money in the offering plate or acting really passionate about the Bible, then God will stop bad and scary things from happening to us. But if we put our trust in God and hang onto the stubborn belief that He loves us through thick and thin, then He will help us find the good in the bad and scary things that do happen in the natural processes and human societies that constitute life.

The process of becoming a Christian disciple is learning how to really mean it when we say, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That’s hard to do! The first step is admitting that we are not in control. At first, it might be an act of discipline, but if we trust God enough to let Him transform our hearts, it will become an act of love. What we discover as we put our trust in God is that doing this makes life bearable as we face what we’re afraid of, whether it’s shame, loneliness, getting hurt, or getting sick. What makes it possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death that every single one of us will face no matter how lucky we’ve been so far is knowing not just in our mind but in our heart and soul that God is with us.

Now I’ve been places in my life where hearing a preacher say that would do nothing for me. Words and ideas are little comfort to people facing fear. But God does better than words. Through Jesus Christ, He has made a vine for us to grow on and those of us who trust in Him are the branches that He uses to touch other peoples’ lives and help them get onto the vine. God has made us into a body so that He can use us to care for all of His children, whether they know Him or not. Trusting God is not just a private relationship that has nothing to do with other people; we trust in God by becoming the body of Christ, through which God provides a safe place for people to bring their fears and receive His love. Jesus faced fear, so that we could face our fears together as one body who say in one voice, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

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