Post by Brendan Dry, Ministry Intern
The night was silent, warm. The soft breeze bristled the leaves on fig and olive trees, miles from the Bethlehem stable where God crept into our world as an unremarkable human child. Jesus knelt, perhaps shifting his weight to alleviate the discomfort of the rough turf against his knees–he’d been there for hours. He chose solitude for this moment. His breath quivered. Is there any other way?
Even amidst the songs and Scriptures that guide us to the scene in the stable, I can’t help but want to skip forward to the garden. The Advent season builds to the celebration of Jesus’ miraculous birth; but December, 2014 has served up reminders that death is always the end of the story. This past week, we watched footage of death claiming Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk. It reminded us of photos we’d seen not long before of a lifeless Michael Brown splayed out across the asphalt in Ferguson, MO. In this season of birth, death has grabbed our attention.
Last week, a coworker of mine described difficult conversations she had with her seven year old son about how to live as a black boy in America. She wants him to feel confident and valued (“he’s God’s child, after all!”) But he must also learn to carry an accessory at all times: fear that a misperceived action could cost him his life. A child still wrapping his brain around riding a bicycle should not have to imagine his funeral. But circumstance foists the reality of death on every child at some point–just as we discover the joy of living, we face the fear of losing the life we love.
In becoming flesh and blood, Jesus too experienced fear of death acutely. He strained against fear in the garden, to the point of asking God to abort the mission:
For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying (Hebrews 2:14-15, NLT).
To overthrow the tyranny of death, Jesus chose to give up his life. Like us, he feared the darkness and mystery that ends each human story. Like us, His mind and body succumbed to death. His choice secured our liberation. His victory did not eliminate death; rather, it empowers us to be fearless in the face of it.
In response to the jury decision in the case of Eric Garner, Professor Christena Cleveland of Bethel College tweeted: “The church needs less Niebuhrs (privileged folks who talk about justice) and more Bonhoeffers (privileged folks who live & die for justice).” Bonhoeffer chose time and again to risk his literal death for the cause of advancing justice. It’s not hard to envision that he too wore his knees raw in communion with God. Like his Savior, Bonhoeffer overcame fear by offering up his life.
As far as I can tell, I’ve yet to risk my actual life for the sake of God’s Kingdom. By genetic chance, I don’t have to carry that constant fear that my life might be taken unjustly. The death I fear most as a 26 year old male in America is not a physical one; rather, it’s the constant choice to die to myself. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he startled his disciples with this teaching? Lose your life, and you will find it. Guard your life, and you will lose it. You’ll fight your survival instinct your whole life, but I have so much more for you if you would just loosen your grip and offer your life to me.
Someday, I may face a choice that costs me my life. Today though, I can choose to die to selfishness; die to indifference; to overcome the instinct to protect my life at any cost. We made the choice as a church to put comfort and complacency to death on Sunday as we walked our neighborhood publicly announcing God’s impending reconciliation. I’m working to celebrate the stable, the glimpse of God adorning flesh for the first time. But I’m striving to live alongside Jesus in the garden–gripped with fear, facing death, choosing freedom.
Join First Free during our 10am service of worship on Sunday, January 11, 2015, as we welcome Pastor Jonathan Brooks, of Canaan Community Church here in Chicago for what we’re calling “All Of Us Sunday” … a chance to seek God on the matter of racial reconciliation. Stay for the luncheon and discussion afterwards. More details coming soon…