I had a friend on Facebook post one of those wonderfully sentimental sayings on his news feed. The saying read, “Nothing in nature lives for itself. Rivers don’t drink their own water. Trees don’t eat their own fruit. The sun doesn’t shine for itself. Flowers don’t spread fragrance for themselves. Living for others is the rule of nature.” It kind of brings a tear to your eye doesn’t it. And it would be wonderful...if it were only true.
I was not necessarily in the most charitable of moods when I read the post, so I responded, “Nice sentiment. Tear invoking. But hardly reality. Rivers aren't alive. Trees produce fruit to propagate their species. The sun isn't living. Flowers produce fragrance to attract bees and other insects so that they can be pollinated and the species will survive. Real world observation has shown us that nature is survival of the fittest; fight or flight; dog eat dog. Happy Wednesday!!”
Personally, I get frustrated by those who believe nature works in perfect harmony; where everything balances out; where everything works together. Nature is cruel and nasty at times. In the midst of the beauty and grandeur, there is a constant battle of survival. We, as humans tend to forget this amidst the safety and security of what we call civilization. We are mostly protected and insulated from the law of fang and claw. Think about that saying that I began this story with, and then reconcile it with this next story, which is an unequivocally true observation that has happened many times.
Many years ago, I was sitting in a deer stand hunting. As I sat there, a covey of quail came out to eat corn. They were playfully hopping around, minding their own business, filling their craws, when a hawk swooped down out of nowhere and sank its talons into one of the quail. There was a loud squeal that was suddenly silenced, an explosion of feathers, and then the hawk rising into the sky holding onto a dead quail. Living for others is the rule of nature? What nature are you looking at?
Mankind evolved in this kind of environment. Our roots are deep within this nature, and because of it, we are literally programed to respond to threat. Our bodies undergo physiological changes whenever we feel threatened. A burst of adrenaline surges through our system and it prepares us for a very particular response: fight or flight. Perhaps you remember learning about this in high school or college. This reaction isn’t governed by thinking. It’s instinctual. Whenever we perceive a threat, we automatically gear up for fight or flight, and depending upon the person, you will actually see fight and flight responses to the same situation. We see this happening in our Gospel lesson this morning from the 14th chapter of the book of Mark.
This segment begins right after Jesus has engaged in hours of prayer facing the knowledge that He will experience God’s wrath on our behalf. He has come out of that time of prayer with a steadfast resolve to give His life in exchange for our own. He is steadfast that in order to save the world, He must be separated from the things that have sustained Him for all eternity. He has found His disciples sleeping, and He has thrown down the gauntlet, “Enough, get up, my betrayer is at hand.”
And indeed, Jesus’ betrayer is at hand. Judas is leading a militant group of people who have come to arrest Jesus. This group is from the chief priests, scribes and the elders. William Lane comments about this group by saying the following, “That the Jewish authorities alone were responsible for the measures taken against Jesus is corroborated by the detail that he was taken directly to the house of the high priest. In addition to the Temple police, who were Levites, the Sanhedrin had at its disposal auxiliary police or servants of the court who were assigned the task of maintaining public order beyond the Temple precincts. They were authorized to make arrests, lead accused persons to the court, guard prisoners and carry out sentences imposed by the court. The arresting party in Gethsemane must have consisted of armed court attendants of this kind.”
Again, it is important to point out that it is the religious authorities who are pushing the arrest of Jesus. Jesus is very popular with everyday folks, but it is those in power and authority who do not like Him; who want to get rid of Him. He has exposed them for the frauds they are, and so because Jesus is a threat, fight or flight kicks in. They have power. They choose to fight, and Judas would lead them to their prey.
44Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ 45So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him.”
This act is putrid. It’s horrible. Why would I say this? Remember the term “Rabbi” during this time was a title of profound respect. It was a title of profound honor. Kissing is another sign of respect and honor. The Greek word for the kind of kiss Judas gives is a kiss of passion and adoration. This act becomes an act of mockery. It becomes an act of show. Passionately adoring Jesus and giving Him a title of great respect, Judas betrays Him. It’s essentially saying, “I love you,” while driving a dagger deep into one’s back. It. Is. Ugly.
And the crowd seizes Jesus.
Not surprisingly, we see the fight or flight response kick in.
First comes those who are willing to fight. Mark records, “47But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” Mark gives us the bare minimum about this event. He records the activity, but nothing else. The other Gospels flesh this out and tell us this disciple is Peter. They also tell us that Jesus decries the action by first saying, “Put your sword away because those who live by the sword are destined to die by the sword,” and then secondly by healing the man whose ear was cut off. The fight response isn’t appropriate.
Jesus then addresses the crowd. “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? 49Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” Jesus here is fully in control of Himself. Jesus is not fighting. He is not fleeing. He is able to assess the situation calmly. He is able to see it for what it is. He knows their intentions. He knows what is about to befall Him. And He faces it head on. Without fear. Without anxiety, and with a tone of mockery toward His assailants. He shames them by His statement. “If you tried this in public, you’d never get away with it. You had your opportunities to handle this in the light of day, but you choose the dark of night. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”
And now, we have the flight part of human nature kicking in. The disciples flee, and so does a neoniskus. That is the term used for a young man who is following Jesus. This incident is really intriguing, and I think it important. You will have to wait a few weeks to see exactly why, but for the time being, let’s flesh this incident out. A young man, or neoniskus, is following along. The word here is significant. Again to quote William Lane, “Of greater importance is the fact that in the LXX, the Jewish Apocrypha and Josephus, the term used by Mark designates young men who are exceptionally strong and valiant, or faithful and wise.” This is a strong, valiant, faithful and wise young man. And he is also wealthy. How do we know this? To quote William Liefield, “Ordinarily men wore an undergarment called a chiton. This young man had only a sindon, an outer garment. Usually, this garment was made of wool. His, however, was linen, an expensive material worn only by the rich.”
What an interesting bit of thought thrown our way by Mark. A young man who has all the marks of bravery and civilization is stripped bare of everything. His wealth fails him at the time of crisis. His strength fails him. His youth fails him. His wisdom fails him. Nothing is left. Nothing. He is naked.
There is only one left standing in this scene. There is only one who is not affected by fight or flight. There is only one who stands firm in resolve and understanding. There is only one who assesses and faces the danger. Jesus.
Oh how wonderful it would be for me to stop right here and tell you, “Be like Jesus.” How wonderful it would be for me to say, “Jesus is our example. If He can do it, you can too. Stop worrying. Stop letting threats cause you to fight or flee.” Be like Jesus and calmly assess the situation. That is the equivalent of me standing up here and saying, “Reprogram your brain. Make your brain think differently. Change your humanity and transform yourself.” There are many who say that we can do this. The book shelves in book stores are full of self-help books. There are more than a few books that Amazon.com would love to sell you to help you do just this.
Amazingly enough, despite all the books that have been written; despite all the insights of psychology and medicine; fight or flight still reigns. Fight or flight dominates our discussions and our actions. Our adrenaline seems to be in a constant state of arousal these days. From bathrooms to politics to terrorism, threats abound. And we are anything but calm. We ready ourselves to fight or to flee. How can we do anything different?
The answer to this problem is not in self-help books. It’s about realizing what Jesus has already accomplished. Jesus stands with utter resolve because He knows He is going to become the difference maker. Jesus knows that He is going to make things right. Jesus knows that He will face abandonment from God. Jesus knows He is going to face hell. Jesus knows He is going to face the worst thing possible so that we do not have to. Jesus is going to pour Himself out for you and for me because He loves us.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.
There are two ways in which this love reprograms our brains. The first is that it removes and substantially lessens any threat we feel. The reason fight or flight kicks in is because we feel threatened. We feel like we will be harmed. Through Jesus, we have nothing to fear. I know that’s tough to enact, but think about it for a moment. Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God and our sinfulness. Because of Jesus we do not have to fear what will happen to us after we die. We know that a place is prepared for us. This offers great comfort in facing death.
But there is more because there is also the resurrection. The resurrection is the promise that all that is evil will be unmade. All that is dark will turn to light. All that is bad will be transformed into good. From death will spring forth life. Will bad things continue to happen? Sure. Will we face times of trial and tribulation? Absolutely. But we know that the end of the story will be rewritten. We know that should evil win a battle, God will win the war. Placing our trust in Him will lead us to have much less worry and fear.
Secondly, we will be filled with Christ’s sacrificial love. He will pour His Spirit into us. Why does this matter? Love, true, sacrificial love will reprogram your brain. Love, real, sacrificial love will lead you to walk through the fires of hell. Love, real, sacrificial love will make you act in a way you would normally never, ever act. Think about someone you love dearly. What wouldn’t you do for them? What wouldn’t you face for them? Would you gladly give your life for them? Would you go out of your way to please them? Would you set aside your fears, your wants, and your desires to honor them?
Of course you would. When you are motivated by this kind of love, you change deeply, and when you come to the understanding of what Jesus has done for you; when you come to the understanding that Jesus died for you when you least deserved it. When you come to the understanding that Jesus stood when you would fight or flee, your heart begins to change. Your brain begins to be reprogrammed. Your actions begin to be governed by something totally and completely different because whatever threat arises, you are no longer motivated by fear, you are motivated by love; by thankfulness; by a desire to fulfill the will of God. By a desire to do the things God would have you do instead of what nature would have you do.
You will not change your human nature. You cannot reprogram yourself. Only Christ can do that. Only He can reach down into the depths of your heart and change you. Only through His love can He convince you to stand when you would rather run or fight. And the good news this morning is: He has already acted to bring that change about. He has already done great things to transform your heart. He has already died for you. He has already been raised from the dead. He has already done all these things for you. Amen.