This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Ripple Effect". See series.
In the summer of my 11th year of life, I learned the power and joy of surrender. It happened in Minnesota at the Edina community swimming pool high dive. For five summers I had watched—in admiration and terror—the big kids climb 35 steps into thin air, walk a long concrete diving board, and then jump into the cool water below. For a few agonizing seconds they disappeared in the deep end only to reemerge alive and whole, beaming with delight.
I had long avoided the high dive. I wouldn't even come close to the deep end. But when my buddies—and even some girls—started plunging off the high dive, I knew I had to save face. Being uncool was worse than plunging to my certain death.
On a humid day in July, with my stomach reeling and my knees wobbling, I climbed the 35 steps into thin air. As I walked out on the plank, everything within me said, You fool, turn around and climb back down. You can still live! But when I started to backpedal and looked over my shoulder, I saw the line of friends, older kids, and girls chuckling. I knew I must jump.
Creeping to the edge of the plank, I looked over the edge, and I finally let go and jumped. Down I plunged, hitting the water like a stone, sinking lower and lower into my watery grave. So this is how they die, I thought. Some people hit the water and never come back up. They get sucked through a grate at the bottom of the pool and turned into chlorine. But then—surprise! I came up again, and I was alive! I was wet and dazed but utterly alive! I was not only alive, but transformed, liberated, and renewed. I shook my head of wet hair and laughed. I had let go of everything and lived to tell about it. I was more alive than ever. I had tasted the joy of surrender.
In the Gospel of Mark, we see that surrender—letting go and trusting God with our lives—is central to our journey with Christ. We can't come to Christ without what I'll call the "Big Surrender." The Big Surrender involves dethroning ourselves and our smaller gods of control or money or fame or power or lust, and placing Jesus on the throne of our hearts. We confess Jesus as the one who saves us from our sin and guides us as Lord of our lives. But we can't continue to live with Christ without "Little Surrenders"—those daily decisions that proclaim, "Jesus, I choose to let go and trust you in this specific area of my life. I choose to surrender it, to let go." Both the Big Surrender and almost all Little Surrenders plunge us into a loss of control. That's why we cling to our "securities" and refuse to give them up. But surrender is the path of freedom, joy, delight, and impact. If you want to find real joy, if you want your life to have a ripple affect on others, then learn to let go and trust God.
How do we begin to tell God, "Here's my one and only life, God. Take it all"? In this passage Jesus doesn't demand and threaten us to surrender; he shows us how to surrender by demonstrating what a surrendered life looks like.
An un-surrendered life
Our story begins right after the disciple's have celebrated the first Lord's Supper. Jesus turns to his closest followers and makes a sober prediction: "You will all fall away." By using the strong Greek word for "fall away," Jesus essentially says: You will all stumble and fall flat on your faces.
Jesus wants his disciples to understand that they can't handle what's ahead by themselves. They must let go and seek God for help in the coming hours. Rather than listen to Jesus, Peter beats his chest with much bravado and trumpets, "Even if all fall away, Jesus, I will not." Jesus tries to warn Peter: "I tell you the truth, today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times." The "three times" hammers home to Peter how far he's capable of falling. Stubborn, self-willed, hard-headed Peter is offended by Jesus' suggestion and replies, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you."
Peter perfectly exemplifies an un-surrendered life. The un-surrendered person constantly says to God and others, "Don't worry: I can handle it. I will never fall flat on my face." Rather than taking responsibility for personal darkness and weakness, un-surrendered people constantly judge and compare themselves to others: "Even if all fall away, I will not." Here's a sobering truth: it's easy for us to stand in judgment over others—to wag a finger and say, "Why did he do that? Why did she handle it that way?" until we find ourselves in places of pressure and temptation, and we blow it. We sin, and our sin wounds ourselves and others.
Peter seems to swagger with an attitude of: What's to surrender? I've got it. In a few hours, un-surrendered Peter will face a battle that's way over his head—something that nothing in life could have prepared him for—and he will stumble and fall flat on his face. There's a better way to live than this. Jesus shows us this better way through his own willingness to surrender, and he empowers us to walk this path as well.
The way of surrender
Verse 32 reads, "They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, 'Sit here while I pray.'" Even Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, the One who existed since all eternity past in perfect and unbroken union of love and joy with the Father and the Spirit, now, as a human being, faces a great test. He is "deeply distressed" and "troubled." From the moment of his baptism on, Jesus was thrown into a great battle. Notice the difference between Jesus and Peter: when life starts to overwhelm them, Peter refuses to surrender, saying, "I've got it. I can handle it on my own." In contrast, Jesus, God the Son, surrenders to the Father and says, "I don't have it on my own. I need you. Father, help me."
This is simply astounding. If the Eternal Son of God lives to surrender and surrenders to live, doesn't that tell us something about reality? Surrender isn't some weird, ultra-religious, once-in-a-lifetime act; surrender is woven into the universe; surrender is woven into the person of God as a Trinity of Love. The Son surrenders to the Father. The Father seeks to honor the Son. The Spirit points back to both the Father and the Son. The Father and the Son send the Spirit as their representative.
For love, not fear
Do you see how surrender is woven into the very being of God and the fabric of the universe? This is crucial to see, because surrender can strike us as scary and weird. Imagine you've broken out of prison and you're on the run, panting and sweating, frantically hiding from the God of the universe, the Cosmic Sheriff, who comes with his handcuffs and bullhorn, shouting, "Okay, you're surrounded! Come out with your hands up, or I'll annihilate you!" So with our hands up, we come out of hiding. We hang our head in shame and fear or maybe even anger and defiance, but we don't have a better alternative. We surrender; we wave the white flag; we give up.
Is that what surrendering to God means? Absolutely not! Jesus' surrender is a response to love, not fear. Look carefully at verse 36 and how Jesus begins this prayer of surrender—our whole view and approach to surrender depends on these two words: Abba, Father. In those two words, Jesus will radically redefine the religious quest forever and for all peoples. God is not the Cosmic Sheriff hunting us down and forcing us to submit. Nor is God some vague force of goodness or beauty. God is our Abba, our Father. "Abba" is an Aramaic word that means "Daddy" or "Papa." It's an intensely personal and intimate way to address God—so intimate that most people of Jesus' day would be aghast to use such boldness and familiarity with the Almighty. Amazingly, the early church retained this word as a way for all who are in Christ to address God (see Romans 8:15).
True surrender is never just a response to fear; it's a response to love. Should we fear God? Yes, God is awesome and holy and just; we aren't. But real and lasting surrender is fueled by love. Jesus isn't afraid of his Father; he loves his father. The Father doesn't want to destroy the Son; the Father loves the Son. Everything in our spiritual lives flows out of this same love; it is the spring of Christian spirituality. How quickly we wander from that spring! We serve God and try to surrender, because we're afraid or driven by duty and rules and laws and shame. Brothers and sisters, let's help each other find our way back to the spring. Let's encourage one another and say, "Come to the spring where the Father and Son and Holy Spirit love each other."
The vulnerability of surrender
Jesus believes in his communion of love with the Father, but notice the next phrase in his simple prayer of surrender: "Take this cup from me." What was the cup and why did Jesus want to avoid it? It wasn't just the cup of his death and suffering. The cup was the full measure of our sin and its consequences. The Bible is very clear that when Jesus died, he died for us, for our sins. This is a wild concept. Imagine all our sins—our pride and hate and envy and lust and cruel words and our shallow insensitivity that ignores the pain of others (plus the really bad stuff that we'd rather not mention, like rape and murder and genocide)—all of this will be absorbed into Jesus when he goes to the cross, crashing on his utterly pure heart in wave after wave after wave. Now you know why he prays, "Take this cup from me." No human being could ever begin to imagine the horror and moral darkness that descended on Jesus when he became sin for us.
Surrender is a struggle—even for Jesus. It's part of a real relationship between God the Son and God the Father. Some people assume that surrendering requires a pious and quiet acceptance of our lot in life. I often talk with people who have been instructed by spiritual leaders to just sit down, shut up, and don't ask questions about their lives, as if their needs, desires, and thoughts didn't matter. Jesus doesn't approach the spiritual life that way. Rather, he clearly articulates what he wants: "Abba, Father…Take this cup away from me." In other words: God, please find a Plan B to save the world. Jesus asks directly, clearly, and boldly for what he needs and wants.
The faith of surrender
But Jesus also prays this: "Yet not what I will, but what you will." Earlier in Scripture Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy will be done." Now Jesus practices what he had preached. In one of the most tender scenes in the Bible, the Son, praying through agony and tears, asks for something specific. At the same time, and as a reflection of his foundational faith in the Father, he surrenders his will to God's will.
Through this simultaneous vulnerability and ultimate trust, Jesus shows us true surrender. He leaves his life in the Father's hands. Someone once asked me, "Is surrender the same thing as believing in fate?" I thought about it for a minute and said, "No, not at all. Fate is impersonal—like a big, complex set of gears that grind on and on without care or concern for us. Jesus shows us the way of love and trust in a Heavenly Father who is for us, not against us. This is a God with whom all things are possible. When we place our lives in his hands there are no freakish accidents. God can take all the loose, broken pieces and dead ends—like a cruel and shameful death on a cross—and turn them into something beautiful."
This is trust in our Abba, Father. Even in the midst of his darkest hour, God the Father tells God the Son: Let it go. Surrender. I have something better for you. There will be resurrection. Trust me.
I said earlier that all of us have a Big Surrender to make. Have you made the Big Surrender? Let's return to the image of the high dive. Where are you in this story? Perhaps you're on the concrete saying, "This is ridiculous. Why should I climb this board? This isn't even rational. How can I prove that the board is trustworthy? I can't prove it, therefore it must not exist." Your mind matters to God. Many of us have thought long and hard about difficult questions of faith and our thinking has made our faith stronger. But faith is not entirely rational. Like acts of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and commitment, we can't prove why we ought to act in faith. Sometimes we don't know until we climb the steps, put our weight on the platform, go out to the edge, and jump. We can't concretely prove we'll be okay until we let go.
After the Big Surrender, we battle with the Little Surrenders every day. We refuse to surrender as we pray, "Honestly, God, I would rather have it my way than your way." But when we hang on in stubbornness to our own will, we're pursuing less joy, less peace, less power. Look at Jesus: his power came from a life of surrender. His joy came from a life of surrender. Peter lost his power by refusing to surrender.
Some of you are holding on to things you refuse to surrender—lustful images; bitterness and an unforgiving spirit; a spouse that just won't change; an imaginary spouse that will come and rescue you from everything; a passivity that says, "Just leave me alone: I don't want to change and you can't make me." Perhaps you're clinging to an idol called money or image or comfort or control. Jesus invites you to let these things go. God has something better for you. You may think, It's impossible. I keep letting go and grabbing it back again. I surrender so imperfectly. This leads us into the heart of the gospel: Jesus doesn't demand that we surrender; he shows us how it's done—he does it for us. We approach God as our Abba, Father because we come in and through Jesus. Through Christ, the one who offered a perfect surrender to the Father, God accepts each imperfect act of surrender we offer him.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.