It started with toilet paper hoarding, and perhaps we laughed a little. But it was a nervous laugh. Because quickly things became far more serious as people all over the world were called home and required to self-isolate, as we saw empty streets and straining hospital systems, and more and more deaths, and as we started to feel the social and economic realities of COVID-19.
I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’s experiences in the Garden of Gethsemane, thinking of this time as the ‘calm before the storm’ – the storm of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion. And perhaps there are lessons in this as we consider the storm that is the global coronavirus pandemic?
In truth, it wasn’t all that calm for Jesus in Gethsemane. This was a time of serious spiritual seeking. But it was calm in the sense that Jesus had a single focus, one he pursued by withdrawing from ‘business as usual’ to press into God.
James Stalker, in The Life of Jesus Christ, says we see in the days leading up to this moment in Gethsemane that the ‘ebb and flow of the most diverse emotions – anguish and ecstasy, the most prolonged and crushing depression, the most triumphant joy and the most majestic peace – swayed back and forth within [Jesus] like the moods of a great ocean.’
Turn to God
There are two important lessons in this passage. The first is that we are wise to follow the Gethsemane example of Jesus whenever we are likely to face some obstacle or difficult challenge. We are wise to turn to God in prayer.
Sometimes prayer changes our circumstances – and we rejoice when this happens. But prayer always changes us. Prayer helps us to refocus, to sense God’s love for us, to quietly listen for God’s voice and direction.
I love The Message version’s translation of Philippians 4:
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life.
That doesn’t mean we won’t still worry – we’re only human, after all. But worry is no longer at the centre; Jesus is. And so, peace can make its home in our hearts.
The second lesson is that we are to be open and honest to God in our prayers, while retaining a willingness to live in submission to God’s purposes.
We are not just complaining to God; we are telling it like it is and welcoming him into our situation. We are not just dumping our problems on God; we are staying with God to gain a bigger perspective on our problems and even reframe them as opportunities for God’s will to be done.
Not guts, but glory
It’s fascinating to me that immediately after Jesus has finished praying (after he tells off the disciples for falling asleep) we see an immediate tangible example of what happens as a result of earnest prayer.
A crowd turns up to arrest Jesus. At the front is Judas, ready to betray Jesus with a kiss. Luke tells us, in chapter 22, verses 49-50:
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
This is a highly pressured and confrontational moment. One of Jesus’s closest friends is instrumental in turning him over to those who want to see Jesus dead. The crowd means to do Jesus serious, torturous harm.
To defend Jesus, Simon Peter strikes out with a sword. And who can blame him? When we’re under pressure, we want to fight back. And yet Jesus, having gained perspective and peace in perhaps the most difficult prayer time in his life, totally rejects this very human response.
‘No more of this!’ Jesus orders, immediately reaching out in grace and healing to Peter’s victim.
What happens when we spend time with Jesus? We can respond to difficult moments in our lives, not with a gut reaction, but with a godly one. Our limited human understanding, our default settings of unbridled fear or unbridled anger is changed into peace and purpose.
Jesus shows us how to respond to a crisis – and it is to start with prayer. A prayer that is honest about our feelings and fears, but also focused on finding out how God wants us to respond.A prayer that helps us face our strongest, most conflicted emotions and allows us to gain strength from the steadfast loving presence of God.
Christina Tyson has been a Salvation Army officer (minister) for almost 30 years.For 16 years she was involved in Salvation Army communications, and now works with her husband as pastors of a Salvation Army church and community centre in Newtown, Wellington.