A God out of Control (for Good Friday)

John 19:28-30

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

"God is in control." I've heard that a lot; I've even said it myself. I've heard it standing in the pile of rubble that was once a house before it was destroyed by a tornado. I've heard it on the lips of those who lament that things don't go their way. I've heard it from those who have been waiting patiently for so long only to have to find a reason to wait longer. I've heard it in a few lectures, read it in books, listened to it in chapels and sanctuaries from pulpits like this one, and I've heard it whispered in funeral homes as families try to comprehend why their loved one had to die. "God is in control."

I suppose it's a lot easier to say that than attempting to deal with the raw realities of this life. If one can simply say that God is in control then one can dismiss difficulties as part of an elaborate, divine plan-as something that will benefit them in a more positive way in the (hopefully near) future. To say, "God is in control" can relieve us the burden of having to wrestle with difficult decisions-trusting that the outcome was what God had planned all along. In many ways, when some say "God is in control" it is as if they are declaring that whatever happened, whatever is happening, or whatever will happen is all because God has moved the pieces around on the great chess board of existence. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, to declare that God is in control is to suggest that God is responsible-and not just for the happy, sappy, spiritual, and religious stuff, but for everything.

To say God is in control is to suggest that while God allows healthy children to be born to happy, healthy parents, God also allows poor children to contract crippling cancers, that God sends rain at the right time on a withering garden while natural disasters displace the poorest people in the world, that God makes a way for justice in the lives of the wrongly accused, while permitting the horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by those with distorted devotions and ignorant hatred. To so easily declare that God is in control says to those looking for an excuse that God is merely toying with us, amusing himself with our problems and the difficulties of this life. If God is ultimately in control, then doesn't that mean that God has to bear the responsibility for all of the bad things in this world as well as the good? All of the joy, all of the sadness, the love, the heartbreak, the preservation, the devastation, the building up, the destruction, life and death?

When we say "God is in control" I think we have the tendency to imagine a divinity like that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, one who is seated in some elaborate throne room, a large, flat table before him, and on that table is a map of the entire world. There are small dots or figures on that map, each one representing a life here on Earth, and God is moving them around on the map, controlling their every movement, thought, action, and consequence. I think we imagine God in the way I used to play with my He-Man toys (and the My Little Pony he rode): I controlled their movements, their actions, even their thoughts and plans. They did nothing without me knowing and without my manipulation. I think if we were all truthful about it, that's the sort of thing we might imagine whenever we say, "God is in control"-a divine being in another dimension, governing our every situation, movement, and emotion. For some of us, this is the kind of God we want, the kind of God we can understand, the kind of God that makes sense-a God who is in control.

The fourth gospel, the Gospel according to John, certainly gives us the image of a God who is in control. It's written right there in the opening line of the gospel prelude: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." And it carries on throughout John's gospel; Jesus seems to always be in control. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) has a few flaws here and there: he doesn't know who touched him when power once left him to heal a hemorrhaging woman; he doesn't know the day or hour when the Son of Man will return; it takes him two tries to heal a blind man. But in John...well, Jesus is firmly in control: he turns water into wine to save a party; he seems to know what's going to happen before it does; he heals people without seeming to really try. When he's told his best friend is sick he doesn't go right away, but waits until his friend is good and dead to show up and call him out of the grave. He tells Pilate (the Roman governor of the province and most politically powerful man on the scene) that he has no power of Jesus unless it comes from God. Even when it comes to his crucifixion, John's gospel contradicts the other gospels by saying that Jesus carried the cross all by himself-there's no Simon of Cyrene there to help! Jesus is in control.

Even in the passage before us, as Jesus breathes his final breaths, it seems he is in complete control. He says, "I am thirsty." Why? Is it because he is suffering from dehydration in the midst of his agony? Is it because the hot, Judean sun has scorched his lips and parched his tongue? Is it because he's pleading for some relief-any relief-from his pain, from his torment, and he hopes that the drink will ease his pain and usher him over the threshold of death? I believe it's a sign of his humanity, a sign that Christ truly felt the pain, was God Incarnate, and not just a shell of flesh holding a divine spirit. But that's not what John tells us, is it?

The gospel says, "After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.'" Jesus knew that everything was completed, that everything was accomplished, so John tells us Jesus says, "I am thirsty" in order to fulfill the scripture. What scripture? Well, most folks point to Psalm 69 (a portion of which we heard earlier in the service), a psalm not too unlike Psalm 22 (which Jesus referenced with his words from the cross we heard last week). It is a prayer for deliverance from persecution, a prayer that ends with God restoring his people. For John, Jesus doesn't say he's thirsty for any sort of physical need; he does it to fulfill scripture. Jesus is still in control.

Then we're told in verse 30-after he's given sour wine to drink (fulfilling the referenced scripture of Psalm 69-Jesus "said, ‘It is finished.' Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." This is a powerful image: the Son of God, announcing the end of his own life, bowing his head, and dying. It may be hard to hear it with just one reading, but even in these last few seconds, John still shows us a Jesus who is in control. The phrase, "It is finished" is a translation of the Greek word tetelestai, a word that is better understood as "accomplished." It is the idea that a task has been completed, but not in order to be put away, or checked off a list. It's the sense of finishing something with a purpose beyond itself, like, say, graduating from college. Christ is in control as he declares his work, his ministry, his life, and even his death accomplished.

Then, the very next thing John tells us is that Jesus "gave up his spirit." In the other three gospels, Jesus "breathed his last"-a rather direct way to say he died. But the way John tells it, Jesus is active, in control, as he gives up his spirit. Death doesn't slowly descend upon him, the darkness doesn't close around him as the blood leaves his body and the air leaves his lungs. Jesus gave up his spirit. Even his death was in his control according to John.

So what does it all mean? Why does John give us an "in-control" Jesus, even on the cross? Does it even make sense? I mean, think about it: If Jesus were really in control, couldn't he have stopped this whole thing before it ever got started? Couldn't he have simply just held up his hand when the crowd called for him to be crucified, silenced them all, and performed some powerful act that would have proven beyond a doubt that he was the Son of God? Couldn't he have done something to convince Judas that he was betraying God in the flesh, some convincing words that would have halted Judas' plans? Why didn't Jesus, on that Sunday he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, take that moment of triumph and adoration to show all those who were waving palm branches and laying their clothes in the road that he was the Word made flesh? If Jesus was in control, why did he die-why was he killed at the hands of those it would seem he could have so easily controlled? Was Jesus really in control?

Perhaps we need to redefine what it means to be in control, to see power from Jesus' perspective...control from the cross. What does it say to us that the One who spoke the universe into existence, the One who parted the sea for Moses and the Israelites with a blast of his nostrils, the One who spoke to Elisha in the silence on a mountain, the One who fed thousands from a boy's lunch sack, the One who walked on water, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame to walk, and even raised the dead-what does it say to us when that One fulfills scripture with his thirst and gives up his spirit? It says to us that power, control, is not found in the coercion of creation. It says that true control is not defined by the ability to manipulate fate and pull the strings of human existence as if we are all simply marionettes on well-crafted stage. The cross says to us that God is not some far-off deity humoring himself with humanity in some great board game in the sky. The cross says to us that God's control is found in his love for us, a love that is so pure, so real, that nothing can escape it. The cross says to us that when everything seems to be going to hell, God is among us, beside us, within us, going through life's darkness and light with us. That's a God who is in control, a God so sure of the power of his love, that we are freed by it. That's a God who is in control, so sure of the power of his love within us to change that world, to make it better, that he has entrusted us to do it! That's a God who is in control, a God so powerful that he can lay down that power and even die. It's the kind of control that comes to us through a cross-not the supremacy of a scepter and crown, not the authority of an empire or other government, not the power of a cosmic conqueror with the strength to destroy worlds and slay enemies. It's the kind of power that can only come through the love of God, a love strong enough to even overcome death. God is in control. Praise be to God. Amen.