Strap your sword upon your thigh, O mighty warrior,
in your pride and in your majesty.
Ride out and conquer in the cause of truth
and for the sake of justice. (Psalm 45:3-4)
In this morning’s reading from the book of Joshua, we have the story of the ambush of the city of Ai by the people of Israel. Joshua gives a sign, and the plan goes into action.
When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. (Joshua 8:21-22)
It’s a pretty straightforward description of the Israelites’ false retreat successfully drawing out the people from the city, then surprising them with a rearguard cutting the people of Ai off so they could not return to safety.
The only thing that keeps the ambush of Ai from being plain history is that the Israelites attribute their winning to the Lord’s leading.
In the Gospel passage appointed for today, we have the story of a different ambush.
While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” (Matt. 26:47-48)
Again, at the agreed signal, the victim is drawn out and encircled, and the ambush succeeds. But in a plot twist no one expects, Jesus doesn’t resist. “Put your sword back into its place,” he says, “for all who take the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). He is taken from the garden by the religious authorities, and he is put to death as a criminal.
The only thing that keeps the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane from being plain history is that generations of Christians have attributed their living to the Lord’s dying.
The mystery that Jesus reveals is that God does not lead us in ambushing others. God invites us, rather, to follow Jesus, the “Lamb that was slain,” in being ambushed, not “trusting in our own righteousness, but in [God’s] manifold and great mercies” (BCP 337).
A Song to the Lamb (Dignus es)
Revelation 4:11; 5:9-10, 13
Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.
And so, to him who sits upon the throne, *
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, *
for ever and for evermore.