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Twelve Legions

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It is among the most emotional—certainly one of the most stirring—scenes in The Lord of the Rings. The enemy forces have pressed hard against Helm’s Deep, they have approached in overwhelming numbers, they have raised the siege works and battered the gates and have slowly driven back the armies of the Rohirrim. Hope has grown dim and King Theoden takes to his horse to ride out for a final charge.

Lingering in every mind is Gandalf’s promise, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” He has not come, not yet. But the rising sun is only just beginning to brighten the sky. Then, just when all seems lost, heads turn, a hush settles over the two armies.

There he is at last, just as he promised. He comes riding over the crest of the hill, his staff blazing, leading a great company of riders. Down they charge into the confused ranks of enemy soldiers, cutting a great swath. And soon the battle is won, the citadel saved, its ruler victorious.

That is the kind of scene that moves us, a story where the people we love come to the brink of death, where they teeter on the edge of destruction, before being miraculously delivered.

A few days ago my morning reading took me to a very different battle scene. It is a skirmish, really, a brief foray between competing forces. Jesus is in a garden called Gethsemane, spending time with his friends, praying to his Father. A small army approaches in the darkness, led by a turncoat, a betrayer.

The company of soldiers will take Jesus, they say. He is to be arrested and to be tried. As the soldiers reach for Jesus, his friend Peter jumps to his defense. But instead of hearing praise for his bravery he hears rebuke. Jesus tells him to put away his sword and then asks a question, a rhetorical question that speaks of his power and his authority. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

Jesus could have been delivered from what looks like his great defeat. With a single word he can summon not just one legion of angels—perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 warriors—but twelve of them, more than twelve, tens of thousands of angels. In an instant he could call out a great force to rescue him, to deliver him from his humiliation. The Bible often shows us the power of a single angel; the power of a multitude is unimaginable.

But that is not his Father’s will and so it cannot be his will. He is able but not willing. He will remain silent. That great army will remain invisible, ready as they always are, but not summoned. Not this time. Victory must come a different way.

Jesus’ story will not be the kind where an unexpected army arrives to save the day. He will be the hero, he will be delivered, but in a very different way. He is forced out of that garden and dragged before the rulers and condemned to die and nailed to a cross, and there he dies. There he draws his last breath and gives up his spirit and is still. Hope seems lost.

Still, victory will come, but it will have to come in a wholly unexpected way.

There are no trumpets to announce this victory. No herald cries out. Victory comes with no witnesses to see it, in the terrible darkness of a tomb. It comes with a sudden gasp of breath, a rush of warmth, of life, through a stiff body, the sudden beating of a heart that for three days has been still. Lungs fill with air, eyes flutter, open, take focus. Fingers begin to move and then to pull off grave cloths wrapped around hands and feet and chest and face. He sits, then stands, then strides as the stone rolls from the entrance. He stoops. For a moment the light casts a shadow back over the play where he lay, and then he is gone, victorious. He has won. He has conquered.

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