Jesus is not Ethan Hunt.
Last year I was able to see the sixth (!) installment in the Mission: Impossible (“M:I”) franchise in theaters, Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I caught it as it was on its way out of its theater run and I’m certainly glad I was able to see it on the big screen. I love the theater. There’s something about watching a good action movie in that setting that enhances the experience. You don’t just see the tenacity, you feel it — you’re brought into the events of the film as an impotent participant.
As the credits for Fallout began to roll and the titular M:I theme blared in the showroom speakers, I exited the theater and tried to reflect on what I just saw. Like any good Millennial and self-proclaimed amateur “film analyst,” I sought to place this latest film in the ranks of its constituents as well as in the annals of action movies of the past. I endeavored to determine its legacy through a careful assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.
On a strictly cinematic level, therefore, Fallout is a superb ride. The last act of the film is especially enthralling, with intercutting set pieces that equal the best moments in the franchise. As Alissa Wilkinson on Vox noted, it’s “worth the cost of an IMAX ticket for that scene alone.” It boasts not one but two intensely captivating vehicular chase sequences and audaciously places them back-to-back in the edit of the film — with each one on its own worthy of being the centerpiece of any other action flick. Fallout is a non-stop tour de force of action and espionage suffused with a bevy of emotional beats to act as counterbalance. I was pleased that they brought back Ethan Hunt’s wife (played excellently by Michelle Monaghan) as an integral part of the plot. Her inclusion always brings an affecting weight to a story that’d be more akin to Fast & Furious otherwise.
Fallout also boasts, perhaps, the best score in the franchise. Lorne Balfe, protégé of historically prevalent film composer Hans Zimmer, crafts a splendid soundtrack that perfectly blends Lalo Schifrin’s eponymous theme into new arrangements. It might not be as “fun” as Michael Giaachino’s efforts in M:I–3 or Ghost Protocol, but Balfe provides a masterful sound that enhances and intensifies the events on screen. And, furthermore, despite Fallout not being most humorous entry in the M:I family, and despite it taking more than a few minutes for the story to fully grip you, it’s still more than worthy of the M:I pedigree. Fallout is itself an incredible accomplishment for a sixth film in a series.
These moments of reflection, though, brought to mind two overarching thoughts. The first is that J. J. Abrams is basically the “Jesus” of movie franchises. He’s the mastermind behind three major film franchise resurgences: Star Trek, Star Wars, and Mission: Impossible. In each case, he rescued them from relative levels of stagnation or deterioration. It’s actually quite remarkable these franchises come from the braintrust behind other polarizing shows like Alias and Lost. But for however much you’re still opining the denouement of the latter of those, it’s legitimate to conclude that if you want your film franchise reinvigorated, it’s a safe bet to put it in Abrams’ capable hands.
The second conclusion that struck me was that I’m really glad my God isn’t like Ethan Hunt. It’s a staple of the M:I films to include literal last second resolutions to potential world-ending or at least world-altering scenarios. After Fallout, I was inspired to go back and re-watch every entry in the franchise, and whether it’s a virus or a nuclear missile or a “rabbit’s foot,” each dooms-day plot entails some serious luck and opportune timing in order to save the world and restore the status quo, down to the thousandth of a second.
Ethan’s team is exposed for this very reality in a scene writ large from Rogue Nation, where a U.S. Security Council chairman declares, “From where I sit, your unorthodox methods are indistinguishable from chance. And your results, perfect or not, look suspiciously like luck.” (That entire courtroom scene from M:I–5 feels very meta — like a knowing wink and nod by the filmmakers.) Considering the evidence, it’s hard not to agree with him. The “Impossible Mission Force” (IMF) has now saved humanity six times over with no small amount of last second luck. Last second foiling of global virus outbreaks. Last second file transfers and thefts. Last second nuclear warhead defusing. Last second escapes. Last second everything.
And that’s why I’m thankful that Jesus isn’t last second. To be sure, according to my plan and my timetable it might appear like he’s cutting things close. It might feel as though Jesus operates like Ethan Hunt, constantly waiting till the last possible second to extend a sliver of mercy. It might feel like he’s waiting till I’m at my wit’s end before showing even a granule of grace. But he’s not. God doesn’t operate according to my timetable. My schedule. My plan. My calendar. He’s not waiting for my opportune time or season in life to bring about his purposes. His ways are better and higher than mine. (Isa. 55:8–9) His ways are perfect. (Ps 18:30) And so is his timing.
A phrase that I will, perhaps, never forget comes to mind. I first heard it in a sermon by Matt Chandler, in which he proclaimed that God doesn’t drive an ambulance. He never arrives late to an accident. The point being, God’s not just sovereign over time itself, he’s sovereign over timing. He’s never late. He’s always on time — his time, that is — and he’s never not in control. He’s never last second. He conducts the mission of grace as he sees fit. Much like Middle-earth’s curmudgeonly wizard, Gandalf the Grey, our God “is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”
I’ve given that Tolkien-esque line (which doesn’t appear in his books but sounds very much like something he’d write) its due of theological reflection. I can’t help but think of when the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians, “When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal 4:4–5) “When the fullness of time” or “the right time” came about, then, and only then, did the Son of God become the incarnate Word of God. (Jn 1:1–3) But whose “right time”? God’s.
An intriguing study is looking at the promise of Genesis 3:15 and its immediate aftermath. Of course we know that Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden for their disobedience and are subjected to the penalty and curse of death at sin’s intrusion on creation. But God didn’t leave our representatives without ample hope that what they had just ruined would one day be remade. God assures them that a Seed of the woman would come and strike down the head of the serpent. (Gen. 3:14–15) This is what’s called the protoevangelium, the first gospel. On the very ground where our first parents failed, our Father assures them of his faithfulness to them. “On the very spot where sin had burst in upon the new-made world,” writes Horatius Bonar, “grace was to plant its standard, and at the very commencement of the conflict proclaim its certain victory.”1
God the Father didn’t waste a moment to give Adam and Eve the first gospel sermon. But even they mistook God’s sense of timing. At the beginning of Genesis 4, we learn of Eve’s conception and birth of her son, Cain. We’re told she exclaims, “I have had a male child with the Lord’s help.” (Gn 4:1) Literally, “I’ve given birth to a son of Jehovah.” Eve believed that God’s promise of deliverance through her offspring would come about immediately. Martin Luther makes this argument quite eloquently in his commentary on Genesis, noting how Eve erred not in the promise of the Seed, but in the person of the Seed.2 Where she thought Cain to be the one her Lord spoke of who would crush the serpent’s head, God had a different, a better plan, one that wouldn’t “come to completion” for millennia.
What’s more, think of the virgin Mary. A young Jewish girl soon to be betrothed when suddenly a heavenly messenger appears and announces to her that not only is she miraculously pregnant, but the miracle she’s carrying is none other than the “Son of the Most High,” the Christ. (Lk 1:26–38) The time had “come to completion.” God’s right time had arrived. But do you think this news fit in with Mary’s “right time”? I have my doubts. She’s a young woman, a virgin, who’s now forced to explain an unexpected pregnancy — on top of the fact that her explanation is nothing short of a “miraculous conception.” It’s been eons since the promise of the Seed, and yet here’s this unassuming teenage girl claiming she’s carrying the Messiah. It’s not hard to imagine the side-eyes she received and the daggers of gossip that spread about Mary and Joseph and their “mystery pregnancy.”
But even as Eve waited and waited and ultimately passed away eons before the promised Messiah would be incarnated, God’s purposes weren’t upset. And when Gabriel relayed the news to Mary that the “time had come,” God wasn’t coming in late to the scene. At each passing age, he was working and willing all to his sovereign ends, even as Eve’s daughters and granddaughters and great-great-great-great-granddaughters were confused about the timing and nature of the promise. Yes, even now, as we wait for the Lord’s return to earth amidst the rubble of international wars and societal skirmishes, God’s hand isn’t shortened that he cannot save. (Is 59:1) He’s not being exposed as our heavenly “Ethan Hunt,” waiting for the last second to bring about his method of salvation. He’s right on time.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. (Rom 5:6)
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 276.
Martin Luther, Luther on the Creation: A Critical and Devotional Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Luther In All Lands Co., 1904), 366–68.