(a sermon for April 13, 2014, Palm Sunday; fifth in a series, based on Matthew 26:36-46)
“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’”
Let me ask you a question this morning, friends: what does that look like to you? In other words, when you hear this story of the garden of Gethsemane, what do you see? How do envision Jesus at prayer?
Actually, I’m guessing that when most of us think of this scene in scripture, what comes to mind is something at least similar to what’s depicted in a very famous painting by the 19th century German artist Heinrich Hofmann. It’s actually the one that’s on the cover of your bulletin this morning; in which Jesus is posed on bended knee with his hands folded in front of him propped up on a rock; his face tilted upward looking calm and serene, illuminated by a single shaft of light shining down on him from heaven. And, as is typical of so much art that seeks to portray Jesus, his flowing robe looks clean and freshly laundered, his finely coifed hair cascades neatly over his shoulders and his beard is perfectly shaped and trimmed.
It’s an often imitated image of the Christ that’s found in many an illustrated bible and which adorns countless stained glass windows in sanctuaries all over the world, and for good reason: for me, at least, and possibly for you, it’s a portrayal of Jesus at prayer that’s very soothing, calming and well, very appealing!
That having been said, however, the trouble with that image of Christ is that the experience of true and authentic prayer is not always as calm and serene as what we see there; and moreover, as the gospels describe the scene, it also becomes very clear that Jesus himself was as not as calm and serene as it would appear either! As Matthew makes it very clear in our reading this morning, the entire time that Jesus was praying that night, he was “grieved and agitated,” and, in at least one translation of this passage, Jesus himself says that his soul “is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Jesus’ heart was troubled and heavy: in Luke’s version of this story, we’re told that Jesus was in such anguish and his prayer so earnest that “his sweat became like drops of blood falling down on the ground,” (Luke 22:44) a phenomenon that doctors today acknowledge can happen in moments of severe stress and unbearable agony.
Even the garden setting of this story tends to be a bit misrepresented in our minds. Gethsemane, you see, was the true “Olive Garden;” in fact, the word Gethsemane is best translated as “olive press,” and that describes perfectly what this place looked like; full of olive trees that were knotted and gnarled and pressing in from every direction, with roots sprawling from tree trunks and clawing deeply into rocky soil. In daylight, it probably did appear to be a dense and lush oasis amidst the desert landscape; in the dark of night, however, this had the look and feel of a dark jungle, a place that would inspire more fear than comfort.
In short, Gethsemane was for Jesus anything but a soothing time and place of quiet prayer! Max Lucado, in his book, And the Angels Fell Silent, describes the moment beautifully: “That’s him,” he says. “Jesus. In the grove. On the ground. The young man. The one in the sweat-soaked garment. Kneeling. Imploring. His hair is plastered to his wet forehead. He agonizes.” You see, friends, we look upon Gethsemane as the epitome of spiritual comfort and peace, when in truth of fact, for Jesus this place was the setting for his dark night of the soul!
And this was because Jesus knew.
He knew what was about to happen, and he was struggling with it. Jesus knew that his hour was about to begin; that his purpose in life was about to be fulfilled. Jesus was very much aware that at this very moment, his friend Judas was selling him out for the sake of 30 pieces of silver; that his disciples, the people who had been with him for nearly three years and who were his closest friends and confidants, were about to scatter like mice, and in the case of one of them, would even deny knowing him three different times; and that very soon he would be arrested, and beaten, and crucified; that he’d be facing the wrath, torture and humiliation of the cross unto death; and moreover, that be doing so he’d be taking on all the sins of humanity bearing on his own shoulders the sum total of the all the crud and cruelty and evil that men and women can do. It was all meant to be – divinely mandated – and it was all about to unfold in a matter of moments; and so, in the waning hours of this late Thursday night, Jesus struggled with the reality of it, “deeply grieved, even to death.”
Make no mistake, friends, the struggle was real.
So often in telling this Passion story, we are tempted to cast Jesus in such a light that makes this all seem very heroic; as though Jesus moves through it all like a character in some play, unscathed by the agonies and cruelties of his crucifixion; almost like a biblical version of Superman. But in the end that only makes us more comfortable with the Passion narrative, and in fact, ends up rather sacrilegious, in that it actually denies Jesus’ very humanity, and the utter depth of his suffering and sacrifice!
In our worship throughout these weeks of Lent, together we’ve been looking at “the heart of Jesus,” and what we’ve discovered is that what we know and feel in this life, Jesus also knows and feels. The very essence of his humanity is our humanity; and so, just as we struggle with fear and uncertainty and with wanting “an out” of the troubles we face in this life, so Jesus – even Jesus – struggles with life’s harshest realities. But here’s the difference that we find in the heart of Jesus, and it’s the one that we need to focus on today; that even though there is this agonizing struggle in the garden, in the end Jesus surrenders all to the will of God!
What we’re talking about here is true faith, beloved; and it’s embodied in what’s often referred to in this passage as “the perfect prayer,” words that tell us just about everything we need to know about Jesus’ heart on this dark night, and yes; what it is we need as we also draw near to the cross. It’s when Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
It’s a prayer that begins with Jesus calling out to “My Father.” My Father; which immediately tells us that this prayer – and this relationship – is something personal. Mark’s version of this story takes it one step further; there, Jesus begins by saying, “Abba, Father,” which is much more familiar, akin to calling Jesus “Daddy!” (As any parent will tell you, there’s a big difference in form and intent when your child addresses you as Daddy rather than Father!) The point is that by calling out to his heavenly Father, Jesus is affirming a deep relationship with God, a relationship that is tender and loving and good.
And then it’s “if it is possible,” an understanding that all that is about to unfold could be shifted and changed if it were God’s will; and this is followed by Jesus essentially laying himself bare before God. He’d like this cup taken from him, certainly; he’s scared, he’d rather not go through with this; he wants to know if there is possibly another way that God could go! This, in and of itself, is bold and powerful just in terms of its sheer honesty; I mean, how many of us, really, are willing to lay it all out before God, with every one of our fears and doubts, all of our insecurities and self-motivations laid bare? Most of us, while we might be quick to ascribe something in our lives to “God’s will,” or God’s call on our lives, we’re not all that quick to believe it; more often than not, we’ll challenge it, reject it, or at the very least look for loopholes to get away from it! Much more difficult for us to fully come to God with those doubts and fears; to open ourselves to God’s strength so to overcome our insecurities.
But this was never true of Jesus. Thomas Ott writes that Jesus “never cloaked his inner turmoil under a false robe of piety. When Jesus was abandoned by everyone and nailed to the cross, he didn’t offer a prayer of calm resignation… his prayer gave voice to the agony he felt at that moment,” even on the cross when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” quite possibly the most agonizing prayer ever. In every way possible, Jesus was honest with God, and it’s that honesty we see at Gethsemane. It is worth noting that in this passage Jesus prays for strength in his struggle three separate times; and it because of the strength he’s given by God in that honesty that in the end Jesus is willing to say, “Yet not what I want, but what you want.”
And isn’t it interesting that at some sure and certain moment on that long, dark “Maundy” Thursday, Jesus is aware and knows the hour is now at hand; and in knowing that, suddenly the anguish is gone from his eyes; his breathing is calmer and more measured; his fists are no longer clenched, and his heart fights no more. “Get up,” he says to the disciples who have been sleeping through these hours, “let us be going! See, my betrayer is at hand.”
It is that moment, beloved, that says it all.
It seems to me that to say everything about “the heart of Jesus,” is simply to say that Jesus’ heart… is our heart – your heart, my heart — surrendered to God’s great will and his infinite, redeeming love. What we see in Jesus is our hearts and our lives lived the way they are meant to be lived.
Jesus surrendered all; and it’s that heart-felt surrender that we are called to remember as we enter this “holy” week; a loving surrender of his heart to God, which happened first at the Garden of Gethsemane, and was demonstrated in its fullness on that agonizingly terrible Friday some 2,000 years ago, all that our God could break down the barrier of death forever, and with it our barrier to God. To quote Max Lucado again, “The battle is won. You may have thought it was won on Golgotha. It wasn’t. You may have thought that the sign of victory is the empty tomb. It isn’t. The final battle was won in Gethsemane. And the sign of conquest is Jesus at peace in the olive trees. For it was in the garden that he made his decision:
“He would rather go to hell for you than go to heaven without you.”
Indeed, on this Palm Sunday and as we begin our Holy Week journey to the cross…
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus; who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry