(a sermon for March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday, based on Mark 14:32-42)
One of very first jobs in the “real world” was that of a midnight security guard on the weekends at the newspaper plant of the Bangor Daily News.
Actually, to call me a “security guard” was a gross exaggeration of the facts: I had no uniform, I carried no weapon, and I had absolutely no authority to deal with any situation that might have arisen! Basically, I was there for insurance purposes; my job (my only job!) was to walk around to about 15 different stations around the mostly empty plant once an hour, punching a time clock at each station so that the insurance company would know that everything was fine and somebody was keeping an eye on things; which was interesting, because had anything actually gone wrong, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it! In fact, I remember asking my supervisor what I should do if I ran into an intruder or some kind of dangerous situation, and his answer was simple: run!
It was a terrific job, though, especially for a young seminarian with a boatload of schoolwork to do; basically, as long as I did my walk around the building every hour, the rest of the time was my own. The only hard and fast rule was that I could not, under any circumstances, fall asleep on the job: the insurance company needed to have that regular, hourly accounting and the time clocks were such that there was no fudging on that rule! So it was crucial that I stay awake all throughout my shift, which seemed simple enough when I took the job, but which in reality was the hardest part! Turns out that reading thick volumes of Church History and Systematic Theology at four in the morning doesn’t aid in keeping you awake (!); and though I drank all the coffee I could hold, turned up the radio and sang along with every song that played, there was always this period of time in the wee hours of the morning when it was actually painful to try to keep my eyes open! I knew I shouldn’t fall asleep; I knew I couldn’t if I wanted to keep the job, but what I remember even now is how overwhelming that urge to sleep could be, and how very close I came a number of times getting caught at it (Friends, I may very well have invented the concept of the “power nap!”)!
I tell you this as a way of confessing that on some level I understand how the disciples could fall asleep that night in the garden of Gethsemane: how, even when Jesus had said to them that he was “deeply grieved, even to death,” and for them to wait and keep watch; how, even when the disciples seemed to know that their master was struggling with what was about to unfold (to the point of where Luke, in his version of this story, tells us that Jesus was actually sweating blood!), still the disciples’ eyes became heavy and their bodies overwhelmed by the need for slumber.
Over the centuries, many historians have theorized that the events of that night, and all that Jesus had said to them had simply drained all their strength and resistance; others have suggested that maybe it was the Passover feast itself, the dinner and the wine, that had left them drowsy, not unlike how you and I might feel after a big Thanksgiving dinner. Then again – going back to Luke again – in that gospel we’re told that the disciples were “exhausted from sorrow,” (22:45) overcome with grief in anticipation of what was to come; and truly, anyone who’s been through it knows that grief can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Or maybe it was that the disciples didn’t fully appreciate what was happening; or didn’t want to see this for what it truly was; sleep was their way of pretending that what Jesus had been telling them wasn’t really true, that after a good night’s sleep everything would be better and things would go on the same as they had before.
So we don’t know why, exactly; only that on this long, dark night of prayerful agony, it ended up that Jesus’ disciples – his closest friends – rather than keeping watch with him, not once but three different times had to be rousted out of their sleep. And you can almost hear the disappointment in Jesus’ voice when he finds them sleeping and asks this question: “Could you not stay awake for one hour?” It is a moment of profound sadness and vulnerability in Jesus which is arguably unlike anything else we see in the gospels up to that point; and not only is it the point that the Passion begins for Jesus (you’ll notice that our reading this morning ends with the arrival of his “betrayer”), it is also the point where the Passion begins for us as well…
…and quite frankly, that is more than I want to consider.
Because after all, all throughout this Lenten season, we’ve been on this journey to the cross; if not literally then at least spiritually speaking, we’re following Jesus on the way to where he was going for the sake of our redemption and salvation. But what that means, you see, is that on that journey we have essentially taken our place alongside his disciples, or for that matter, with the countless others who followed on behind Jesus as, as scripture alludes to it, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) And I don’t know about you, as the scene shifts, as it does this morning, to the garden of Gethsemane, I don’t want to think of myself that way.
I don’t want to think that on the night of our Lord’s greatest agony, I would have fallen asleep. I don’t want to consider that there was a time when the one that I need more than life itself needed me to simply keep watch with him, but I might well have been among those who could not even have stayed awake long enough to give him that.
I don’t want to be a disciple in this story; because if it’s possible that I’d be among those who could not even have kept watch with Jesus for one hour, then maybe I could have also – just as quickly and as easily – denied knowing Jesus at the moment it mattered the most, like Peter did.
Or that I could have been swayed to cry out with the rest of the angry mob to crucify him;
Or that I’d have joined with the countless people along the streets of Jerusalem – the same crowd who’d been shouting hosannas and waving palm branches just a few days before – who now were watching with morbid fascination as the Roman guards mocked him and beat him within an inch of his life;
Or that I’d be one of those looking on as they made him carry his own cross up the long and narrow streets of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha; standing helplessly, saying and doing nothing, as they nailed his hands and feet to cross and hung him in blistering hot morning sun to die a slow and painful death… lingering there in the cross’s shadow until at last, Jesus cries out, “’It is finished,’ [and] With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30)
You see… that’s why I don’t want to have to answer Jesus when he asks me: “Are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep awake for one hour?”
Because I want to stay at the Palm Sunday parade, thank you very much; I want to shout my Hosannas and wave palm branches in “festal adoration!” And then I want to come back next Sunday and join in all the alleluias and resurrection hymns: I don’t want Maundy Thursday to interfere with that; I don’t want to have to wait in the garden as the darkness descends, I certainly do not want to face the agony of the cross; and above all, I don’t want to be confronted with my own weakness and shame and utter brokenness before God, because then I would have to admit that I was there when they crucified my Lord. And the thought of that does, as the song goes, cause me to tremble.
What Jesus asks – Could you not keep awake? – in many ways seems an impossible question. But it’s our answer that makes all the difference as to whether next Sunday will truly break as a bright and glorious day of resurrection, or merely exists as another fun celebration of springtime, bunnies and marshmallow chicks. The truth is that there’s more going on here than whether or not the disciples can keep their eyes wide open in the wee hours. What Jesus is asking is whether we’re able to be with him in all that is to come; whether we’re fully able to embrace what God was asking of him as Maundy Thursday dawned inevitably into the Friday that is so unthinkably referred to as “Good.”
And it’s not easy to answer; because to be with Jesus now puts us face to face not only with the utter pain and absurdity of human life, not only with the reality of sin and death, but also places us at the foot of the cross on which we see above us the one who took on our pain, our sin and our death as his own. It’s hard – excruciatingly hard – and it ultimately defies our human understanding and sensibility; but that is how we need to be with him if we are also to rise with him at the day of resurrection.
The ancient church had a name for this, you know: they called it “the celebration of our Lord’s Pascal mystery,” which means, quite literally, “the mystery of Christ’s passion;” how it is that Christ’s death on the cross cannot ever be separated from his resurrection; how it is that our faith, our very salvation hinges on the sacrifice made on that cross; how it is that you and I, though undeserving, are redeemed by that act; how it is that this one single act of sacrifice, the bruises by which we are healed, brings us to the crossroads of all human history, and brings us into the kingdom of God. As John Howard Yoder has written, “the cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.”
Are you willing to keep watch with me for one hour? One day? One week? That’s what Jesus is asking us on this Palm Sunday morning, friends. Palm Sunday – this day of great paradox, a celebration of joy and triumph that also points the way of agony and shame; the glory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem that becomes the looming sadness of the passion. But it is when we keep vigil with him on this “holy week,” in prayer and devotion, confronting ourselves at the foot of his cross that we are met by the brightness of God’s presence and glory in Jesus’ resurrection. It is a difficult vigil; and overwhelming for us as it was for the disciples before us; but as Ann Weems says beautifully in one of her poems, “It’s Golgotha that we fear… [but] keeping covenant means keeping covenant under a cross as well as by an empty garden tomb.”
So let us not be found sleeping on this Holy Week; but rather, let us keep watch with him in the bleak darkness of the night, that we might go with him to Golgotha and finally to the empty tomb… for it is indeed only in dying with Christ that we rise with Christ.
And yes, Christ will rise… Christ will rise!
Thanks be to God, beloved!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.