Second Sunday in Lent
One of the great Baptist heresies, and there are many, is that we will not allow Jesus to be human. We give only lip service to his humanity. At Christmastime, we speak of the incarnation, and we talk about God in the flesh, but really, we don’t want Jesus to be very human at all. We much prefer that he be God. Being human seems to be beneath him. We know that the correct theological understanding of Jesus is that he is both fully God and fully human, and that it is a glorious paradox, beyond our human ability to completely comprehend, but we are still uncomfortable with a Jesus who could catch a cold, stub his toes, or suffer aches and pains because he spent so much time walking around. It just doesn’t seem right that Jesus would ever have a sore back or a headache. We like to think that if he did ever encounter any of those problems, that he’d fix himself; that he’d make himself all better. He did, after all, have a mission to accomplish, and a compromised Jesus would be a very real deterrence to effectively accomplishing that mission.
But Jesus was human, he was very human, and he suffered all of the ills and ailments, and pains and fears and troubles that all of us encounter as we live out our daily lives. A careful reading of the Scriptures clearly indicates that Jesus did not live anything that approaches a charmed life. He had it rough, just like we do, and there was no fast and easy way out of his troubles. He had to work through his problems in the same way that we have to work through ours.
A terrible, terrible, really nasty, spit on the ground, popular misconception about Jesus is that he really didn’t have to suffer a whole lot on the cross; that the agonies of crucifixion were somehow ameliorated by his Godness, or his divinity. That hanging up there on the cross wasn’t that big a deal. Any time I hear someone say something like that, my stomach turns, and my heart aches. And I get upset, because if it wasn’t a human being up there on the cross, suffering in the same way that any crucified human being would suffer, we would still be dead in our sins, there would be no salvation, and we would be lost for all of eternity.
Sin came into this world by the selfish agency of one man, Adam. And his self-serving and grasping for something better has broken and damaged every one of us. It is only the self-giving sacrifice of another man, Jesus, who can obliterate the damaging effects of sin. It was Jesus’ willingness to endure the agonies of the cross, the overwhelming burden of our sins, and the absolute abandonment of God that accomplished our salvation.
Our passage this morning provides us with an intimate glimpse into the humanity of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples have finished the Passover celebration, Judas has gone off to accomplish his dastardly deed, and Jesus and his remaining eleven disciples have left downtown Jerusalem and have arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Garden of Gethsemane is just outside of the gates of the old city of Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The word Gethsemane means “Olive Press,” and even today there are olive trees growing there. In fact, when I was there, our guide pointed us to an olive tree that is estimated to be well over two thousand years old, and was very likely growing there when Jesus offered his prayers on the night that he was arrested.
Jesus had always been clear with his disciples that he must die, but up until now he’s stated it rather matter-of-factly. I’m not sure that his disciples took him very seriously. Their beliefs in a rip-roaring messianic deliverance were very deeply ingrained. A dead Messiah didn’t fit into those beliefs at all. But now Jesus has set aside his matter-of-fact stance and he’s letting his grief flow freely. He is sharing his anguish and sorrow with them. He admits that he is troubled to the point of death. His sorrow and anguish is so great that he feels as though it could kill him. And so, for the first time in his earthly ministry, he asks his disciples to pray for him. He needs their prayers, he needs their support, and he is at the lowest ebb of his life. He is filled with incredible fear and dread for what lies ahead.
I think some of us may be able to identify with this. Jesus’ prayers are prayers of absolute desperation, and yet they serve as a model of our own prayers of desperation. Over the years of my ministry here, some of you have shared with me, very intimately, your prayers of absolute desperation. These have been prayers of anguish and fear, and they have erupted out of your souls at the blackest and darkest times of your lives. Perhaps all of us have faced times in our lives when we have cried out to God in deep hopelessness, “Lord, get me out of this: I can’t take it anymore. I am weak, I am tired, I am sick, I am afraid, I don’t know what to do…”
These are the prayers of Jesus. Three times he threw himself to the ground, grovelling in the dirt, exposing the fullness of his humanity, begging with God, pleading with God to rescue him from his awful situation. Three times, he pleaded with his disciples to support him in his prayers, but all three times he found his disciples displaying the fullness of their humanity by stumbling into sleep. And that’s reality. Jesus needs the prayerful support of his disciples, and perhaps they are willing, but the cares of the flesh are overpowering them. Jesus says to them, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And isn’t that just the truth!
There is much in this passage that we can learn about prayer. At it’s best, prayer is a shared, but deeply intimate experience. Our private, regular time spent in prayer is incredibly important, but when we open up and share our hopes and dreams and fears and agonies with one another, the power of prayer is multiplied. This was, of course, Jesus’ hope for his disciples that night. By opening his heart honestly and openly with them, he established a pattern of prayer for our imitation. Jesus trusted his disciples fully. His faith in them was such that he felt safe sharing the deep struggle of his soul with them. We too, must share our deepest struggles and agonies with one another, it is part of how we live in community with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is part of our witness to the world of how we love and deeply care for one another. It is solid proof to the world that our faith is truly one of love and peace and hope. May it always be said of us, “Look; how they love one another!”
As we grow together in love, and as we share our prayers with one another, trust will also grow. It is sometimes a risk to open up our hearts to one another; but if we do not take that risk, trust cannot grow. This ought to be a very safe place to share our hearts. Jesus has established the pattern of how we ought to pray.
Finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. I guess the first question we have to ask ourselves is, Are we willing to allow Jesus to be human enough to not want to have to endure the agonies of the cross and the unimaginable horror of taking on the punishment for all of the sins of every man, woman and child who has ever and who will ever walk this earth? Can we allow him the space to dread the total abandonment of God, which is absolutely necessary to accomplish his mission?
If we can do that, Jesus will become ever so much more real to us. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he wanted out. He wanted to find another way. All things are possible with God. Jesus knows this; he believes this and he has proven it in his ministry. And now at a most awful place in his human existence, he prays that if it is possible, within God’s redeeming purposes to find another way, he’s all for it.
And yet, even though it is his sincere desire to be provided with a way of escape and to be delivered, he prays, “Yet not what I want, but what you want.” Praying that way is incredibly difficult. It is even more difficult to pray that way and to mean it. Oftentimes our own prayers go just the other way. We pray, Not what you want, But what I want. It takes a rare discipline to pray as Jesus has prayed in this passage. Jesus, however, has prayed this way, because he is able to see beyond the awful horrors of his suffering and death. He knows that the experience of suffering on the cross, and the agony of bearing the sins of the whole world will be unimaginably excruciating. He can ponder the awfulness of it, but he doesn’t yet comprehend the fullness of that horror. He won’t know that until he actually experiences it. But he does go into this with the promise of resurrection.
Back in chapter 16 in one of those matter-of-fact announcements of his suffering and death, Jesus also said that after three days he would be raised up. This, too, is our sure and certain hope. It won’t lesson the pain of living this life, it won’t always provide a blessed means of escape, and we’ll still have to live our lives out and through all of the trials and tragedies and disappointments that come our way. But in the end, there is resurrection and there is eternal life. And it is there, because our Lord prayed, “Not what I want, but what you want.”