24 Hours that Changed the World: The Garden
We’re continuing today with our Lenten series examining 24 hours that changed the world, as we study in depth the 24 hours before Jesus’ death on a cross. Last week we looked at the Last Supper, and thought about how we are Christ’s body in the world, how we say yes, again and again, to God’s offer of covenant with us. Today, we turn to what happened after the meal. After the meal, Jesus and his disciples go to the Mount of Olives, and sing hymns, as was customary. And there Jesus tells the disciples that they will all soon desert him. They all protest, Peter in particular, but Jesus tells Peter that Peter specifically will soon deny Jesus, multiple times.
And then they all go to a place called Gethsemane, a place that meant “Olive Press,” named for a place to process the olives from the olive trees of the region into olive oil. And there, among the olive trees, Jesus takes Peter and James and John – the three he’s selected in other times when he’s wanted only his closest with him – he takes them aside and tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” That’s what amazes me most about this passage: even though Jesus knows that Peter is one of the people who will ditch him – not just abandon him but actively, verbally, repeatedly deny even knowing him – even knowing this, Peter is still one of the three that Jesus wants to accompany him on his darkest night. The grace of that is so powerful, of God loving us, and not even just loving us, no small thing in itself – but using us, valuing us, even with our ridiculously messy, faulty lives.
Then, we read, Jesus goes a little farther off from them and throws himself to the ground, an action of deep distress, of submission, of begging. And Jesus prays and prays, “Abba – Father – you can do anything. Take this cup away from me!” Take this unfolding of events out from in front of me. Let there be another way! “But,” Jesus says, “not what I want, but what you want.” Jesus returns to Peter, James, and John, and finds them sleeping. He ask them again to stay awake with him, even for just an hour. And again, he prays, the same words. Not what I want, but what you want. And again, he returns to find the disciples sleeping. Mark, the gospel writer, tells us that yes, their eyes were very heavy but that also, “they didn’t know what to say to him.” Their sleeping is at least part an avoidance technique. Hey, sorry, we couldn’t be more helpful, Jesus, but we were really tired! This pattern repeats even a third time. But finally, returning the last time, Jesus says, “Enough! The hour has come … see, my betrayer is at hand.” The night is over.
I think there are two points of view for us to consider in this passage. What do we take away imagining the perspective of Peter, James, and John, and what do we take away as we imagine what this experience was like for Jesus? I appreciate particularly Adam Hamilton’s chapter, “The Garden,” which you either have or will study in Bible Study this week in our Lenten study book. In the chapter, Hamilton acknowledges that scholars have pondered why Jesus kept praying to have the cup removed from him, why he was so anguished in the garden as he prayed alone. Various theories abound – maybe Jesus was feeling tempted, as he had at the start of his ministry, to take a different path – to say the disciples weren’t ready yet to lead on their own, to say that more could be accomplished if Jesus lived on earth longer. Others theorize that Jesus could have been anguished in Gethsemane, anticipating that people would confuse and misrepresent his message, that he hadn’t reached enough people, that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the Romans. Jesus was anguished over the future. And I think there is probably some truth in both those theories. But Hamilton, sensibly, I believe, simply asks, “Why wouldn’t Jesus have been full of anguish about the prospect of being arrested and beaten and crucified?” Why wouldn’t Jesus be thinking, praying, “If there’s another way to do this, I’d like to choose that way instead!” We follow a God who is God-with-us, Emmanuel, God made flesh. And so Jesus, God made flesh, can grieve, as we would, because of the difficult road he knows lies ahead of him.
When was the last time you knew that the right thing to do was something you really, really didn’t want to do? Oh, I’m not talking about doing a household chore or something – you know you should wash the dishes, but you really don’t want to. But when you were at a crossroads in life, and you knew which way you were supposed to go. You just really, really, didn’t want to go that way. I was talking with Sara Bailey recently about her prayer time, and about how you know the difference between your own voice and God’s voice in prayer. Sara, I have to tell you, is a powerful pray-er, and between her deep faith and God’s amazingness, some pretty neat things happen when Sara sets her mind on praying for something specific. Sara had encountered a challenging situation, and she was praying for direction from God. For clarity. And God answered. Clearly. God told Sara to lead. As she and I were talking, Sara wondered what we often wonder in prayer: Is the answer I’m hearing my answer, or God’s answer? Sara and I are both introverts, though, and since I understand a bit about Sara’s personality, I could tell her with confidence: if you were just hearing your own voice Sara, and not God’s, it would never be telling you to lead like that. If the answer you are hearing is telling you to do something that you kind of dread doing, then chances are, you’re hearing from God!
A few weeks ago, when we were talking about habits of effective disciples, we talked about service, about what it means when we say “God’s will be done.” And here, we witness the most powerful example of what it means, as Jesus prays these words in the garden. Jesus prays, and he knows that what God’s will is for Jesus to drink from the cup set before him. And so Jesus grieves, because he knows he’s going to follow God’s exact plan for him. Because he knows he’s heard God’s answer. We, too, can grieve, even when we’re faithfully following God. We grieve for other plans we might have had, or for the hard path that’s ahead of us, or for the anguish that giving up our control and handing it to God causes us. The anguish is a part of the journey of discipleship. A part we go through before the joy to come is visible from where we stand.
Sometimes we connect to Jesus’ anguish in this passage. But often, I think, we’re the disciples with eyes very heavy with sleep. This particular passage of scripture became personally meaningful for me when I was doing a chaplaincy internship at Crouse Hospital while I was in seminary. I’ve shared with you before about my experience of being in a chaplain in the NICU – the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit – being with anxious or hopeful or grieving families of newborns struggling to live – and realizing what every pastor, perhaps every person needs to realize. Sometimes we’re not able to or supposed to or wanted to fix things for people we encounter who are experiencing such suffering. The parents of struggling newborns knew that I couldn’t make their babies thrive. But if I could, if I would, I could listen to their anguished soul-bearing. That’s harder to do though. It’s easier to look for solutions, fixes, that keep us busy and separated from the emotional impact of feeling the agony someone else is experiencing. And so this passage of scripture, of the disciples sleeping through the night while Jesus really, really just wanted some company, some people to share in bearing witness to his grieving, became my touchstone verse for my chaplaincy, and for my understanding of pastoral care in general. Ninety percent of the time, I can’t fix things. But I can stay with someone while they offer their cries of anguish to God. We can all do that.
Back in February, I attended our conference’s clergywomen’s retreat, a gathering for women in ministry for some continuing education and spiritual renewal. We met with Rev. Jane Vennard, who works as a spiritual director. At one point, she asked us to pair up and to take turns – 5 minutes of time a piece, speaking, about whatever was on our hearts and minds, while the other person would just listen. Not comment, not interject. Not share how they went through something similar themselves. Not agree, or disagree. Simply listen. As an introvert, I didn’t find the prospect of listening without interrupting particularly challenging. But I found the prospect of having someone else listen to me in such an intense, focused way pretty overwhelming. How often do we expect someone to truly, deeply listen to us? Is it so unexpected, someone listening to us so deeply, that it even feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar?
We, like Jesus, can offer our anguish to God, even as we commit to following where God leads. And we, reminding ourselves how easy it is to feign sleep like the disciples, can offer ourselves to our companions on the journey as they offer their anguish to God. It sounds so simple. And yet, the disciples didn’t find it so. And yet, it was such a valuable gift, that companionship, that it was one of a very few things Jesus ever asked for.
This Lent, let us keep awake, praying that God’s will be done in our lives, even when we’re having a hard time syncing God’s will with our own. Let us keep awake, knowing that for God, all things are possible, and we want to be ready for them. Let us keep awake, even if it is only because we must offer our cries of anguish to God. Let us keep awake, even if it is only to stay, stay, stay with one who needs some strength for the journey. Let us keep awake, even when our eyes are heavy with sleep, even when we don’t know what to say. Let us keep awake. The flesh is weak. But let our spirits be willing. Amen.