Sermon for 03-18-12: “God’s Passion, Part 1: In the Garden”

March 22, 2012

This sermon is the first of a three-part series on the last hours of Jesus’ life before the cross. We begin our series in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-52. This sermon examines the difficulty of praying Jesus’ prayer, “Not what I want, but what you want,” both for Jesus and for us.

Sermon Text: Mark 14:32-52

The following is my original manuscript.

I grew up thinking of my dad as someone who was always tough, always strong. In fact, when I was kid I remember thinking that Dad’s arms were as thick as tree trunks. He was like Popeye without the anchor tattoos on his forearms. He was in the Air Force, anyway, not the Navy. Even today, I look at myself in the mirror and think [flex muscles], “Nope. I don’t look nearly as strong as he did.” If I were ever taunted on the playground about whose dad was tougher and “my dad could beat your dad up”… Well, I knew the answer. I knew that my dad could beat anyone else’s dad up. No contest.

This is in part why it was shocking to my 10-year-old mind when my dad’s mother, “Granny,” died. Because I saw Dad cry for the first time. That was so weird to me. I mean, I cried all the time back then. But Dad never cried. At least until then.

I was reminded of Dad’s vulnerability again years later, during the last year of his life as he was dying of cancer. He lost a lot of weight and looked so frail, so emaciated. He could no longer walk easily without help. He had a catheter. He had a feeding tube. He often coughed uncontrollably. He was physically weak, in many ways a shadow of that strong man I used to know.

Even now, I occasionally have dreams of Dad, and when I do they’re so vivid and lifelike. It’s as if Dad were as real and present as you are to me. And what these dreams have in common is that Dad is always physically strong again. And I’m always like, “Dad, why are you out of bed? You shouldn’t be moving around like this. And where’s your catheter bag?” But he looks good. And I’m convinced this is God’s way of telling me that he is well and strong and healthy again. But when he was dying, it was something else entirely.

Have you had an experience like that? When someone you always looked up to as being strong as an ox, solid as oak, impenetrable, is brought low by illness or sadness or grief… It’s hard to see.

The disciples Peter, James, and John must have experienced Jesus in a similar way on this night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Verse 33 says that Jesus “began to feel despair and was anxious.” He fell to the ground in prayer. Luke says that his “sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.” One theologian writes, “We can only begin to imagine the effect on the disciples of the sudden change that came over Jesus in Gethsemane. Until that moment he had been in control: planning, directing, teaching, guiding. He had always been ready with a word or action. Now he is, as we say, falling apart, and warning [his disciples] that they are going to collapse around him.”[1]

If there were any doubts about the full humanity of Jesus, today’s scripture should lay them to  rest. This isn’t some “Superhero Jesus”—faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, more powerful than a speeding locomotive—this is someone who is recognizably human, experiencing the same profound and troubling emotions that you and I experience.

Among other things, this should reassure us that we can be good Christians and not have it together, emotionally, all the time. We can be good Christians and not be happy all the time. We can be good Christians and feel profound feelings of grief, sadness, anger, and despair… And it’s no sign of doubt or lack of faith when we feel this way. We Christians get this wrong all the time. I’m thinking of my friend Brian in college, who felt very lonely because he couldn’t find the love of his life. He thought he had found her when he was in high school. He was madly in love with Donna. He just knew that they would marry and have 2.5 kids and a front yard with a white picket fence. And in the rear window of their minivan they were going to have the stick-figure family with the stick-figure children and stick-figure dog and cat. He had it all planned out! But he and Donna broke up, and he was crushed, and he hadn’t fallen in love again. Would he ever find the love of his life, or was he destined to spend the rest of his life as a bitter and lonely man?

Brian was telling me these things, and he was falling apart. He was really upset, really sad, really angry. And here I was: Super-Christian to the rescue! I said, “Brian, you just have to ‘let go and let God.’ You just have to trust more. The moment you give it up to God in prayer and stop worrying, that’s the moment that God will answer your prayer, and you’ll find true love, and you’ll live happily ever after.” And Brian looked at me, and said, “What a bunch of bull–loney!” And he was right! I would want to punch me in the face if I were him! Here I was, telling him in so many words that something was wrong with his faith because he was upset, anguished, beside himself with sadness.” Maybe some of you have been burned by well-meaning Christians in a similar way?

[Sheila Walsh discussing her severe depression, for which she takes medication. “Why can’t you snap out of it? Why do you feel sad? Why do you feel depressed?” Many friends and fans told her, in so many words, that the root of her problem was spiritual. Something was wrong with her faith. Perhaps she even had a demon!]

[Psalm 137… Feeling this way isn’t wrong; acting on those feelings is wrong. It’s probably healthy to tell God exactly how we’re feeling. Maybe through that he can heal us.]

The experience of Jesus in the garden should give us permission to feel what we feel, including deep sadness and anxiety… and that’s perfectly O.K.

It’s easy in this case to identify with Jesus’ humanity, not because we’ve ever known this degree of suffering—fortunately for us, Christ’s suffering doesn’t need to be repeated by us. We identify with Jesus in part because we’ve known the anguish of temptation. Remember when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness? He passed that test, of course, but Luke’s gospel gives us a further detail: Luke writes, “the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.” Interestingly enough, even Luke doesn’t say when that opportunity arose. We never read about Satan again. But, friends, I’m convinced that the next opportunity is today’s scripture, when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Just as the devil asked Jesus earlier, “If you really are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread,” so now the devil is probably whispering in his ear, “Are you sure that you’re the Son of God? Because think about it: you’ll be throwing your life away if you’re not.” Or maybe: “Are you sure that there isn’t some way other than the cross? You’re only thirty-three! You’ve got so much more you could do with your life.”[2]

One thing that strikes me about these hours leading up to the cross is just how easily avoidable the cross was for Jesus.

Just last week, I realized that I’m currently driving without an up-to-date insurance card. I have insurance, believe me. But I don’t know whether or not I received the new card in the mail. If I did, I misplaced it. I need to get the insurance company to send me a new one, obviously, but in the meantime, what if I get pulled over? I was musing over this problem as I was driving last week. And in my head, I was formulating various answers that I might give to the cop that would get me off the hook and help me avoid a ticket. I’ve known people who are really skilled at getting out of tickets, and it always at least involves failing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But they’re off the hook that way, and they don’t get a ticket.

The point is, Jesus is surely tempted to talk his way out of it, to tell these law enforcement officers and, later, Caiaphas, the judge, what they want to hear. That it’s all a misunderstanding. A misinterpretation. It’s all hearsay. It would be so easy, wouldn’t it?

And as with any temptation to sin, Jesus could surely justify it! “I mean, look at these disciples!” Jesus might have told himself. “They’ve spent three years with me. They’ve seen the miracles. They’ve seen the healings. They’ve seen me feed the multitudes. They’ve seen me walk on water. They’ve seen me calm the storm. They’ve heard the sermons and the parables and the wisdom; they’ve heard me match wits with the Pharisees and priests. They’ve seen the adoring crowds. In spite of all that, Judas is in the process of selling me out for only 30 pieces of silver; and even my three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, can’t stay awake for one hour when I need them the most! These disciples are clearly not ready for me to leave them… They’re not ready to carry on this mission without me. I mean, sure, if things were different, maybe I could go through with this suffering and death, but not like this… Not now.”[3]

If, like me, you ever watch Survivor or other reality shows, you know that whenever a contestant is faced with a choice between acting out of principle and taking the money, they always take the money, or at least try to. And—here’s the thing—they always do so for the best of reasons! We human beings have an endless capacity for self-justification. And self-deception. We lie to ourselves so easily and often. It helps us live with ourselves when it comes to our own sin.

My point is, it’s hard enough to do the right thing under normal circumstances… much less when it’s a matter of life and death. Why did Jesus do it? It’s hard to comprehend that kind of integrity. It’s hard to comprehend that kind of obedience to the Father. It’s hard to comprehend “Not what I want, but what you want.”

Can you imagine living every moment of your life with that question on your lips or in your heart: “Not what I want, but what you want”? How would that change the way we live?

It’s hard to comprehend it, but maybe we don’t have to. In these final hours leading up to and including the cross, Jesus did something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves. We can’t earn God’s love or grace or salvation. We don’t have to! All we have to do is sit back in awe at the incomprehensible love that Christ demonstrates for us and say, “Thank you, Jesus. I couldn’t pass this test myself, but I thank you that you did it for me! And because you did it for me I get to have eternal life. I get to be a child of God. I get to be saved for all eternity. Amen.”

Now… what can we do, Lord, in response to this love?

One thing we can do is to do what Jesus told Peter, James, and John to do: “Stay awake. Keep alert” He isn’t just referring to physical sleep. He said the same words back in Mark chapter 13.

Earlier, I mentioned my Dad’s struggle with terminal cancer. He told me several times during those final months of his life, “I love you, Brent. And you’re going to get tired of hearing me say it, because I’m going to say it every time that I see you. But I love you. Do you understand?” These three words that came reluctantly and with effort before Dad got sick, he now spoke easily and often. “I love you.” And he prayed often… And started reading the Bible for the first time in his adult life, every day.

I said earlier that Dad had never seemed weaker or more frail than when he was sick with terminal cancer; but that’s not right at all.

The truth is, he had never been stronger or more powerful. Isn’t that funny? He had never been stronger or more powerful than when he learned to trust, really trust, in his heavenly Father, the source of true strength. Dad died fully alert and fully awake to God.

I hope my own children, when they look at me—if they don’t see this kind of strength—I hope they see that kind of strength that comes from faith. Not simply when I’m approaching the end of my life, but right now. Besides, who knows whether we’ll get to have a long, slow, drawn-out death? Who knows whether, like my father, we’ll have time to prepare and get right with God? Who knows whether we’ll have time to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done?The only thing we know for sure is that we have this present moment, this heartbeat, this breath in our lungs. The next moment, the next heartbeat, the next breath isn’t guaranteed. What will we do with this one right now? Will Jesus find us sleeping? Will we be awake? Will we keep alert?

I also suggested earlier that during these hours spent in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus must have seemed very weak to his disciples… but that’s not right at all. The truth is that when Jesus fell on the ground and prayed, “Not what I want, but what you want,” he had never been stronger or more powerful.

Strong enough and powerful enough, in fact… to save you and me. Amen?

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 198.

[2] See Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours that Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 39.

[3] Ibid.

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