In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gets a foretaste of the suffering he will endure on the cross for you and me. Christ’s suffering includes not merely the pain of the scourging and nails, but separation from his Father, hell itself. No one has ever suffered anything more. Yet, when he prays, “Not my will but thine,” he chooses that suffering anyway. What amazing love!
Sermon Text: Mark 14:32-52
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 of this sermon.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript, with footnotes.
Like everyone, I was deeply disturbed by the news last week of that German co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who committed suicide—by locking the pilot out of the cockpit and flying his Airbus A320 into an Alpine mountainside—killing 149 passengers alongside him. When I hear about evil on that scale, I find that it really does help to believe in the devil—that this man is more than merely “mentally ill” or even just a bad person; he’s possessed. Satan’s existence helps me make sense of evil like that.
I wish people like Lubitz, who have a death wish, would keep it to themselves and not involve other people in it—not impose their death wish on other people!
In today’s scripture, by contrast, it’s clear that Jesus does not have a death wish. He wants, if possible, to avoid his appointment with the cross. Mark tells us that Jesus was “greatly distressed and troubled.” Jesus himself says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death.”
What’s going on here? If we’ve read the gospel of Mark carefully up to this point, these words of Jesus should surprise us. Because up to this point, Jesus has always been calm, cool, collected—confident, completely in control. He knew what was coming. He was expecting this hour, preparing for this hour—indeed, he was born for this hour. And now it seems like he’s falling apart. What gives?
After all, consider other ancient heroes—like Socrates, for example, who was condemned to death and made to drink hemlock. We see him confront death with equanimity and ironic humor. Moreover, plenty of Christians who faced martyrdom seemed to handle it better than Jesus in the garden. When Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and a student of the apostle John, faced execution by being burned at the stake, he told the men who were going to execute him: “The fire you threaten burns for an hour and is quenched after a little… You do not know the fire of the coming judgment… But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.” When Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake in England in the 16th century on account of their faith, they were tied side-by-side. When the fire reached their feet, Latimer said, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley… we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” So ancient heroes and even later followers of Jesus seem to handle impending death better than Jesus does in today’s scripture.
Again, what’s going on with Jesus?
What’s going on is something related to what Jesus calls “the cup.” “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.”
He’s referring to what the Bible repeatedly calls the cup of God’s wrath. Isaiah, Zechariah, Jeremiah, the Psalms all refer to the cup of God’s wrath being poured out on people in judgment for their sins. On the cross, Jesus will drink this cup—for us, in our place. Jesus, in other words, will suffer the punishment for our sins.
You guys are too polite or too kind to say anything to me about it, but I’m sure by now you’re thinking, “Why does Pastor Brent talk about God’s wrath all the time? That’s such an unpleasant topic. We don’t like all this ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ talk.”
Well, I talk about it first because it keeps coming up in scripture—especially scripture related to Christ’s passion and death—and, second, because, in general, we’re deeply confused about it.
We don’t like the idea that God is justifiably angry about sin, but think about it: Didn’t it make you angry last week to think about those innocent people on board that plane whose lives were destroyed in a moment for no reason? Of course it does! You’re angry not because you’re unloving, unfeeling, uncaring—the very opposite. You’re angry because you think of the lives of these people who died through no fault of their own and you think, “This is deeply unjust! Something must be done for them to make this right!” You feel this way out of love. If you want a loving God, you also—whether you know it or not—want a God who has wrath toward sin and evil. A God who punishes it, who holds perpetrators accountable for the evil they do, who sees that justice is done. Not a God who shrugs his shoulders and thinks, “This is no big deal.”
Of course it’s big deal! Those 149 innocent people who lost their lives are a big deal to God.
This is exactly the kind of sin and evil about which God is justifiably angry. It’s exactly the kind of sin and evil for which God’s wrath was poured out on the cross. It’s exactly the kind of sin and evil that Jesus Christ defeated through his suffering, death, and resurrection.
Back in 2011, with less than three weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Israel on an important trip with some fellow pastors, including the bishop, Lisa and I came home from a date to find that our puppy Neko—who, in spite of herself, has somehow managed to survive into adulthood—we found her chewing up—mutilating beyond recognition—my passport. It was ruined. The State Department website says if your passport is damaged or mutilated, even a little, it’s no longer valid. And unless you pay a lot of money it would take six to eight weeks to get a new one! And even if you pay a lot of money, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a new passport in a couple of weeks. I was so angry at that dog! And if, before we ever adopted Neko, you could have shown me a film of that moment in advance—not to mention many more moments of stress and heartache—I’m certain I never would have adopted the dog! I would have thought, “It’s too much trouble! Too stressful! Too costly!”
Now, wives, consider the way your husband is like a dog… No, seriously, marriage is great but let’s face it: it entails a lot of suffering! Whenever I perform a wedding for a couple, I try to prepare them for what lies ahead through mandatory premarital counseling. Not that they listen to a word I say—they’re usually too much in love to think that their love will face any real challenges.
But if it were possible to show an engaged couple in advance a film of the worst argument they’ll ever have, the worst fight they’ll ever have, the rockiest time they’ll ever have in their marriage… If I had the power to do that, would anyone choose to get married? Heck, if we could show prospective parents a film of the absolute lowest points in their relationships with the future teenagers, would any of them choose to have a baby?
You see what I mean? If we could catch a glimpse of our future suffering, we would probably change our minds, change course—unless… Unless in spite of the pain, we just really love that dog we want to adopt, that man or woman we want to marry, that child we want to bring into the world.
Now apply this to Jesus in today’s scripture… The reason Jesus isn’t cool, calm, and collected in the Garden of Gethsemane is because it’s as if God the Father has shown him a film of what lies ahead. As one commentator writes, “The dreadful sorrow and anxiety, then, out of which the prayer for the passing of the cup springs, is not an expression of fear before a dark destiny, nor a shrinking from the prospect of physical suffering and death. It is rather the horror of the one who lives wholly for the Father” facing the prospect of being separated—cut off—from the Father on the cross. Jesus, he says, had always found heaven opened before him when he prayed, but this time he found hell—and he staggered. In the garden, the Father shows Jesus a glimpse into the hell he would suffer on the cross—a foretaste of what he would soon experience.
This seems like a very risky thing for the Father to do. If the Father really wants his Son to drink the cup of wrath on the cross, why not keep him in the dark about what he’s about to go through until Jesus is already nailed to the cross and can’t go anywhere or do anything about it? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Because at this point in the garden, Jesus could have so easily avoided his fate. In Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus gets arrested, he tells his disciples that he could call upon twelve legions of angels—more than 80 thousand fighting angels—to wipe out all his enemies if he wanted to. In Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus use supernatural power to slip away from an angry mob that wants to kill him. Even after being arrested, he could have simply answered the high priest Caiaphas and the Roman governor Pilate’s questions, and they would have released him.
So why didn’t Jesus—after being shown what he would face on the cross—and knowing that he had the power to resist it, simply leave? Who could blame him if he did? Unlike us, he doesn’t deserve judgment, suffering, death, or hell.
Last week we did a song in here—a contemporary hymn by Stuart Townend—who’s simply one of the best contemporary Christian hymn writers around. He co-wrote “In Christ Alone.” But the song we did last week was called “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” It includes this stanza:
Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished.
“It was my sin that held him there/ Until it was accomplished.” This is true enough: he was on the cross on account of my sin and your sin—and he wasn’t leaving the cross until he paid the price for those sins.
Still… I wouldn’t put it quite like that: It’s clear in Jesus’ willingness to accept the cup of wrath—even though the Father showed him in advance how bad it was going to be, even though he could have easily avoided it—that it wasn’t my sin or your sin that held him there so much as his love for you and me that held him there until it was accomplished.
Do you believe that God loves you that much? Do you really believe it? See, this is the main reason I talk about God’s wrath so much… because it reveals how much God loves you and me! Look at the cup that Christ freely, willingly, knowingly chose to drink! Look at what he freely, willingly, and knowingly chose to suffer for you and me! Do you see how much you’re worth to God?
At church council last Wednesday night, we discussed the priority we should place on making new disciples—on evangelism, on witnessing—and I asked the group what ideas they had for doing this, and by far the number one response was that we can pray about making new disciples. The idea that in order to make evangelism a priority we need to make prayer a priority was a great insight. Of course prayer should be our priority!
It was for Jesus. Notice how different Jesus is by the end of todays’s passage versus the beginning. After pouring his heart out in prayer, seeking his Father’s will, receiving the guidance he needs, he’s ready for the incredibly difficult task that lies ahead of him. From this point forward, we don’t see Jesus being “very sorrowful to the point of death.” He has received exactly the grace he needs to complete his mission. Verse 41 includes the words “It is enough,” which are surprisingly difficult to translate. But I like the way N.T. Wright does it in his translation: He has Jesus saying, “The job is done.” In other words, “I’ve done the work of prayer I’ve needed to do, now I’m ready for whatever comes next.”
We’ll never begin to face what Jesus faced in the garden, but it’s impossible not to learn from this example. Only the hard work of prayer can bring us to the place where we can say—and really believe—“Here’s what I want, God. Please give this to me. But—not what I want but what you want.”
If we could only learn to say and believe that every day, that’s the secret of happiness, isn’t it? Because what often makes us unhappy in life is the gap between what we want, and what we actually get. The wider the gap, the more unhappy we tend to be. We often can’t change the circumstances, but by grace God can change us. This change happens through the hard work of prayer.
So suppose we pray every morning something like this: “Whatever happens to me today, Father, I trust that it happens to me because you want it to happen. It doesn’t mean you caused it—certainly not if it’s something evil—but you allowed it to happen for a reason, and you want me to go through it—even if only as a trial to strengthen my faith and make me a better, more loving, more faithful person. Whatever circumstances I face today, Father, I face because you want me to face them. You’re in charge here, and I’m trusting that everything that happens, happens according to your will, your plan, your purpose. And if I can only submit to to your plan and say ‘not what I want, but what you want,’ I know that life will be much better. Teach me, Father, to want what you want for me—because you know infinitely more than I do, and only you know what’s best for me. So I’m going to trust you.”
Will learning to pray like this suddenly make everything O.K.? No, but it will certainly make things better. Besides, I read something last week about prayer that was amazing to me. It was from St. Augustine. He said, in so many words, that when you pray, don’t go to God with all the things you want before you realize that in God you already have everything you need.
You already have God! What obstacle, what challenge, what difficulty can’t face in your life right now? You have God! That doesn’t mean you don’t want other stuff, but you have God, which means you already have everything you need!
 Timothy Keller, Jesus the King (New York: Riverhead, 2011), 191.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 516.
 Ibid., 516-7.
 This thought paraphrases Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 139.