As many of you are aware, I am a certified lay speaker in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. During my most recent certification course, I wrote and delivered the following sermon, which I have reproduced below in commemoration of Good Friday.
I send you all my best wishes for a healthy and happy Easter. He is risen indeed.
Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will."
Then He returned to His disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with Me for one hour?" He asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."
He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done."
When He came back, He again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So He left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
For many of us, the hardest part of Christianity to grasp is the idea that Jesus could be both man and God at the same time. Each of us knows from personal experience what it means to be a human being. While we can never fully appreciate the grandeur of God, we can at least understand that He exists at a level far above us. But it's hard to get a handle on the idea that God and man can exist together in a single person.
In our efforts to understand this idea, we find ourselves being drawn to Gethsemane, where we see most clearly how Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
Although He took the disciples with Him, Jesus left most of them to sit and wait while He went on with Peter, James, and John. Matthew tells us that, when Jesus was alone with these three disciples, He became "sorrowful and troubled." That shouldn't surprise us; He was off in a private place with His closest companions, knowing what was about to happen to Him, and, as a human being, He was afraid, as any human being would have been.
So, when Jesus went off alone for the first time to pray, He left His disciples with a heavy heart. He was overcome by a very human fear and He prayed a very human prayer. He said, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will."
A lot of times, we pray that way ourselves, don't we? We tell God what we want Him to do, then, at the end, we add, "Thy will be done," when what we really mean is, "My will be done." We say, "Lord, the company is cutting back in my department and we know some employees are going to be let go, and I sure hope I'm not one of them, but Thy will be done." We say, "Lord, I went in for some tests last week and the doctor says the results will be back on Tuesday, and I sure hope they come back negative, but Thy will be done."
When we pray that way, we aren't really putting our trust in God and asking for the faith to see His higher purpose even in what we regard as bad news. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in these situations and think we are being punished, we are really being taken out of our comfort zones in order to make us more receptive to what God is trying to tell us. Take the disciples, for instance. We know that some of the original apostles were fishermen by trade. But how successful were they at their chosen profession?
Based on the evidence of the New Testament, we have to wonder whether they were really any good at catching fish. Jesus and the disciples were constantly on boats, going back and forth across the sea. Jesus regularly preached to the masses by the shore. Yet, whenever Jesus had been preaching before a large crowd and He asked His disciples what they had to eat, what did they always say? "We have a couple of loaves of bread and three small fish." Half a dozen fishermen with a boat by the shore and they can never come up with more than three small fish.
In fact, the one time in the Gospels that we even see the disciples catching any fish, it was literally a miracle. They had been fishing all day, casting their nets and bringing them in, and they didn't catch anything until Jesus told them when and where to cast their nets. Based on what we know from the New Testament, the disciples were good men and good Christians, but they were lousy fishermen.
Now, I'm being a little bit facetious there, of course; we don't really know that much about the disciples' day-to-day lives before they became followers of Christ, but, if they did struggle to make a living at the trades they had chosen, could it be that it was God's way of redirecting their lives?
If James and John had been successful fishermen who were making good money doing what they did for a living, might they have been less receptive when Jesus called on them to follow Him? Don't we find it harder to rely on our own faith when we feel secure and comfortable and complacent? Maybe not having an aptitude as fishers of fish was what opened the disciples up to the possibility of becoming fishers of men.
Now, again, I say it somewhat in jest when I say that the disciples weren't good fishermen, but the point we need to understand is this: sometimes, God allows us to receive bad news because it's the only way He can get our attention long enough to bring us the Good News.
So, when Jesus went off by Himself, feeling troubled, He prayed the sort of prayer that you and I, as fearful human beings, sometimes pray when we are worried about the things of this world and are not focused on the faith God calls on us to have.
After praying what He knew was a prayer that came from the weakness of His humanity and not from the strength of his Godliness, Jesus went back to His disciples and, when He found them sleeping, He reacted angrily. He told Peter, "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."
Who is Jesus really talking to there? Was He really that angry with Peter for falling asleep? It was late at night; Peter was getting tired; Matthew tells us that the disciples' eyes were heavy; Jesus had already predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before morning, so He knew that Peter was going to follow Him after He was taken and stay up all night, sitting in the courtyard and waiting until the sun rose. So was Jesus really that upset with Peter for falling asleep?
Jesus may have directed those words at Peter, but I think He was talking mostly to Himself. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation," He says. "The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." As soon as He has given this warning to Peter, Jesus goes away from them a second time to pray. He is praying so that He will not fall into temptation and, this time, He doesn't speak from the weakness of the flesh, but from the willingness of the spirit.
This time, His prayer is just a little bit different. He says, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done."
Jesus is still sorrowful; He's still scared; He still doesn't want to have to face what He is about to face. This time, though, He doesn't ask, "May this cup be taken from Me." He starts to sound more accepting of the idea that this is part of God's plan. If this falls to Me to do, He is saying, if this is the way it has to be, then let Your will be done.
When He finds the disciples sleeping a second time, He doesn't chastise them for their weakness. Jesus lets them sleep and He goes off a third time to pray.
One of the drawbacks of having to read the Gospels in print rather than being able to see these events as they occurred is that the words on the page can't tell us everything there is to know. We can read what Jesus and His disciples said, but we can't see the expressions on their faces or hear their tone of voice when they spoke.
Matthew tells us that, when Jesus went away and prayed for the third time, He said the same thing He had said before. I have to think that He said it with a little more conviction the third time. As He puts His trust in the Father and allows His faith to see Him through, I like to believe that you could hear it in His voice as He said and as He meant, "May Your will be done."
It's also important for us to notice the sort of response Jesus received to His three prayers at Gethsemane. He knows that He is about to be arrested. He knows what He is about to endure. He understands the sacrifice He is about to be called upon to make. Matthew has already let us know that, as a man, Jesus was scared, just as you or I would have been. If ever there was a time when He needed to receive reassurance from the Father, this was it.
And it isn't as though a sign from above would have been altogether unexpected. After all, at Jesus's birth, there was a star shining in the heavens marking the spot where He was born, angels appeared before shepherds, and the Heavenly host sang out. When Jesus was baptized, the clouds parted, the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice of the Father was heard. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, Peter, James, and John---the same three disciples who were with Him at Gethsemane---saw His face and clothes shining like the sun, saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, and heard the voice of God speak from out of a cloud. In the days that followed, there were signs and wonders of every kind.
So why not now? Why is this the one critical moment in the earthly life of Jesus Christ where there is silence? No clouds part, no angels descend from on high, no voice from above rings out. The very moment at which He needed a sign the most is the only moment at which no sign appears. Why is that?
It is because, at Gethsemane, we see what it really means to say that Jesus was a man of flesh and blood. He didn't get angels appearing or voices booming or clouds descending when He prayed in His darkest hour because you and I don't get those things when we pray in the midst of our own struggles.
In that moment, Jesus was at His most fully human; He was scared, He was worried, and He wanted God to find another way so that He would not have to suffer that fate that awaited Him. That's the way we come to God in the midst of our own sorrows. What Jesus got in response was exactly what we get in response. For Jesus at Gethsemane, as for each of us when facing our own times of trial, the voice of God did not come thundering out of the sky; it came in the form of the still small voice of the Spirit as it speaks to all of us, if we only have faith enough to hear it.
We all know the story from there. When Jesus returned to His disciples after praying for the third and final time, He was met by His betrayer and an armed crowd, and He was arrested. From that point on, we no longer see Jesus in the weakness of His humanity, but in the fullness of His faith.
In verse 50, He tells Judas to do what he came to do. In verses 52 through 56, He tells His companions to put their swords away and He chastises the crowd for coming after Him with clubs and swords when they could have taken Him in the temple at any time. When He faces the charges against Him, Jesus tells both the high priest in verse 64 and Pilate in chapter 27, "Yes, it is as you say." He makes no effort to evade God's will and He speaks constantly of the fulfillment of the Scriptures and the prophecies.
It does not fall to us to suffer as Jesus suffered for us. When we look to Christ for our example, though, we need to see Him in His Godliness and in His humanity. In our own sorrow and fear and weakness, we need to remember Christ's sorrow and fear and weakness when He prayed at Gethsemane the first time.
And we need to listen, as Christ listened, and be open to the will of the Father as it is revealed to us in our time of prayer, so that we may find our faith and be strengthened, as Christ found His faith and was strengthened, when He prayed at Gethsemane for the last time.