24 Hours That Changed the World: The Garden of Gethsemane
Scripture: Matthew 26:36-46
I remember the night vividly. It was about 2 am when I received the call from dispatch that there was a young woman murdered, her name was Molly and they need to me to make the death notification to the family. That night I was the police chaplain on call. Again, as they repeated her name and the families address I did a double take. “Are you sure you said Molly”? They replied “yes” and they repeated the address. And it was then that I realized that this young woman who was murdered was a member of my church in Oshkosh.
When I made my way to the home of her mother I was met with such heart ache that words can’t fully explain. I spent the night and the morning with the family praying, crying, and being present. When I returned home later that morning I fell into bed exhausted, and given what I’d just experienced, I couldn’t sleep. Believe me, it was a night – and a week – I’ll never forget.
Have you ever experienced a night like that – a night interrupted with an unexpected phone call? A summons that took you places you didn’t want to go, to see things you didn’t want to see? Perhaps to a hospital, a jail, a site of an accident, or a tragedy at school? It’s just as well we don’t know such things are going to happen beforehand, because if you did, we’d be tempted to run, flee, or despair whether we can endure it.
Our hearts are going out to the broken and grieving families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High as they experience a tragedy which is a parent’s worst nightmare. A nightmare that they would never ever wake up from. Their lives have been interrupted in an unspeakable way.
The last 24 hours of his life would offer no rest for him. The Gospels are clear, and use unusually descriptive language, about the anguish Jesus was in, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane one of the gospels writers says Jesus was “distressed and agitated, deeply grieved, even to death.
Let us journey back to that night 2000 years ago as we look at how this Gethsemane event changed Jesus and the world. After the Passover Seder Jesus shared with his disciples from approximately 5 pm to midnight on Thursday, they concluded with a hymn, most likely the Hallel, with which Passover is concluded, selected verses from Psalm 113 to 118.
Approximately around midnight, Jesus led his disciples not home to comfortable beds, but to a little garden in Jerusalem near the Mount of Olives, called the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus liked to pray. Taking Peter, James, and John with him, Jesus went a little distance from them, and fell to the ground in anguish, in prayer.
Peter, James, and John, meanwhile, passed out, as the text says, “from grief,” at the news Jesus had given, not only that he has about to be betrayed, but that one of them would do it. Throughout, Mark’s Gospel in particular, portrays Jesus’ disciples as clueless, faithless, always sleeping. The Gospels tells us that, Jesus tries to awaken them three different times.
What was the prayer Jesus prayed in such anguish? Thanks to the Gospel authors, who considered it important that we know, it was a prayer of intimacy and honesty, indeed the way we should pray.
“And going a little farther, Jesus threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba (Papa), for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
It was at this moment that the full humanity of Jesus was revealed. He was no different than you and me. I am sure that the tempter was there again whispering in his ear, as he had in the wilderness, raising questions, and consequent doubts, about what he was about to do? “Jesus, does God really want you to die? Think of how much more good you can do if you live? And this band of misfits you call disciples – do you really think they can carry on? Look at them – sleeping! It’s not too late, Jesus: Run! Fight! Compromise! Anything but die!
Even more profoundly, Jesus prayer raises this question, “Did Jesus have a choice? Could he have said “No?” To me, the scene in the Garden, the agony of Jesus, and his honest and intimate prayer to the Father make no sense unless he really had a choice, unless he could have actually said “No.”
Do we have a choice? Is our destiny determined for us, shaped irrevocably by circumstance, fate, destiny, God; or do we have a choice? Does God take human freedom so seriously that we – like Jesus – can say “Yes” or “No” to God’s will for our lives, and thereby change the course not only of our lives, but perhaps of history?
However, we look at it he didn’t want to die. Many time Jesus, while walking along the roads, saw Roman justice and it wasn’t pretty. He knew if he stayed on the same course he would experience the same fate. Jesus could have disappeared in the night sneaking over the Mount of Olives never to be heard from again, yet he stayed and prayed. Again, we hear Jesus’ response to this choice between life and death, “not my will, but thy will be done”.
Let me leave you with four questions to consider:
Where is our Garden of Gethsemane? Where do we go to pray, especially – but not only – at our times of darkness and crisis?
At what times, and in what ways, have we betrayed, deserted, or denied Jesus? Perhaps not outright, but simply by being AWOL when we really needed to stand up and be accounted for? When in our experience of faith have we heard – and sometimes heeded – the tempter’s whispered temptation, “Just run!”
What do we feel God is calling us to do, that we really don’t want to do? Probably every one of us knows what it is like to sense that God wants us to do something we do not want to do. We may feel called to take on a new ministry, to leave behind an unhealthy relationship, or to give a sacrificial gift to an organization. How did – how do – we respond?
At the end of the day, perhaps the most important question of all: Is Jesus’ prayer, our prayer: “Not what I want, but what you want.” “Thy will be done.”