Today is Good Friday.
The question beckons us today as we continue our countdown to Easter,
Was Jesus’ coming crucifixion the most agonizing moment of his life?
Surely it must be ranked among the very highest we read of in the bible. Death on a Roman cross was excruciating pain, and none of that was spared to Jesus.
Perhaps considering the magnitude of this moment, for Jesus, what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane was suffering just as great as crucifixion.
When the Passover meal was eaten Jesus left with his disciples, except Judas, who had already gone to fetch soldiers to arrest Jesus.
Jesus and the other disciples went to Gethsemane, an area filled with olive trees. The man, Rabbi Jesus needed his time and space to pray, to pour out his heart to His Father God, and he took along three of the disciples to stay close to him.
In the hour or two that follows, we read from our incoming text, Jesus bares the unbelievable weight of his grief in his soul, and we see pain beyond imagining.
Matthew 26:36-46 New American Standard Bible
The Garden of Gethsemane
36 Then Jesus *came with them to a place called [a]Gethsemane, and *told His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 And He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with Him, and began to be grieved and distressed. 38 Then He *said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”
39 And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” 40 And He *came to the disciples and *found them sleeping, and He *said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? 41 Keep watching and praying, so that you do not come into temptation; the spirit is [b] willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass away unless I drink from it, Your will be done.” 43 Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. 45 Then He *came to the disciples and *said to them, “[c]Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour [d]is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let’s go; behold, the one who is betraying Me is near!”
The Word of God for the Children of God. Gloria! In Excelsis Deo! Alleluia! Amen.
Three things mark out the time in Gethsemane.
1. It is a time of deep agony.
Several of the words in verses 37 and 38 are filled with appalling pain and anguish for Jesus. He was “sorrowful” and “troubled.” He told the disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
The gospels don’t often describe any emotion of Jesus other than compassion.
So, the gospel narrators saw this time and this experience in Gethsemane as something almost unique and certainly important to record.
There are martyrs who have gone silent or with brave words to their death, as if it is nothing to them that they will be burned at the stake or torn by wild dogs or executed with a sword.
Not Jesus. Inside him is a sorrow and an agony so strong, so all-consuming that he feels he might die there and then, and he pours out that sorrow to God.
Why such pain?
Above all, perhaps two reasons.
For one thing, Jesus knew that crucifixion lay ahead.
Death on a cross was death by prolonged torture.
The piercing of hands and feet with nails, the exposure to burning sun or bitter cold, the humiliation by mocking crowds, the near-impossible strain of lifting the collapsed body to breathe, the physical frame becoming weaker, the mind becoming delirious… all excruciating pain.
And it lasted a very long time, maybe hours, maybe days. Crucifixion was an intentional slow death, so the condemned person experienced maximum agony and so those who watched learned the lesson – never to rebel against the state.
Crucifixion was so cruel that the Romans usually crucified only slaves, pirates, or their enemies and not their own citizens.
Jesus knew crucifixion lay just ahead. Who would not be in an agony of soul?
For another thing, Jesus’ death would be no ordinary death.
Yes, he would suffer and die like any man. But he would be the man whose suffering included bearing the sins of the whole world in his own body.
No one can know all that meant for him – perhaps more intensified pain, perhaps separation from his perfect communion with his Father.
Whatever exactly was before Jesus, it was a ‘cup’ he dreaded drinking. Bishop N.T. Wright says: “He had looked into the darkness and seen the grinning faces of all the demons in the world looking back at him. And he begged and begged his father not to bring him to the point of going through with it.”
Whatever the trials or suffering of our lives, whatever the reality is, however great our darkness or our pain, Jesus understands. He knows deep agony, he knows what it is to dread what lies ahead, he knows the need to get down on the ground and cry out to God to be released. He knows what we all need to know!
2. It is a time of wrestling and resolution.
Jesus’ prayer in the Garden is remarkable for its straightforward honesty.
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39).
We have all known people who prayed for a dreadful future to go away:
- The person diagnosed with an incurable neurodegenerative disease, or with an inoperable cancer or severe cardiac disease which will lead inevitably to death.
- The mother who was just told by their doctor that the baby in her womb was anencephalic, and without full development of the child’s brain and skull the baby could not and in fact would not live for more than a few hours after birth.
- The parents of any beautiful seven-year-old boy or girl diagnosed with a brain tumor, or in a severe auto accident, life supported only by medical equipment, waiting for the inevitable day the child’s time in this world would certainly end.
- The Husbands or Wives who were just told that their spouses had Alzheimer’s.
- Ask any Ukranian Citizen who just had their lives upended by bullets flying in and through their kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms where they were just going to sleep, watching TV, listening to music with the children close at hand.
For these people and so many others like them, their deepest longing was that somehow that unimaginably dreadful future would not exist. If only somehow – by a miracle of miracles – what they know will happen will not happen. If only the impossible could become possible. How can we or they not pray for any of that?
So, the man, Rabbi Jesus went off to be alone and he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Is Jesus simply voicing his agony and his longing? Or did Jesus truly think the cup of suffering could be taken away?
When Jesus prays the prayer the second time, he seems to know the answer.
The words are slightly different. “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (v. 42).
Had Jesus sensed the answer to his prayer was ‘no’?
Perhaps that is reading too much into the slight change of words, because Matthew records that Jesus prayed the same prayer a third time (v. 44).
But it sure makes sense that Jesus would ask if he could be released from the appalling suffering of death on the cross. There is a deep inner wrestling here.
But Jesus was not rejecting God’s will.
He was not trying to avoid the will of His Father God; he was ensuring this cup of suffering was the will of God. Certainly, his flesh recoiled from the prospect of dying in agony, and certainly it was an unimaginable burden to absorb the pain and sin of the world in his body, but the heart of his prayer was always “may your will be done.” He wanted nothing other than what His own Father wanted for him. He had no alternate agenda other than to do the Father’s will.
And as he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, the matter was settled.
There was no more time for questioning. It was resolved, and Jesus would go forward into the hands of those who would betray, arrest, beat and crucify him.
3. It is a time of weakness and failure.
The disciples persistently let Jesus down. At the start he told them to keep watch with him (v. 38).
After his first time of prayer, Jesus returned to them, found them sleeping and urged them again to watch and pray (v. 41).
A short time later he came back to them again, and again found them sleeping (v. 43). And when his prayer was then finished and he rejoined them, it was no different. “Are you still sleeping and resting?” he asked them (v. 45).
It was the night and therefore no surprise they were tired and fell asleep.
But Jesus needed them.
One of the greatest struggles of all human history was happening only a few paces away, but these men curled up and went to sleep. Even though they were asked several times to stay awake, still they slept. What Jesus wanted was not very difficult to understand and not impossible to do. But they let him down.
We are no different. We don’t sin out of ignorance. We sin because of weakness, unwillingness, selfishness, or carelessness. At times when the deep spiritual battles are at stake, we’re not on the alert, not at our posts, not playing our part.
Thankfully Jesus did not give up on these disciples, just got them to their feet since the force coming to arrest him was in sight (v. 46).
Jesus does not give up on us either.
That does not mean our failures don’t matter, only that Jesus won’t let us wallow in past mistakes for there are new challenges to face just ahead.
What then shall we say of this walk through the Garden called Gethsemane:
A time of deep agony.
A time of wrestling and resolution.
A time of weakness and failure.
There are three short but important lessons.
1) Prayer is not always answered as we might wish.
Jesus, the perfect Son of God, poured out his heart.
There is no doubt he longed to escape the cross. But God said ‘No.’
There was no fault in the person praying.
There was nothing wrong with the prayer. It would have made no difference if the prayer time had lasted all night, or if the prayer had been repeated a million times by a million people. The answer from God would still have been ‘No.’
- We can and should pour out our hearts to God, but with humility and meekness let us recognize that the will of God we find may find on the door stops of our hearts may not be the same as the will we agonizingly brought to the prayer.
- The deepest of inner agonies can be shared with God.
Jesus was troubled, and he tells his disciples his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
Some Christians believe any form of depression as weakness of faith.
If that were true, then many of the Bible’s greatest saints were weak. And Jesus was weak in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was, but it was no sin.
Weakness is common to human experience, and, at times, it is the very thing that drives us to God.
There is no sin in being real about our feelings, and no sin in coming to God confessing our struggles. God copes very well with honest people. Cures are rarely instant but being open before God is always the right start.
3. God’s will does get done.
Jesus prayed for that: “…not as I will, but as you will” (v. 39). And God’s will was done.
We may never face death on a cross, but we may see some other appalling future that sends dread through our whole being. At times like that we are tempted to say: ‘How can God be so absent or impotent?
Where is God at a time like this?’
The answer is God is right there. Just as he was in Gethsemane, as he was at the cross, and as he was at the tomb raising Jesus back to life.
Through all of it, God was there.
Our challenges and our agonies overwhelm us, and we feel so alone.
But God is there, always there. He is not hiding, not gone astray, not become unwilling. And God is at work, and his work is always good.
When Jesus left Gethsemane, the challenge of the future was still there.
The agony of the cross was still ahead. Easter was about to come.
But Jesus came through Gethsemane strengthened in knowing God’s will more certain and surer and he could face anything God allowed in his life. Because of what happened in his Gethsemane, he was now prepared even for the cross.
As we walk around and through the Garden, observing the events of that day,
May God also make us all more ready for his perfect will, whatever it may be!
In the name of God, the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,
Let us Pray,
Eternal God, your power is unlimited, and your strength has no end. You have said that faith, hope and love as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. Fill me with the measures of faith, hope and love for a breakthrough in my own circumstances. I believe You are able to do far more than all that I ask or can even dare imagine, according to the power at work within me. To you be glory throughout all generations, forever and ever. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Gloria! In Excelsis Deo! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.