Monday, March 28, 2011

With Christ in the Garden

C. S. Lewis wrote over 50 books on a wide variety of topics. Thanks to the labor of some of his friends, we have today several volumes of letters, essays, and poems in addition to his many books. There is seldom a subject I am researching on which I can’t find a great quote by Lewis. He always wanted to write a book on prayer, because he saw the great need for a better one than was available. So, he set out to write that book, but quickly abandoned the effort for some unknown reason. Ten years later, he published a different book, a collection of letters written in a fictitious dialogue between two friends on several issues, a good bit of it centering on the subject of prayer. So, he entitled the book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. In that exchange, Lewis hints at perhaps why the earlier book was abandoned. He says, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.” So, in Letters to Malcolm, Lewis can offer his ideas on prayer, not as instruction, but as if his reader were eavesdropping on a friendly conversation. Near the end of the book, he confesses, “by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has.” Think for a moment about Lewis’s statement. Isn’t that the case with most of us? We talk more about prayer than we actually pray? We tend to make it seem like it has a bigger part of our lives than it actually does.  So he goes on to say, “Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” Do you find that this is the case?

In our passage today, we find Jesus Christ on His knees with His Father agonizing in prayer in the face of death. Let the reality of this sink in. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, fully divine and fully human. Skeptics and critics of the Christian faith who mock the doctrine of the Trinity often turn to this very passage to ask if Jesus was schizophrenic, just talking to the voices in His head in the garden? The relationships between the persons of the Trinity are mysterious. God is One, and He exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, but three distinct persons in one Triune Godhead. That’s a nearly unexplainable complexity, but we accept this reality about God because He has revealed it about Himself to us. And these three persons have perfect fellowship among themselves within the singular Godhead. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not different in nature as if one was greater than the other, but each is different in function. The theologians call this Intertrinitarian Functional Subordination. There is a willful submission on the part of the Son to the Father, and on the part of the Spirit to the Son. And God the Son, in the darkest hour of His earthly existence, is driven to prayer with God the Father.

Consider what the circumstance of this prayer is. In mere moments of time, Jesus will be betrayed by one of His own disciples, abandoned by the rest, unjustly condemned, physically tortured, and ultimately murdered in the most “cruel and unusual” form of capital punishment humanity has ever contrived. He is in the grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives known as Gethsemane. That word is Hebrew, and means “olive press,” the device by which olives were crushed by massive stones to produce olive oil. It is fitting that Jesus is in this place at this time, when He is consciously aware of the crushing weight under which He is being afflicted – the weight of the sins of humanity—the weight of my sin; the weight of your sin; the weight of every human sin ever committed by every human being who ever lived. And in the intensity of this moment, in the very face of death, God the Son is driven to prayer with God the Father.

Now, this being so, it is reasonable to make draw some preliminary conclusions. First, if Jesus Christ, who is the divine Son of God, a coequal, coeternal person of the Triune Godhead, needs to pray to His Father, then surely you and I need to all the more. And secondly, the circumstances in which Jesus turns to the Father in prayer are infinitely more severe than any circumstance ever faced by any other person. Therefore, in the midst of our own hardships, we must surely turn to God in prayer as well.

Mark describes Jesus in v33 as being very distressed and troubled. The Greek words used here are rare in the New Testament, and rightly so. The experience of Jesus at this moment is unprecedented and unsurpassed in human existence. Jesus said at this moment in v34, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.” Notice here that the “death” of which He speaks is not His death on the cross. He speaks of the burden of His present grief as being nearly fatal. So great is the intensity of the pressure of this present hour, that it threatens to crush His very life. The reality of bearing the weight of the sins of humanity and being cut off from His Father as He bears the wrath of God on our behalf is a soul-crushing agony.

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a great difficulty, distressed, troubled, grieved with an intensity that we deem it inescapable and fatal? My point here is not to draw parallels between Jesus’ experience and our so-called Gethsemanes. You and I will never face a Gethsemane. Jesus faced it for us. Our miseries and calamities in life, regardless of their severity, will always pale in comparison to this one. Though we deserve to be pressed to death in a thousand Gethsemanes, by God’s grace, Jesus has been pressed in Gethsemane for us. My point is rather to set forth the example of Jesus in His response to this hour. The greatest man, indeed the God-man, faced the greatest horror of history, and responded to it with prayer to His Father. Therefore, we, the lesser-beings that we are, can face our lesser-trials, in the same way. How shall we pray in the midst of life’s darkest hours? We find several patterns of prayer in this horrific episode from the life of the Lord Jesus that serve as a model for us as we pray through our own lives’ devastations. There are six of these patterns seen here.

I. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intensity (v35)

In most of the artwork I have seen depicting Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane, He is clothed in sparkling white linens, kneeling before a rock with His hands folded as He looks upward to God. This is not the picture I see in the description here in this text. Jesus proceeded a little beyond His disciples (Luke tells us, about a stone’s throw).  And there He “fell to the ground and began to pray.” His concern was not for decorum or posture. The weight of the burden on His soul buckled His knees and He collapsed upon the dirt of that garden. Matthew tells us that He fell on His face! And laying in the dirt, He began to cry out to the Father. Luke tells us in his Gospel that, due to the agony of the circumstances, “He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” Now one may say that this is impossible to sweat blood, but remember two things. First, Luke is a physician, and he knows what is and is not medically possible; secondly, he says that His sweat became “like” drops of blood. NT Scholar Darrell Bock writes that this is a depiction “of Jesus’ emotional state as so intense that He perspired profusely as a result. The sweat beads multiplied on His body and fell like flowing clumps of blood and dropped to the earth.”

We often picture ourselves at prayer the way artists have pictured Jesus in Gethsemane. We envision that we must come before the Lord in clean clothes, in a comfortable posture, and reverently whisper our concerns to Him in a calm state. I believe that it is owing to this false notion of what prayer must involve that we do not more often carry our concerns to God. We feel like we have to clean ourselves up and calm ourselves down before we can talk to the Father. We don’t learn that from Jesus. What we see here is that there comes a time when all we can do is collapse before Him on our face in agony and cry out with sweat drops precipitating off of our bodies like clots of blood as we beseech the Father in intensity. In life’s darkest hour, we can pray in this way and know that God is not offended by our posture or our perspiration. He welcomes us to pray with intensity.

II. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intimacy (v36)

As Jesus cries out in prayer, He calls upon “Abba! Father!” It is nearly unprecedented in all religious literature to address God in such terms. Until Jesus came and began to speak of God as Father, rarely would anyone presume to address God this way. But Jesus not only spoke to His Father this way, He even instructed His disciples to address God this way in prayer. What are the first words of what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer”? “OUR FATHER.” But here, even more intimately, Jesus calls Him Abba. This is more intimate still. At the end of a long day, there is one word I long to hear more than any other. Almost without fail, the sound of my key sliding across the tumblers of the door lock at hour home is accompanied by two little voices calling out, “DADDY!” Whatever I have been through in the day fades as I drive home knowing that this will be the first sound I hear. That is what the word Abba is like.

Biology can make a man a father. It is intimacy that makes him a daddy. And this is the kind of relationship Jesus has with His Father, and it this kind of relationship which He has made possible for us. Through the suffering of Jesus and His resurrection, those who receive Him are made to be the children of God. And Paul says in Romans 8 that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” In the darkest hour of life, Jesus is not praying to an impersonal force beyond the galaxies. He is talking to His Dad. And His Dad is the Daddy of all who have come to Him by faith in the Son. So you and I need never feel as if we have no one or nowhere to turn in the darkest hours of our lives. We can call out to God as a Daddy who loves us and is there for us at all times.

The Christian life is lived in the context of a spiritual family. We do not live it alone. We have a Father, a Daddy, who loves us. And we have brothers and sisters in this family. But sometimes those brothers and sisters fail us. Sometimes when we need them most, they aren’t there for us. Jesus understands that. He knows that the whole world is out to get Him, and as He goes to pray, He tells His disciples in v32, “Sit here until I have prayed.” He says in v34, “Remain here and keep watch.” But three times, He returns to find that they have fallen asleep at the very moment it seems that He needs them most. Like Peter, James, and John, our brothers and sisters will let us down. I will let you down. But Daddy never fails. In the darkest hour of our lives, though brothers and sisters fail us, our hope is not in them, it is in this Father who welcomes us to come before Him and cry out to Him intimately as our Daddy! We will not find Him asleep when we need Him most. We are never abandoned, never orphaned, never alone. Father is there for you, and you can come running into His arms crying out “Daddy!” in the darkest hour of your life just as Jesus did!

III. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with confidence (v36)

As Jesus prays, notice His words: “All things are possible for You.” He is confident that there is no situation which is out of God’s control, and there is nothing His Father cannot do. He is not ashamed to state the concerns of His heart to His Father, because He knows that God is able to do something about it. There is no question whether God can. The answer to any question that begins, “Can God …” is, “Yes!” God can. Unless it is sin, or something utterly ridiculous (like, creating a rock too big for Himself to lift), anytime the question is “Can God …?” the answer is “God can …!” All things are possible for Him.

As I was growing up, I had a grandfatherly figure in my life that I affectionately called “Daddy Harrison.” He called me “J. R.” Daddy Harrison was a retired truck driver, a hard but tender hearted man. Daddy Harrison built every house he ever lived in, rebuilt every car he ever owned, grew or killed everything he ever ate, and fixed everything that was ever broken. No formal education, but he was the most brilliant man I ever knew. I spent the first half of my life in awe of him. He used to let me mess around with stuff in his shop and tinker along side of him. And one day, we were working on something, and I broke it. But I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said, “Daddy Harrison, I need you to fix this.” It was the first time (and the only time) I saw him scratch his head and say, “J. R., I don’t think I can fix that.” In my mind, I had thought that everything was possible for Daddy Harrison, but on that disappointing day, I saw that there were some things even he couldn’t fix.

Sometimes, when we face the dark hours of life, we forget that our Heavenly Father has never said, “I don’t think I can fix that.” He has never scratched His head wondering what to do about something. He has never seen an impossibility. And so just as Jesus did, when He was facing a much darker hour than we will ever know, we too can say to our Father, “All things are possible for You!” We can pray in confidence knowing that our circumstances have not taken by surprise or exceeded His ability to intervene. Some of you this very moment are facing intense darkness in your lives. Can God do anything about it? He can. We can pray with confidence in the darkest hour of our lives.

IV. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with boldness (v36)

Sometimes, I think in genuine humility and piety, we mask our concerns in prayer and resort to vague expressions of reluctant indifference. We say things like, “Oh Lord, here’s the situation, and we just want your will to be done, whatever that is,” and never come right out with our own request. I am not criticizing that; I think the motive is good. But you will notice in our text that Jesus did not pray this way. In v35, we read that He was praying that if it were possible, the hour might pass by Him. He knew the hour was coming. He had foretold the disciples repeatedly that this hour was coming, and now it was upon them. And in His humanity, Jesus asks the Father if there may be any other way, so that the hour may pass by Him. As He cried out to the Father in the darkest hour of His life, He said, “Remove this cup from Me!”

What is this cup of which Jesus speaks? It is a recurring image in the OT prophets which depicts the judgment of God. That cup, which all of us deserve to drink for our sins, has been taken from our hands and handed to Jesus to drink on our behalf. It is this cup of which Jesus spoke when He rebuked the presumption of James and John, saying, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Indeed they are not. No man can bear his own sins, much less the sins of all humanity. But Jesus will, and in the hours prior to drinking that cup, He boldly says to the Father, “Remove this cup from Me!”

You and I will not, cannot, drink that cup, but Christ has taken it for us. And in His darkest hour as He utters this bold prayer, we learn from His example that we can make any request we desire to God. It does not always mean that God will answer in the way that we want Him to, but there is no request that we cannot bring before Him. He wants us to bear our hearts desires in His presence. And so in the darkest hours of our lives, we can pray with boldness as we make our requests known to Him.

V. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray in surrender (v36)

As Jesus asks the Father to take the cup away, He also expresses His humble submission to the primacy of the Father’s will. “Yet not what I will, but what You will.” He has made His request, and now accepts that the Father’s will may not involve the removal of the cup, but the drinking of it to the dregs. But Christ’s surrender is not a stoic acceptance of fate, it is a willing embrace of the Father’s will. Jesus’ will to obey the Father is greater and stronger than His will to avoid suffering.

Though this hour of Jesus’ life was far darker than any hour that you and I will ever face, we can pray through our seasons of darkness in the same way. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “It is not necessarily wrong to ask for something which God does not intend to do, so long as our hearts are prepared to submit to His will.” With boldness we make our requests known, but in surrender we acknowledge that the Father’s will is superior to our own. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer, but we must acknowledge that sometimes the answer is “No.” And just as every earthly parent realizes that it may be destructive to grant every wish of our children, so the Father must sometimes say No to His children for their own good, for the good of others, and for His own glory to be made manifest. And so we pray in surrender to His will, knowing that this is the sweetest surrender we could ever make. In the world’s eyes, surrender equals defeat. But in God’s eyes, our surrender is our victory, for as we embrace His will we do so in confidence that His will serves a far greater purpose than our own.

By embracing the Father’s will, Jesus foregoes His own comforts and accepts the suffering that must come in order to provide salvation for the world, and to be crowned with the glory of the resurrection. We can all rejoice that the Father did not let this cup pass from Jesus. Because Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross on our behalf, we have the promise of redemption, restoration, and resurrection. As we pray in surrender to the Father’s will, our finite understanding may not be able to fathom His purposes. But we embrace His will knowing that He is good and that He loves us. He doesn’t give His children serpents when they ask for fish; He doesn’t give stones when we ask for bread. If He gives something different than what we’ve asked for, then what He gives is better. And if His will involves a season of suffering, we know that in the end, He is working all things together for the good of them who love Him and are called according to His purposes, and that He is bringing glory to Himself through our circumstances. What we want may be good, but what God wills is best. So even as God welcomes us to come boldly to the throne of grace, and to clearly state our petitions before Him, we can pray in surrender and say as Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.”

VI. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with persistence (v39)

As Jesus returned to prayer after finding His disciples asleep on the job, it is intriguing to me that that the text says He was “saying the same words.” Repeatedly, the Lord Jesus spoke to the Father about letting the hour pass and removing the cup. This was not just vain repetition of meaningless words, like Jesus warned against in Matthew 6 when He instructed His disciples how to pray. There Jesus had said, “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” There are some who have memorized certain forms of prayer and repeat them over and over again, but without any conscious reflection at each moment of what they are saying. And immediately after Jesus said this about meaningless repetition, He taught the disciples a model of how to pray in the words that we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And the ironic thing is that many have allowed that prayer to become a “meaningless repetition,” praying it while giving no thought to the words they are expressing. No, Jesus wasn’t just repeating a canned formulaic prayer in His persistent prayer here, even though He was “saying the same words.” Rather, He was praying as one who understood that God is sometimes moved by faithful persistence and perseverance in prayer.

In Luke 18:1-8, we read a parable that Jesus told to His followers in order to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart. In that parable, He tells of a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man.  And in the same city, there was a widow who needed the protection of the law from an oppressor. And Jesus says that this widow kept coming to the judge, saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.” For a while the judge was unwilling to respond to her requests, but after a while, he finally gave in. He said, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” Now the point of that parable is that if this unrighteous judge will respond to this widow in this way, Jesus says, “will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” But then He says, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" In other words, will He find that people had enough faith to be that persistent in their prayers?

Jesus demonstrates persistence in prayer as He returns to solitude with His Father and prays, “saying the same thing.” Are we persistent in our prayers? Are we afraid to be persistent, thinking, “Well, I prayed about it once, so I guess I am done with that”? If Jesus taught us to be persistent in prayer, and demonstrated persistence in prayer in the midst of life’s dark hours, then we need not fear God turning a deaf ear to our persistent pleas. It may well be that God’s delay in answering is a test of our faith and our willingness to persist. Whatever the case, there is no shame in bringing the same request to the Lord in prayer time and time again until He makes His answer clear. In fact, there may be shame in not doing so. We can pray with persistence as we face the dark hours of life. Jesus did, and we can follow in His example.

As we conclude, let me say a few final thoughts. First, none of us will ever face an hour in life as dark as Gethsemane. But, we will all face dark hours of varying severity. It may well be that you are just coming out of a dark season, or that you are in the midst of one, or that you are about to enter one. But when the darkness falls in our lives, how will we respond? My friends, if Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, needed to pray through His own season of darkness, then may I suggest to us today that there is no other way for us to face ours. We have the words of the sleepy eyed witness, the Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 2:21, as he says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” And Peter says that Christ’s example includes this, that while suffering, He kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. In the midst of the darkest hours of our lives, we can fall on our faces before a Father who loves us and pray intensely, intimately, confidently, boldly, surrenderedly, and persistently and trust that if He does not change the circumstance, He will change us in the midst of the circumstance, and bring good to us, blessings through us, and glory to Himself as a result.

Oh what peace we often forfeit; Oh what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!

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