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Thursday:  In the Garden

Sermon - 3/26/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 14:32-42

In this season of Lent we are reflecting on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth as told in the Gospel of Mark.  We have previously examined Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so now come to Thursday.  We are, of course, fairly familiar with the story of the Last Supper as it is something we recall most every Sunday and observe in a special service on Maundy Thursday.  Also part of Thursday’s story is the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest immediately thereafter.  This morning I want to look at that story as told by Mark and compare it to the story told by Luke to see what we might learn from both.

32They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, ‘Abba,* Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;* the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

It is the eve of a very special time, exciting and yet terrifying time.  Tomorrow you are about to do something new that frightens you.  Perhaps you are going to go bungee jumping.  Or you are going to parachute out of an airplane for the first time.  Maybe it is the night before your wedding day or the birth of a new child.  Or if you want to try something really terrifying, fly with Fred Brandenfels in his plane J.

Whatever it is, picture that event and on the night before, what is going on? Are you able to sleep?  Do you toss and turn?  Do you fret about it?  Do you worry?  Does it keep you awake?  What is it like on that night before?

When I was active in Beyond War in Fresno, I heard the story of a woman who got really excited by the message of that organization, about how to bring an end to war, and so she began to get heavily involved, put her whole self into the effort.  Whatever they needed, she would do.  She volunteered to be on their speaker’s bureau and offered to speak to anyone, anytime and anywhere.  For six months she spoke all around the area, to groups of all sizes and ages.  After six months, she called up the coordinator of the area very excited.  “Today, for the first time,” she said, “I got up to speak without throwing up first!”  For six months this poor gal was going to schools, churches and clubs, always stopping first in the bathroom to let her anxieties and fear gush out before standing in front of an audience of strangers.  Talk about butterflies.

Some people are easy to excite. Our teenagers are on their way to Mexico to build four homes and should be crossing the border some time this afternoon.  It is always an exciting trip.  The first year I went with the group back in 1992, we stopped at Disneyland on the way home.  Judy and I had been there a couple of times when we were in seminary in southern California and now looked forward to taking our daughter, Paulina, who was just at that age when a Ferris wheel in the parking lot of a supermarket was the most exciting thing you could ever imagine, so Disneyland was beyond comprehension for a young, excitable mind.  Judy had prepared Paulina to encounter her favorite cartoon characters in the flesh, or in the fur, as the case may be.  We entered the main gate and sure enough, there was Mickey Mouse himself.  Her eyes got big, her whole body began to twitch in excitement as she began jumping up an down.  “Look, there he is!  Can I go see him, can I, can I?”  I said, “Sure, honey, don’t forget to take Paulina with you.”  Judy enjoys Disneyland!

Then there are the stoics.  You know the folks who are so calm all the time. A major war can be going on around them, and they are calmly eating their meal or reading a book, paying no attention to it.  I love these basketball games during March Madness that are really intense and exciting.  The players are flying all over the court in superhuman efforts as the last seconds tick away, desperately trying to make that winning play to get them to the final four.  And then the camera shows a shot of the coach who is one of these guys calmly taking it all in as if he is watching a scrabble tournament.  People who are like that aren’t human.  They’re Vulcan, like Spock in Star Trek, never show any emotion.

One of the things that appeals to me about the passion story is the emotion that is in it, the humanness of Jesus.  Jesus agonizes in the garden over his destiny.  He prays feverishly to be released of this mission.  He breaks out into a bloody sweat.  He doesn’t want to be left alone.  This is a Jesus I can identify with, who understands and knows my trials and tribulations.  I cherish this Jesus.  I hang on to his humanity.  I feel his terror, the doubt and the agony.  Believe me, I have known what it is like to say, “Will you sit and watch with me through the night?”  It is reassuring to know that this Jesus experiences some of the same feelings that I experience.  It is a comforting relationship I have with this very human Jesus.

But then something happened to disturb that relationship.  Someone destroyed the image for me.  Like a crystal shattering high A-flat, someone threw an unwelcome note into our nice little duet and our harmony has not been the same since.  And that somebody was no other than Luke.  A fresh re-reading of the passion story as Luke tells it gave me a new picture of Jesus, I had not seen before.  To my surprise in reading Luke, I discovered that he makes no mention of that anguish.  Listen to the story as Luke tells it:

Luke 22:39-46

[Note on v. 43-44: Most Bibles, as is the case in the pew Bible, have a footnote after these two verses which says, “not found in some ancient manuscripts.”  That has to be one of the understatements of scriptural footnotes.  In fact, these two verses are not found in the oldest and most important manuscripts.  The anguish they express with the reference to Jesus sweating blood is foreign to Luke’s story.  The earliest manuscriptural evidence is not found in scripture, but in the writings of Justin Martyr who says that the apostles recorded in their memoirs that sweat like drops of blood fell from Jesus when he prayed on that night.  Textual scholars believe, therefore, that these two verses were added to Luke’s story by later scribes familiar with this tradition.  It may be historically accurate, but it is not part of Luke’s story and therefore I will omit them when I read this text.]

39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ 41Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ 43Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] 45When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

Whereas in Mark Jesus becomes very troubled and sorrowful in his soul, human emotions that are easy to understand in the circumstances.  But in Luke, the only sorrow is that of the disciples who fall asleep because of their grief.  In Mark Jesus falls to the ground in prayer, fervently praying, his anguish emphasized by the threefold repetition of going off to pray, coming back to find the disciples asleep, pleading with them to stay awake with him, going off to pray, coming back and they are asleep again.  Three times he goes back and forth.  This Jesus does not want to be left alone in the darkness of the night.  I know what that is like and I suspect you do too.
In Luke, Jesus doesn’t fall to the ground, he gets down on his knees and simply prays, just once, “Father, your will be done.”  And when Jesus encounters the weeping women on the way to the cross, he says, “Weep not for me, but weep for those who are caught in the coming tribulations.” On the cross in Luke’s story, Jesus forgives the crucifiers.  He blesses one of the criminals.  He says, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  He does not say, as he does in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  You see, there is no expression of that kind of anguish in Luke’s story of the passion.  In sum, Luke presents Jesus as a divine martyr.  Very much in control of the situation, whose confidence in God overshadows any fears, any doubts that he may have.  Jesus does pray for God to remove the cup, referring to his suffering, in Luke as in Mark.  However in Luke his prayer is presented more as an example for the disciples.  Immediately before and after his prayer, he instructs them, “Pray that you will not come into the time of trial.”  In other words, may this never happen to you but if it does, pray like this.

With Mark I get this image of a Jesus who shares human suffering, whereas in Luke I see a Jesus who is a model of divine presence in the midst of suffering.  This is not the close friend very much like me that I crave, but here is the hero in the statue that I worship.  The Holy Christ, the perfect child of God who stands above all of our human frailties and emotions and is the master of his own destiny.  And yet, distant and as remote from my own humanity as this divine Christ is, I sense that in the way Luke tells us this story, that there is something more in it for us.  That perhaps instead of showing us how the divine became human like us, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us as the gospel John says, that Luke is trying to show us how we can become divine.  Or if that is a little strong for you, then how we can feel the divine presence that is available to guide us in our time of trial and tribulations.

A master Zen Buddhist was known for maintaining his serenity and peace in all circumstances.  Nothing every ruffled his feathers.  He was asked how he did it.  He said, “I never leave my place of meditation.”  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is never more than a stone’s throw away from his place of prayer.  In Luke and only Luke, Jesus is praying when the spirit descends upon him like a dove.  Only in Luke, Jesus prays all night long before selecting the 12 disciples.  Only in Luke Jesus is in a time of prayer, when he asks the question, “Who do others say that I am.”  Only in Luke Jesus goes up on the mountain and is praying when he is transfigured.

At every step along the way, when something really important happens, Luke tells us Jesus is in prayer.  From the baptism on, Jesus lives the will of God through prayer.  And so after the Last Supper, Jesus goes to pray as was his custom.  He does not fall to ground, wrestling with his soul, rather he kneels as he would any other time in prayer, and he simply prays with no repetition, “Father, your will be done.”   Jesus is prepared for what is coming because he has been praying all along.

I frequently hear stories as I suspect you do of how people in a time of crisis suddenly discover prayer and that helps them get through that time.  As they say, “There are no atheists in fox holes.”  Abraham Lincoln confessed, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”  But Luke says, if you want prayer to help you through crises, the time to pray is not when you have nowhere else to turn, the time to pray is now.  The time is to pray is when you do have a choice.

Pope John XXIII, who was responsible for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s, said, “Perfume all your actions with the life-giving breath of prayer.”  Let it just be part of your essence.  Stephen Covey in his best seller written for business leaders, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says that the 7th habit of effective people includes in it spiritual renewal.  He quotes David McKay who says, “The greatest battles of our lives are fought out daily in the soul.”

Through Jesus’ prayer life, Luke tells us that Jesus had already triumphed over his fears and overcome his doubts.  And so on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus goes to his usual place, maintains his custom, his habit, as he would on any other night.  His greatest concern is not how he will overcome this time of tribulation, his greatest concern is for his disciples, that they will learn to pray to resist that time of trial.  The invitation in Mark from Jesus is to come and pray with him.  In Luke, the invitation is to pray like him.  

This I take to be Luke’s clue to us, on how we can participate in the divine experience.  Get up and pray Jesus says to us for there is nothing else that can put us in as close communion with our Lord.  Maxie Dunam suggests that we begin prayer by reciting Colossians 1:26-27, the secret or sacred “mystery that has been hidden in every age until now… is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  The secret is simply this: Christ is in you.  Yes Christ is in you bringing with him the hope of all the glorious things to come.  Dunam suggests that we personalize this bit of scripture a little bit more and we say as we breathe in, “this is the secret, Christ in me,” and hold that, Christ in me.  And then exhale, “bringing with him the hope of the glorious things to come.”  This is the secret, Christ in me, yes Christ in me.

There is an ancient Russian tale that illustrates the power of such prayer that is on our every breath.  It is told that a bishop wanted to see three of his monks who lived in a hermitage far away from any civilization, several days journey by boat up a river.  So he went to see the monks, and he got there just in time for morning prayer.  They were overjoyed to see their bishop.  He told them, “Just go about your daily affairs and I’ll just follow along.  Pretend I’m not even here. I’ll just blend in.”  They began their daily prayers as they normally did, praying, “We are three O Lord, Thou art one. Holy is Thy name.”  They repeated that over and over again numerous times. Then they went out for their chores of the morning, the bishop tagging along until the time came for their noontime prayers.  So they gathering in the little chapel and prayed again, “We are three O Lord, Thou art one.  Holy is Thy name.”  Over and over again they prayed.  Then they went out and did more chores through the afternoon and came back for their evening prayers. “We are three O Lord, Thou art one.  Holy is Thy name,” they prayed again and again.  Finally the bishop couldn’t restrain himself any longer.  “Do you not know any other prayers?” he asked.  “No, only this one we know.”  They said. “You do not know the Lord’s prayer?” he asked.  “No, but you could teach us,” they replied.  So the bishop taught them the Lord’s Prayer.  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” he led and they tried to follow, “Our Father … heaven … whose name … be hallowed.”  They stumbled through the prayer as best they could but just didn’t get it.  Over and over they tried on into the evening, one phrase at a time, until finally, as it grew late, the bishop was confident that his monks had learned the Lord’s Prayer. So he left with a feeling of accomplishment, that he had done some good for these humble servants of the Lord.  As his boat was heading back down the river in the dark of the night, the bishop looked behind them and saw a light out on the water approaching the boat.  He ordered the oarsmen to stop the boat.  As the light grew closer he realized it was the three monks, carrying a lantern, walking on the water.  They came up to the side of the boat and said, “O Holy Father, we have already forgotten the beautiful prayer you worked so hard to teach us, please teach us again.”  The bishop, deeply humbled, said, ‘Pray like this, “We are three O Lord, thou art one.  Holy is Thy name.”’

Authentic prayer is not about content, method or saying the right words.  It is rather to pray with Christ, not only through the night, but throughout the day as well. To pray not to Christ, but with Christ in you continually to God. Only then will we not need desperate prayers in our hour of trial.  For no temptation is too great, no load is too heavy, no task is too difficult for those whose life is a prayer.  Amen.


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