Lent 3: The Garden of Gethsemane (4/6/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
It is two weeks until Easter, so our walk together through the season of Lent is reaching its end. I know that’s not breaking too many hearts. Lent is a tough time, because we look at our faults a little more closely than usual. But Lent is a necessary time for Christians, because we can’t grow spiritually if we don’t acknowledge those areas in our lives that have room for growth.
I said as we began the season of Lent that we would not want to spend our lives there. Christians are called to be a joyous lot. I’ve read stories about people—often small South American or African communities—who had been converted to Christianity centuries ago, and who were exposed only to the Lenten message. When modern missionaries rediscover these people, they find them living very dour lives, thinking the Christian faith is all about confession, repentance, and agonizing prayers for God’s forgiveness.
Wrong! That’s chapter one, page one in a long, long book. The idea of the Christian faith is to acknowledge our need of God’s love and mercy, and then to accept the fact that it is a free gift, and to live lives of joyful abundance celebrating the gift of life. We are resurrection people, not crucifixion people. We celebrate God’s love, not God’s judgment. And we set aside a few weeks each year—Lent—to remind ourselves that we are still unperfected beings.
There are two elements of the story of Jesus that always appear during Lent. One is his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and the other is his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death. We will celebrate Communion this morning, and I think those two parts of the Christian story are excellent ways to prepare our hearts for the church’s most cherished sacrament.
We know well the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The story is told that he approaches the city on a colt, and that the multitudes line the streets as he makes his way into the city, throwing palm branches before him in a manner befitting a king, as they cry out, ”Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jesus soon makes his way to the Temple, where Jews from all over the world have come to celebrate Passover. This is the time of year most feared by the Roman authorities in that region. The Jews had created sporadic uprisings against the Romans over the years, and Passover was the time most ripe for problems. If a revolution were to begin, this is the time it would happen. Pontius Pilate was charged with one duty above all others: maintain peace, and crush any sign of revolt. Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, came south to Jerusalem to witness the celebration and help maintain control.
I wonder what Jesus was thinking as he approached the city? The reason I ask that question is simple. The next thing he did literally guaranteed that he would be crucified. He went to the Temple—the center of the Passover celebration—and caused a major disruption.
As Jews arrived from all over the world for the Passover celebration, they had to purchase doves, lambs and other sacrifices for the priests to sacrifice on the altar of the Temple. They brought the money from their native lands, and moneychangers sold the people their sacrifices. Now, it wasn’t as if you walked up, handed the moneychanger some cash, and carried away a lamb to be given to the priest for sacrifice. You simply handed over the cash, the transaction was recorded, and your sacrifice would be performed on your behalf on the Temple altar.
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This was the big moneymaker for the Jewish religion. And not only were the Temple and it’s authorities greatly enriched, so too were the money-changers. This was the equivalent of modern-day Christmas, which as any retailer will tell you is the most blessed time of the year.
Jesus causes a major scene by walking into the Temple area with his disheveled followers, claiming the priests and the moneychangers had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves, and knocking over the moneychanger’s tables.
In doing so, he signed his own death warrant. Pontius Pilate’s motto seemed to be, “Crucify now, ask questions later.” Jesus would have been quite aware of this. And one would assume he had his plan in mind as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and looked at the great city that in his eyes had gone so far astray.
And so I go back to the question. What was Jesus thinking as he approached the city on that colt? Why didn’t he just turn that colt around, ride back to Galilee, and live to preach another day?
And this wasn’t his last chance to run away from his destiny. After causing all that havoc at the Temple, Jesus was not immediately arrested. He spent most of that week in and around Jerusalem, as the Roman authorities and the religious leaders tried to figure out what to do with him. It seems he had enough of a following that the Romans did not want to arrest him publicly, lest his followers incite the masses to riot. This had to be handled delicately, privately, and they decided that the people in the street could not know Jesus had been arrested until they saw him hanging from a cross. Then it would be too late. After all, they could hardly follow a dead leader.
Jesus could have left Jerusalem any time he wanted to. But he and his disciples remained in the area, and on the Thursday evening following Palm Sunday, they gathered for what would be their Last Supper together. On Maundy Thursday we will gather here at the church to remember that night, and the following morning, but for the balance of this morning’s message I want to consider the moments after the Last Supper, and before his arrest.
These moments passed in the Garden of Gethsemane. All four gospels tell the story, in only slightly different ways. Jesus is certain that he is soon to be arrested and crucified. He knows that Judas has been waiting to betray him to the authorities, and he seems to know instinctively that he has just eaten his last meal with his followers. They all go to the outskirts of Jerusalem, to the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus takes the three disciples who have served him with the most devotion—Peter, James and John—and moves a distance from the other disciples.
Jesus expresses his grief, his heartfelt sorrow, to his closest friends, and then he removes himself from them—by about a stone’s throw, according to Luke—and falls to his knees in prayer.
The meaning and spirit of what Jesus says in prayer is the same in all four gospels, and they give only slightly different accounts of his exact words: Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; Father, all things are possible to you—let this cup pass; Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; Father, save me from this hour.
And then, he finally says, Not my will, but thy will be done.
The Bible scholars and archeologists who have attempted to reconstruct the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane agree that Jesus was not trapped at this point. Jesus could have turned himself away from Jerusalem, walked right over the hill and headed back to Nazareth.
With the exception of the time Jesus spends on the cross itself, this, to me, is the most powerful moment in the gospel. He is at a fork in the road. One path is open-ended and leads to a normal and happy life; the other path is a short dead-end, which ends at the cross. This is his last chance to run. This is his last chance to head back to Galilee and open up a little carpentry business; get married; have a family; live.
Why stay? What was Jesus thinking? The scholars argue about what was going through his mind, but I have to believe he thought he had a role to play in the human drama, a role more important than craftsman, family man, and business owner. It’s easy to think he was some sort of misguided martyr. It’s easy to think he suffered from delusions of grandeur. But then, we have to ask the question. What if he had ran the other way? What if Jesus would have said to himself, “Somebody else can do God’s work—I’ve got myself to think about.”? What would the world look like if that had happened?
For one thing, we would never have heard of that amazing passage from Mathew’s gospel called the Sermon on the Mount. That would be just one of a million idealistic teachings of one of the countless idealistic dreamers who left their tiny marks on human history.
There would be no such thing as Christmas. Not a single child would have ever experienced the magic, mystery and wonder of the Christmas season.
We would not be sitting here this morning. And for a number of reasons. The course of history, especially the history of the Western World which evolved into 21st Century America, was shaped by Christianity more than any other force. And of course, if Jesus had left God’s work up to somebody else, there would be no such thing as the church—not this particular church, not the worldwide community that is the true church.
And perhaps most importantly, the cross would have no meaning. We would probably find the cross mentioned in some history books, and we would read that it was a cruel form of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire. But that’s all it would be—a form of capital punishment. It would have no power. It would not have changed countless millions of lives over the centuries. It would not have come to symbolize the unfathomable love of God in a way no other symbol ever has or ever will.
Those are some of the things that would be different if not for the strength Jesus drew from his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now we will celebrate the ancient sacrament of communion, which was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper just hours before his Gethsemane experience. As we do, may we remember all those times we’ve said to ourselves, “Somebody else can do God’s work—I’ve got to think of myself,” and recommit ourselves to following in the steps of Jesus
Let’s join our hearts in prayer:
We give you thanks, God of majesty and mercy, for calling forth creation and raising us from dust by the breath of your being. We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.
We remember with thanks the prophets and teachers you sent to guide us, and thank you above all for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, who revealed to us so perfectly the beauty and power of your almighty love.
And we give thanks for the presence of your Holy Spirit, in this place and time, which unites all of those present to one another and to Christ. May your spirit be present upon this food and drink, as surely as it is present within our hearts, as we partake together.
May the elements of this ancient sacrament remind us all of the truth you have written upon our hearts: that faith conquers doubt; that love conquers hatred; and that in the end your reign of peace and love will endure beyond all evil. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
We recall that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, after the supper, he took the cup, raised it, gave thanks and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.”
(The Body of Christ)
(The Blood of Christ)
Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.