This message was delivered as part of “24 Hours that Changed the World,” a series of worship services observing Lent sponsored by the Office of Religious Life at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.
I visited Gethsemane while I was studying in Jerusalem. Today, a tiny portion of the garden where Jesus prayed is left, in the courtyard of the Church of All Nations. Inside this beautiful church, the altar has been built around the very piece of ground where Jesus is believed to have knelt and prayed before his arrest. Kneeling there, touching that ground, I imagined what it must have looked like then, when Jesus and his disciples walked to the garden after their Passover meal. The Mt. of Olives is located outside of the old city adjacent to St. Steven’s Gate, which is right behind Mt. Moriah, where the Temple once stood. Standing outside of the Church of all Nations, I could see the Dome of the Rock, so when the disciples stood among the olive trees in Gethsemane, they certainly would have been able to see the Temple. As they walked to the garden they would have walked right past the building, within easy reach of the authorities threatening Jesus. They also would have walked right past the most common place of prayer in Jerusalem to pray in a garden of olive trees on the side of a mountain, outside the city’s main walls.
Olive trees are rather small, scrawny things, and while the landscape at the base of the Mt. of Olives when I was there was dominated by the huge structure of the Church of All Nations, at the time of Jesus it would have been covered in these sinewy trees. In the dark, I can imagine that the side of this mountain, covered in these small skeletal trees, would have reminded us of a foreboding scene in a horror movie, and would have seemed an ominous setting for evening prayer to Jesus’ disciples. Likely, the same was true for Jesus himself. By this point, he has prophesied to the disciples many times that his betrayal and death were forthcoming. On these previous occasions, Jesus did not seem phased in the least by this revelation. But on this evening, he tells Peter, James, and John that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”
Jesus certainly knew that he had come to earth to die for us, and he certainly knew why. But when the time came when his gruesome death was imminent, Jesus had a natural human reaction. He was afraid. And he did the one thing we are always encouraged to do when we are afraid, or nervous, or confused: he prayed. Jesus took the time to teach his disciples (and us) how best to pray; we’ve all memorized the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday School, we are often reminded by his teaching in scripture that what we ask for we will receive, that we need not worry about anything, but instead lift it up to God and trust God. But I think our most important lesson in prayer is found not in Jesus’ many lessons about prayer, but in the time Jesus was in such desperate need of prayer himself.
His prayer is simple and direct: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus knows the pain that awaits him, and he is asking God to take it away. How many times have we asked that? We really don’t want to take that test we know we’re going to fail. We really don’t want to spend time with that person who annoys us so much. We really want our family member who has been so sick for so long to be freed from her illness and suffering. Whatever it is we’re facing, we often pray that God will take it away. And that is what Jesus says first. Jesus was human; if he hadn’t been, the sacrifice he made for us wouldn’t have worked. So he had the natural human reaction to what he was about to face. He was afraid. He feared the pain that he knew was coming, and he asked that his pain be removed. We often ask for things we fear to be changed, and we’re never told that this is an inappropriate request to make; the thing is that God’s answer to what we ask is very rarely what we expect. Very rarely does God simply remove the thing that scares us. Jesus recognizes this and prays accordingly. Jesus asks that his suffering be removed, but also asks that God’s will be done, not his own. God’s will; it’s not a difficult thing to say, but it’s a very difficult thing to actually want.
We can hardly imagine the suffering that Jesus was about to face, but he truly wanted God’s will to be done, even though God’s will meant he would stand trial and be beaten and crucified. We can’t even imagine if God’s will were that we spend an evening studying for a test rather than spending time with our friends; what would we do if God’s will were that we die for the good of others? But Jesus does just that, and he does it with an air of authority and confidence that brings many to believe in him and in God by the time the events of these fateful 24 hours were over. God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer was not to remove the suffering Jesus was about to face, but to give him the strength to bear it. Oddly enough, it takes great strength to ask for that strength. The simple prayer that God’s will be done is the best example Jesus provides of what our continuous conversation with God should look like, but it is easier to imitate than to actually believe. Whether we are simply progressing through our daily routine, or are in our own shadowy garden of Gethsemane, will we have the strength to ask for the strength to live in God’s will? Christ did it for us, our goal this Lent should be to do the same thing for Christ.