Sermon - Matthew 26:36-46 - Obedience in the Garden
I sold this sermon to Colin and Mark as the first of a series on the passion in John. When I sat down to prepare them however, I discovered that I wanted the context of the garden of Gethsemane, present in all the synoptics (that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke), but absent, perhaps for that very reason, from John; and so it is that I'm going to begin a series about John's passion narrative, in Matthew.
Read Matthew 26:36-46.
Our context is of course that Jesus has just eaten the last supper with his disciples. Judas has left to betray him, soon all the disciples will flee, Peter will deny him, and Jesus will be tried, whipped, beaten, crucified, and most terribly, separated from his Father as he takes on himself the sin of the world.
What state is Jesus in here? Luke gives a significant piece of information in his account:
Luke 22:44 reads "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground."
What does it mean for sweat to be like drops of blood? As a simile it's rather unhelpful. Perhaps it's emphasising the cost of Jesus' suffering. Perhaps it's drawing our attention to the future shedding of his blood which is troubling Jesus. More likely Jesus is here suffering from a rare medical condition known as 'hematidrosis' (check with Colin afterwards if you want to know how it's actually pronounced). The condition is brought on by extreme mental stress or anxiety in the patient causing capillaries - small blood vessels - in the patient to burst. Some escaping blood gets into the sweat glands and so the subject literally sweats blood. You might like to know that a side effect is greatly sensitising the nerve endings of the skin in the affected area. Incidentally the understanding of this is fairly modern, even as a doctor Luke would not have been aware of the condition, so he reports as accurately as he is able 'like blood', in fact it is blood, a point for his accuracy you might want to use if you find yourself in a discussion on Luke's trustworthiness.
This then is the condition Jesus is in - extreme stress and anxiety. He says as much in v38: "Then he said to them, My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." Truly he is the man of sorrows whom Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 53:3. I do wonder if the words Jesus admonishes his disciples with "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak", are as much about himself as them.
But only a verse later he will say "Yet not my will, your will". How? How does the man of sorrows, how does someone 'overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death' yet go through with his task?
That's the question I intend to address today, along with it's obvious corollary, namely 'how can we, when we find ourselves in our Gethsemanes', echo Jesus' "yet not my will, your will"?'
Many years ago someone told me that what counted in following Christ was not head-knowledge, but heart-knowledge, which I took to mean 'the important thing is your emotions, not your understanding'. That heresy stunted my growth as a Christian for nearly a decade. Why was I taken in, and why is it a heresy?
I knew that mere intellectual assent was inadequate, as James puts it "You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder." (James 2:19). I knew that the Bible used this term, 'the heart', a lot. Let's look at an example - would you turn with me to Deuteronomy 6, starting at verse 5:
"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts."
What then is the flaw? Doesn't this put emotion at the centre of the Christian life? Not exactly, let's read the measures Moses gives for ensuring that these commandments are on our hearts:
"Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads."
That sounds more like 'head-stuff' than 'heart-stuff' doesn't it? What's going on? The problem is this: our conception of the word 'heart' as the emotional centre is a Roman invention, not Jewish. For both Hebrew and Greek, the language and audience for the New Testament and Old Testament, the origin of emotion in a person is the gut. In the Bible the heart is the centre of the will.
After all, do you really think Jesus made it though Gethsemane still following God's plan on the strength of his emotions? Of course not! Quite the opposite: his emotions were hard against going through with the cross. His resolve was inspite of his emotions, not because of them.
Emotions are like that, you know. The times you most need them are precisely the times they will be rallied against you. They are in no sense a solid foundation for the Christian life.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to suggest that emotions are evil, or that we should all grow pointy ears and use 'logical captain' every other sentence. If you have ever had even a hint of that in your thought observe Jesus here. The man who lived without sin experienced extreme emotions. They are not evil, nonetheless they are not to be master.
I have three worthwhile points in this sermon, this is the first: The heart of the matter is the will (repeat).
How is it that Jesus holds his resolve against his feelings? He's decided in advance what his purpose is, where his will is fixed. In John 6:38 he declares "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me." Then again, in John 12:27, as he sees the cross looming "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came - for this hour."
Let's draw out some immediate applications:
That's hard isn't it? I make no excuses for it, and I'm not about to offer you any excuses. It may be hard, but it is biblical, and it is essential. However, we aren't expected to hold our ground alone. What else did Jesus do in our passage? He prayed. This short prayer is a great model for our praying, let's draw it out and so make my second key point:
The structure is dead simple: two sentences:
It's the same model taken by so many of the Psalms, by Job, so often through the Bible I can't believe how long it took me to see it.
Have you ever wondered "Can I pray this?", "Isn't it blasphemous to pray 'God, I feel abandoned by you?'". No, there is no sin in the prayer which begins "Lord, what on earth are you up to?" provided that prayer ends "but I trust you." Let's take an example from the Psalms to emphasis this, turn with me to Psalm 13.
Read Psalm 13.
What kind of God is this, that invites his followers to pray with such freedom? I don't understand it, but it is the example of his servants through the Bible, and the example of his son.
The other striking point of Jesus' prayer is it's length. In v40 Jesus says 'Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?'. Hold on a moment! He's been praying for an hour? But the prayer we have recorded is only two sentences long. Jesus prays persistently. Not a long babbling prayer of the kind he criticised in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:5), instead a simple, repeated prayer.
There is a memory verse for today, it's this: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." When you come to your Gethsemanes', when you face your emotions rallied against you, pray. Pray honestly, pray reverently.
My final key point, after this you can stop listening: fellowship. In the face of this trial Jesus calls to him his closest friends and asks them to watch with him and pray with him. They fell asleep.
I think the lessons for us are obvious: We have the great privilege not only of being sons of the King, but of being in his family, the church. We can and should turn to our Christian brothers and sisters in the times we struggle. I've derived immense encouragement and strength from Christians who've come alongside me when life has hit me for six, and put me back on my feet again. Jesus wasn't above turning to his friends for strength and encouragement, neither are we.
The flip side is that we need to be aware and available - helping our Christian brothers and sisters is an enormous privilege, it's also a great responsibility, let's not take it lightly, let's not risk falling asleep as the disciples did, just when Jesus needed them most. I'm sure that it was only with hindsight they saw the need, let's not make that mistake.
What shall we say in conclusion? There is no other passage that so strongly brings home to me the full humanity of Christ. If you have ever doubted that Christ was completely human, read this passage and doubt no longer. Isn't it an enormous encouragement to know, when we face terrible difficulties, when our feelings tear us apart, when we're afraid, that our Lord has been through it all, and he understands. But isn't it a great challenge as well: the dreadful situation I'm experiencing? He's been in worse, and he stuck to his guns. He did God's will. That sweeps all my excuses away.
A great encouragement then - he has been there, and a great challenge - he triumphed. A great encouragement - it can be done, and a great challenge - do it.
Lord Jesus, thank you that when faced with suffering beyond anything we can imagine you went through it all, for our sake. Thank you that whatever difficulty we face we can turn to you knowing that you understand, you've been there.
Our minds are blown by your desire for us to pray honestly, and openly. Please help us to be completely honest with you, but also completely trusting
Here and now Lord we reaffirm our commitment - we will do your will, not ours. Please stand with us when we face our Gethsemanes', and make us good friends, solid supports, to our brothers and sisters facing difficulty. In all our difficulty, Father, lift our eyes up to see the glory that awaits us, against which these passing trials are not even worth comparing.
To you be the glory, now and forever Amen.