A tale is told about a small town that had historically been “dry,” but then a local businessman decided to build a tavern. A group of Christians from a local church were concerned and planned an all-night prayer vigil to ask God to intervene.
It just so happened that shortly thereafter lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground. The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming that the prayers of the congregation were responsible, but the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were not responsible. The presiding judge, after his initial review of the case, stated that “no matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear: the tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not.”
Do Christians really believe in the power of prayer? That is the subject of today’s sermon.
Pressed in the Garden
After Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover and ate their last supper together in the upper room in Jerusalem, they retreated to the Mount of Olives just outside the city. It was Jesus’ custom to teach in the Temple in Jerusalem during the day and then he would retire to his campsite on the hill of olive trees. We can imagine many evenings when the disciples sat around the campfire singing joyful psalms of praise to God, listening to Jesus’ hopeful stories about the Kingdom of God, and spending time in peaceful prayer with their heavenly Father.
Although it was their custom to convene there every evening, this night would be unlike any other night. An ominous quietness overtook the camp and an eerie tension filled the air. The storytelling and singing ceased, and even though there were olive branches all around, there was no offer of peace on this night. Judas had already disappeared to do his dastardly deed, and for the first time in their lives, the disciples saw an unnerving anxiety in Jesus’ eyes.
Can you see Jesus sitting there in the darkness with the campfire flames reflecting off his solemn face? Can you smell the smoke of betrayal that was about to befall him? Can you feel his hands warming over the fire, the same hands that would be pierced for our transgressions the following day?
For just a moment, think about the darkest place you have ever been. Think of the place of anguish and pain, discouragement and despair. Think of the place where you were alone in your suffering and your worst fears were about to come true. Think of the place where the one thing you wanted was the one thing God determined you could not have. Think of the place where you felt trapped and there seemed to be no way out. Think of the place where you were pressed from every side and you felt crushed under the weight of worry. Think about the place where things got so bad that you thought you were going to die, and maybe you almost did. (Ryken 498) That is the place where Jesus was going!
The disciples followed Jesus to the foot of the Mount of Olives where he entered the Garden of Gethsemane. The name “Gethsemane” comes from an Aramaic word that literally means “oil press.” It was a small flatland that was likely used for pressing olives into olive oil. Ironically, it was in this location, where olives were routinely pressed into oil that Jesus would experience the most intense pressure of his life. It was here where Jesus would endure the full weight of what was about to happen to him. It was here where the hypostatic union of Jesus’ divinity and humanity would be challenged. It was here where he would offer his most pressing prayer to his Father in heaven. Allow me to highlight three aspects of this prayer for us today!
1.) Prayer and Temptation (40)
As Jesus arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane and prepared to enter a time of solitary prayer with the Father, he gave his disciples the simple command: “Pray that you may not fall into temptation.” The specific temptation that Jesus referred to here was the possibility of denying him. He knew that he was about to be arrested and that this would ultimately lead to his crucifixion. During this time, the disciples’ courage would endure its most severe testing. To remain loyal to Jesus, they would have to face the fear of torture and death. It was a tremendous spiritual challenge. Jesus knew exactly what they were up against, so he told them to pray.
In this one statement, Jesus shows how much he believes in the power of prayer. He knew that temptation is overcome only by continued dependence on God. He had already modeled this for them in the Lord’s Prayer when he said, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Prayer is a primary defense against temptation.
Thank God that most of us will never face the kind of pressure to deny Jesus that his disciples did, but we all struggle with some type of temptation to sin, which is still a form of turning our backs on Jesus. The medieval monk, Thomas a Kempis, who wrote the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, once said, “We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.”
Some people struggle with moral weaknesses in the areas of pride, lust, or greed. These flaws make them susceptible to specific besetting sins like selfish ambition, compulsory spending, and pornography. Others possess less visible vulnerabilities, but they still wrestle with periodic temptations. For instance, feelings of loneliness and insecurity can entice people to engage in illicit relationships. Envy and jealous may tempt individuals to gossip and slander about other people. Arrogance and ignorance may produce postures of prejudice and overt acts of racism. Undue pressure and unresolved anger often leads to alcoholism and substance abuse.
How about you? Do you have any moral weaknesses? Do you struggle with any besetting sins? Do you see any spiritual blind-spots in your soul? If so, I wonder how often you pray about these liabilities? I wonder how fervently and faithfully we pray and specifically ask God to help us overcome these temptations? Jesus told his disciples to pray because he knew that prayer was a primary defense against temptation. Do we?
2.) Prayer and Agony (41-44)
After Jesus charged his disciples to pray, he walked about a stone’s throw away from them to pray through his own temptation. He bent down on his knees and prayed the most agonizing prayer of his life, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” He is asking if there might be some other way for God to accomplish what lies ahead. Like the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah before him, Jesus used the term “cup” as a metaphor for judgment. He asks to be delivered from drinking the cup of God’s wrath. He did not want to bear the pain of torture and crucifixion, but he was willing to submit to the will of the Father. He draws on the wording from the Lord’s Prayer “your will be done.”
These verses draw us into the deep mysteries of the incarnation, when God became human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Philip Ryken comments on this remarkable passage:
In Gethsemane we see the human will of Jesus wrestling with the divine will. Humanly speaking, Jesus did not want to suffer on the cross, which was evil was itself and deadly painful. I say “humanly speaking” because we see his true humanity as clearly here as we do anywhere in the Gospels. As a human being, Jesus had the same instinct to preserve his life that anyone has. No one loved life more than he did. How could it be his will, therefore, to suffer the torture of his body and the curse of death? Jesus was averse to death. Everything in his humanity recoiled against it. It was his natural preference to live. So in the agony of his soul he asked the Father for some other way to bring salvation. (Ryken 501)
It is no wonder Luke uses the term “agony” to describe Jesus’ prayer. Even though the Father sent him an angel to strengthen him in his distress, Jesus prayed so earnestly that sweat beaded down his face and fell to the ground like drops of blood. This graphic metaphor depicts the utmost extremity of human anguish.
None of us could ever fully understand the severity of Jesus’ suffering, but many of us know what it’s like to agonize in prayer over something. It is not difficult to identify with the conflict of doing God’s will versus doing our own will. Does this ever happen to you? Have you ever known exactly what God wanted you to do, but you didn’t want to do it? Or have you ever wanted to do something so badly, and yet, you knew God didn’t want you to do it? We face situations like this all the time. Perhaps you are facing a situation like this in your life right now! The war of the wills is absolutely agonizing!
Whenever we agonize in prayer over something, I hope that we will come to the same conclusion that Jesus did! I hope that we will be able to sacrifice our instincts, desires, aspirations, and submit our will to God’s will, no matter how torturous the task is before us! God’s will is always the right thing to do and it’s always what is best for us, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
Consider this: it was God’s will for Jesus to die on the cross to provide atonement for our sins; it was also God’s plan to resurrect his son from the dead. This was the best possible outcome for the whole world! Had Jesus not obeyed the will of the Father, we would all still be dead in our sins and would have no hope of salvation.
Do we really trust God’s will for our lives? Even if it includes suffering? Every Sunday we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” but do we really mean it?
3.) Prayer and Lethargy (45-46)
After Jesus finished his agonizing prayer meeting with the Father, he returned to the place he left his disciples. Instead of finding them in fervent prayer about resisting temptation, his eyes gazed upon their motionless bodies sprawled out all over the ground; they were fast asleep. They seem to have finally reckoned with the fact that their Lord was going to suffer, which lead to their fatigue. Even though exhaustion from sorrow is a real phenomenon, they failed to obey Jesus’ command. So, he subtly rebuked them for their spiritual lethargy by asking the question, “Why are you sleeping?” Then he renewed his command to get up and pray so they would not fall into temptation.
Like Jesus’ disciples, it is easy for us to slide into spiritual lethargy, especially when we are enduring dark days. The times when we need to pray the most are often the most difficult times to pray. How often do we say to ourselves, “Oh, I really should spend some time in prayer about that,” but then we get distracted or tired or just lazy?
I wonder what would have happened to the disciples if they would have remained vigilant in prayer? I wonder if Peter would still would have denied Jesus three times? I wonder if the rest of the disciples would have stayed with Jesus through his suffering instead of disappearing when he needed them most? I wonder if we would be more faithful to Jesus if we were more faithful in prayer?
When Martin Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master, and watched with open mouth and motionless eyes. Luther said, “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.”
This passage, that highlights Jesus’ pressing prayers, teaches us to pray for strength to overcome temptation, for our will to be conformed to the Father’s will, and to avoid spiritual lethargy!