March 15, 2020
William G. Carter
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
This is a scene often portrayed in stained glass. Jesus is in the center, kneeling with his hands clasped and his eyes looking toward heaven. Around him, and in the foreground, three disciples lie flat on the ground. They are fast asleep with their heads cradled on their arms.
It’s hard to avoid talking about those disciples. Peter, James, and John are the three closest friends of Jesus. He’s taken them everywhere and told them everything. How could they possibly fall asleep on him? Sure, the hour is late. They had just polished off a four-course Passover feast. Their full bellies were probably talking to their eyelids.
Not only that, all of them were in danger and they knew it. It’s a natural human response to sleep when we are afraid. We just want to shut everything out, close our eyes and pretend it isn’t there. If we could, we would take a snooze and hope it was all a bad dream. Such is the situation of Peter, James, and John.
But let’s not be distracted by the three of them, for this is a story about Jesus. He is heartsick, sad, and sorrowful. Matthew describes the Lord’s emotions with the same word he has just used to describe the mood of the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus said, “One of you will betray me,” and they were “thrown into sorrow,” and “heavy with grief.”
When the Lord told them the truth, he was clear and strong. Now it is his turn to face what is coming. Not openly for the crowds to see. Not with histrionics or blubbering to call attention to himself. No, this was an honest man facing what lay ahead. It is a profound moment, and it’s heavy. Very heavy.
My father was a strong man, not prone to emotional drama. He was rational and scientific, thoroughly in charge of his entire domain. Yet I was there when he was diagnosed with a fatal disease. He broke down and sobbed inconsolably. It was the only time I ever heard my father cry. It was heavy, very heavy.
Jesus is facing his own death. He knows it is coming. He has a good idea how. He’s pretty sure that it will begin with another friend turning him in. His hands will be tied behind his back. They will make fun of him, poke him, and do whatever they can to humiliate him. That’s just the beginning. No doubt he had a fertile imagination, shaped by the cruelty that the Empire wielded every day. He knew the hammer and nails were coming.
So he falls to his knees to pray, “Let this cup pass. O Father, let this cup pass.”
This is one of the implications of the incarnation, of God choosing to come to us as a human being. Jesus set aside the power of create the stars and move the planets in their courses. He came down and took on the limitations of being a person like any of us. We don’t call all the shots in our lives. There’s so much that we cannot control. Jesus took on the same when he pulled on human skin.
This is a great mystery. He worked miracles for others, but he did not – or would not – work a miracle for himself. He healed the sick everywhere else, but in Gethsemane, his own soul is sick. He could shout at a storm in Galilee and say with all authority, “Hush up!” and the wind and waves obeyed him. But now another storm is forming around him, and within him, and he is powerless to stop it.
So he prays a second time, “Father, let this cup pass.”
Now Jesus knows his destiny. He has already declared his destiny. He told Simon Peter, “I will go to Jerusalem and be killed.” Peter shouted, “No, not you, certainly not you, the powerful Messiah!” Jesus stared him down, called out the devil in him, and said, “Peter, you are embracing human values, not heavenly values.”
For what greater human virtue could there be than saving your own skin? The human inclination is to think only of one’s self. So we hoard all the toilet paper, stockpile all the cleaning supplies, and never take responsibility for our own self-centered neglect.
Yet Jesus knows he must go to Jerusalem. He must. And in Jerusalem, he will be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. To drink the cup of suffering. To serve the world by giving his life as a ransom for many. This is what he must do.
So he prays a third time: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
I hope we can hear the conflict in his words, for it is real. Jesus is not repeating this prayer three times for our benefit, even if it was Simon Peter who this cry in his slumber and later told the Gospel writer. No, Jesus faces a sincere dilemma. One way to frame it might sound like this: “Father, I know what you want, and I know what I want. Could you give me what I want, and let that be what you want?”
We can all hope for that kind of outcome. Like this prayer: “Father, don’t let me get sick, for I know your will for us is good health.” Or this: “Father, flood my fears with your overwhelming joy, for your will is to send light into darkness.” Or how about this one: “Father, do not let me ever become self-centered or isolated, for your will is to create compassion and human community.”
Those are very different prayers than the general prayer, “Holy God, give me what I want!” Or this prayer from a television evangelist, “Lord, I would like a private jet, funded by the suckers who put their tithes in my offering plate.” Or Shel Silverstein’s “Prayer of the Selfish Child” –
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my toys to break,
So none of the other kids can use ‘em.
How different these prayers are from the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. He asks for deliverance, but not out of greed. He sets his wishes within the greater intentions of God, and says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” Prayer is kneeling before the God who is bigger, holier, and far more just than we are
Now, I know there are those other verses. You know the ones. Jesus says, “Ask whatever you wish, and the Father will give it to you.” So somebody prays, Lord, I need a set of new luggage. Lord, I want a new boyfriend. Lord, I want you to keep me well even if everybody else gets sick. If we pray apart from pursuing the will of God, we put ourselves in spiritual danger.
As it is, we are already infected by an American myth that everything turns out well, that life will land on the bright side, that we will be blessed in ways that others will not. That kind of thinking feeds into false privilege and over-consumption. Even worse, it is the self-centered seedbed for human destruction.
So how does Jesus pray? How does Jesus teach us to pray? Four words: "Thy will be done." Let God's will be done on earth, because it is surely done around the throne of heaven. Let life on earth be shaped to resemble the life that is already in heaven.
If there be any question about this, Jesus already teaches the will of God, for heaven and for earth:
- that the broken be mended,
- that those who mourn will be comforted,
- that mercy will be met with mercy,
- that those hungry and thirsty for righteousness will taste it,
- that the meek would inherit the world God created for them,
- that the peacemakers and the healers would be adopted as God’s own kin,
- that the hungry would be fed, and the naked clothed, and the prisoners visited rather than abandoned, and that the wretched of the earth will treated as God’s own royalty.
And here’s one thing more: that all sin would be cancelled and forgiven, and all those disrupted by sin would set free from all the damage. That, in particular, is the will of God to be embodied by Jesus, who goes to Jerusalem to pay the ransom and set free all who can live in that freedom.
Today we overhear the prayer of Jesus, in his moment of extremity: “O Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not what I want but what you want.” If we hear the Gospel, we hear what God wants. And ultimately, sooner or later, one way or another, this is what God will achieve, for God always wins.
The miracle is that we can be part of that heavenly intention for earth: the mending, comforting, showing mercy, tasting righteousness, and all the rest. We choose it by choosing the will of God over our own will. And we live it first by praying it.
A lot of people talk about having a “personal relationship with God.” Let me tell it to you straight: that “personal relationship” is a life of prayer. Spoken prayer, silent prayer, still prayer, and (don’t forget it) active prayer. It’s the kind of prayer, like Jesus, that acknowledges what it on our hearts – but in all things, pursues the will of God and submits to it when it is discerned.
It is the prayer that asks, “Lord, what do you want for the world and how can I be a part of it?” If we ask those words, really ask, the promise is that that prayer will be answered.
Last month, some of our church folks met every week to learn more about Howard Thurman, the wise teacher from the last generation who knew God face to face. At one point, Thurman said something very deep: true prayer has very little to do with bringing something external to pass; rather, it has to do with the relationship between God and those who pray.
Here is what he said, “The essence of prayer is that God answers the pray-er (the one praying), which is far more important than answering a thousand prayers.” And God’s answer is this: “I see you. I love you. I am with you. No matter what.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic (New York: Harper Collins, 1981) 15.