24: The Longest Day of Jesus’ Life: Gethsemane: Where God Broke His Heart And His Son
Like the wildly popular television series entitled “24,” the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life were filled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal, injustice, terror, torture, and, of course, death. It was by any reckoning the longest day of Jesus’ life. During these Sundays before Easter, we are looking together at the events which took place during that 24-hour period.
It is said that when Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he kept fastened to the visor of his cap a candle which was always burning. Why the burning candle? “Because,” he said, “I did not wish for my shadow to fall upon the representation of God which I am painting.” Well, that is also true of one who dares to preach the Word of God. Certainly it is true of me. I am desperately concerned that no sin of mine, no weakness of my personality, no shadow of myself should ever block the truth of God which I am trying to proclaim. That’s the feeling I always have when I preach, but I must confess to you the feeling is especially intense today. You see, today we intrude upon one of the most poignant and most personal moments Jesus ever experienced. Today we eavesdrop upon Jesus as He was praying in the garden called Gethsemane. It is such a tender and touching moment that I must get myself as much out of the way as I can so that we see Jesus—only Jesus.
After the last supper, Jesus took eleven of His disciples—by this time Judas had already departed to tend to his despicable business—and they went to the garden called Gethsemane. It wasn’t really a garden, at least not as we think of a garden. It was actually a grove of olive trees, stretching up the slopes of what was, and is, accurately called the “Mount of Olives.” Jesus then left eight of the disciples just inside the gate of the grove. He took Peter, James, and John deeper into the glade. Then He asked the three of them to be in prayer while He went farther into the grove, a stone’s throw farther the Bible says, and there alone on His knees, He prayed. Have you ever wondered how it is that we know exactly what and how Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane? I mean the disciples, we are told, all fell asleep. None of them heard Him. How then do we know what He prayed? Well, I will tell you what I think happened. I take two very subtle references in the Bible, apply a little imagination, and I come up with a scenario which I find quite plausible. See if you agree. The first of the two references is in Acts chapter 12, where we are told that when the disciples met in Jerusalem, they regularly met in the home belonging to John Mark’s family. Now John Mark was the man who, later on, wrote the Gospel we know as the Gospel of Mark. Well at the time of the last week of Jesus’ life, John Mark was rather young. This same John Mark, as he wrote his Gospel years later, in telling the story of what happened in Gethsemane, refers to a young boy who was hiding in the garden who heard and saw all that happened there. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Mark says that the young boy just managed to escape. Now I take those two references and with some imagination, here is what I think happened. It is quite likely from what we know that the upper room where the last supper took place was located in John Mark’s family home. Now John Mark, the young boy, was fascinated by Jesus and his disciples. As a result that evening, after the supper, when Jesus and the others left, John Mark, spurred on by boyish curiosity followed them at a distance. He even followed them out to Gethsemane. There he concealed himself so as not to be seen and thus sent home. From this hiding place, he, and he alone, heard the remarkable prayer that Jesus directed to His heavenly Father. Later on he wrote down what he had seen and heard. He shared that with the other Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. They then added their own threads to this tapestry of truth so that now we have the whole story, and what a beautiful story it is.
So I invite you to join me now in eavesdropping on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane to see, to hear, and, God willing, to believe.
Look first at what happened to Jesus in the garden.
There are some battles in life which we have to fight alone. To be sure, it’s good to have friends beside you in times of trial, trouble, tension, or tragedy. However, there are some problems or challenges in life that we just have to face alone. I think maybe that’s the reason that so many people fear death. They recognize that, at the moment of dying, you are altogether alone. Oh, there may be others close by—loved ones, doctors, nurses—but the actual closing of your eyes in this life and the opening of your eyes on the life that is to come—that is done alone. Yes, there are some things no one can do with you or for you. That’s the way it was for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He was alone, and He was in agony. Mark describes Jesus as being “deeply distressed and troubled.” The words are very strong. They speak not only of mental and spiritual anguish, but also of actual physical pain. So intense was His distress that sweat came to His face like great drops of blood which then fell to the ground. So profound was His pain that even in the chilled night air of the Middle East He was drenched with perspiration. In that moment of extreme aloneness and intense agony, Jesus turned to the only place He knew to turn—He turned to God. What makes Gethsemane so terribly painful is this: God turned away from Him. That’s right. If you don’t believe that, then let me gently suggest that you haven’t really read the story. When Jesus prayed to His heavenly Father, “Father, let this cup pass from me,” He was praying for help and deliverance. What did God do? God said, “No.” The disciples had already gone to sleep on Him, and now God turned away from Him. He was left completely alone. That’s what happened to Jesus in the garden.
Now look at why that happened to Jesus in the garden.
When Jesus prayed, “Father, let this cup pass from me,”—when He said that to what was he referring? Was He referring to His impending death? No, I don’t think so. Jesus had talked about His death more than once. For example, you remember at Caesarea Philippi, after Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus blessed him for saying it but Jesus then went on to speak about His death and the manner of His dying. So Jesus had been prepared for His death right from the very beginning. Was He then referring to the humiliation and the horror of the cross? No, I don’t think so. To be sure, death by crucifixion was horrible beyond words and humiliating to the extreme. Yet, Jesus had already stepped down from the level of deity to the level of humanity, and I would submit to you today that that was an infinitely greater humiliation than the cross. Was He then drawing back from the intense hatred of those who opposed Him? No, I don’t think so. Jesus had encountered hatred right from the very beginning of His ministry. You do remember don’t you, that after He preached His first sermon in His hometown of Nazareth, the people there turned on Him with hatred and nearly threw Him over a cliff to His death? No, hatred would have been nothing new to Jesus. What then could plunge Him into such an agony of pain and distress? It wasn’t death, or humiliation, or hatred. No, it was sin. When Jesus came to this earth, He took upon Himself all of our human experiences save one. He never knew the consequences of sin. He never knew separation from God. At least, He never knew that until Gethsemane. There in the garden, all the collected evil of people in every place and in every time was gathered into a single cup, and God said to Him, “Drink it.” There in the garden, as the Bible puts it, “The Lord God laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” When that happened, Jesus, deeply distressed, cried out, “Father, take it away,” but God said, “No.” So Jesus, all alone, in agony on His knees—Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.” Jesus took upon Himself the sin of us all. That’s why that happened to Him in the garden.
Now look at how what happened to Jesus in the garden affects us all.
Dear friends, our Christian faith is not all sweetness and light. Our Christian faith is more than the golden rule, the Christmas story, and the green, green hills of Galilee. Our Christian faith deals with reality—with life as it really is. Our Christian faith recognizes that this is not always a pretty world, and that our lives are more often marked by sinfulness than by saintliness. That’s why it is not enough for me to preach that because Jesus lived an exemplary life, we should strive to be like Him. It is not enough for me to preach that He left a splendid example for us to follow and a body of teachings to guide us. Those things are true, but they are not the Gospel. Jesus did not come to this earth simply to establish a new morality, a new code of ethics, or a new social order. No! He came to save! He came, as the Bible puts it in Isaiah 53, to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows, to be stricken for our transgressions. He came to die so that you and I might live—live here, yes, and live hereafter.
Some of you may wonder why I repeatedly call from this pulpit for you to repent, turn your life around, and to come to Jesus Christ in faith. Some of you may wonder why, in this church, week after week, we deliver the invitation for you to accept Jesus Christ as your savior and your Lord. Some of you may wonder why I so strongly urge you to become a part of the church, the body of Christ, where we can find support to live as Christ calls us to live. Here is the reason: Jesus came to save you and to save me.
A number of years ago there was a film called “Forbidden Games.” In that film, refugees are shown fleeing from the city of Paris during the Second World War. A Nazi war plane swoops down, low to the ground, in order to strafe the refugees. A young mother and father quickly push their little girl to the ground, and then stretch themselves out on top of her. The bullets from the plane find their mark. After the strafing is over, the child crawls out from under the bodies of her parents. In a terribly painful scene, you realize that the little girl doesn’t understand what has happened. She tries to make her parents get up. She doesn’t realize that they had done for her all they possibly could. They had saved her life by losing theirs. That seems to me to be a parable. We keep asking things of God. We keep bombarding Heaven with all of our wants, desires, and concerns—and there is nothing wrong with that. God wants us to do it. But don’t you think that every once in a while, we ought to pause to remember that God already has done for us everything He possibly could? He gave His only Son. His only Son saved our life by losing His. Do you understand that it all began that night when for you and for me, God broke His heart and broke His Son in the quiet of a garden called Gethsemane? Oh, my beloved people, a love that amazing, that divine, demands our soul, our life, our all.