Cross Road: Agony In A Garden
(For the next several weeks, we shall engage in a close examination of the final sequence of events Jesus experienced before the crucifixion. We shall look at the things He said, the things He did, and the things that were said and done to Him. We shall begin the journey on the Cross Road in the Garden of Gethsemane.)
It is said that when Michaelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that he had fastened to the visor of his cap a candle that was always burning, lest his shadow should fall upon the representation of God which he was painting. This is also true of one who dares to preach God’s Word. It is true of me. I must be careful 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. I am profoundly fearful that my own shortcomings might somehow stain or tarnish the pure, bright radiance of God’s presence. That’s the feeling I always have when I preach, but it is especially true now. So I lead you into the darkness of a garden called “Gethsemane,” praying that we shall not stumble and fall.
After the Last Supper, Jesus took the eleven disciples—Judas had already departed to tend to his despicable business—and they went to the garden. It wasn’t really a garden—at least not a garden as we know it. It was actually an olive grove, stretching up the slopes of what was accurately called “The Mount of Olives.” There Jesus left eight of His disciples just inside the gate and took Peter, James, and John deeper into the glade. He asked them to be seated and He went farther—about a stone’s throw farther—and there, alone, on His knees, He prayed.
Have you ever wondered how it is that we know what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane? The disciples were all asleep—none of them heard Him. And since He was arrested immediately afterward, He had no opportunity to share with them in detail what had happened in the Garden. How then do we know what He prayed? Well, the answer can be found in two very subtle references in Scripture. At one point in the Book of Acts we are told that when the disciples met in Jerusalem, they regularly met in the home of John Mark. Now Mark, the man who later wrote the Gospel which bears his name, was very young at the time. And Mark, in telling the story of Gethsemane in his Gospel, notes that there was a young boy who was hiding in the garden, and who heard and saw all that happened. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, the young boy just managed to escape. Here then is the picture these two references give us:
John Mark was at home earlier in the day when Jesus and His disciples stopped in as they usually did. He was fascinated by them, by the things they were talking about, by the things they were doing. So John Mark, spurred on by his boyish curiosity, did what a lot of boys would have done under similar circumstances. He followed them wherever they went that day. He even followed them out to Gethsemane. There he concealed himself so as not to be seen, and thus, sent home. In his hiding place, he and he alone, heard the remarkable prayer Jesus directed to His Father in heaven. Later on, he wrote down what he saw and heard. The other Gospel writers then added threads to this tapestry of truth so that we now possess the whole scene.
So I invite you to join me here in the Garden to see and to hear and to believe…
I come to the Garden because here we see WHAT happened to Jesus.
I suppose you can learn more about a person by listening to that person’s prayers than by any other way. I am not referring to those words and phrases which we rattle off as mechanically as one might recite the alphabet. Rather I am talking about those moments when we genuinely open our hearts to God, when we understand ourselves to be alone with the Almighty, when we pour out the deepest thoughts of heart and mind. If you overhear that kind of prayer, you gain insights into that person which are more profound than you could get in any other way. That’s what happens to us here in Gethsemane. We see and hear Jesus praying alone.
That is sometimes the way it is. There are some battles in life which we have to fight alone. Oh, it’s good to have a friend beside you—someone to tap you on the shoulder when you need it, someone to blow the trumpet of encouragement when you need to hear it, someone to wave the flag of enthusiasm when you need to see it. Yes, it is good to have friends beside you in time of trial and tension. But the fact remains that there are some problems in life we have to face alone. I think that’s the reason so many people fear death. They recognize that at the moment of dying, you are altogether alone. There may be others close by—loved ones or doctors or nurses—but the actual closing of your eyes on this life and opening your eyes on the life that is to be—that is done alone. There are some things in life no one can do with you or for you.
That’s the way it was for Jesus in the Garden. He was alone. And He was in agony. That’s the word Luke uses, “being in an agony.” The word is very intense. It’s very severe. It speaks not only of mental and spiritual anguish, but also of actual physical pain. Jesus was being pulled apart. So intense was His agony that sweat came to His face like great drops of blood and then fell to the ground. So deep 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. And what makes Gethsemane so terrible is this: God turned away from Him. That’s right. If you don’t believe it, then you haven’t read the story. When Jesus turned to God for help and deliverance, God said “No.” That’s WHAT happened to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And I come to the Garden because here we see WHY that happened to Jesus.
Jesus cried out: “Father, let this cup pass from me.” What was He referring to when He said that? Well, I don’t think He was referring to His own death when He said it. Jesus had been prepared for His death from the very beginning of His ministry. At Caesarea Philippi, when Peter said, “You are the Christ,” Jesus blessed Peter for saying it, but then He went on to discuss His death and the manner of His dying. On the Mount of Transfiguration, that moment of such spiritual power, what was the topic of conversation? It was the way in which Jesus would die. When a group of curious Greeks came to find out something about the wandering preacher from Galilee, what did Jesus do? The Bible notes that He was deeply troubled and He spoke about the way in which He would die. So I don’t think Jesus was referring to His death when He cried “Let this cup pass from me.” He knew His death was coming and He was ready to face it.
And I don’t think He was referring to the shame and horror of the cross. Today we make the cross out of shiny gold and hang it around the necks of little girls. We place it over the spots where we bury our dead. We put it on the tops of those buildings which mean more to us than other buildings. But in Jesus’ day, the cross was not even mentioned in polite society. The word itself struck terror in people’s hearts. So perhaps, as some suggest, Jesus was asking God to spare Him the humiliation of that kind of dying. I cannot accept that. Jesus had already stepped down from the level of deity to the level of humanity—and I submit that this was an infinitely greater humiliation than the cross.
Or some suggest that He was drawing back from the hatred of those who wanted Him out of the way. I can’t accept that either. Jesus had encountered hatred right from the very beginning of His ministry. Why, after He preached His first sermon, they nearly threw Him over a cliff in His own hometown! Hatred would not have been new to Jesus. So I do not believe He was speaking of that.
What then? What could plunge Him into such agony? It wasn’t death or humiliation or hatred. It was sin! Jesus took upon Himself our human life. He did our work, faced our temptations, bore our trials. He knew our love, our joy, our peace. He experienced the failure of friends, the hatred of foes, the malice of the wicked, and the pain of suffering. He knew all of the experiences of life except one. He never knew the consequences of sin. He never knew separation from God. At least He never knew it until Gethsemane. There all of the collected evil of people everywhere and in every time was gathered into a single cup and God said to Him: “Drink it.” There “the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
When someone like Jesus who was pure and innocent and altogether clean—when such a One is suddenly forced to look upon the hard, cruel, selfish sinfulness of men and women—and when the Word of God is that He is to take that sinfulness to Himself so that He “who knew no sin was Himself to become sin”—when that happened, Jesus cried: “Oh God, take it away!” And God said, “No.” And so Jesus, alone and in agony and on His knees—Jesus said: “Thy will be done.” He took upon Himself the sin of us all. That’s WHY it happened to Jesus.
And I come to the Garden because here we see HOW what happened to Jesus affects us.
A painting by George Penwell called “The Elixir of Love,” pictures an old medicine show barker who has pulled his wagon up into the middle of a town square. He is giving his pitch to the crowd gathered there. He is selling bottles of something called “Elixir of Love.” The crowd is obviously receptive, and it is clear that this peddler of bottled love is going to reap a nice profit. But if that’s all you see in the painting, you miss the point. You’ve got to lift your eyes a bit above the scene and you discover that the medicine show man is making his pitch at the foot of the village crucifix. Here’s a fellow trying to sell love in a bottle, and just above him is Christ on the cross—and that’s real love. God sent His Son—that’s love. The Son lived perfectly—that’s love. The Son took unto Himself all the sin of your life and mine—and that’s love. Peter Marshall says: “He had to do it, there was no other way. He had to be the One to taste every depth sin could devise in order to prove finally and forever that no evil is any match for the Father.”
My friends, our Christian faith is not all sweetness and light. It is more than the Golden Rule and the Christmas story and the green hills of Galilee. Christianity deals with reality, with life as it really is. It 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 to preach that because Jesus lived an exemplary life, we should strive to be like Him. It is not enough to say that He left a splendid example for us to follow and a body of teachings to guide us. These things are true, but they are not the Gospel. Christ did not come merely to establish a new morality, a new code of ethics, a new social order. He came to save! He came to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows and be stricken for our transgressions. He came to give Himself at whatever cost of pain and suffering and death that we might we blessed. He came to die that we might live, here and hereafter.
Some of you wonder why I repeatedly call from this pulpit for you to repent and come to Jesus Christ. Some of you wonder why in this church, week after week, we deliver the invitation for you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. Some of you wonder why we have evangelism ministries designed to bring people into confrontation with Jesus Christ. Some of you wonder why we so strongly urge fellowship in the Body of Christ where people can find support to live as Christ calls us to live. Here is the reason. We know the price He paid. We know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not something we do—it is something which has been done for us through God’s love in Jesus Christ.
There is a film called “Forbidden Games” in which refugees are shown fleeing from Paris during World War II. A Nazi plane swoops in low to the ground 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 she doesn’t understand what has happened. She tries to make her parents get up. She doesn’t realize that they had done all for her they possibly could. They had saved her life by losing theirs.
That seems to me to be a parable. We keep on asking so much of God. We keep bombarding heaven with all of our wants and desires and concerns. And there’s 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 has already done for us everything He possibly could? It all began that night when He broke His heart and broke His Son in the quiet of a Garden called…