Matthew’s Messiah: His Isolation
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 candle? Because he did not want his shadow to fall upon the representation of God which he was painting…
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 I am trying to proclaim. I am profoundly fearful that my own personal 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 today. You see, today we intrude upon one of the most poignant and most personal moments Jesus ever experienced. Today, we eavesdrop upon the Messiah as He was praying in a garden of Gethsemane. It is such a tender and touching moment that I want to get myself as much out of the way as I can so that we see only the Messiah in His isolation.
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. Well, it wasn’t really a garden, 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”. There, Jesus left eight of the disciples just inside the gate of the grove and He took Peter, James and John deeper into the glade. He asked them to be in prayer—and then He went farther, a stone’s throw farther, and there alone, on His knees, He prayed.
Now 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? 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 I find quite plausible. The first of the two references is in Acts (Acts 12:12) where we are told that when the disciples met in Jerusalem, they regularly met in the home belonging to John Mark’s family. John Mark, was the man who later wrote the Gospel we know as Mark. At the time of the last week of Jesus’ life, John Mark was rather young. John Mark, years later, in telling the story of Gethsemane in his Gospel, refers to a young boy who was hiding in the garden and who heard and saw all that happened there. (Mark 14:51) When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Mark says that the young boy just managed to escape. So I take those two references, and with some imagination, I can tell you what I think happened. John Mark, the young boy, was at home earlier in the day when Jesus and His disciples came by, as they usually did. The boy was fascinated by them, and so, John Mark, spurred on by boyish curiosity, began to follow 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. And from his 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.
So I invite you to join me now in eavesdropping on Messiah in the Garden of Gethsemane to see and 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 or trouble or 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 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, doctors, nurses—but the actual closing of your eyes on 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. Matthew describes the Messiah as being “grieved and agitated”. The words are strong. They speak not only of mental and spiritual anguish, but also of actual physical pain. So intense was His grief and agitation 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. And what makes Gethsemane so terribly painful is this: God turned away from Him. That’s right. If you don’t believe that, then you haven’t really read the story. When Jesus turned to God for help and deliverance, God said “No.” The disciples had already gone to sleep on Him, now God turned away from Him, leaving Him completely alone. That’s what happened to Jesus in the garden.
Now look at why that happened to Jesus in the garden.
Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” What was He referring to when He said that? Was He referring to His impending death? No, I don’t think so. Jesus had talked about His death more than once. You remember at Caesarea Philippi, after Peter said, “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. 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 submit to you 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 remember that after He preached His first sermon in His own hometown, the people 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 grief and agitation? 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 it until Gethsemane. But therein the collected evil of people everywhere 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: “He who knew no sin was Himself to become sin.” There in the garden, as the Bible puts it: “The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” When that happened, Jesus, grieved and agitated, cried out: “Father, take it away.” But God said “No”. And so Jesus, all alone, in agony, on His knees, Jesus said: “Yet not what I want, but what You want, My Father.” He took upon Himself the sin of us all. That’s why that happened to Him in the garden.
Then look at how what happened to Jesus in the garden affects us all.
Dear friends, our Christian faith is not all sweetness and light. It is more than the Golden Rule and 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. The Messiah did not come to this earth merely to establish a new morality, a new code of ethics, a new social order. No. He came to save! He came to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows, to be stricken for our transgressions. He came to give Himself at whatever cost so that we might be blessed. He came to die so that we might live—live here and live hereafter.
Some of you may wonder why I repeatedly call from this pulpit for you to repent and 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 we have evangelism ministries designed to bring people into a life-changing confrontation with Jesus Christ. Some of you may wonder why I so strongly urge you to become part of the body of Christ, the Church, where we can find support to live as Christ calls us to live. Here is the reason. We know the price the Messiah paid. We know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not something we do. It is something which has been done for us through Jesus, the Messiah.
A number of years ago, there was a film called “Forbidden Games”. In that film refugees are shown fleeing from Paris during the Second World War. A Nazi war 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 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 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 already has done for us everything He possibly could? He gave His only Son. And His only Son saved our life by losing His. 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.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands our soul, our life, our all.