Sermon delivered on Sunday 28 March, 2010
Before reading the text for this sermon, there are a few things I want to point out and ask you to take note of: Notice the repetition; the same anguish again and again, the disciples sleeping again and again, Jesus goes away to pray again and again. There is also the repetition of the story itself in each of the three synoptic gospels, and when we consider that such repetition in the Bible indicates superlative importance, then we do well to examine this event.
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.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch with me.” And going a little further he fell on his face and prayed, saying “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch and pray with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And 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 again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
This rather strange scene occurred after the last supper and the long discourse and prayer of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of John, chapters 13 through to 17. The garden of Gethsemane is a place that Jesus often met with his disciples, so Judas knew exactly where he would be (John 18:1–2).
When Jesus arrived at the garden on the Mount of Olives, he left eight of the disciples together and took Peter, James and John with him. Then he told the three to watch and pray (that they would enter into temptation, Luke 22:40), before withdrawing from about a stone’s throw from them (Luke 22:41). At this distance the three disciples would not be able to hear what he was saying if spoken at normal conversational volume, though this could be the situation that the writer of Hebrews refers to, saying:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.
So, given that most of the content of his prayers were probably not heard by James, John and Peter and that they were asleep most of the time anyway, the gospel accounts must be informed by Jesus himself. No doubt in the forty days after his resurrection he told them much of his sufferings, presumably the details of what occurred in this garden were important enough for him also to tell.
According to Luke, Jesus kneels down and prays, asking God to remove ‘this cup’. We could deceive ourselves into thinking that this is an ordinary prayer from a man who does not want to die.
Yet about a week prior to this Jesus stated clearly that his purpose in going to Jerusalem was to die (Mark 10:32–34). There has to be more to it than human fear of death, especially when you consider the descriptions from Mark and Matthew of Jesus being greatly distressed and troubled and that he said to the disciples that he was sorrowful even to death (Mark 14:33–34). Jesus is described as falling to the ground — this looks like terror, not simple fear.
Luke tells us that an angel came to strengthen Jesus, this is no ordinary fear. The other time an angel (or angels) came to strengthen Jesus was in the encounter with Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11). Consider the extreme torment he had been under on that occasion — forty days fasting in the wilderness with Satan tempting him! That is not normal human experience, it was a unique encounter between the incarnate Son of God and Satan. A cosmic spiritual battle of wills. In Gethsemane too we see Jesus’ will to obey his Father tested to the utmost.
Luke’s description of Jesus sweating blood (Luke 22:44, this does actually occur on rare occasions — it is called hematidrosis) confirms the agony and torment of soul that Jesus is enduring.
The content of Jesus’ prayers tell us why he is in such extreme anguish. His first prayer asks God to remove ‘this cup’ from him (Matthew 26:39). Jesus knows that all things are possible for the Father, but submits himself to his Father’s will (Mark 14:36). In this we see total submission in the face of agonizing terror — Jesus knows the Father could take the cup away if he wanted to, yet submits to his Father’s will.
Matthew gives detail of the next prayer:
“Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
This is essentially still a prayer asking for the cup to pass and submitting to the Father’s will, but the emphasis shown to us by Matthew is that Jesus is willing to drink the cup. If this is to be fulfilled then Jesus is asking his Father to ensure he has strength enough for the ordeal.
Jesus then prays a third time. We know the outcome of the three prayers because in John 18:11 when Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, he also says:
“shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Which is a statement rather than a question, indicating that Jesus has resolved to drink the cup.
All of which bring us to the question: What is in the cup?
The answer to this question explains the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane, it also explains how God can forgive me yet remain holy and just, causing me to weep, tremble and rejoice simultaneously.
What do we already know about the cup?
- It is assigned to Jesus by the Father (John 18:11).
- Jesus asked for it to be removed from him (Mark 14:36).
- Jesus must drink what is in the cup before it will pass (Matthew 26:42).
- It was in accordance with the prophets that Jesus must drink the cup (Matthew 26:54).
So what did the prophets have to say about the cup?
O my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Psalm 22 is a messianic psalm and Jesus has poured himself out in prayer asking for the cup to pass but his Father is silent — the cup will not be removed.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God and afflicted.
In Gethsemane we see clearly that Jesus is stricken and afflicted. His bearing our griefs and sorrows will become clear as we look at part of Isaiah’s prophecy that I think is crucial to understanding Gethsemane:
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring;
he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
We have seen that it was the will of the Father for Jesus to drink the cup, and by Jesus drinking the cup the will of the LORD prospers in the hands of his servant (Jesus). There is also hope, out of the anguish of his soul he (Jesus) shall see and be satisfied. The offspring are God’s adopted children who are accounted righteous because he bore our iniquities (see also 1 Corinthians 15:3).
Thus we see that the cup is the furious wrath of God against sin, and in Gethsemane Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and accepted this cup to drink it to its dregs. We cannot fully comprehend what was in that cup, but scripture does give us some descriptions as we will see.
The wrath of God against sin is without pity:
Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears in a loud voice, I will not hear them.
God poured out His wrath upon Jesus without pity. He did not spare His Son. He did not listen to his cry.
To get a taste of a people under the wrath of God, read the book of Lamentations.
However, it is easy to read accounts of suffering in the Bible in an unconsciously detached manner so I want to present a passage from a modern writer which vividly describes the terror of being on an inescapable path towards a hellish end. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus chose such a path.
Extract from Night by Elie Wiesel, pp32–34:
“Poor devils, you are heading for the crematorium.”
He seemed to be telling the truth. Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes… children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)
So, that was where we were going. A little further on, there was another, larger pit for adults.
I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps… Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…
My father’s voice tore me from my daydreams:
“What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother… I saw many children your age go with their mothers…”
His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would do to me. He did not want to see his only son go up in flames.
My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes…
“The world? The world is not interested in us. Today, everything is possible, even the crematoria…” His voice broke.
“Father.” I said. “If that is true, then I don’t want to wait. I’ll run into the electrified barbed wire. That would be easier than a slow death in the flames.”
He didn’t answer. He was weeping. His body was shaking. Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.
“Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba… May His name be celebrated and sanctified…” whispered my father.
For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?
We continued our march. We were coming closer and closer to the pit, from which an infernal heat was rising. Twenty more steps. If I was going to kill myself, this was the time. Our column had only some fifteen steps to go. I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten more steps. Eight. Seven. We were walking slowly, as one follows a hearse, our own funeral procession. Only four more steps. Three. There it was now, very close to us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that remained of my strength in order to break rank and throw myself onto the barbed wire. Deep down, I was saying good-bye to my father, to the whole universe, and, against my will, I found myself whispering the words: “Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba… May His name be celebrated and sanctified…” My heart was about to burst. There. I was face-to-face with the Angel of Death…
No. Two steps from the pit, we were ordered to turn left and herded into barracks.
I squeezed my father’s hand. He said:
“Do you remember Mrs Schachter, in the train?”
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
This is a harrowing description of the hellish suffering endured by one soul. It is a glimpse of what the wrath of God might look like against one sinner. In Gethsemane, Jesus stared straight into the full fury of God’s wrath against all sin, of all people who are ransomed from hell. At such a sight his soul was filled with terror, he was about to become sin — he, the Holy One, would take upon himself the sin of the world (1 John 2:2) and then bear in his body the furious wrath of God against that sin.
The cup of God’s wrath did not pass until Jesus drank all of it — he had to endure God’s wrath to its fullness, and he did:
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
The suffering of Jesus was complete:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,
1 Peter 3:18