Dr. Chris White November 3rd, 2013
Places matter. We are able to live and communicate wherever we are, but places still tell some part of our life story. It is the same in the life of Jesus. In fact, we need only mention a site to know a story. Bethlehem is a birthplace, Nazareth a hometown, Cana a first miracle, and Golgotha the place of crucifixion. And then there is Gethsemane. It was just an olive grove used for prayer by Jesus and the Twelve, but no place evokes the drama and struggle of Gethsemane. It was the last free breath before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But we know it better as the site of struggle and sorrow as Jesus faced the cross. It revealed a side of Jesus we did not know. And this is the side we need to know.
Read with me from Mark 14:32-33:
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
First, Gethsemane tells us that as far as friends could go with Jesus, friends went with Jesus. This is a night to pray and a place to pray, and so the disciples are along. But Jesus goes even farther by taking three disciples with him into his distress and trouble. It’s one thing to keep them close as you go deeper into the grove to pray, but it’s another thing altogether to tell them that you are grieved nearly to the point of death. You don’t tell that bit of news to just everyone. But you do tell a friend. Jesus had a deep need for human things, and the most conspicuous was his need for friendship. He would call these disciples friends and treat them as friends (Jn. 15:14-15), even on the eve of the crucifixion. The grief of the evening began with his announcement that they would fall away and one even betray. No matter how much this failure of friends may inevitably be part of the story, the grief of Jesus on this evening will always include the grief that is in the failure of his friends. But as far as friends could come along with his life, they came.
If Gethsemane says this about Jesus, then it is God’s will that we allow trustworthy people close by when we face Gethsemane. Friendship is one of the best shades of being human. In fact, when the Scriptures record a friendship like David and Jonathan, we learn how real friendships are even a part of God’s will in a crisis. If you remember, a jealous King Saul sets out to kill David. What complicates this detail is that David’s best friend is Jonathan, son of Saul. The threat to the throne of Saul and Jonathan from David is so obvious that in 1 Samuel 20:31 Saul tells Jonathan, “For as long as the son of Jesse lives on earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” Saul is telling the truth. Jonathan alone knows the intent of his father, and had Jonathan kept his father’s words to himself he would have been king. The success of David threatened Jonathan, and the knowledge of Jonathan threatened David. But Jonathan does warn David, and this allowed David to escape. And according to God’s will, David became king. The will of God came by the very gritty, difficult honesty of a friendship. David and Jonathan brought one another along where the stakes were high.
Our question: Is anyone truly with you on this road of faith?
The passage goes on: Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14:35-40)
Gethsemane reveals something else about Jesus. When the will of God required that Jesus go where friends could not go, Jesus kept going. It’s a small clause, “Going a little farther.” He went “a little farther” from the company of his friends, and that is hard company to leave when your soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. And yet alone is the only way he could pray and face what was to come. The disciples had gathered with him at the dinner presuming they were on the verge of his and their inauguration. They couldn’t have been more mistaken. Time and again Jesus will ask them, “Do you still not understand?” They did not understand, but he did. And to understand the will of God for his life was a lonely business. His life as God’s Son, his work as God’s Son, was a work that no one understood but him. So while the disciples argue about greatness, Judas seeks to betray him, and the Pharisees are hung up with keeping clean hands, there is Jesus walking toward the cross. “Going a little farther” was the way of his life. Jesus was willing to walk alone when God’s will required that he go a little farther than friends could go with him.
We, too, have to learn to walk alone. We, too, have to offer to God a faithfulness that is faithful even in the lonely places. That means we have to give up the demand that people notice us, understand us, and appreciate us in our faithfulness to Christ. If we only walk as far as people will go along, then we’ll never walk as far as God asks. We have to go a little farther. The Old Testament book of Job tells the story of an innocent man struck by calamity, and he is surrounded by friends who insist that he has sinned and brought this on himself. His friend Bildad says, “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation.” (Job 8:5-6) But we know that Job has not sinned. Friends cannot come on this journey with God because they cannot see the story from Job’s eyes. That is true of most things, of course. No one sees or feels the impulse of God’s will for you like you. No one understands the pressures or the needs like you. Your path will be lonely. Paul’s path was lonely. Mary’s path was lonely. Peter’s path was lonely. Timothy’s path was lonely. Everyone who walks with Christ must go a little farther than friends can travel.
Our question: Are you willing to go alone?
Our final piece of the story: Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Mark 14:41-42)
When the narrative erupts with the arrival of Judas and an armed crowd, we see the strength hidden in Gethsemane: Jesus accepted God’s will. He stayed. He did not run and save himself. The victory in Gethsemane is the willingness to accept this cup of suffering as God’s will.
This is the good ending of all Gethsemane seasons—we do God’s will. As Jesus stayed faithful to God in all things, so must we. The doing of God’s will is the measure of God’s will in us.