We have entered the holiest weekend on the Christian calendar. Perhaps, it is one that comes to us not as we expected.
For one, we find ourselves disconnected physically, but emotionally and spiritually connected to one another. Throughout this season of our shared lives together, I have given thanks, and continue to do so, for the gift of technology that allows us to be in worship with one another while we are distant from one another. Tonight, on this night of reflection, we do so in our homes and, truly, around our city, state, and world to reflect upon the meaning of this night.
Yet, personally, this is a night that I did not expect to be sharing with you. We expected this to be the day our son, Thaddeus, was born, and plans were in place to allow me to be at the hospital and prepare for Easter. Obviously, when Thaddeus was born last week and the health crisis came upon us those plans were changed.
Perhaps, as well, we come to this night, this Maundy Thursday, wondering why should we pay any attention at all. Maybe that is how we connect to each of these days, these holy days, outside of Easter. We know how the story ends, we will tell ourselves, so why bother with the intentional retelling the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death. If the resurrection is, as we say it is, the main event, then just focus on that and move on.
We tell ourselves that, because we don’t want to spend a lot of energy in the difficult moments of the story. That is true for both our own story and Jesus’ journey to the cross and the empty tomb. We want the fun stuff, but it is in the examination of the difficult moments of faith and the journey to the cross that we see a deeper side of Christ and our own lives.
I want to invite us to be intentional about engaging these days and ask ourselves what is God trying to show us through them. We have a unique opportunity to take in the narrative in a new way this holy weekend. As we go to the garden, experience Jesus’ betrayal, see him abused and falsely accused by the religious authorities, and nailed to the cross to die by Pilate and the Roman soldiers, may we truly journey in our souls to engage these moments in a way that lead us to a deeper walk with Christ.
So, tonight, we begin this holy weekend journey from the Upper Room to the cross and to the empty tomb not at the dinning room table, but in an olive tree field known as Gethsemane. It is, traditional, tonight, to reflect upon what took place in the Upper Room, of how Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples and washed their feet. We rarely move to the story of what took place at Gethsemane. It is there where I find my soul this particular Thursday. Why? There is something about Jesus there that moves me.
As the story goes, Jesus and the remaining 11 disciples have gone to Gethsemane. By this point, Judas has already left the group to put into place the plans to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities. The Garden of Gethsemane gets its name from the olive presses that would be found there. This was a place Jesus and the disciples were quite familiar with. On their trips into Jerusalem, it was this garden on the Mount of Olives where Jesus and his disciples would go for rest, prayer, and, yes, safety. The location was about a mile to two mile walk from the temple.
On this night, Jesus and the disciples traveled to the Garden of Gethsemane as tensions have risen to a boiling point. It began on Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the Passover celebration as the heralded king. The act irritated an already questioning group of religious elites who sought to challenge Jesus at every moment. This led to the religious elites to want to eliminate Jesus, because they saw him as a threat to their own power and influence over the people. Their plans were realized once they knew they had a willing accomplice in Judas.
As they celebrated the Passover meal, Jesus and the disciples felt the tension and, perhaps, went to the Garden of Gethsemane for not just rest but to assess what was taking place. Jesus went there knowing what was coming soon and he struggled with this reality. This is an image we do not like to see of Jesus. We want to see Jesus as the king who willingly and obediently went to the cross and never struggled with the mission. We want to see Jesus without the struggles, because we do not think that Jesus was capable of struggling and, as well, we do not want to admit our won struggles with God’s calling upon our lives.
The encounter at the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus’ prayers, tell us of how deeply Jesus struggled with what was to come. After leaving eight of his disciples at the entrance to the garden, he takes Peter, James, and John with him for a time of prayer. Peter, James, and John get to see a lot of Jesus. They are his most trusted disciples and the ones Jesus turns to in the big moments. Once they are alone, Jesus admits that he is deeply grieving and struggling with what was to come, even to the point of death. What does this mean? Jesus is facing the type of bone crushing grief that many of us have faced at the loss of a loved one or a difficult and challenging moment in our lives. That grief and agony that stops us in our tracks and prevents us from moving.
Jesus was overwhelmed with grief and agony at what was to come. He knew that being the Messiah meant giving his life for others. He knew it was the way to bring redemption and new life to all people. That was the divine nature of his identity and part of his purpose, but we tend to forget that Jesus was not only fully divine, but he was fully human. He would feel the pain. He would feel the torment. He would feel the nails in his hands. He would feel the torture. Like anyone, Jesus is overwhelmed with the prospect and is tempted to find another way for God’s kingdom to come to earth.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was tempted to find another way and seek an easier option. The season of Lent begins with the retelling of the story of Jesus going to a dessert area outside of Jericho for a time of prayer and reflection. This was immediately after his baptism in the Jordan River. It was there where Satan tempted Jesus to find another way than the calling upon his life. He remained faithful, then, by prayerfully wrestling with the call and seeking the way of God.
At other points in his three-year earthly ministry, Jesus faced temptations to seek another way. There were moments when the crowds wanted to proclaim him as the Messiah in their terms and, yet, he remained committed to the way of God. There were family members that wanted him to come home and, yet, he remained faithful to the call. There were points along the way where Jesus faced temptations to find another way. This time, though, it brings him to a deep place of grief, because he knew what was coming. He knew the time was approaching.
So, in his prayer he goes to the Father and shares with what was on his soul. He shares that was looking for any other option but the one before him. He gives to God his pain and wrestles with the calling and the journey in conversation with the Father. That is a powerful testimony to what obedience for Jesus looked like. It was not one where he merely went along with what was before him without much thought or event care. Obedience came as a journey of reflection and, yes, even wrestling with the divine purpose.
How often are we willing to agonize and wrestle with what God asks of us? Too often we believe that if we are to be in relationship with God it should come easy. We don’t always spend time wrestling with the life of faith or its implications. Instead, we often look for what is the easy way out. There is nothing wrong with wrestling with faith, questioning God’s will for us, or having a hard time with the life. The measure of our faith in God comes in our willing desire to be obedient to God even when it is hard to do.
Perhaps that is what we see in Jesus, in the garden, as he prayed there alone. He was willing to go with God, even if it was hard for him to go in that direction. Why? Because what was most important for Jesus was the Father’s will for his life and not his own. Obedience came with a price of his own life, but he was willing because he knew God’s purposes were greater. While his body may still have been anxious about what was to come, his soul was empowered to face the journey unafraid. It came because he gave his struggles to God and committed himself to a deeper purpose.
Jesus left the garden, truly, alone to face this journey. His friends would abandon him. The religious elites would turn their backs to him. The Roman government would do nothing but mock him. He felt the shame and wrath of God for people’s sin that were now placed upon his shoulders. Alone he went, yet he did so in the full confidence of God’s will and desires.
As we enter into this holy weekend, what can we take from Jesus’ moment of agonizing prayer at the Garden? Perhaps we need to take some time to give to God those places in our lives where we struggle with and find difficult the Lord’s will for our lives. Perhaps we need to spend time in deep prayer to confess our struggles, but, too, to commit ourselves to God’s will above our own. Because it is in the confessing of our struggles and the willingness to be obedient through them that we will see God work in our lives in a deeply powerful way.
The journey of faith is never easy nor will it come without some wrestling with this life and its implications. Jesus experienced that in the Garden and remained faithful to the mission before him. What about you and I? Jesus shows us the way to enter our own gardens of deep prayer and come out on the other side more committed to the will of God. Are we willing to go where Jesus has gone before?