Lead Us Not, Let Us Stay Strong

Lead Us Not, Let Us Stay Strong

Grace United Methodist Church

March 7, 2010

Mark 14: 32-40 (NIV)

32They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

35Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

37Then 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? 38Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

39Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

Three ministers were talking about prayer and the appropriate and effective positions for prayer. As they were talking, a telephone repairman was working on the phone system in the background. One minister shared that he felt the key was in the hands. He always held his hands together and pointed them upward as a form of symbolic worship. The second minister suggested that real prayer was conducted on your knees. The third piped up. saying they both had it wrong – the only position worth its salt was to pray while stretched out flat on your face. By this time the phone man couldn’t stay out of the conversation any longer. He interjected, “I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground.” Whatever way we pray, one of the things we learn from Jesus in our gospel reading from this morning is that in the face of even the greatest trial and temptations, our first line of defense is to seek God in prayer.

Have you ever watched a strong person in your life suddenly become weak? Throughout our lives, we watch such changes occur with our loved ones. I had a very dear friend in seminary whose brother, about two years ago, was doing back flips on a beach vacation. In the midst of the fun (he did tumbling all the time), he landed on his head and broke his neck. He is now paralyzed from the neck down. My friend’s brother suddenly went from being a healthy, strong, independent young man to being weak and totally dependent on his parents, family, and friends. Similarly, a church is dismayed if the pastor or preacher suddenly loses faith, or hope, or integrity. We have watched as one after one, seemingly great sports heroes have become weak in the face of bad mistakes and poor choices. Children face this difficult reality when a parent they have relied on for everything is suddenly struck down with illness or grief. Even adult children struggle as they watch their parents weaken with age. There is no doubt that it is incredibly difficult to watch someone you love very much, someone whom you have relied on, who has been your “strong center” become suddenly weak and frail; dependent on you, rather than you being able to rely on them.

As we recall this morning Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, we can only imagine the effect on the disciples of the sudden change that came over Jesus in this place. Up until this moment, Jesus has been in control; planning, directing, teaching, and guiding. Now it seems as if Jesus is falling apart and that he is warning the disciples that they too will collapse around him.[1] Overcome with horror, we find Jesus praying in the Garden, seeking another way, claiming the truth that he had already taught the disciples, that all things are possible with God, and yet being told there is no turning back. Though we see Jesus here in Gethsemane in a very weak state, Jesus is still teaching us, Jesus is still guiding us and showing us how to face the temptations of our lives. Jesus was at a point of tremendous pain; he was hurting very deeply because suddenly Jesus realized how very close he was to the agony that lay ahead of him. Though Jesus had been about the work of healing the suffering and pain of hundreds, he abruptly found himself face-to-face with the inevitability of his own suffering. But Jesus did not turn back, nor did he run away! Jesus stayed with his closest friends and committed himself to prayer. Jesus committed himself to prayer! And this wasn’t just any old prayer; Jesus prayed very intensely.

I’m sure that there are times when even prayer seems somehow weak. Falling prostrate on your knees is not exactly a show of strength. As the telephone repairman reminded us, we can certainly be in weak or precarious positions when we pray. But what makes prayer strong is the words we use. Jesus prayed that this hour might pass, that the cup might be taken from him. “Abba, Father…not what I will, but what you will.” Despite the struggles, Jesus yielded himself to his Father’s care. Jesus prayed as a child speaking to a loving father, and Jesus’ prayer acknowledged the personal struggle, but it also recognized the big picture. Jesus does not negate his own feelings; we see very clearly that Jesus did not want to face what lie ahead for him. Yet, at the same time, Jesus yields himself to God’s will. We, too, need to be able to pray in this way; as a child to a loving father. Part of letting go of the trials and temptations of our lives is trusting God enough to take them on. In the face of weakness, of trials and temptations, God is our strength, but we have to be willing to give ourselves over to God.

As we continue through this Lenten season on our “Journey to Hope,” let us think together about temptation and what it is to face our temptations. To hold fast to the hope of sharing in Jesus’ resurrection, we have to build up resistance to those things that interfere with our call to follow Jesus. And in the face of trials and temptations, the key to building up resistance is to turn to God first! I believe many of us would agree this is easier said than done! Certainly, it is difficult to pray as Jesus did, and ask that God’s will would be done, not our own. There is no prayer so hard to offer, we often so desire our own will that we will come to points where other way even seems endurable. So we try to find different methods of “coping.” When we are depleted spiritually, emotionally, or physically, where do we turn to refuel? Do we turn to life-giving resources or to quick remedies that numb the pain of what is actually happening? Too often, God is the last resort – in our own “Gethsemanes,” we have tried all sorts of “painkillers” such as infidelity, alcohol, excessive work, drugs (both prescribed and illegal), shopping, eating, or gambling. Any of those things (and a host of others) is enough to make our journey to hope, our journey with Christ extremely difficult.

The disciples discovered just how difficult it can be when we fail to stay close to God through our greatest trials. In our lives, vigilance is needed most in those times when our souls are poisoned by the temptations of this world. As Jesus went into the Garden to pray, he told his disciples and Peter, James, and John to sit and watch while he prayed. But the disciples were unable to do this. They gave into temptation and all of them fell asleep. Yet, if the disciples had watched and prayed as Jesus did, they would not have made so miserable a showing when the test of loyalty came. And we too must be vigilant. We must watch and pray in the good times and the bad. The story of Gethsemane clearly reveals to us that the only effective preparation for the loneliness of decision and crisis is the preparation which Jesus had, fellowship with God.[2] When we pray regularly, as Jesus did, we acknowledge our dependence on God’s Spirit to sustain us at all times. And it is God who can strengthen us; it is indeed God’s Spirit which can sustain us each and every day!

So, when the going gets tough, when things get difficult, how do we handle it? Do we seek the temporary relief, or do we go after true restoration? Though prayer may seem weak, what Jesus shows us in the Garden is that prayer is of primary importance; it is a means of refueling, of falling into God’s presence so that we might once again be showered in God’s grace. When we bow in prayer, even in our moments of greatest weakness (especially in our moments of greatest weakness!), we are connected with our life source. Through prayer we are brought into the presence of the One who knows us from the inside out and who can help us in a way that no other can.

Shopping makes us feel good for that two minutes we look admiringly in the mirror after putting on the new outfit. Painkillers feel good for the few hours that they mask the headache, and then we are feeling miserable again. Excessive work gets our minds off the more difficult circumstances of our lives, but it doesn’t take them away, and it usually causes extra stress and problems too. All these things are temporary, but when we turn to God in prayer, when we seek shelter in God’s presence, we are equipped to resist day-in and day-out the trials and temptations of this life. Praying alone and praying with others is vital for our journey to hope, forming a deeper bond and connecting us with the help of God and the needs of one another.

Jesus could have prayed for another way. Jesus could have sought his own will or hoped that the will of the Father was not such a difficult road. And God probably could have found another way; even in that late hour on a dark night in Gethsemane. So why didn’t Jesus pray more fervently for a different outcome? Why did Jesus pray that God’s will would be done? Why didn’t God choose another way? Perhaps because in that garden God was proving beyond any shadow of a doubt, even beyond our unworthiness, how much God loves us. If you wonder if God really loves you just as you are; if you wonder whether God still loves you despite what you’ve been; if you wonder if God can keep loving you as often as you have failed him, remember this: God has sent his Son through the agony and suffering of the cross so that we might go home with him. Jesus has made a way for us if only we will follow. Jesus calls us to follow him into the Garden. Jesus calls us to follow God’s will, even if we are scared. Jesus calls us to pray and to surrender our lives completely to God. And sometimes following means that we have to fall on our knees, push aside our own agendas, and ask in complete humility that God’s will be done. But that’s the lesson of the Garden. It is not easy, but we can do it, we must follow. And when we are in the deepest, darkest, scariest moments of our lives, all we have to do is enter God’s presence through prayer, and we can experience God’s pure love.

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 197-8.

[2] Halford E. Luccock, “The Gospel According to St. Mark” in The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7 (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), 882.

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