In the Garden

Matthew 26:36-46
March 22, 2020
Matt Goodale

A video upload of this sermon can be watched here:

Hi friends. I hope this message finds you in good health. These are certainly strange times we are living in right now. Many of us may find ourselves sorrowful about the changes happening around us and the encouragement to socially distance ourselves from friends and others. Our daily and weekly rhythms are disrupted and we now have to adjust to a new “normal” for the time being. We may find ourselves confused by how quickly things are changing, unable to keep up as new bans and recommendations seem to come daily. We may find ourselves unable to fully understand why this virus is as big a deal as it is, and we may be experiencing anxiety and even fear at what further precautions may need to be taken. Some of us are anxious about our financial situation and what the virus may do to our bodies should we contract it.

All of these thoughts, feelings and anxieties make sense. I want to start by saying, “It’s ok that you’re feeling these things.” This is new for all of us. We all must reluctantly step forward into the unknown future, together in spirit, while not really being together in person. My prayer is that God’s Word may speak some freshness, some life, some hope into the strangeness and the anxiety of our present circumstances.

Our scripture today comes from Matthew 26. I will be focusing in on verses 36-46. I would encourage you to read along at home while you read/watch this message. Hear the Word of the Lord:

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and confused. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

This scene takes place the night before Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s one of the most famous scenes in scripture, as we see a Jesus who is very human, dismayed and preparing for what he knows is about to come. He knows that what is about to happen is inevitable.

Our passage opens with Jesus and his disciples at Gethsemane. “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go over there and pray’” (v.36). We see Jesus participating in the ancient practice of social distancing. Jesus tells his disciples, “You sit here and maintain at least six feet of separation from me.” Some less credible manuscripts include Jesus rebuking his disciples for not coughing properly into their sleeves and for washing their hands in the river for only for ten seconds instead of twenty, as was Jewish custom.

Jesus does take with him three disciples though, Peter, James and John, making sure his group size doesn’t exceed ten. Jesus takes his small group and goes off into the garden, and our text tells us that Jesus became sorrowful and confused. He says to his close friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” This is Jesus at his most human. Stories like this remind us that Jesus knows what it is to suffer, to be sorrowful, to feel alone.

Jesus is filled with sorrow because he knows what the next few hours and days will hold; he knows the pain and loneliness that lies ahead of him. But Jesus is not only filled with sorrow—he is confused (some translations say “dismayed”). The Greek word here is ademos. It literally means “not at home.” Jesus is far from home, far from what is comfortable, known and familiar to him. Everything he has known is suddenly unstable and shifting; he knows his life is about to change and he’s not sure he’s ready for it.

While Jesus found himself “not at home” – unstable, confused and uncertain – we ironically find ourselves very much at home. Too much at home, in fact. Literally, we are stuck in our homes, quarantined, as we wait out a virus we cannot see and don’t fully understand. Yet, we commiserate with Jesus as we too find ourselves confused, unable to keep up with the constant changes happening around us. Our lives feel unstable, uncertain right now. Most everything that is known, comfortable and familiar has been quickly peeled back, cancelled and taken away. We feel stuck, like Jesus, fearful and anxious of what the next few days and weeks might hold. We know something bad is coming, but all we can do is wait. We wait and watch.

But we do not wait and watch alone. Jesus takes his group of three disciples with him into the garden and asks them to remain near to him and to watch with him. He still goes a little further away from them on his own – again practicing the ancient art of social distancing – falling on his face and praying. Jesus is isolated and alone, separated by the burden he carries, the knowledge of what is to come. But he has friends nearby who are waiting with him. They are asked to “watch.” Literally in Greek, they are asked to “stay awake” with him. Jesus knows his friends cannot carry his burden for him; he must do this part alone. But there is comfort in knowing that they are awake with him, united by one common Spirit.

We know we cannot be together during this strange season of life. Our burden to bear right now is one of isolation and social distancing. This must be done alone. But we are not really alone. We watch with one another, if not in body, then in Spirit. We keep awake. We remain aware of what is going on around us. We pay attention. We pray. My last sermon I preached before we became separated was on prayer as an act of paying attention. To pray is to live with our eyes wide open, paying attention to the people and the needs of the people around us. In the coming weeks many needs will arise. Like Jesus’ disciples we are tasked with staying awake, watching and paying attention to those needs. We lift them up in prayer and we do all we can to meet them. And in our watching, in our paying attention, in our praying, we will find that we are not so alone. We are surrounded by a community of people who are also watching and praying. And we are met by a God who knows what is means to feel lonely, to be confused, to be anxious. Though separate in the body, we are united by a common Spirit in prayer.

As Jesus prays, he asks, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And again, later in the night he prays, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” In an authentic moment of honesty, we see that Jesus does not want to do what he knows he must do. He does not want to die. He does not want to leave his friends. He is afraid. He is alone.

But nevertheless, Jesus prays, “Not as I will, but as you will, Father.” Jesus knows he cannot escape his impending death. If it didn’t happen the next day at the cross, it would have happened eventually. Jesus raised too many ruckuses, he challenged too many authorities, he preached a message that was too inclusive and too scandalously gracious. Jesus knew he had to die to demonstrate that God’s love extends to all of humanity, even unto death, even a violent death on the cross. Jesus chose to take up his cross as an act of sacrificial love. Everything in Jesus screamed for him to run away, to choose a different way, but in the end he willingly went to the cross as an act of sacrificial love for all of humanity. Jesus died to ensure a better future, a better hope, a better life for the rest of humanity.

We find ourselves in a situation that is not so different than the one Jesus found himself in. We are asked to take up the burden of social isolation and social distancing. We are not eager for this burden. We wish we didn’t have to. But we are asked to do so as an act of sacrificial love in order to protect and care for those in our communities who are vulnerable to this virus. With Jesus we say, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

A quick word on God’s will. You have likely heard many people use “God’s will” as a way of explaining pain and tragedy in our world; they say that God meant it to be. In the coming weeks, you may even hear people say that the coronavirus was God’s will. But to attribute pain and tragedy to God’s will is to misunderstand God. Jesus revealed God’s will on the cross. And God’s will is for all things to be redeemed, reconciled and given new life. God’s will never involves death or pain. Jesus came to defeat death and pain on the cross. God’s will is that death, pain and tragedy be overcome and that love, grace and redemption win out.

And here in Gethsemane, Jesus recognizes that for God’s will to be done, he had to carry this burden as an act of sacrificial love. And in doing this, Jesus redefines the narrative. All of the sudden there is purpose given to the suffering he experiences under the weight of his burden. He does not suffer in vain, but knows he suffers as an act of love for the whole world. We too have the opportunity to redefine our present narrative. We can view our social isolation, our disrupted routines as an inconvenience or problem we must endure. Or we can choose to view it as an act of sacrificial love for the whole world.

Jesus shows us how redemption and healing takes place, and it is most often through loving sacrifice. We take up our cross, following the one who took up his cross for us in order to redeem us and heal us. We do not take up this burden of social isolation or endure the anxiety of this season in vain. Because we know that resurrection is coming.

Jesus was afraid of what was coming next, but he found hope in knowing that the cross was not the end of the story. The end of the story was resurrection. It took three days to get there; those days were long, they were dark and hard to endure. But on Sunday morning came resurrection. We do not bear the burden of this season without hope. We know and we trust that God is quietly and not so quietly working behind the scenes, bringing new life where there is death, bringing comfort and peace where there is anxiety and loneliness. Resurrection is on the horizon, but for now we bear our cross as an act of love for the whole world. And we do not bear this burden alone. Amen.