It was nearly 10 years ago now. I was just about to go and talk with our landlord. The television was on. It looked like the news had cut in to report something. And there it was, a video of a jetliner slamming into a skyscraper. Smoke billowing from the gaping hole. And then there was another.
Important events stick in our minds in the form of images.
Shock burns these images deep into our memory, and there they linger. All it takes is a familiar scent, a taste or a sound and they come flooding back.
This year we hope to burn a few good images into our minds. Images of Jesus on His way to the cross. Images which illustrate His dedication to us. Images of what He did to completely pay off our debt of sin.
The theme for our midweek worship this Lent is “Lingering Images of His Love”.
Grace and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Master and Savior Jesus Christ.
The image I would burn on your memory tonight is this. Jesus on His knees. He is praying harder than ever before. Nothing in His life up to this point has been as difficult as what He is about to face. And nothing has been so difficult as this moment.
This is no mere play-acting by the Son of God. This is a real struggle. He is learning what true obedience is. He knows what debt must be paid if sinners are to be forgiven, and He knows that He is on course to pay it. We read…
Mark 14:32-42 (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.
41Returning 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. 42Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Again, the image I would impress on your memory tonight is this. Jesus on His knees, praying hard.
Sweat is rolling off His brow. He is off praying in this solitary place because He is troubled. He is troubled because He is anticipating how close His greatest challenge is. His greatest suffering. We know this because of the words of His own prayer that are recorded for us here, “Take this cup from me”.
The “cup” that Jesus must drink is all the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual suffering that man’s sins have stored up. This “cup” of suffering was not filled by Jesus, but by every man, woman and child that has ever sinned against others and against God.
In the Bible, the punishment for sin is clear – it is separation from God and all His goodness, forever. Hell. And in just a few hours the sinless Jesus would experience an eternity of Hell condensed into just a few hours.
In the soul of Jesus, this produces tension. And the reality of this inner struggle is expressed in a number of ways here in Gethsemane.
First of all, it is expressed in the description of Jesus’ emotional condition. He is described as “deeply distressed and troubled”. Jesus’ own words describe the extent of this emotional distress. He tells His friends that His soul is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”.
The very fact that He has asked Peter, James and John to be close to Him shows how great this strain is. He was usually the one leading them, supporting them, teaching them. He would send them out to do work for Him, but how many times previous has Jesus requested their support? Their presence in HIS time of need?
Perhaps the greatest show of His distress is found in Jesus’ prayer. It was no unusual thing to find Jesus praying to the Father. Always sneaking off to spend some quiet hours in prayer while everyone else was sleeping. It’s the words of Jesus’ prayer that grab our attention. He repeats them three separate times. “Take this cup from me”.
The Gospel of Luke gives us two other details about Jesus’ praying here that illustrate the immense weight that pushed down on His soul. In Luke 22:44 it says that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”. So strained was His soul and mind that His body reflected this strain in this strange way.
Luke 22:43 also informs us that Jesus was under such strain that an angel was sent to strengthen Him during one session of prayer.
And this was before He felt a single blow. Before He felt the spray of spittle from those who distained Him. Before He felt the scourge caress His back, or the nails secure His arms to the cross. This was before He looked for the Father, and came up empty.
In the Old Testament book of Job, we hear the story of a follower of God whose faith was severely tested. Satan told the LORD that the only reason Job worshipped Him was because God had planted a hedge around Job. Always protecting, always blessing. Satan offered this challenge: take away Job’s blessings and he would no longer be a faithful and obedient follower.
It’s easy to follow when the command is pleasant. True obedience is shown when the command is painful.
In Hebrews 5, verse 7 it says…
“7During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7-8 NIV).Even when Jesus prayed to avoid the cup of suffering that was coming, He added this to complete His prayer, “Your will be done, Father”. May God give us strength to pour out our worries and troubles and requests to God with complete honesty, and to make our prayers whole by adding the same, “But YOUR will be done, Father”.
This is the image. A real Savior, there in Gethsemane. On His knees. His struggle was genuine. He was learning the full meaning of obedience.
His struggle was real, because there was a real debt to be paid. Our debt of sin. Our debt that could only be paid by the suffering of Hell. It was our struggle to experience, but it laid on Him instead.
The answer to Jesus’ prayer is not explicitly spoken from the sky here. But we know what the Father’s answer was from the events that followed. The answer was “No, My Son. There is no other way to free sinners from Hell. You must suffer it in order for them to be free. In order for them to be forgiven”.
And while this was a crushing answer to Jesus, it is the most liberating answer for us. The LORD did not say, “Don’t worry about it Son, sinner can redeem themselves with hard work and doing lots of good deeds.” No, God said, “This is the only way”.
Years later, Paul the apostle would pen this statement in His letter to the Galatian Christians…
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21 NIV).Christ didn’t die for nothing; He died so that our sins are forgiven.
He wasn’t pretending, because our sins are real.
He was obedient, for those who were not.
He paid the debt, so that we wouldn’t have to.
Dear followers of Christ gathered here tonight – struggle against sin. Fight against those daily temptations that war against your soul. But DO NOT for a moment think that you are struggling for your forgiveness. THAT struggle and suffering has already been done by Christ. Through His blood, you are declared forgiven and free.
Prayer: Dearest Jesus, we’ve paused tonight to think about you on your knees, suffering deeply in prayer. You felt this because of our sad choices. Our unworthy words. Our foul thoughts. Thank you. Help us Lord Jesus, by your Holy Spirit and your Word and the sacraments to NEVER insult your great sacrifice by thinking there is something left to do. Instead let us dance in the lightness of your grace, with the image of your love ever in our minds. Amen.