February 23, 2012

Midweek Lent: One Soul-Distressing Hour - Feb 22, 2012

To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen. The text upon which we'll base our meditation today comes from the 22nd chapter of the Gospel of Luke, beginning with the 39th verse, as follows:

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. 40 When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." 41 And He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done." Thus far our text.

In the Name of Christ Jesus, Who followed the will of the Father all the way to the cross, Dear Fellow Redeemed,

You almost have to be of a certain age to know what “paint by numbers” is. It was a hobby phenomenon that blossomed in the early 1950’s and exploded in the decades thereafter. Following WWII, people had more money, and more leisure time in which to spend it. So an art supply company called Craft Master got the idea of marketing “paint by numbers.” It was a kit with a pattern on it, each little compartment of which contained a number. The numbers corresponded to the little containers of paint that came with the kit. If you took the time to painstakingly fill in the compartments with the appropriate color paint, gradually a beautiful picture would take shape before your eyes. A Japanese garden…a western sunset…the head of Christ.

It’s that last picture that concerns us tonight. This evening, and throughout the season of Lent, Pastor Schaller and you and I will be building a portrait of our Lord's Passion, one number at a time. Each week we’ll fill in another portion of the pattern, adding color and depth and texture to a story whose outlines we already know. The number tonight is ONE. Join me then, as we begin:
A Portrait of our Suffering Savior, Painted by Numbers:

I. In which Christ's call to prayer went unheeded
II. In which Christ's own prayer was answered
In tonight’s portion of the picture, the colors are vivid and easy to imagine. Dusk was turning to a deep blue twilight as Jesus and his disciples stepped through the Lion's Gate in the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem and started down the dusty road. In the gathering darkness they could hear the gurgling water of the little brook Kidron as they crossed it silently and started up the Mount of Olives. They all knew where they were going - to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the top of the hill. They had often come here with the Master. It was peaceful under the green spreading branches of the old olive trees; like a quiet park, where Jesus came to teach them, or to meditate, or simply to rest. Tonight He needed the solitude of Gethsemane for a different reason -- He needed to pray. As they reached the edge of the Garden, he took Peter and James and John, and went in.

Every difficult experience seems more difficult when you're alone. Perhaps that's why Jesus took these three closest of His disciples with Him. Facing the most crucial hour of prayer in His life, maybe He felt it would be a comfort if these friends were praying, too. So, When He came to the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."

At the beginning of certain special services there is a liturgical form called "The Invitatory;" these words that the pastor says are a call to worship, or a call to prayer. That's what Jesus was doing on that Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemane - calling his disciples to prayer. He was calling on them to pray for strength. To pray that God would preserve them from temptation in the dark hours to come. But that call must have seemed strange to them. Surely Jesus was the one who was facing the most danger. He was the one the Jewish leaders were out to destroy, not them! What temptations would they, the disciples have to face?

-- Jesus knew. They would soon be tempted to desert their Master in the face of the Roman guard. Peter would be tempted to deny he even knew Jesus to the servants in the courtyard of the high priest. When Jesus was killed, they'd all be tempted to despair, tempted to cower behind locked doors in fright and faithlessness. They'd be tempted to forget that Jesus had promised to rise again! Yes, Jesus knew His disciples. That's why He called them to prayer.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, that call went unheeded. The parallel Gospel accounts tell us that Jesus, three times, went off a little distance to pray, and each time returned to find them sleeping. We read in Matthew, "Then He came to the disciples and found them asleep, and said to Peter, 'What, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Mat 26:40-41. Three times, the call went unheeded. They did not watch. They did not pray. Instead they slept.

My Christian friends, in the midst of this Lenten season, Jesus is calling us to prayer. And what’s the number we’re filling in again tonight? Oh yes, the number ONE. Jesus is calling upon you and me to watch with Him ONE hour. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Our Lord doesn't have to tell us again that "the flesh is weak;" we know that our sinful flesh is weak! We've skipped too many prayers, avoided our family Bibles too many times, given less than our best to the Lord too often not to know that. Jesus is calling us to pray that we might overcome that flesh. Especially during this Lenten season, our Savior wants us to "watch" - to be alert, to wake up and pay attention, because something very important is happening. Jesus is carrying out the will of the Father. Painful as it is, Jesus is carrying through with God's plan to save mankind!

The disciples did not pray in the shadows of Gethsemane that night -- but Jesus did. Our text tells us, He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done."

If that prayer sounds familiar, it should. "Thy will be done." I imagine most of us here today have rattled through those words of the Lord's Prayer many thousands of times. I wonder how often we've sincerely meant what we've said, though. I wonder how often we say to God on Sunday, "Thy will be done," and then, on Monday, go right on making sure that my will is what gets done in my life! How often do you have the faith to sincerely place your whole life and future in the hands of your Heavenly Father? In our case, I'm afraid its all too seldom. But that's exactly what Jesus did in His fervent prayer that night.

There's a trick question I always ask of my confirmation students when we reach the Second Article of the Creed.. True or false - "Jesus was part God and part man." The answer, of course, is false; Jesus was all God and all man at the same time. At this moment, on His knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, His powers as God allowed Him to see all the forces of Satan that would be unleashed on Him in the next 18 or 20 hours. And because He was true man, as well, He was afraid. Satan had tried to turn Him from His mission before. In the wilderness, on the pinnacle of the Temple, on a mountaintop overlooking the riches of the earth, the Devil had tempted Him to sin, and Jesus had driven him back with the sure Word of God. Now it wasn't the riches of the world that were spread before Him -- it was the awful agonies of hell. A cup had been filled for Jesus. It was a bitter, bitter cup. It was the cup of punishment for every sin that you or I (or anyone else!) ever committed. In a very few hours, Jesus would have to drink it.

So our Savior prayed three times to His Father. Each time, He asked that, if possible, He might be spared the suffering to come. But each time He qualified the desperate request by saying, "Nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done." There was a tremendous struggle going on within our Savior. Here, in this peaceful place among the olive trees, all the forces of darkness were lined up against the forces of light and love. God's plan of love called for Jesus' suffering and death. But Satan whispered, "You needn't drink that cup of suffering - why give Your life for sinners who want nothing to do with You?" The struggle grew fierce. Verse 44 tells us that Jesus, "...being in agony, prayed more earnestly. And His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground."

Finally, our Savior's prayer was answered. He had put His life in the hands of His Father, and His Father's will was made clear. God's will was that Jesus should die in our place, so that we might live. As the chief priest Caiaphas unwittingly put it, "It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people." Jesus had the answer to His prayer. He emerged from the Garden, gathered His disciples, and calmly went to meet His end. In His love for us, and in obedience to His Father's will, He was determined to drain the bitter cup of suffering to it's very last drop.

That obedience, that determination, that love -- those are qualities of our Savior that you and I will be praising for endless ages in eternity! Even as we once again fill in all the dark details of the picture of Christ’s Passion – a picture that so clearly reveals to us the awful consequences of our sin - we're reminded that the finished product, the final outcome, will be beautiful. Yes, we're going to the cross. But our journey won't end there. The journey may begin in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it ends at the Garden Tomb! The resurrection of our Savior on Easter Sunday assures us that His suffering was not in vain. The victory has been won. Your sins and mine have been atoned for in full, and eternal life has been reserved as our inheritance. As Paul says in I Corinthians, "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive!" -- 15:20-22.

There's a religious custom that has sort of fallen by the wayside in recent years - a custom some of you might remember. Years ago, people used to "give something up for Lent." Meat for instance, or pastry, or sweets. Perhaps we should revive that custom. I suggest that, this year, we give up sleep for Lent. Not physical sleep - rather, let's abandon our spiritual drowsiness, and keep alert. Rather than simply falling into the spiritual sleep of "just another Lenten season," let's stay awake -- to watch and pray with our Savior. Rather than letting our senses be lulled to sleep by routine, let's follow Jesus' Passion actively, with family devotions and personal Bible study. Each Thursday evening we'll be spending an hour here at church to view our Savior's love for us. Will you be here? Something important is happening - our salvation is being won. Let's fill in the rest of the beautiful colors together. In Jesus' name, AMEN.

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