Today we are continuing our series, 24 Hours that Changed the World. Last week as we began this journey together we explored the setting and the important action of Jesus transforming Passover into what we observe as Communion. Today we are going to talk about the feelings Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane as he awaited to be arrested and how those feelings of agony do not have to equal defeat.
The Agony of Defeat Has a Poster Child
I remember watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports on TV as a child. Do you remember their intro? It talked about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!” And they would show different celebrations for the thrill of victory but there was one poor guy that personified the agony of defeat for years, a ski jumper who fell off the side of the ramp in horrific fashion. I looked him up this week on the Internet. His name is Vinko Bogetaj (prounounced Bo-go-tai), a Slovenian ski jumper who was 20 years old when he was competing in the World Championships back in 1970. He’d already been down the ski jump ramp twice that day and the accident occurred on his third jump. The snow had been picking up and conditions on the ramp had changed. Midway down he realized he was going way too fast and attempted to lower his center of gravity and stop the jump, but instead he lost his balance and rocketed out of control off the end of the ramp, tumbling and flipping wildly, and crashing through a light retaining fence near a crowd of stunned spectators before coming to a halt. Miraculously his only injury that day was a mild concussion. He gave up ski jumping not long after and since he lived behind the Iron Curtain, he was blissfully unaware that the Wide World of Sports had made him the poster child for “the agony of defeat.” So he was shocked when years later he received an invitation to New York to attend the 30th anniversary party for the Wide World of Sports. And he almost fell over when all the famous people like Mohammed Ali came up to him and wanted an autograph. He’d become famous for his seeming defeat on the ski jump that day.
If we went around the room this morning, I think we could all share stories of the times in our lives when we’ve experienced the “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat.” I think we all know how to handle and celebrate those times of victory, but dealing with agony is often more difficult. Especially when the agony in our lives arises not by our own hand, but at the hands of others, and certainly when the agony stems from circumstances that seem to be beyond our control. In our Scripture lesson this morning from the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus wrestling in agony over the events that are about to transpire in his life. And how he handles himself in this time of pain and grief should give us hope as we begin to realize that agony does not have to equal defeat.
A Recipe to Flee
It’s after the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples inside the Upper Room. And Scripture tells us that Jesus then took the disciples out to the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Debbie and I had the opportunity to visit the Garden while we were in Israel and the Garden sits at the bottom of the Mount of Olives just outside the city walls of Jerusalem, right across from the area where the Temple would have been. We walked the Palm Sunday road and ended up in the Garden in the late afternoon, in the bright sunlight with the cold wind whipping around us. And as I stood there I tried to close my eyes and imagine what is was like when our Savior was standing here.
It would have been about midnight when their Passover celebration was over since we know the Last Supper lasted about 4-5 hours and was an evening meal. So the streets would most likely be quiet and deserted with most people home asleep. As they left the Upper Room I can see Jesus walking with a purpose while the disciples just follow behind with some uncertainty about where they are going, but following diligently especially in light of the fact that Jesus just told them his time is near and one of them is going to betray him. As they walk down the streets, sandals kicking up dust from the road, I can almost hear them run into each other as they stop at the entrance to Gethsemane. It is pitch black with only the moon and it reflection off of the temple tower to give them light. The emotions they must have felt as they were about to walk into the garden of trees that are hunched over, mangled in stature, and just plain creepy at night. But Jesus tells them to wait. He only asks Peter, James and John to accompany him into the garden for Christ to pray.
Christ knew what was coming because Scripture gives us some indication of Jesus’ mindset that night, as we read that he was “deeply distressed and troubled.” We are also told that He tells the three disciples: "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
Folks, that is a recipe to flee if I have ever heard it. Christ is deeply distressed and troubled, He says He overwhelmed to the point of death, and it is night. No one is awake no one is watching...RUN!!! For all that is holy...RUN!!
But not Jesus. He stays. The Message version of the Scriptures relates Jesus’ mindset this way: “he plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony.” Just so we are all on the same page agony is “an extreme and generally prolonged pain, intense suffering.” We know what that feels like. And it might seem strange to read that Jesus experienced these feelings, but that’s part of the miracle and beauty for us of the incarnation. Of having God come to earth in human form – there is nothing we experience that God isn’t familiar with – he truly understands and shares our sorrows and grief and pain.
I heard one scholar describe Jesus' thoughts at this moment like this. “Fear and doubt had worked their way into the heart and mind of Jesus. He did not want to die! He was only 33 years old, and the fear of the Roman cross was real. He had often seen the condemned hanging on crosses outside the city gate. He had heard them moan in pain. He had listened to their curses. He had seen them writhing in agony. Jesus was human, and every bit of his humanity shuddered at the very thought of dying an agonizing death upon a cross. Luke, the physician, describes His fear by saying, 'and being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat was as if it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.' “
Jesus' Response to Agony
So how did Jesus handle the agony and suffering that he was experiencing in his soul? First, he went to God in prayer. When we don’t know what to do, we must pray…the kind of prayer where you throw all of yourself on God. Jesus prayed that kind of prayer in the Garden to his Abba, to his Father. Abba is the Aramaic intimate form for father, equivalent to our “daddy”. The Jewish people never used this to refer to God because they thought it disrespectful, but Jesus being the literal Son of God and being on the most intimate of terms with our Heavenly Father, it was natural for Him to use it. His prayer was honest and heart-wrenching, expressing all of his concerns and needs and wants and desires, pouring them out before God.
One of the things I hear most from people regarding prayer is dissatisfaction because they are unsure of how to pray. There seems to be this perception out there that we must pray in some certain fashion with perfect words or our prayer is somehow less effective. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden didn’t have to fit some magic word formula to be heard – it was authentic and from his heart. And in our Scripture lesson from Romans this morning the Apostle Paul reminds us that “it doesn’t matter if we don’t know how or what to pray” because “God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along…doing our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans” (Message version). When we pray we ought to be less concerned with the words we use than the sentiments expressed to God, and Jesus shows us that it is safe to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there when we pray to God.
And yet, after expressing his agony and the desires of his heart, Jesus was also able to say to God, “not my will but thine be done.” Too often in small or even big decisions we decide what to do or what we want to have happen and then we go to God in prayer and ask him to bless it – to tag along on our plan. And in so doing we reduce God to an afterthought. But rather than an afterthought, wouldn’t you rather be in the center of God’s will? Jesus brought all of his feelings and emotions before God in prayer and then ultimately rested in God’s character, trusting the Father’s will for his life.
And prayer wasn’t the only thing Jesus did that night in the midst of his agony and suffering. He also gathered around him a community of support and was real and authentic with them about what he was going through. Jesus could have gone off to the Garden completely alone to pray. But instead he took a community with him, the disciples. He invited them to pray and be present with him and he shared with them exactly how he felt and what he was going through. There were no phony smiles here. These men had been through so much together in the years that they had followed Jesus. Jesus knew that at least one of the disciples who gathered with him in the Garden would deny him later on, but Jesus still invited him and the others to participate. I think his example should say something to us about the importance of community as we face the challenges of life.
Christ understood the importance of community. That is why most of you have heard me talk about getting into a small group, joining a Bible Study. Get a group of people around you that you can share with, cry with, scream with, a group you can depend on. Christ had that. He took Peter, James, and John with him as He is deeply distressed and troubled and as His soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Christ himself wanted people around him during one of His darkest hours. He needed community. One of my favorite authors is Henri Nouwen and in his book “Can You Drink the Cup?” he wrote that nothing is sweeter than community - life is full of ups and downs and joys and sorrows but we do not have to live alone. No one is exempt from the need for community - even as pastors we are encouraged not to be lone rangers but to gather around us a covenant group of others with whom we can share our lives. And for me those relationships are sacred because they are a tangible reminder of God’s grace and His love.
In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died, Jesus showed us the power of prayer and the power of community in helping us to get through the pain and suffering we experience. By his own example Jesus taught us that we don’t have to deny our feelings or our pain and plaster on some perfect mask as a cover. Because denying our feelings and distresses is not the way to make the pain disappear. Jesus showed us how to face things head on by going to God in prayer, acknowledging our fears, and by being authentic with those around us. With God agony does not have to equal defeat. It didn't 2000 years ago...and it does not today!