Monday, March 24, 2014

March 23, 2014 The Way of the Cross - Not My Will...

Luke 22:39-46 

Standing before a crowd of people is not my native habitat.  I was a reserved, quiet kid, and learning to stand before a congregation was a difficult adjustment for me.  My early preaching experiences, in particular, were moments that provoked great anxiety in me.  I can remember sitting in worship services, as the time of the message drew near, and wonder if it would be terribly wrong of me to suddenly fake an illness.  About ten years ago I read of one young minister who was so nervous about the prospect of preaching that he called in a bomb threat to the church.  I have to admit that a number of my sermons have “bombed,” but I never resorted to such calling in a bomb threat to escape preaching.

Think for a moment of the most difficult situation you have faced in life.  What are the feelings that come to mind?  Perhaps you experienced a sense of dread so deep that you felt it in the pit of your stomach.  Perhaps you found yourself walking very slowly towards a difficult appointment, your steps slowed the closer you came to your destination, and the weight of the situation was felt on your shoulders and evident in your demeanor. 

We do not have to travel far down the road of life before we come to a point of great distress because of a challenge we face.  Sometimes it’s a challenge that becomes a defining moment in our life.  How we face that challenge will shape and mold the remainder of our life, and we understand the great significance of the moment.

This morning, we return again to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Last week we studied the betrayal of Judas, which came in the Garden.  Two weeks ago we studied the promise that we are never alone, and referred to the events of the Garden.  Today we return again to the Garden in order as we look at some of the most famous, but difficult, words in all of the Scriptures – not my will, but yours be done.

39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him.
40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”
41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,
42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.
44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.
46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

This is the plea of one who knows that pain and suffering is only hours away, which makes this is one of the most gut-wrenching passages in the Gospels.

It is difficult to read of the agony of Jesus in the Garden.  It is difficult to think of Jesus struggling.  It’s hard to see people in their moments of vulnerability, and Jesus was very vulnerable in this moment.  We prefer to think of Jesus as one who is so focused on his mission that nothing will prevent him from its completion.  But the prayer of Jesus shows a moment of hesitancy, as he asks God to take this cup from me.  If possible, Jesus is asking of God, could there be another way to accomplish his mission?

Jesus knew that crucifixion was awaiting him.  He knew what crucifixion was like.  The Romans used crucifixion freely and brutally.  I will spare the details of that horrendous method of execution, but suffice it to say the idea of crucifixion would be one of the most unsettling destinies one could ever face.  It looms so large before Jesus that Luke says he prayed with a fervency and intensity that his sweat fell to the ground as drops of blood.

That, my friends, is a struggle of intense proportions.

And yet, in spite of what was ahead for Jesus, he makes the bold declaration not my will, but yours be done.  It is no small statement, considering what awaited Jesus.

Not my will, but yours be done, is a phrase that could be said in many different ways.  It could be said in a manner that signified a resigned acceptance of one’s fate; not wanting to accept it, but willing to do so because there is no other choice.  One could also say the phrase in anger, carrying a sense of rebellion for feeling pushed into accepting a difficult fate.  One could also say the phrase in fear, accepting the path as one that might be necessary but also feeling a terror in facing what was ahead.  One could also say the words as a way of accepting the fate of the cross, but not agreeing with such a path – it’s your will, but it’s certainly not mine.

But Jesus did not utter those words in any of those ways, I believe.  In spite of the horror of the cross, Jesus fully accepted it as the path that was ahead for him, and he did it willingly.

There are times when we must walk a difficult path in life.  There are times we face situations that are overwhelming to us.  There are times we believe we are not strong enough to make it through the challenges and difficulties that life sometimes brings to us.

Courage, it has been said, is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it.  I think that is partially true, but I would rephrase it to say that it is the triumph of conviction.  It was conviction that empowered Jesus through this moment in the Garden and conviction that empowered him to greet head on those who came to arrest him.  It was conviction that empowered Jesus to endure the trials before Herod and Pilate, it was conviction that empowered Jesus to endure the crown of thorns, to endure the scourging, to endure the mocking and humiliation, and to endure the suffering of the cross.  It was a conviction that the will of God was the right way, the just way, the only way, in spite of the difficulty and in spite of the suffering it would bring.

Sometimes we have our Garden moments, when we wonder if we have the strength to go on, when we question whether or not we can do what God has called us to do, and when we find that we doubt the path that God has placed in front of us. 

After Mother Teresa passed away it was discovered, through her diaries, that she harbored some doubts about faith.  The late Christopher Hitchens – the well-known atheist – attacked her for this.  Hitchens claimed Mother Teresa was a fraud because of her doubts and criticized her in a most unpleasant manner.

Besides asking the question of who in the world could accuse Mother Teresa of being a fraud and who could attack one who gave of herself with such love and selflessness, we would also ask what is wrong with doubt?

There is no shame in doubt.  It is a sign of a healthy faith, not a weak faith.  If you have ever found yourself in a moment of doubt, know this – it is not a reflection of a weak faith but a strong faith, because it is a faith that is not afraid to ask questions.

Doubt comes to us all, at some point or another.  Doubt becomes our Garden moment, when we become uncertain about the path forward and if we cannot acknowledge the sometimes titanic battle of wills within our hearts, minds, and souls we are not thinking very deeply about our faith.

The answer, we find, is in the actions of Jesus.  He knew the way forward was difficult.  He knew the way forward was painful.  But he also knew the way forward was his path, and he accepted it.

It is not easy to say not my will, but yours be done.  It is not easy to move beyond what we think best for our lives and to accept what God knows is best for our lives, but it is the best path forward.

I find it fascinating to think about how little, in one sense, Jesus had.  If you think, in particularly, about the final days of his life, much of what he had was borrowed.  He borrowed a colt on which he rode into Jerusalem; he borrowed the upper room where he shared the Last Supper with his disciples; he borrowed a garden, where he could go and pray; and, after the crucifixion, he was laid in a borrowed tomb.

But what Jesus possessed was such a clear and powerful sense of conviction of God’s will, and he maintained a tremendous commitment to that will. 

I have read that one of the most beautiful places to visit in Paris is the Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel of the saints, near Notre Dame Cathedral.  The outside is drab and dirty, with windows covered in dirt and grime.  Inside, however, is a different story. 

One of the windows is called the Rose Window, which is one of most famous pieces of stained glass in the world.  From outside the chapel, with your back to the light, the window looks black and dull.

From the inside, however, as you look through the widow towards the light, it is a piece of absolute beauty.  Seeing the beauty, though, depends upon your perspective.

In the Garden, as we peer into this most difficult of moments for Jesus, it seemed anything but moment of beauty, and the cross would never look to be anything of beauty, but from a different perspective, that of the empty tomb, we see both the Garden moment and the cross as times of deep beauty, because they demonstrate to us a love of deep and incredible beauty.

Your Garden moment may be hard to understand, but know that further down life’s road you will be able to find the beauty, and will know that God was with you.

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