As we continue our series of message on The Power of Prayer, this week we come to the third in the series – The Most Difficult Prayer. Next week will be our final message in the series on prayer, but I am attaching a fifth message that speaks to one of the most common prayers we offer, and that is the prayer asking for healing, either for ourselves or on behalf of someone else. Very early in my tenure here I offered a message titled The Power of Healing, and I will reprise that message two weeks from today. Though it is not specifically about prayer, it offers what I hope is some helpful information about the way that God works in the process of healing. As we pray so often for healing, often enlisting many others to join us in prayer, we are often left with questions about the way in which God answers those prayers. I will add that the message is not at all based on science or medicine, but upon my experiences and observations from three-plus decades of pastoral ministry.
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, a moment that can affect our life direction for many years to come.
Keep that moment in mind as we read our Scripture text for this morning, which is a well-known passage, usually associated with Holy Week, but contains one of the most important prayers ever offered. It is interesting the way that the ministry of Jesus is bookended by the choice of following God’s will. In Matthew chapter 4 we read of the temptations of Jesus, when he went into the wilderness after his baptism and faced three temptations, all of which shared the commonality of seeking to draw him away from the will of God. At the end of his ministry, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again faced the same choice – his will or God’s.
Matthew 26:36-42 –
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 troubled.
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.”
I have organized this morning’s message under three words – fear, mystery, and assurance.
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. Conviction is a true source of courage, and 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.
Everyone has their Gethsemane moment – it is a moment of temptation, of trial, of doubt, of challenge, and of the question – whose will to be done? 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 think the reason we don’t always pray the way Jesus prayed is because we pray the kind of prayers that a friend of mine describes as being outcome specific. When you pray for God’s will, it isn’t outcome specific. You have to put your faith in God that the outcome God chooses is the best outcome (because it’s God’s outcome) even if it isn’t necessarily what you wanted or envisioned. Doing that requires giving up control and your will over to God and having faith that God will direct the outcome, whatever that outcome might be (I very much appreciate Jeff Shimizu sharing this with me). And giving up control is very difficult, isn’t it?
The reason we struggle with control is because of fear. Control, and all its attendant aspects – such as the desire to control our surroundings or to control others – comes from fear. To turn our destiny over to God touches on our fear, and then triggers our desire to maintain control, which compels us to offer prayers that are an extension of our desire to control, as we tell God the outcome we would like to have. But praying for the will of God is not outcome specific beyond the willingness to say to God that we will follow whatever his will happens to be.
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 can become 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.
Sometimes we wonder if we have the strength to go on, sometimes we question whether or not we can do what God has called us to do, and sometimes we find that we doubt the path that God has placed in front of us. 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.
As I have aged, I have arrived at the point where some questions no longer concern me. Make no mistake, I have a lot of questions, but some of them don’t occupy my mind in the way they did when I was younger. Like everyone else, I have spent my share of time struggling with the question of why? I still wonder why some things happen. Why do good people suffer? Why does evil persist? But I don’t dwell on those questions to the extent that I once did, and I don’t expect to have an answer to the why questions in this life. I trust that one day, in eternity, such answers will be available, but until then I will be patient and learn to live without the answers. It’s not that I don’t care about those questions – I do, and I care about the struggles that others have with those questions – but I am at a point in life where I am willing, and able, to live with a greater degree of mystery.
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 vulnerability, 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 that is why Jesus took his disciples with him to the Garden, and why he took Peter, James, and John with him as he went further into the Garden. Jesus wanted the support and encouragement of his friends. In our time of need, friends are one of the greatest of God’s gifts. It is hard to see the way in which Jesus was disappointed in Peter, James, and John, as they were unable to stay awake. Sometimes our friends fail us; sometimes we fail our friends. We must give grace to one another when we fail. We do the best we can, and sometimes our best falls short, and that is true of all of us.
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. Jesus knew what was coming and never tried to escape it. He did not flee, but walked to those who came to arrest him.
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. 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.
I find it fascinating to think about how little, in one sense, Jesus had. If you think, in particular, about the final days of his life, much of what Jesus 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. Jesus had little in the way of tangibles, but he had so much in the intangibles – such conviction, such faith, such grace! Jesus possessed an incredibly clear and powerful sense of conviction of God’s will, and he maintained a tremendous commitment to that will. We have so many tangibles. We have so many things. We have so much stuff. We have so much wealth. We have so many tangibles, but what about the intangibles? We have so much, while at the same time, so little.
During my sabbatical, as Tanya and I traveled, one of our favorite places to visit was in Paris, where we spent time at Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel of the saints, near Notre Dame Cathedral. The stained glass windows in the building are about 90% original, dating back to the 13th century. The most famous of the windows is called the Rose Window. From the outside, the windows appear drab and dirty, as they are covered in the dirt, the grit, and the grime of the city and of history. They are so dark and dirty on the outside that they look black and opaque. From the outside, they are not at all impressive. Inside, however, is a different story.
From the inside, as you look through the window towards the light, it is a piece of absolute beauty. The colors from the glass spill onto the walls, the floor, and onto your body as you stand and gaze at its beauty. Obviously, to see the beauty, depends upon your perspective. From the outside, it is a reminder of Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13:12, now we see through a glass, darkly. From one perspective it is a very dark glass, impenetrable in its darkness, but from another perspective, it is a piece of amazing beauty.
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.
We all have our Garden moments, which are difficult 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, and that his will was accomplished. May your will be done is no easy prayer to offer, but it is not only the most difficult prayer, it is also the most powerful.