[Jesus] threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but what you want.”Matthew 26:39
Today we reflect on the Passion of Our Lord (Matthew 26:14 – 27:66). But even before Jesus was arrested, tortured, and crucified, there was a moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when we are told that he was “deeply grieved, even to death.” And that is the moment I want to focus on today: Jesus, before his arrest, grieving, and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus had taken his three closest disciples – Peter, James, and John – to this place of prayer on that fateful night. And as he did so, he said to them,
“‘My soul is deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.’”
It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the world depended on what would happen next. I imagine a very long pause in Jesus’ prayer before he finally finishes it by praying: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” We often read through these words without pausing, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” In most translations, it is a mere semicolon that separates these phrases, or even just a comma. But to me, this pause was agonizingly long. This was, after all, a crucial moment of decision for Jesus. Would he go through with the terrible task before him? Would the Son of God allow himself to be arrested by mere humans, tortured, ridiculed, taunted, and crucified? Would the One who was there when the world was formed descend this low? Would God’s only begotten son agree to being abandoned by his Heavenly Father on our behalf? Would he die for us?
You could say that once Jesus is arrested, his destiny is out of his hands. His fate is sealed. And that is why this time in the garden is so important. Because it reminds us that Jesus did not have to do this. He chose to do this. For you and for me. For all the world. Jesus was not an innocent victim. He was a willing martyr. This time of prayer in the garden, to put it another way, shows us how great was his sacrifice, and how great his love.
Jesus truly wanted this cup to pass from him. I believe that. He wanted there to be another way to save us. He didn’t want to suffer and die for fallen humanity. He didn’t want to be humiliated and tortured in this cruel way. This sacrifice was real. All of it. And that makes it somehow greater, doesn’t it?
For Lent this year, I have been reading a book by an Episcopalian priest and writer, Fleming Rutledge. The name of the book is “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.” It is over 600 pages long, and it is heavy, in every way that you can imagine. But it is a book that has become very important to me, for many reasons. Most of all, because reading it has helped me to sit at the foot of the cross throughout this Lenten season – to contemplate, over an extended period of time, this incredible event that changed the course of the world forever.
The book is wrestling with a fairly simple question: Why did the Son of God have to be crucified? Not just die, but die in the most painful, gruesome, horrifying way imaginable? Why was this necessary? Needless to say, the answer to this question is long and complicated. Or, perhaps I should say, the answers. There have been a number of them over the years. But this book starts to answer this question by pointing out a very simple fact: Something is very wrong with our world, and needs to be set right. Our world is fallen. Our experience tells us that, and God’s word confirms it.
As she puts it, “From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”
The world, before the crucifixion of God’s Son, was ruled by the powers of Sin, Death, and the Evil. The world needed to be rescued. And the rescuer needed to be more powerful than these very powerful, malignant, forces. Our fallen world could only be rescued by God. No one describes this better than Martin Luther in his most famous hymn:
The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe! With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight. On earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he! Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.
Yes. But his victory came at a great cost: His life. Perhaps there could have been another way. That is not up to us to say. But the way that the Triune God chose was through this sacrificial death. It was through the Passion of our Lord. And this is the week, beginning today, when we remember and give thanks for the greatest gift ever given.
Responding to the Gift
But how to respond to this gift? We respond to this gift in two ways. First, through our worship. By being here. Whenever we gather in this place, it is to give thanks for this gift. It was why the doors on Lutheran churches are usually red: To remind us that we are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. It is because of his sacrifice and death that we can be here. And it is why we want to be here.
But the other way to respond to the gift of our salvation, to the beginning of the end of the reign of Sin, Death, and Evil in our world, is to join together in working toward the final end of these things. Until Jesus returns in glory, he has given us work to do. To share with the world what he has done. But also to strive toward making our life and our world look more and more like what God intends. By repenting of our sin, and by contending against evil and resisting whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.
Worship and Service. Two ways to give thanks for the great gift of our salvation, for the great gift of our Savior.
Jesus didn’t have to do all this. He didn’t want to. “Father, let this cup pass from me” was his prayer and his desire. He prayed in agony. He wept. But finally, he prayed, “yet not what I want but what you want.” “Thy will be done” was the prayer that forgave us and set us free. And it is the prayer that we are invited to make our own. Today and every day, until he returns in glory. Not what I want, Lord, but what you want. Thy will be done. Amen.
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