Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Prayer in the Garden

The Prayer in the Garden

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 18, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3:1-10
Matthew 26:36-46

This morning I stand in awe of this text. The story of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is so powerful, so moving, and so important to the Christian life because it shows both the human and the God natures of Christ, but before we get into that,
Let us pray:
God of wonders, what joy it is to sing your praises, to stand in your midst, and to be drawn closer to your being; open our hearts and our minds, fill our thoughts with the knowledge of your love. Stir in us the spirit that challenges, urges, and protects us, helping us all to be strong enough to live according to your purpose unique to each of us. We ask you this, humbly, in the name of our savior, whose sacrifice was great, and whose love is eternal, Jesus Christ your son, our Lord, Amen.
This story is found in part in all four Gospels, but I chose the Matthew version for this morning. Matthew 26:36-46.

36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." 37He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."

 39Going 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."

 40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not 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 body is weak."

 42He 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."

 43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

 45Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"

Have you ever walked through a garden? You might see the beauty of flowers and other plants. You might see the evidence of great time and effort. You might see the fruits and vegetables that will feed a family through the winter. You might even see the prized vegetable, grown to great size by love, care, and fertilizer that will win the blue prize ribbon at the fair.
I know that some of you have your own gardens. Perhaps you know what it’s like to get down on the ground, hands and knees in the dirt, digging the perfect hole, for that little seed. You mixed in the compost and fertilizer, you tilled the soil making it just right, the perfect environment for that seed to take root and grow. You made sure the little seed had everything you could give it to make it bear good fruit. You protected it from weeds coming up, stealing nutrients, soaking up the water, and blocking the sun’s light, no you cut those weeds before they could steal from your tiny plant. And then your garden grew, and was just as you wanted it to be. Your place, your gift to the world, or your very own sacred offering.
I’ve never been much of a gardener myself, but my father sure is. He can spend hours and hours digging, and planting, and tending, and every single flower or vegetable or piece of lettuce that he picks and gives to the family is like a little trophy. He presents each one to us, and the look on his face is perfect pride.
Gardens are special places because they are one of the few places in this world where the partnership of Man and God is pure and so imminent. Both God and man are needed. You cannot have a garden without that partnership. It does not matter how much fertilizer, how much water, how much care, without God’s help those plants just will not grow. They have natural needs that we just can’t effectively produce artificially. On the other hand a garden is a man made creation, the beauty of a garden many times is the result of our sense of organization and order. The perfect row of flowers, the assortment of colors, both reflect a human eye and taste for details. There is a distinct difference between a field of wild flowers, growing naturally, and a finely crafted garden, both are beautiful, but the field would not be, could not be considered a garden.
It is not by mere chance that two of the most important events in the history of human relationship with God happen in Gardens. The two great temptations and turning points both take place in gardens. We are all familiar with the Garden of Eden story. It is a story that accounts for the change from a pure relationship with God to our turning away. God places Adam in the first garden and takes him on as a partner, creating Adam to till the garden and care for it. Under this partnership the garden flourishes. The garden flourishes until the partnership is broken, by the lie. The serpent plants the deceptive seed and it takes root and that partnership is broken, not by God’s choice, but by our own. We deny the reason and purpose for our creation, and decide that we know better, and make our own way. The serpent tells us that God’s way is not the right way, and invariably we believe him. Believing the lie, Adam and Eve chose to go their own way and we all know the rest of the story. We again and again make the same choice in our life, believing that our own way is better. Our will instead of God's will be done.
But that brings us to the second major garden story in the Bible, Jesus after the Lord’s supper leaves his disciples and goes out alone into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray to God. The setting is so crucial, here we are once again back in a Garden. This time with the second Adam, as Jesus is often called. Jesus, like a garden is that perfect partnership between God and Man. In 451 AD some of the ancient church fathers got together and defined this relationship in the Chalcedonian Definition which reads.
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin;

A whole lot of words to show just what this text shows so simply, that Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time. I wrote a poem I'd like to share with you that I named "The Dual Nature." It takes some of the major events of Jesus' life and looks at both natures, how each would experience them. Hopefully it will help introduce us to the idea of this double nature a little better.

Jesus, the promise, knew the fears of a virgin,
                                    but also knew the hopes of a nation. 

Jesus, the baby, knew how to cry,
                        but also knew the warmth of a mother’s embrace. 

Jesus, the child, knew the cruelty of kings,
                                    but also knew generosity from the wise.           

Jesus, the boy, knew the loud talkers’ teaching,
                                    but also knew, even so, the truth of scripture. 

Jesus, the carpenter, knew the sound of a hammer to nail,
                                    but also knew the artistry of careful craftsmanship. 

Jesus, the baptized, knew the chill of the water,
                                    but also knew the real presence of forgiveness. 

Jesus, the man, knew the devil’s temptation,
                                    but also knew that the Father would always provide. 

Jesus, the healer, knew the pain of the sick,
                                    but also knew the unending strength of the faithful. 

Jesus, the teacher, knew the frustration of narrow minds,
                                    but also knew the glimmer of seeds planted. 

Jesus, the shepherd, knew the danger of the lurking wolves,
                                    but also knew each and every sheep by name.  

Jesus, the friend, knew betrayal of loved ones,
                                    but also knew the blessings of shared tables. 

Jesus, the leader, knew condemnation of a mob,
                                    but also knew the glory of waving palms. 

Jesus, the tried, knew again the temptation of the self,
                                    but also knew the way, the truth, and the life. 

Jesus, the crucified, knew the thirst of abandonment,
                                     but also knew the promises of a steadfast God. 

Jesus, the Christ, knew the isolation of Hell,
                                    but also the power of love’s resurrection. 

Jesus, the God, felt His people’s pain,
                                    but also knows His people’s promise.  

And it is here in this Garden of Gethsemane where both natures come to light for us, revealing that amazing partnership within Christ. Let us look at the words that Jesus prays, for he repeats the prayer three times.
The prayer has two parts; the first is “Father, let this cup pass from me.” In other words, hey God, yeah, is there any way I can get out of this? Because it’s going to be rough, I’ve seen what these people are capable of, such cruelty. They betray, they deny, they’re going to whip me, they’re going to beat me, humiliate me, and try me. Then they are going to cut into my head with a crown of thorns, force me to carry a cross through a hostile crowd, then nail me to that cross. And I know what nails are like, I was raised by a carpenter, I’ve hammered and I’ve nailed. Then they are going to leave me out to hang until I die. Is there any other way? Any way at all? Huh? Ok, I’ll do what ever you want, its not about me it’s about you. Stop me any time, Father, remember how you stopped Abraham, that might be nice.
The human side of Jesus comes through doesn’t it. We do not like pain and struggle. Of course not, we always prefer the easier way, the most expedient, the least painful. And sometimes the easy way is God’s way, sometimes God’s way is the most expedient, some times God’s way is the least painful, but not always, and not in this case. And Jesus knows it. So he says, “Thy will be done.” But it’s so great, so human, because he doesn’t just try once, but instead three times. Each time finishing with Thy will be done, but giving the Father the chance to stop him. Then after the third time Jesus accepts it, and The Father’s will is done.
Could you imagine that level of faith? That level of acceptance? To knowingly walk into that kind of future? To willingly be betrayed, willingly taken prisoner, willingly torn, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Certainly Jesus could have gotten out of it at any point. Remember the temptation scene in the dessert. Satan tempts Jesus three times, something about that number three, tempting Jesus to renounce his purpose, as Adam had. And three times Jesus resists. Jesus could easily avoid all of this pain he is about to face, but knows that it is God’s will and his very purpose to fulfill the sacrifice.
Have you ever submitted to anything like that? Doing what you knew in your heart was right, despite the pain and the cost? The apprehension and the decision are the hardest part, and I’m not trying to down play the pain involved, but there is a certain level of peace that comes when you have resigned your self to go through something. Something takes you, strengthens you and brings you through it. That’s what the real promise of Christianity is, not that you will never have to go through tough times, not that there will be no pain in your life, but that you will not have to go through it alone, that you will go through struggles with the strength and power and love of God. That God is sovereign and that there is a greater purpose for everything.
In a minute we will sing the Hymn, "Lonesome Valley," because it talks about this very idea. We do have to walk this lonesome valley, and no body else can walk it for us, but the song errs when it says, we have to walk it by ourselves. We do not have to walk it by ourselves. We walk it in full communion with our creator and our savior strengthened by the spirit, and we walk it with each other in harmony with our created purpose.
It is interesting to point out that times of struggle are sometimes the most important parts of life. Often our darkest, hardest moments, are what we can look back on and see our greatest growth. That if you never went through that rough spot, you never would have fulfilled your true potential. Also, remember that it is not God in the wilderness, who promises to end Jesus’ pain and starvation, instead it is that same lying voice, that fooled us in the Garden, telling us that things are in our control, that we can go our own way.
In this world we face this dilemma daily, hourly, minute by minute. We live in a world where we have apparent control, we can many times choose the path of least resistance, putting off the pain and the struggle, but each time we do, we must ask, is this the will of God. Or does God have a reason for this struggle, can I should I bear this pain? Is it God’s will? Imagine if Christ had made a different decision in the garden. How would our world be different, if Christ had sidestepped the pain, taken a bail out, decided to not carry the cross, refused the sacrifice? We would have no concept of God’s will, and we would be still lost in the wilderness with no chance of fulfilling our purpose to tend the garden, and bear fruit.
We have been throughout this season of Lent seeking to look at ourselves honestly to take stock, and we also try daily, minute by minute to discern the will of God, and pray to have the strength to allow that will to be done, regardless of our self interest, regardless of the risk. In a world risk is avoided at all cost, where pain is numbed, where life is planned for ease, where we pray constantly to "let this cup pass" is it possible for us to follow God's will even if it leads to a cross? For then and only we can truly become what Christ was, we become then like Christ, a perfect garden, the perfect partnership of God and man, with God working in us, helping us as his special gardens to bear with our very lives that good fruit that can change our world from the wilderness back to a garden of God.  
Let us pray. . .
Father God, who gives us all, who provides for our need, who stands with us in times of trial, give us the strength to face the trials of our lives, though we are inclined to fear, though we often hesitate in the face of struggle, though we often seek to avoid the times that test us. Help us to remember your presence in our lives; even as we walk through the darkest pathways, Your light illuminates our lives. Amen.