Sermon April 6, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

April 6, 2014

“In the Garden of Gethsemane”

Matthew 26:36-46

The hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” was written by the English hymn writer James Montgomery in 1820. A prolific song writer, he also wrote one of the Christmas carols we often sing – “Angels, from the Realms of Glory”. When I was looking for a hymn to use when preaching on the cross I had many to choose from. With the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, this was the only hymn in our book. It is a simple text and it follows Jesus step by step from Gethsemane to the cross.

The hymn has a slow, somber feel to it, which seems appropriate. Each verse points out a lesson to learn from the account of the passion of our Lord – “Learn from Jesus Christ to pray”; “Learn from him to bear the cross”; and “Learn from Jesus Christ to die”. As I look at what took place at Gethsemane, the three lessons that come to my mind are – the humanity of Jesus, the weakness of the disciples, and the obedience of Jesus.

Generally when we think of the suffering of Jesus, we think of the cross. However, the Heidelberg Catechism, one of our Presbyterian confessional statements from the 16th century, makes the following statement in Question 44 concerning the clause found in the Apostles’ Creed. It asks: “Why is there added: ‘He descended into hell?’ Answer: That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul both on the cross and before.”

Well we know about Jesus’ suffering on the cross. However, this is the “before” that the Heidelberg Catechism is referring to. The suffering of Jesus is profoundly evidenced in what took place at Gethsemane. This is the prelude to the crucifixion. Jim Edwards writes: “In Gethsemane Jesus allows his soul to be crucified; on Golgotha he relinquishes his body.”

The events at Gethsemane take place immediately after the Last Supper. Two paragraphs before our text begins, Jesus and the disciples are still in the upper room. It says: “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” The Garden of Gethsemane was in an olive grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The name Gethsemane means olive press.

This was a familiar place for Jesus and his disciples. Jerusalem was too crowded for gardens, and at the time of the Passover it would have been teeming with people. Just as Jesus had been given the use of the upper room, some other loyal benefactor must have provided this garden outside the city as a place to get away.
Matthew records a conversation between Jesus and the disciples on the way to Gethsemane. Jesus said: “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” Peter said: “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Peter’s objection is a little too self-serving, almost as if he’s not surprised that the others might fall away. And this is the point where Jesus tells him that Peter will deny him three times.

When they enter the olive grove, Jesus asked his disciples to wait while he took with him the inner circle of Peter, James and John and went further into the garden. At a time when his heart was so deeply troubled Jesus wanted his friends near. We know how much it means to us to know that Jesus is with us through all of life’s trials and tribulations. We may not have considered how much it means to Jesus to know that we are with him. Yet Jesus’ disappointment at the failure of the disciples at Gethsemane teaches us that our loyalty to Jesus in prayer means a great deal to him.

Matthew says that Jesus was grieved and agitated. This is describing a profound physical and emotional anguish, “a shuddering horror.” Jesus said to them: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” Going a little further, Jesus prostrates himself in prayer.

Jesus’ first prayer was an agonized cry: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

The cup has an ominous sound to it. It reminds me of a precious goblet in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. At the bottom of the inside of that cup is carved, in gold, a serpent. It has ruby eyes and diamond fangs; its mouth is open and ready to strike. When the goblet is filled with dark wine, it covers over the snake. But as one drinks the wine, suddenly the presence of the serpent with all its menacing appearance is revealed.

I think we can understand the cup as biblical language for God’s judgment and punishment on sin and wickedness. Earlier, Jesus had predicted to his disciples that it was his calling to suffer God’s judgment on sinful humanity by means of his death on the cross. When James and John came to him with their ambitious, misunderstanding, request to sit beside Jesus in his glory, Jesus had replied: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” And at his arrest, John records Jesus saying to Peter: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

That Jesus asked the Father if the cup could be removed is a demonstration of his humanity. Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. He did not go to the cross like an unfeeling robot. It’s not as if it was easy for him because he was God. Gethsemane was a genuine temptation to avoid the path of the suffering servant. Nevertheless, Jesus’ will to obey the Father was stronger than his desire to serve himself.

When Paul describes the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God himself coming to earth in human form, he wrote: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
What takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane is also a demonstration of the disciples’ weakness. Jesus comes back from praying to find them sleeping. He says to Peter: “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Matthew says that Jesus came back a second and third time, only to find the disciples sleeping. After the third time, Jesus says: “See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” Right away, Judas arrives leading a contingent from the religious leaders armed with swords and clubs.

This passage about Gethsemane can be a painful one to read. And yet there is something of great importance in these events, something which touches our lives. For me the central meaning of Gethsemane is the obedience of Jesus. In a human way, Jesus shrinks back from the horror before him – which is not just the cross and a painful death, but more so in the judgment of God on sin; to experience the absence of God; to be forsaken so that we can be reconciled.

And so Jesus prays – “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But before Jesus even finishes the sentence, it’s as if he is already correcting himself and he states what is most important to him – “yet not what I want but what you want.” And then when Jesus prays the second time his will is more perfectly yielded to God. He does not ask for the cup’s removal. He prays – “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

What is the essence of the good news of the gospel is that on the cross Jesus gave his life for you and me. On the cross Jesus achieves our salvation. However, what Jesus accomplished on the cross begins in Gethsemane. Jim Edwards points out that history has produced a great many paintings of the crucifixion, but not so many of Gethsemane. He said that’s not because Gethsemane is less important. It’s simply easier to paint a cross than to paint a decision leading to a cross.

For all those who trust in Jesus Christ the good news is that when Jesus drank the cup of divine judgment, the cup did indeed go away. In Romans, Paul says: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience (that was Adam) the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (that was Jesus) the many will be made righteous.” “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

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