Maundy Thursday 2011: meditation on the prayer of Jesus at Gethsemane.
So here we are, in the final hours before Jesus will be nailed to a cross and hung up to die. Here we are, in the darkness, in a grove of olive trees at the foot of the Mount of Olives. In the distance, through the trees, we catch glimpses of the fires around which other pilgrims, here to celebrate the Passover, are camping on the hillside above us. We can sense their presence: the background hubbub of a great festival; the night pierced by the singing of psalms; shouts of recognition; the cry of a man, zealous for God, encouraging those round him to praise his unspeakable name.
But here, at the foot of the hill, at a distance from the crowds, the mood is different. Jesus, who always seems so sure of God with him, is disturbed, agitated, overwhelmed. We’ve known him show all kinds of emotions – rejoicing at a village wedding; weeping at the tomb of his friend; sadness standing just further up on this very hillside, looking over Jerusalem on the other side of the valley; anger in the courts of the temple itself – but never anything like this. This feels ... dangerous – dangerous, and more overwhelmingly sorrowful than anything else in the world. Almost as if the cry of the psalmist, uttered a thousand years before, which we had sung at the end of our Passover supper had been written down with this very night in mind: “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘Lord, save me!’” (Psalm 116:3, 4).
Why are we here? Why is Jesus here?
He is here to watch and to pray. And he wants us to watch and pray with him.
What is it that Jesus wants his disciples to watch for? If they have any idea, it is probably the same assumption on our mind: that we are to watch for approaching danger. Disciples always have had a knack for missing the point, now as then.
If not watching for danger, then what? Well, what has Matthew written down for us, from start to end? Jesus begins his public ministry with the statement: the kingdom of heaven is near! He calls his disciples to him, and, sat on a mountain-side, tells them what kind of person the kingdom of heaven has been given to (those who are persecuted because of righteousness). In time, he sends them out, into the towns and villages, to proclaim the same message: the kingdom of heaven is near! Again and again, he tells parable after parable to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like – in order that we might recognise it when it arrives.
And here, in the garden, Jesus tells his disciples to watch with him. What is he watching for? The kingdom of heaven! Jesus is watching, not for those who exercise earthly authority, coming to take a stand against the kingdom of heaven, but for the kingdom of heaven – the rule of the heavenly king – arriving right here, right now.
And as he waits, Jesus prays. He prays the way he taught his disciples to pray, the way he habitually prayed. But tonight, his prayer is in conversation with a psalm, Psalm 116, one of the Passover psalms (Psalm 113-118). And tonight, we will pray with him; and praying, learn more than we have known.
The Father’s Character and Kingdom:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven ...
God is faithful to his name. His revealed identity is trustworthy: who he has been, he is, and ever will be. That is why we recall this night the night long ago he brought his people out of Egypt. That is why we celebrate the Passover. That is why we drink four cups with the meal, to represent God’s declaration, his four saving acts: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6, 7). I will bring you out; I will free you; I will redeem you; I will take you.
At the third cup – “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” – Jesus had done something new tonight. He had called it his blood, covenant blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Was he referring to himself as the Passover lamb, killed in our place? Was he referring to his own arm, stretched out for us? Then he had said that he would not drink wine again until he drank it with us in his Father’s kingdom (see Matthew 26:27-29). And then we left, came here: did not drink the final cup.
Jesus, a little farther on into the night, has come to the fourth cup, the cup we call the cup of salvation. And he is wrestling with these familiar words, as if they were not familiar at all:
“What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of those who are faithful to him. Truly I am your servant, Lord; I am your servant, as was my mother before me; you have loosed my bonds of affliction.” (Psalm 116:13-16).
Jesus is praying that the kingdom of heaven would come, here, now. He knows what that kingdom looks like: deliverance, freedom, redemption, a new identity. But he also knows that when it comes, he will be required to die.
The Father’s Provision and Forgiveness:
Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors ...
Jesus pours out his deepest hopes and fears, and his disciples sleep. A fitful sleep, no doubt; a sleep which holds no restorative power; a sleep tormented by dark dreams: more a succumbing to the overwhelming sorrow than a choice to rest. But not watching for the kingdom of heaven. Not even for an hour.
Watch with me, Jesus enjoins Peter. Don’t miss it now, having come so far. And pray. Pray that you won’t fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak: I know that, Peter: my body is weak too, weaker than it has ever been, weak to the point of death. Pray with me: ask the Father for his provision for the body, for his strengthening, ask that he would supply all that you need this day, this dreadful hour, to live, to overcome. And for the spirit, Peter: it is willing, but it needs nourishing too: we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God. Feed on the Passover psalms with me, that you will be strengthened, and that the Father would be glorified.
You sleep too soon, too lightly; but sleep is not the end. Ask the Father for his forgiveness, where you succumb. Ask the Father to forgive those who are coming, who will arrive here soon enough. The kingdoms of the world live bound by debt, burdened by what we cannot hope to pay our creditors, burdened by what we are owed that our debtors cannot pay us. Oppressed; enslaved; debtors: the very condition God comes to bring us out from, to free us from, to pay our debt – and to take us as his own. The kingdom of heaven is gift: freely given; freely received; freely passed-on again. Keep watch: the kingdom of heaven is near. Receive it; extend it in the world: taste freedom; set captives free.
Peter, in what is about to happen, what will you see? A man, a friend, bound; or a man, a friend, who is free?
The Father’s Guidance and Deliverance:
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Watch and pray, Jesus had said, so that you will not fall into temptation.
Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is handed over into the hands of sinners.
The kingdom of heaven, for which he has been watching, is arriving. And what does its arrival look like? Jesus is handed over into the hands of sinners. Handed over. Our English translations tend to say, ‘betrayed’: that is, a human action, on the part of Judas. But over and over in describing this moment the Greek says ‘handed over.’ Handed over: not by human hands, but by the Father’s hand. Behold the cup of salvation, the cup that recalls God’s declaration “I will take you” – the cup that Jesus did not want to take up, asked to be taken from him. This moment – which looks for all the world like unanswered prayer – is taking place to fulfil the purposes of the kingdom of heaven. The Son hands himself over to the Father, becoming for us the cup of salvation; the Father hands over the Son; and the angels look on with baited breath: what will be done to him?
Rise, let us go!
For three years now, we have watched Jesus pray; have learnt to pray from him. To ask for the Father’s guidance, that we might not be lead into temptation; to ask for the Father’s deliverance from the evil one.
And here is Jesus, walking in to danger, walking towards his death. Pray, lads! Pray like you’ve never prayed before!
Jesus, of course, is calm: calm and collected; focused, for the first time since we arrived in the olive grove, where only hours ago he had been visibly distressed. Having called on the name of the Lord to save him, he has come to the place where he can say, “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” (Psalm 116:7). In walking towards those who have arrived – at the very same moment as the kingdom of heaven – to arrest him, he is being led away from temptation: away from the temptation to run, to hide, to live a long and peaceful life; led by his Father, into his Father’s will, that he be handed over to us, for us.
With the psalmist, Jesus can proclaim, “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 116:8, 9). And he will be delivered from the evil one. But the Father’s deliverance is not away from evil, but straight ahead: a direct assault on the evil one: deliverance on the other side of a spent, defeated power of hell.
So let us watch, for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Let us learn to recognise what it is we wait for:
a God who comes to save us to be his people;
confronting false kings;
strengthening us in the struggle we find ourselves caught up in;
paying our debts;
leading us away from rebellion against his perfect will;
and delivering us from death itself.
And, standing in the dark hours of Gethsemane, let us pray that we might place ourselves with Jesus into the mighty hand of
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.