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3. Final Words of Jesus: A Prayer God Did Not Grant (Matt. 26:36-46)

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Charles Templeton was once acclaimed as the Canadian Billy Graham. But, sadly, he gave up Christianity, claiming to be agnostic. A number of years ago he was interviewed on TV. Speaking about Easter, he said that he closes himself in his study, reads the Easter story and he weeps. If the account of Christ’s sufferings and death can have that effect on a man who consciously turned his back on God, what effect does it have on you?

Today we are considering a prayer of Jesus in Matt. 26:36-46, a prayer God did not grant. This is his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus anticipates the burden of the cross. Probably you’ve all had experiences where what you anticipated joyfully ended up sorrowfully. Easter is my favorite time on the Christian calendar. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth and we anticipate Easter, his death. Yet when Easter comes we realize that what began with heights of joy at Bethlehem ends in depths of sorrow at Calvary. Children often want something so badly but discover sorrowfully that they can’t have it. Sometimes the realization of what we want is vastly different from our anticipation of it.

A young couple my wife and I know well had been joyfully anticipating the birth of their first baby for the previous nine months. It was something they had wanted for a long time. The moment of realization finally, arrived after the long wait, many doctors appointment and check-ups, and finally the pain of childbirth. So, you can imagine their reaction to finding that the baby was seriously handicapped with Down’s Syndrome. What do you say to someone in that situation? How do you, on the one hand, rejoice with them in the fulfillment of their desire and yet, at the same time, help them face the reality that the realization of their desire is vastly different from their anticipation of it?

To some degree, I think, Jesus experienced this dilemma. He wanted more than anything to fulfill God’s plan of redemption and yet the burden of its reality weighed so heavily on him that its fulfillment drove him to seek a way out.

Our subject is “Jesus’ deep sorrow in anticipation of his death.” The scene that we are about to study is intensely personal. As we reflect on this I want you to be sensitive to two things. First, be sensitive to your witness of this scene. We are like spectators intruding into a place that is too holy, too personal, too intimate for us to witness. I feel like an impostor in a place where I ought not to be; like a small boy who has climbed a ladder up the side of a house so that my eyes can just peek over the window ledge and what I see and hear makes me feel like a peeping Tom, peering through a window into someone else’s private world. We are standing at the edge of the darkness and we witness in a very faint, far-off way the story of Christ’s agony and passion. So, be sensitive to your witness of this scene.

Second, be sensitive to your response to this scene today. Surely, your response should be that Jesus’ deep sorrow should radically change you from a passive spectator to an active worshipper.

This scene in the Garden of Gethsemane has been preceded by the jubilant cheers of the crowd on Palm Sunday, but all that clamour has long since faded. It’s been preceded by the intimacy of the Upper Room with twelve disciples, but that precious moment has been shattered by Judas’ defection. It’s been preceded by the foreboding walk to the Mount of Olives during which all the remaining disciples pledged their loyalty to Jesus, not knowing what the consequences of their pledge would entail. IT’s been preceded by Jesus leaving eight disciples at the gate to Gethsemane. Now, from all the crowds who followed him only three remain. Of all the people who welcomed him as king, only three are left. Out of all his disciples, only Jesus’ three closest companions are with him now. These are the three who had been with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter, when he was on the mount of Transfiguration. Yet now even they prove unfaithful.

In this hour he turns to them for comfort. So, you can only imagine how …

1. Jesus’ Deep Sorrow Is Intensified By These Unfaithful Friends (26: 37-38; 40-41)

The intimacy of the Upper Room is now replaced by the familiarity of the Garden, where Jesus is “sorrowful and deeply distressed” (37b) - distressed over the whole anticipation of Calvary; distressed over the sin question; distressed over being made sin, made a curse; distressed over being punished by God and forsaken; distressed over being betrayed and rejected.

He shares the intimacy of his feelings when he says, My soul is exceedingly sorrowful (38a), lit. “my soul is the centre of surging sorrows. This is the sorrow of a righteous sufferer. This is the sorrow of the Psalmist: “All your waves and billows have rolled over me” (42:7). This is the sorrow of Jeremiah: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow” (Lam. 1:12). This is a sorrow that is even to death (38b). The scale of his grief is so great it felt like it would kill him.

In the midst of his deep sorrow, Jesus appeals to his unfaithful friends with a request. He appeals to them to stay awake with Him in his distress: Stay here and watch with me (38c). We expect our friends to be there for us in times of crisis, but these friends ignored his plea. Instead of watching, they slept – a sad reflection on their human weakness. Here is the paradox of the incarnation that the Son of God would want the company of three fishermen, knowing full well that they would not bear up under the strain of that night, that they would all desert him and flee, that the precursor to their desertion was their sleepiness.

But before we sit in judgment on these men, let’s examine our own lives. You’ve probably done just the same as they. I certainly have. Just when Jesus needed you, you left him alone and kept silent. Just when he expected your thanks, you took his blessing for granted. Just when someone needed you to pray with them, you left them comfortless. That’s when Jesus comes into our lives and finds us sleeping - too preoccupied with our own self-interests to pay attention to him.

Nonetheless, look how Jesus responds. He appeals to his unfaithful friends with a request, and he responds to his unfaithful friends with grace. Listen to his gracious rebuke: Could you not watch with me even for one hour? (40b). “You said you would drink the cup with me, but all I ask is that you stay awake with me. Is this too much to ask of my closest friends?”

These were the same disciples who had slept on the Mount of Transfiguration. Desperately he needed their companionship now, their encouragement, their intercession in prayer. But after one hour, they are sleeping.

We all understand the need for companionship, especially at times of crisis, for reassurance and comfort. Jesus here is experiencing a depth of loneliness that he had not encountered before. And to make matters worse, his companions are sleeping while he is suffering. But listen to his gracious advice: Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation (41a). They needed spiritual alertness and dependence on God to guard them against the temptation of denying Jesus (cf. 31-35). They knew the attitude of the rulers toward him and that he was now practically within their grasp. The temptation to desert him would have been overwhelming and Jesus graciously advises them to pray.

Prayer is the only antidote for human weakness. True disciples sometimes suffer from great weakness which often shows up in times of testing. What we need at a time like that is sustained prayer. Prayer is the only resource to protect us from denying Christ. Maintaining your prayer life is paramount in safeguarding you against temptation. Engaging in active worship of God is vital in protecting you against temptation.

We’ve heard Jesus’ gracious rebuke and his gracious advice. Now, listen to his gracious understanding: The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak (41b). Even at a time like this, he graciously says: “I know that you really do want to watch with me, but you’re physically exhausted.” God knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. In his grace, he knows your limitations and he extends his grace, even in the hour when you let him down.

Jesus’ deep sorrow is intensified by his unfaithful friends. And ...

2. Jesus’ deep sorrow is magnified by his unanswered prayers (39)

There is no one with him now – not even Peter, James, or John. Jesus is alone with God and in the weakness of his agony, he wrestles with God in prayer. “He went a little farther” (39a). He took another step in his downward journey from glory to Galilee to Gethsemane. From Capernaum’s wine to Calvary’s wrath. From the Father’s heart of love to the world’s cross of hate. From a virgin’s womb to a borrowed tomb. From a past eternity to the present mystery. From a manger unknown to a garden alone. From cheering crowds to chanting mobs.

Now there is no one with him - not even the three. Jesus is alone with God, before whom he falls on his face. In the intensity of his anguish and in the weakness of his agony he wrestles with God in prayer.

Imagine yourself in this situation. Perhaps it’s your final hour with a son about to go overseas. Perhaps it’s your last moments with your dying spouse. Perhaps it’s one last visit with your aging parent. What do you say? What do you do? Jesus chose to pray. But his prayer went unanswered. His unanswered prayer produces an echo in the darkness. Father, if it be possible…” (39a). Jesus’ relationship with the Father remains unbroken. And in that trust relationship he seeks to discover the possibility of deliverance. “If” it be possible. “Can’t there be another way to fulfill the plan of redemption? Isn’t there some other remedy without the cross?”

The words pour from a heart that is breaking with sorrow. He begs for a response, for relief, for a way out. But there is no answer, no relief, no way out – only his plea echoing in the darkness. Three years before, Satan had offered him a crown without a cross, a kingdom without a passion. But there was no way out then and there is no way out now. He saw us in our sin when we had no way out, when sin had enslaved us and alienated us from God. That’s why he endured isolation, rejection and death so that we could be reconciled to God, so that we could have a way out.

Where do you go when there’s no way out? Perhaps, you’ve just been betrayed by your best friend. Or, your husband has just left you. Or, you’ve just lost your job and you have bills to pay. These are the times when you go to your Gethsemane and cry: “What is all this about, God? I thought I was living to please you and now this? Can’t you possibly take this away?”

Ken Gire in his delightful book, “Intense Moments with the Saviour,” says this: “Gethsemane is where we go when there’s no place to go but God.” Jacob wrestled with God at the river Jabbok. Jesus wrestled with God at Gethsemane. And you have your place where you wrestle with God. When the chips are down and the burdens of life are bearing down on you, there’s only one place to go – the same place that Jesus went - to God.

Uppermost in Jesus’ mind was the “cup” - Let this cup pass from Me (39b). The issue is not whether Jesus should accept the Father’s will. The issue is whether that purpose needs to include the “cup”. What does Jesus mean by the “cup”? This is the cup that the O.T. frequently links not only to suffering and death but more particularly to judgement and retribution. In the O.T. the “cup” was frequently linked with suffering and death and also with God’s wrath (Ps. 11:6; Isa. 51:17, 22; Ps. 60:3), with judgement and retribution (Ps. 75:8; Jer. 15-28). For Jesus, this is the cup of passion that was ahead of him - that horrifying cup of vicarious suffering; that cup of judgement and wrath of God; the mystery of Calvary.

Why did Jesus now seem to shrink back from the cross? Was it the fear of death on a cross? No! He had faced that prospect before and never wavered (Jn. 12:27). Was it pain and suffering? Surely not! Thousands have resolutely endured agonizing suffering, bad as it is. It must be more than that. What was so dreadful? It was the weight of the sin of the world pressing on Him, the burden of our guilt that was imputed to Him, the suffering for sin from centuries past and centuries to come, the terror of the cross - the wrath of God, the abandonment by God, the curse of sin.

“Nevertheless, (he says) not my will but yours be done” (39c). In the first garden, the first human beings said to God: “Not your will but mine be done” and they changed the course of history. Their dreamland became a desert and humanity descended from the perfection of the garden of Eden to the pits of the Garden of Gethsemane. Now, in this garden, Jesus says to God: “Not my will but yours be done” and he changes the course of history. Our corruption is transformed into a kingdom, redeemed human beings can rise from the gutter of Gethsemane to the heights of heaven.

Doing the Father’s will was far more important to Jesus than receiving his own desire. That’s why he says not my will but yours be done.” The moment drips with intensity as we see the reality of Jesus’ full humanity blended with his full deity. He is never so alone as now, never so weak, so sad, so afraid. And yet he is fully intent on completing salvation history, fully committed to God’s will no matter what the cost.

These are the last moment before his betrayal and arrest and we are allowed to eavesdrop on this most private of moments. Not only does Jesus’ unanswered prayer produce an echo in the darkness, but also Jesus’ unanswered prayer finds a response in the silence. Luke tells us that an angel ministered to him (Lk 22:43), not to save him, not to grant his request, not to take his place, but to enable him to endure it, to strengthen him, physically, mentally, spiritually in that dark hour.

An angel had ministered to him after the temptation in the wilderness. That too was a temptation to by-pass the cross. Satan said: “You don’t have to go through that.  You can have it all now.” But Jesus refused that way out then and he refuses it now. The silent answer has come: “No, Jesus! The cup cannot be removed. It is not possible.”

There are some things that cannot be changed. There are deep waters that must be experienced. Perhaps you’re experiencing that right now. Perhaps you need strength like you’ve never needed it before. Remember he gives strength to endure it (1 Cor. 1:13). In those moments, never doubt for a moment that God is still your Father.

Jesus’ deep sorrow is intensified by his unfaithful friends, magnified by his unanswered prayers, and …

3. Jesus’ Deep Sorrow Is Endured By His Unswerving Submission (42-46)

Jesus’ unswerving submission comes at a great price. Luke says that Jesus’ “sweat (became) like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:44). The anticipation of unswerving submission is so great. It’s as though his very blood broke through the pores of his skin like sweat and dropped to the ground.

Be sure of this one thing: the grace of God is not cheap. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day: “There is no victory at bargain prices.” At Gethsemane, there was no great victory without a great price – the price of blood; no great victory without great suffering – the cup of God’s judgement and wrath against sin; no great salvation without great abandonment – “My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?”

Why did Jesus endure all of this? Max Lucado in his book, “And the Angels were Silent,” says that Jesus endured all this because “He would rather go to hell for you than go to heaven without you. ”

Jesus’ unswerving submission comes at a great price and Jesus’ unswerving submission concurs with a great purpose. O my Father, if this cup cannot  pass away from me… (42a). Jesus’ relationship with God the Father remains the same but now Jesus recognizes the impossibility of escaping the cup. What has to be done cannot be done any other way. Drinking the cup of God’s wrath and judgement is essential to accomplishing God’s great purpose in redemption. And Jesus’ unswerving submission concurs with that great purpose. What has to be done cannot be done by any other person. An angel doesn’t have enough power to face evil and win. No other man has enough purity to destroy sin’s corruption. So, Jesus says: “Your will be done” (42b). “I concur with the great purpose of redemption. I concur with the drinking of the cup of judgement and wrath. ”

The all-powerful One now resolutely faces the inescapable: “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Arise let us be going” (45-46). Jesus never lost sight of the great purpose for which he came and he accomplished it in unswerving submission to the Father’s will. The temptation to bypass the cross is submitted to the great purposes of God in redemption.

Concluding Remarks

Gethsemane is the final scene to which the first scene in Bethlehem stands in stark contrast. At Bethlehem, there was no room in the inn, but those with faith believed. At Gethsemane, there was room for him in the garden, but those with faith forsook him. At Bethlehem, the shepherds didn’t know him, but they were awake and went to where he was. At Gethsemane, the disciples knew him intimately, but they were asleep and remained distant from him. At Bethlehem, the darkness of the shepherds’ field was shattered by the Lord’s glory. At Gethsemane, the darkness of the Saviour’s garden was shattered by the soldiers’ lanterns. At Bethlehem, the angels bore good news that the Savior had been born. At Gethsemane, the angel bore silent confirmation that the Savior would die.

Jesus’ sorrow was overwhelming because his friends were unfaithful. In his darkest hour they failed him and abandoned him – seemingly oblivious to his suffering. Without them Jesus wrestled with God and without them he triumphed in that hour.

Everyone must make a choice. Everyone made a choice against Christ back then. Judas chose to betray him. His disciples chose to abandon him. The people chose to turn on him. The religious leaders chose to falsely accuse him. Pilate chose to condemn him. The crowd at the cross chose to mock him. 

The question today is: “What is your choice?” Perhaps you’ve heard the gospel many times but never made a decision for Christ. You need to make a choice today. The Bible says, “Now is the accepted time...” (2 Cor. 6:2).

Jesus’ sorrow was overwhelming because his friends were unfaithful. And Jesus’ sorrow was overwhelming because his prayer was unanswered. It was not granted. God said “No.” He met a stonewall – no response. The only response was his own cry from the cross: My God… He could have called twelve legions of angels to rescue him (Matt. 26:53), but redemptive history would have come to a halt. As Philip Yancey says: “He could have skipped the personal sacrifice and traded away the messy future of redemption.” But the cross was the reason he came to earth, for as He himself said: “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things?” (Lk. 24:26).

Jesus’ sorrow was overwhelming because his friends were unfaithful, because his prayer was unanswered. And Jesus’ sorrow was overwhelming because his submission to God’s will was unswerving. He stayed the course. He set his face as a flint to go to Jerusalem.

I don’t know what this scene means to you. I don’t know if, as my thesis stated at the beginning, whether observing Jesus’ deep sorrow has radically changed you today from a passive spectator to an active worshipper, but I hope so. I hope that observing Jesus’ deep sorrow changes you from people who easily condemn others to people who extend grace to those who fail us; from people who are self-sufficient to people who depend on God when our deepest desires don’t turn out the way we would like or expect; from people who exert our wills to people who submit to the will of God, no matter what the cost; from passive spectators to active worshippers. And in response I hope you will say with me: “Hallelujah! What a Saviour.”

Related Topics: Easter

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