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Thu, Apr 09, 2020

Watch and Pray

Duration:9 mins 59 secs

Watch and Pray

Meditation on Matthew 26:36-46

Maundy Thursday, Year A

                Gethsemane is the scene of Jesus’s last great temptation. This is what it has all been leading up to. There are to be no surprises. Jesus is under no illusions about what will happen to him on the awful day and night ahead: the sham trial, the whips and thorns, the ridicule of the soldiers and the taunts of the crowd, and then the cross itself, when his enemies will finally have him where they want him, firmly fixed in place and helpless, seemingly under their control. He’s been predicting it all along: “The Son of Man will be handed over and killed” (Matt. 16:21, 17:22). He does not expect an 11th-hour rescue – but there is still time to ask if there could possibly be another way. “Let this cup pass from me,” he prays. Don’t make me drink the cup of sorrow, humiliation, pain and death. It’s a prayer we all pray at some time or another.

            This scene in Gethsemane is painful beyond words. But I am grateful the Gospel writers have given it to us. Here we see the full extent of Jesus’s humanity. It is worth noting that he doesn’t prepare for his death like a Stoic philosopher, all resolute and brave and stiff-upper-lipped. Matthew, following Mark, takes care to show us Jesus’s tumultuous emotion. He tells us of three separate intervals of prayer, in which Jesus throws himself on the ground and pleads for a sign that there might be some way out of this ordeal. Three times Jesus asks if the cup might pass from him; when he rises from the ground the third time, his mind is made up, and there will be no turning back.

            I’ve tried to imagine what Jesus might have been experiencing in those lonely hours of his last night on earth. Much of his sorrow must have been for the end of earthly life itself.  Imagine the thoughts that might have assailed him in the cool, olive-scented air of a spring night in Jerusalem, as he felt the shiver of the wind, smelled the earth still retaining the warmth of the day’s sun, and heard the distant sounds of animals being brought home for the night. There is a special, dear quality to one’s own place on earth, and soon that would be lost. Lost as well would be the friends with whom he had shared so many journeys, so many meals and conversations, stories, laughter, and prayer. These quintessentially human pleasures were his, too, and he must have felt keenly the sorrow of losing them.

To witness Jesus alone in Gethsemane is, in one sense, to enter into the experience of anyone who has ever suffered the treachery of a close friend, the desertion of those one has loved, or the fear of that ultimate loneliness, death itself. Yet there is also a singularity to Jesus’s suffering for which we can find no analogy in our own experience. I am not speaking of the especially brutal nature of his death; as we observed on Palm Sunday, other innocent people have suffered deaths equally painful and humiliating. Jesus experienced the unimaginable, utter loneliness of someone who has been on intimate terms with God his whole life. There had never been a time when he had not felt God’s presence or heard God’s voice. He knew the nearness of God on the day of his baptism, when he rose from the water and a voice proclaimed him as God’s Beloved Son. He heard that same affirmation on the Mount of Transfiguration as he prepared for his fateful journey to Jerusalem. So where was God now? Where were the voice and the presence that could relieve the loneliness of these final, anguished hours?

 Jesus is enduring for the first time in his life the silence of God. Where was the voice that could tell him that it would come out all right in the end? Three times he threw himself on the ground, and the assurance that might have made it bearable seems never to have come.

This points us to another dimension of his sorrow that is perhaps easy to miss. To experience God’s total silence, to enter into the darkness that would issue in the agonized cry from the cross the next day, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”: that is to feel the crushing weight and misery of human sin. To experience the full dimensions of human sin is to know the absence of God. In shouldering the burden of all the human failure that had ever taken place, or ever would, Jesus, a stranger to sin, submitted to an abandonment more total than any of us can imagine.

I do not begin to understand how Jesus’s lonely death as an outcast and criminal dealt with our sin. The mystery of atonement lies forever in the heart of God, in the deeper mystery of God’s will and purpose. But the sacrificial work of Jesus must have begun when he entered that darkness where God’s voice could no longer be heard, and leaned willingly into an abyss that for all he knew might swallow him up forever.

One of the purposes of Holy Week is to teach us something about who we are. We are all faithless disciples at least some of the time, probably most of the time – inattentive, too sleepy to care, too cowardly to stick our necks out. But that is not what I want to concentrate on tonight. Tonight, I want us simply to contemplate the mystery of the unique experience of the Son of God, and to feel awe and gratitude. He has looked into the very depths of our hearts and seen not only the same vulnerability and pain that he knew, but also our propensity to cause pain and sorrow. For the likes of those who deserted him, denied him, and betrayed him, people no better and no worse than us, he went to the cross. For our sake he said yes to the God whose voice he could no longer hear in those last terrible hours of his earthly existence.

We can work out the implications of his life and death for our lives at another time – in fact, that is our ongoing task. Tonight, though, let us simply do what he told the disciples to do: go to dark Gethsemane, “watch with him one bitter hour,” watch and pray, and with fear and love and much trembling, wonder at the miracle of the divine love for us.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

April 9, 2020


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