He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives;
and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place,
he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw,
knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing,
remove this cup from me;
yet, not my will but yours be done.’
and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
This Sunday. we will once again fill our sanctuaries with the sounds of music. As we are led with waving palms, the voices of choirs will lift our spirits to new heights – escorting us into the holiest of weeks. But before we break bread together; before we experience the travesty of justice going wrong; before we stand before the silence of the darkest night in history – let us return to the hill top right outside the east gate of Jerusalem by the Kidron Valley.
I remember sitting in this garden more than 15 years ago. The walk from the garden to the gate leading back into the city is not a long one. According to tradition, Jesus would go there to pray in the evenings during the Passover festival. Well this night, according to Luke, was no different, except we are given a glimpse of the burden Jesus carried. I can only imagine the disciples – it is a week of holy celebration. They have broken bread together and now they are disturbed and distressed. Jesus has talked about betrayal and denial a few verses earlier. Their minds must be spinning with confusion and apprehension – who can blame them for falling asleep? How often have you found yourself so emotionally exhausted that sleep becomes the only and natural escape for your body and mind? These Jesus followers are so spiritually exhausted, that even the simplest request to pray was more than they could sustain.
And then there’s Jesus. We follow him to a place “a stone’s throw” away – he clearly wants to be alone, but at the same time he wants to be near those he loves. It is here – in the privacy of this place- that one of the most powerful scenes in the Biblical narrative occurs. It is in this place that we are invited into the heart and mind of Jesus. It is here we are invited to witness the struggle and weight of it all. I imagine him thinking – is there another way Father? With his words, Jesus reminds us of the intimacy of that relationship. Jesus addresses that Father with the honesty of that intimate relationship.
Is there another way?
“….if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”
At this pivotal moment in his adult life, Jesus is on his knees asking God to consider another way. He gives voice to fear; he gives voice to ambivalence; he gives voice to the weight he carries.
How often have you and I found ourselves, metaphorically or physically, on our knees asking for the weight of our journey to be lifted? How often have we wanted God to change the road before us? How often have we, in desperation, negotiated with God – “if this…then I will do that”? How often have we found ourselves in the darkness of the night crying for another way? I know this to be true for me – as I have desperately wanted to redefine roads along my life path – whether the erasure of abuse; the life of a child lost at birth; the illness of a loved one and much more. I imagine this to be true for many of you as well. As I reflected the depth of this moment on the Mt. of Olives (also known as Gethsemane), I recalled the words of the song “I Only Want to Say” from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Even within the artistic liberties, the portrayal of this moment is beautifully articulated.
“I only want to say if there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don’t want to taste its poison
Feel it burn me, I have changed
I’m not as sure as when we started
Then I was inspired, now I’m sad and tired
Listen, surely I’ve exceeded expectations
Tried for three years, seems like thirty
Could you ask as much from any other man?
I find so much comfort in this moment of personal struggle in the life of Jesus. As a teenager, I had a color-by-number picture in my room of this ‘Jesus kneeling moment.’ Today I understand what I intuitively understood then. I have gained much strength from this window into Jesus’ heart and mind. It reminds me and us over and over again that the desire to unburden ourselves is also part of our spiritual journey. It reminds us that the ultimate gift of this moment is not that our burden is lifted – but that we are given the strength to continue the journey – not allowing the weight of the burden to define who we are. If we read further into this story in the Gospel of Luke – this strength is received from an angel. In our lives today, our strength is received by the Holy Spirit who breathes life and courage into our hearts and minds so that our actions will not be defined by our fears and temptations, but by a spirit of courage, endurance and hope against what often feels like unimaginable odds.
The final words of the song in Jesus Christ Super Star are poignant… I am providing the link to the 1973 performance and interpretation by Ted Neeley who played Jesus in both Broadway production and movie. It is but one artistic interpretation – but it makes us reflect deeply. I invite you to listen….
God, Thy will is hard but You hold every card
I will drink Your cup of poison
Nail me to Your cross and break me
Bleed me, beat me, kill me, take me now
Before I change my mind
May the reality and significance of this moment in the life of our Lord find a home in our hearts and minds as we again begin the walk through the streets of Jerusalem – to the foot of the cross. I encourage us to allow ourselves the time to experience the weight, pain and the darkness of what is before us. May we not too quickly dismiss it – before we rush to the empty tomb and the light of the resurrection.
Trusting always in the power of that light that is always with us… to the end of the days. Blessed Holy Week!