Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lessons from the Garden

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church titled "In Christ Alone". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Mark 14:27-52 contains a dramatic series of events. Having finished giving the full interpretation of the Passover meal...namely that the bread is His body and the cup holds His blood...Jesus takes His disciples toward the Mount of Olives. Moving through these verses, Jesus goes from being surrounded and sharing a meal with His disciples to being alone and in the custody of the religious leaders who hate Him and want to destroy Him. In the midst of it all, we find Jesus in Gethsemane...a garden...praying about the death He must die in order to "give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45).''

One often-requested hymn at funerals is "In the Garden." It begins, "I come to the garden alone..." Now, while Jesus' disciples were physically with Him in Gethsemane, He was alone. While He struggled in prayer, they slept. In these moments, we see a picture of the humanity of Jesus Christ...the real humanity of Jesus. Jesus was not pretending to be distressed or troubled. In v. 33, it is Mark, the narrator, who points out that Jesus "began to be greatly distressed and troubled." That means it was apparent...it was visible...Jesus was wearing His heart on His sleeve, so to speak.

Distressed and troubled, Jesus prayed: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will" (v. 36). The point of this prayer is to see the real humanity of Jesus as He struggles with His mission, but to see the commitment of Jesus to the Father's will through His submission. His struggle was unique in the history of mankind...no other man has faced what Jesus faced. However, I do think we can find some lessons for our own prayer lives...particularly when we are "distressed" or "troubled".

1. When we are distressed and troubled, we should pray. This seems quite elementary, but how often does it escape our mind when we are in the midst of trouble? How often are we wringing our hands in anxiety rather than casting our cares upon Him, because He cares for us? The Lord Jesus, who was truly troubled, cast His cares on His Father. Since that is the case, how much more do we need to be regularly casting our cares on Him? After all, God is our refuge and strength...a very present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1).

2. God must be our Father if we are to expect His help. Jesus called out to God as "Abba, Father." This type of intimate title for God was not normative in Jewish life. Yet, Jesus was uniquely the Son of God, and His utter dependence on the Father goes uninterrupted as He enters distress and trouble. Now, those who are in Christ by faith...who have been justified by His blood...have the Spirit of God dwelling in them. The Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of adoption...by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'" (Rom. 8:16). Because of the Spirit of adoption, we are sons, and sons have an audience with the Father. We can pray expectantly, knowing that God will intervene and do what is right and good. If God is not one's Father...if he is not in Christ...if he has not received the Spirit of adoption...then he has no confidence that God will answer.

3. Our prayers must be influenced by the attributes of God. Jesus has a clear understanding of who God is as He prays..."all things are possible for you" (v. 36). There is no doubt in Jesus' mind that God can do whatever pleases Him. The Father's sovereign power and prerogative are settled matters in the heart and mind of Jesus. His relationship to God as Father gives Him confidence that God will hear His request. Jesus' knowledge of the Father's abilities gives Him confidence that God can accomplish what He asks.

Here, we find a great intersection between our study of the Scripture and our confidence in prayer. If we are weak in our knowledge of God, then we will approach God wishing He could do something about our situation. "Here's the problem, God...I hope you can do something about it." We know that we should pray, and that's good...but we must also know the God to whom we pray. Being our Father, He will hear us and care for us...being the God revealed in Scripture, He can intervene and help us.

4. Confidence in God's power does not erase our pain. This is striking to me. Jesus Christ never doubted the character of God...He never wavered in His perfect confidence of God's sovereignty. Yet, He was still distressed and troubled...His soul was still sorrowful within Him. He felt like His grief was killing Him! This is encouraging to me. The last few weeks of my life have been up and down, and distress and trouble has marked many of those days. When we begin to feel distressed or overwhelmed, it is tempting to think we have lost faith...we have lost sight of God's sovereignty in all things. After all, if I was really confident about His sovereignty, would I really be this troubled?

I think the answer is...yes! There are troubling things in this world. Jesus promises we would have trials and tribulation (Jn. 16:33), and He tells us that each day has enough trouble of its own (Mt. 6:34). Sin and its effects are troubling to our souls. As long as we live in a sin-cursed world, this will remain the case. The caricature of Christianity is that nothing should phase a real Christian...real Christians are stoics that are moved by nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of suffering troubled and distressed the real Christ...even with His knowledge that after three days, He would be raised to life. Apparently, not even knowing God's sovereign power over the permanence of death took away the pain.

The reality of suffering today will trouble and distress us. So, while we want to beware of hopelessness and questioning the character of God in His actions, we must realize that a deep, abiding confidence in the sovereignty of God does not excuse us from the pains of life.

5. We should feel free to ask the Father anything. Notice what Jesus requests. "Remove this cup from me" (v. 36). Jesus knew what was coming. In Mark 8:31, 9:30-32, and 10:33-34, Jesus expresses that He will die. In Mark 10:45, He says that this death will be a ransom paid for many. The only way His death would be a ransom for many is if it were a payment...a payment that would satisfy God on behalf of man. Jesus knew that He would be man's substitute in suffering the wrath of God, so that all who believe in Him would escape the wrath of God.

Yet, the firmness of this knowledge did not keep Jesus from asking for the cup of God's wrath to be removed. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, makes a request in prayer that is contrary to the will of God. This, too, encourages us, for it lets us know that asking for things outside God's purposes is not sin. Asking to be relieved of suffering is not sinful. We often do not know what God's will is in the resolution of one situation or another. Yet, we can have confidence that all our requests are heard...our hearts' desires should be poured out in intercession to the Father.

6. We must submit to God's will. It's not simply that once we get to the end of our rope, we throw our hands up in submission. Rather, a knowledge of and willing submission to God's will should mark the entire course. As we go to God in prayer, it must be with the full knowledge that the trouble we face did not "slip past Him." He ordained the trouble...it is His will that we suffer in this life. While this trouble does develop perseverance and proven character (James 1, Romans 5), it also serves as a reminder of our dependence on God. When we are distressed and troubled, He is not, for He uses such trouble to continue His work of conforming us to the image of His Son.

Then, having gone to Him, as our Father, we express our pain and make our requests known to Him...leaving it to Him to answer as He would please. Jesus prayed this way, and He did not get what He requested. As Judas betrayed Him and the crowd seized Him, He had His answer from the Father. The hour would not pass from Him...the cup would not be removed from Him. He would face this moment and drink this cup. Yet, Jesus' greater desire...greater even than having the cup of wrath removed...was to please His Father and to do His will.

"Yet not what I will, but what you will" should not be an empty phrase in our prayers, and we should not say them as if they were an asterisk that gives God a way out of doing what we ask. Instead, their presence in our prayers should be genuine. Our hearts must beat with the fact that our holy God will only do what is good and right because He is good and right. Our skewed, sinful, finite perspective tempts us to question God when He does not answer our request exactly as we would prefer. Rather than shake our fist at the heavens as if we had the right to command God's response, let us remember the example of our Savior and accept God's answer (whatever it may be) with humility.

These are some lessons I think we can all learn from the garden. When distressed, pray...pray to God as Father, which means in a real awareness of our salvation and adoption as sons. Our prayers should be shaped by God's attributes. Our prayers may be borne out of pain, but the presence of pain does not mean our faith is weak. Because God is our Father, we can ask Him for anything at all, but however He answers, we must submit to His will.

One final thing...Jesus kept on praying. He went and prayed the same thing three times during that evening. His dependence on God was seen in His repetitious approach to God in prayer. We find an example of persevering prayer in the apostle Paul, as he went to God on three occasions to seek the removal of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7). We find an example of persevering prayer in the widow seeking justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). If we are still unconvinced of the need to persevere, then let's look back to the garden, where we find our dear Savior...prostrate, in pain, and repeatedly praying to His Father.