Friday, April 22, 2011

Approaching the Cross I: The gathering storm

Last weekend, I preached on Matthew's account of Gethsemane. As it was a sermon about paying attention to the events of Easter, I thought it may be an appropriate piece for this holy weekend. It comes in three parts.

I. The gathering storm
II. Draining the cup
III. Stay awake!


Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me." Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

- Matthew 26.36-46 (NIV).

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. That aphorism reminds me of a story I heard about the days during the Cold War when both sides were seeking to gain an edge over the other. The Americans were trying to develop a translation computer that would be able to quickly and effortlessly translate Russian communications so that the important information could be identified. After years of working on the programming, the software engineers thought they had done it. The programme was brought before their superior, who decided to test it by giving it a sentence in English to translate into Russian and then back into English, to see if it would come out the same. The sentence he picked was from our passage: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. This was fed into the computer, which translated into Russian and back again, giving the answer: “The vodka is strong, but the meat is rancid.” Has nothing to do with the passage, but that’s what I think of when I hear that phrase.

Let’s pray.

Father, keep us awake that we may learn from your Son how to pray. Amen.

Actually, my little story does have something to do with our passage since it illustrates seeing something familiar in a new way, fresh light on something well known. If you are like me, then you’ve heard the story of Jesus’ passion and death many, many times. Each time we head towards Easter and reach Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week, these stories are told and retold. Can anything new come from them? Will today’s sermon be a message you’ve heard before? Indeed, heard so many times you could give it yourself? Most of us are probably on well-trodden ground in hearing this story, and if you are like me, it is easy to forget that it is also holy ground.

This episode in the garden is the calm before the storm. A week earlier, to the acclamation of the crowds Jesus, arrived in a Jerusalem bursting with visitors for the Passover festival. He rode a donkey into town, signalling his humility, but also signalling to those with eyes to see it, that he was claiming to be the coming king spoken of by the prophet Zechariah. Having arrived, he engaged in a provocative symbolic protest, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and so temporarily disrupting the activities of the Temple. He was picking a fight with those who claimed to lead God’s people. Then, all week, the storm has been brewing. Day after day, Jesus has been teaching in the Temple, delighting the crowds, silencing the religious leaders, dodging their traps and stirring the pot. At the end of a busy and eventful week, Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples, that ritual meal in which the memory of God’s redemptive work was kept alive and brought into the present. It was a meal that spoke of slaves being set free and being gathered as a new people with a new identity. Jesus hadn’t just observed this tradition, he gave the meal a distinctive twist, taking elements of the supper and saying that instead of pointing back to the Exodus, they pointed forward, anticipating what was about to come in his own bloody death. This death would seal a new covenant, a renewal and transformation of God’s work of redeeming slaves and forgiving sins, an intensification of the promise of God’s coming kingdom.

Having provoked the authorities and taught his disciples to celebrate what was he was about to do, Jesus takes his friends to a garden outside Jerusalem in order to pray. Our passage ends with Jesus announcing the arrival of his betrayer and the pace of the narrative immediate picks up. And so this episode is the last quiet moment before the end, the calm before the storm. Yet for Jesus, the tempest already rages within.