Saturday, April 23, 2011

Approaching the Cross II: Draining the cup

A three part sermon on Matthew's account of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36.46).

I. The gathering storm
II. Draining the cup
III. Stay awake!
Why is Jesus sorrowful and troubled? Why does he say his soul is "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death"? Extreme emotion is not alien to Jesus. He was no calm Stoic walking through life unaffected and unengaged. The Gospels record his anger, grief, delight, compassion, weariness, joy, sorrow and here, deep anguish. He shows us that being human doesn’t mean seeking to minimise or escape from our emotional life. But why is he so sad on this night? Is he scared of pain? Crucifixion was a horrendous procedure, designed to maximise the suffering of the victim, and made worse by the fact that Jesus had already predicted the desertion of his closest friends, even Peter, who had sworn to die for him. Being abandoned by his companions to a gruesome, extended death – is this what makes him so sad? It would be understandable if so, though certainly many others have faced death with more courage. Socrates drank his hemlock calmly, and many of the early Christian martyrs were said to been smiling or singing. Is Jesus weaker than they, to tremble at what he knows is coming?

A clue to what might be going on can be found in the combination of terms that appear in this passage that hint that we are dealing with more than just the impending death of an innocent man. When Jesus speaks to his father of “the cup” that he must drink, at one level this is a simple metaphor for having to face the particular experience he is about to undergo, but this language was also a common Jewish image found in Isaiah 51 and elsewhere depicting God’s anger as a cup of bitter wine that must be drained to its dregs. When we find this image in close proximity to talk of "the hour" having arrived and Jesus instructing his disciples to "stay awake" and pray in order to not come into the "time of trial", then this cluster of references all fit within a Jewish apocalyptic framework that pictures God’s decisive judgement upon human sin and wickedness, a powerful divine interruption into the normal course of events to bring evil to account. This night in this garden praying with friends was not like other nights. Not just because Jesus anticipates his own death just hours later, but also because he is anticipating that in the events about to unfold, nothing less is at stake than God’s definitive evaluation upon wayward humanity.

The cross of Jesus is not simply another tragic example of miscarried justice involving an oppressed minority, or of imperial brutality against perceived threats, or of religious violence against heretics. In short, his death doesn’t simply carry some of the various human meanings we attribute to such deaths. It has meaning for God. The meal of bread and wine spoke of a renewed covenant, of God acting again with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm to redeem those enslaved. But here, in the garden, the meaning of Jesus’ death is that it will be the point at which the world is judged and found wanting, where God’s own sorrow and anger at human pride and corruption is concentrated and expressed, where God says a resolute "no" to human violence and folly.

Jesus’ grief and anguish is because he himself will hear that "no", will suffer that judgement, will experience God’s rejection. This is the horrendous prospect of Gethsemane. This is why the man of sorrows is sorrowful. This is the bitter cup that Jesus would prefer not to taste. And yet, in obedience to his Father, he is willing to finish the last drop. "Not as I will, but as you will." In these words, Jesus fights and wins the battle to be obedient. He refuses the paths of violence self-assertion and self-justification as well as of retreat and hiding. And he entrusts himself to his Father.