What has been the hardest moment in your life? It may have been the death of a loved one. It may have been your own struggle with illness and the uncertainty about the outcome. It may have been a long period of unemployment in which you could not support your family. Think about that moment. Let the emotions return. How did you feel? And how did you respond? What kind of prayer did you pray? Is it a prayer that you could easily share in church? It is in these moments that we discover who we really are and where we find hope. Last week, we looked at Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and for others that would believe. It was an elaborate and beautiful prayer. It was filled with reflection on the glory that the Son shared with the Father. It gives us some information on the exalted and pre-incarnate God the Son. At the end of the prayer, at the beginning of John 18, it says that Jesus and his disciples then made their way to a garden. What we are about to look at is Jesus’ prayer in that garden. What is the difference between the prayer that Jesus first prayed and the prayer he prayed in the garden? Where Jesus first prayed, he was relatively safe from the authorities. But traveling to the garden was a dangerous thing to do. This is where Judas will lead a crowd to arrest Jesus. It is not that Judas looked everywhere and just happened to find Jesus in the garden. Judas knew that Jesus was going to be there, likely through earlier discussion. To go to the garden was to ensure arrest and ultimately lead to the cross. Take a moment to look at how Jesus is described by Mark. Jesus was “deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
(Mark 14:33–34 NIV) Eighteenth century theologian William Paley, in book Evidence for Christianity, makes this comment: “Our Saviour uttered no impassioned devotion. There was no heat in his piety, or in the language in which he expressed it; no vehement or
rapturous ejaculations, no violent urgency, in his prayers. … His words in the garden are unaffected expressions of a deep, indeed, but sober piety.” While I respect Paley’s scholarship, I think he missed what the prayer of Gethsemane is all about. The prayer at Gethsemane is all about emotion and urgency and not at all about unaffected expressions or sober piety. This is a prayer that we can look to in our most desperate of needs.
What we have found in all the prayers we have looked at is the importance of how we address God. This prayer is no exception. Jesus prays to God as Father, which his habit, especially considering his unique relationship with the Father. What is interesting is that this time he prays to Abba Father. Abba is an Aramaic word for father. There is some debate over the exact meaning. Some have said that it is analogous to our term daddy. That view has been pretty much rejected. However, it still seems to mean more than just the biological relationship of a son to a father. Perhaps we should look at it as an affectionate but respectful way of speaking to a father. We might think that is fine for Jesus, as he is connected to the Father in a way we never could. Except the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15 that the Holy Spirit enables us to pray to Abba, Father. We are invited to pray in the same way as Jesus. What we need to see here is, especially in the most desperate of times, we must pray out of relationship. If your life is falling apart, there is no comfort available from some cosmic force. It is at such times that we need to make clear what our relationship with God is and pray out of that relationship.
Jesus then acknowledges that everything is possible for God. That is very important for how we pray. I loved and respected my parents very much. There were many things that I asked from my parents. But I never asked them to keep my children healthy. I never asked them for a nice afterlife. They would have given me those things if they could, but it was beyond their power. Harold Kushner, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, reflects on the death of his son from a terrible disease. He wrestles with how the goodness of God and the power of God can co-exist. He concludes, wrongly in my opinion, that God is all-loving but not all-powerful. The Bible teaches that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. But Kushner had to come to terms with God’s power in order to know how to pray. He could pray that God would shed tears with people suffering but he could not pray that God would intervene dramatically to end that suffering. Jesus prayed, acknowledging that God was all-powerful and that all things were indeed possible for him.
It is one thing to be able to make a theological statement about what God can do. It is another thing to be completely honest with God. We know in our mind that God knows all things but in our hearts we feel as if we need to make ourselves look more spiritual than we really are. But think about Jesus. Who was Jesus? Jesus was God sent as a human to die on the cross and make atonement for our sins. And what does Jesus pray? He prays “Take this cup from me.” That means he does not want to go to the cross. That does not sound spiritual. But it does sound honest. He knows that crucifixion is an extremely agonizing and painful death. He knows that he will have all the world’s sins placed upon him. No sane person would look forward to that. It was completely appropriate for Jesus to pray that. Are there things that you are afraid to pray? Do you fear that God will respond with “You want me to do what?!” If we are truly praying out of relationship, we should be praying in full honesty. And don’t worry, God already knows how unspiritual we really are.
Think about where we are at this point in the prayer. We have a God who is capable of doing anything. We have a Jesus who is asking to avoid the cross. Since it is only by the cross that we are able to be reconciled to God, our eternal destiny is hanging in the balance. However, there was more to Jesus‘ prayer. Jesus tells God, “Yet not what I will but what you will.” First of all, this is always the case, whether or not we pray it. We should not fear that we might accidentally pray something into being that was actually against God’s will. My children sometimes pray when the sun gets in their eyes that God would make the sun disappear. It is not likely to happen. What Jesus is doing here is choosing to submit to his Father’s will. He is honest about what he wants but will be obedient to what the Father wants. This is extremely important. In our moment of need or discomfort, we have a very narrow view of what we would like to see happen. While not ignoring our immediate need, God sees that in the larger context of both our entire life and his overall plan for humanity. So Jesus would like to avoid the pain of the cross but avoiding that pain would mean that there would be no forgiveness of sins for humanity. That is too high a price to pay and so Jesus went to the cross. This is how we must pray. Yes, we are honest with God with what we want. But we cannot hold that as our focus so much that if God does not grant it we are devastated. Our focus has to be submission to God. We do what God wants, which may or may not align with what we want. Even so, we trust that God will grant us strength and patience throughout whatever his plan is for our life.
Are you going through a difficult time? Is your life or the life of someone you care about falling apart? Look to Jesus. Not just as the source of your strength. Look to Jesus as an example of one who went to Abba Father in weakness. Look at the pain surrounding Jesus. Look at his honesty. Look at his submission to the Father. This prayer is powerful for equipping us on how to pray in the most difficult of times.