Jesus and Prayer

Reposting an older reflection for this Maundy Thursday, thoroughly re-edited for today.

What a topic. The text is Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane – Mark’s version. The assignment is to confine my remarks to 20 minutes or less, to capsulize the teaching and the modeling of Jesus about prayer, and to do it with truth and love.

How did I ever get myself into this???

The preaching task is always an overwhelming one. An intriguing, challenging, convicting, enormously rewarding one, but still….to think that any human person has the right to speak on behalf of Almighty God, to bear the good news to the church, to parse sacred text…yikes.

And, of course, living with the text over time means that the preacher is the first to hear the sermon. If the text doesn’t knock me to my knees, shouting truth into my own heart and spirit somewhere in the process of reading/researching/thinking/praying/talking it through with others, then I will have nothing to say to anyone else. And this one has just knocked me flat.

And as always, I am impressed at how the Spirit weaves together the study and research I do in my office with the conversations and experiences I’m having elsewhere. To illustrate – a brief, but deeply thoughtful conversation with our son and daughter-in-law about prayer – about how we so often view prayer as another in a list of tools to help us manipulate God, to work ‘magic,’ to utilize (in the philosophical, utilitarian sense) our faith to bring about a desired end. Yet the text before me was anything but manipulative, and everything about relinquishment. Hmmm…

Illustration #2 – a wonderful gift from my friend Anita, a small, brilliant book entitled “Everything Belongs,” by Richard Rohr, about contemplative prayer, a book that touches on some of the same ideas that are flitting round this brain of mine. Like…the 3 fold admonition to ‘watch’ given to the sleepy disciples. Isn’t that a lot of what prayer is truly about? Placing ourselves regularly, preferably continually, in a position of prayer, of watchfulness, of presence, of paying attention, even more than it is about saying the right words – or even saying anything at all.

And all of these lovely serendipities of daily life help to thrust me back again into the text before me. As I read through Mark’s account, again and again I am blown away by Jesus’ wrestling match in that olive garden on the night in which he was betrayed. Such a powerful study in contrasts:

….from warm fellowship in the upper room to the cool solitude of the garden
….from the comfort of the reclining supper chair, to the hard reality of the rocky ground
….from a place of acceptance and understanding of what was to come, to a place of resistance and fear about the painful death ahead.

I am humbled by this story, I am moved by it and I am deeply, deeply grateful for it. It gives me great hope to read that the Savior of the world wrestled with the harsher realities of this life, that, if possible, he wanted to avoid pain; that he struggled with the dark stuff, the hard stuff, the ugly stuff. It helps, of course, to know the end of the story, that end toward which we have been moving during these weeks of Lent. It helps to know about and to firmly grasp the reality of the empty tomb.

Yet what I truly cherish about this passage in Mark 14 is how it shows us the fullness of Jesus’ humanity in ways that many of our Jesus stories do not. Here we gain insight into some of his emotional and spiritual struggles. Just days before this time of pleading prayer, Jesus was able to speak prophetically about the restoration of the ‘temple’ of his body in 3 days. Yet here, he begs God to let this cup pass. It seems that Jesus was frightened by the prospect of suffering and death on that night when he stared directly into the abyss. All of us human creatures resist death, we deny it, we cry out against it. Even Jesus cried out for deliverance from the painful unknowing-ness of it all.

Many biblical scholars tell us that this struggle in the garden was about Jesus’ fear of his coming separation from the Father. Maybe. But maybe he was just plain scared of the pain, scared of the suffering, scared of the unknown, just like the rest of us would be. And there is something strangely comforting to me in that idea. To think that the son of God, our fully human, fully divine savior, was frightened by what lay ahead of him somehow helps to relieve my own fears. It’s a paradox, maybe even an oxymoron, to say that. And yet it’s true. There is a wonderful way in which Jesus’ wrestling in the garden helps me to lean into my own humanity a little bit more willingly and easily, to accept my own feebleness and fearfulness with less self-condemnation and disdain.

But here’s what truly, strongly cheers me in this story: after the struggle, after the tears, after the first of what would soon be an avalanche of disappointments and betrayals from his friends – after all of that, Jesus moves out in confidence and trust to meet his enemies, to meet his future. “Rise. Let us go,” he says to the speechless, feckless disciples. “Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.”

At the end of the day, at the end of that long night, Jesus chose to trust God.

Jesus chose to believe that God was at work, even in the ugliness of betrayal and conflict, even in the midst of false accusations and illegal trials, even in the brutality of torture and death. Even there, God is.

Once it became clear that God was not going to intervene in the way that Jesus wanted him to do, he made a conscious, deliberate choice to trust God anyhow. To trust that God would take the mess and work a miracle in the midst of it. To trust that God would accomplish something so beautiful, so powerful, so filled with hope and promise that the world would never be the same again.

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. I believe that for the period of his ‘tabernacling’ with us here on earth, Jesus gave up his right, his divine ability, to see ‘face to face,’ to ‘know fully.’ Jesus lived within the limits that we as humans experience.

But here’s what our truly human Savior learned through living a life of prayer, prayer that came to fruition in that garden across from the temple mount:

He learned to trust that he was fully known,
he learned to trust that the one who fully knew him, fully loved him,
he learned to wrestle through his fears…in the presence of the God who knew and loved him…
and to emerge on the other side with a confidence and a courage that challenged every definition of confidence and courage that his world had constructed.

Oh, may I learn from his example!

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