A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 2, 2017: The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent, the final Sunday in a holy season that helps us to prepare for Easter. At the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, I invited you to think about Lent like the work a farmer must do in order to prepare their fields for a bountiful crop. Before a seed ever touches soil, the soil must be turned and aerated, fertilized and raked smooth, so that when the seed is planted, it has everything it needs to grow. Lent does this work, not with soil, but with our hearts and minds. The mystery and glory of Easter, of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, must have good and ample room to grow within us. Easter is God’s definitive response to the powers of evil and death that they will no longer have power over us, and if we are to live into this reality, we have to be ready; if we are to embody the good news that life is always stronger than death, we have to be prepared. Lent is the time when this happens.
In order to prepare our hearts and minds for the good news of Easter, we have taken as our Lenten theme this year, “At The Crossroads.” We all come to crossroads. Sometimes they are simple, sometimes they are extremely complex. In either case, the choices we make at the crossroads in life have significant consequences for our lives and for the life of the world around us. Yet, we do not face these crossroads without hope or without guidance. Many before us, including significant characters in the Bible, have faced crossroads and their choices, their decisions, help to guide our own.
David, the great king of Israel and writer of psalms, faced a crossroads when his affair with Bathsheba was revealed by his best friend Nathan. When Nathan confronted David about all the evil he had done, David had two choices: confess and receive new life or dig in and slowly die away in guilt and shame. David chose the path of confession, and God answered his confession with a new heart and a new spirit…God answered his confession with the gift of life.
Judas, one of Christ’s disciples, faced a crossroads when he was approached by the religious authorities to take part in a plot to rid the world of Jesus. The authorities paid Judas to betray Jesus, but there was much more than money involved in Judas’ choice. Judas chose to be defined by his willingness to fall in with a crowd rather than his willingness to claim his rightful place as a beloved child of God. Judas forgot who he was; he forgot that he was created in God’s image and so deeply loved by God. His amnesia of the very heart of the Gospel made him an easy target for Christ’s enemies, and he fell, and he fell hard.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Jerusalem during the life of Jesus, faced a crossroads when the crowds demanded that he condemn and execute Jesus. Despite the feeling in his gut that Jesus was innocent, and despite warnings from his wife, Pilate chose to maintain his public image and some semblance of peace with the crowds. Justice has no room to grow when image and power, popular opinion and mob rule drown out innocence. Pilate shines a light on each of us for those times when we have chosen to maintain a public face and fallen in with the crowd whether it was just or not.
Jesus, our Lord and Savior, faced a crossroads in the garden when a crowd came to arrest him and one his followers drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. At this crossroads, Jesus chose compassion, reaching his divine hands up to the man’s head in order to heal his ear. Why would Jesus do such a thing for his enemies? Why would Jesus heal one of those who had come to arrest him? Jesus chose compassion because compassion is the mortal enemy of violence and violence has no place in the life of those who follow him. Even when his enemies came at him with clubs and swords and torches, Jesus was committed to the way of peace.
Peter, the disciple of Jesus we pick on most because he is so like you and me, faced a crossroads in the courtyard on the night Jesus was put on trial. When a few men and women pointed out that Peter was a follower of Jesus, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times…just as Jesus had predicted. Peter’s choice at the crossroads—do you know him or not?—helps us to understand what happens when we deny Jesus, but it also shows us that when we answer ‘yes’ we are taking up the way of love, of forgiveness, and service. Where Peter said ‘no,’ we have a chance to declare a very bold ‘yes,’ and our ‘yes’ is the very stuff of life.
Now today, on this final Sunday before the slow climb to Calvary begins, we encounter Jesus praying in the garden with his disciples. There is a crossroads for us to examine here, too.
After all the elaborate preparations for dinner with Jesus in the upper room, and the stress created by Jesus’ talk about death and betrayal, it is only natural that the disciples are sleepy. They have good reason to be completely exhausted. Now we could come down hard on the disciples for sleeping in the garden: how could they fall asleep while their friend, their Savior, prays in agony just a few feet away? Jesus asked them to do one thing—are they really that weak? But coming down hard on the disciples would be entirely hypocritical: after an exhausting day, an exhausting week, is it likely that we, too, would fall asleep in the quite, dark, garden. Judging the disciples as sleepy heads misses the point.
In this scene, Matthew brilliantly parallels the weakness and vulnerability of the disciples with Jesus’ experience of weakness and vulnerability. In the garden, Jesus experiences grief, agitation, a desire for companionship, fear for life itself, and a sense of abandonment by his friends and by God. When Jesus confronts his disciples about sleeping, he is really reminding them of what he is experiencing himself: a willing spirit, but weak flesh. As Jesus confronts betrayal, isolation, and death, his spirit is willing, willing enough to utter the charged words, “not what I want, but what you want.” But this does not mean that his flesh is going along for the ride. The flesh, his flesh, is weak. It creates distress, fear, and a desire to negotiate his way of if at all possible: “if it is possible let this cup pass from me.” Flesh is sleepy and not completely up to the task.
This tells us something. Gethsemane is about a shared confrontation between willing spirit and weak flesh, between Jesus’ own flesh and spirit and the flesh and spirit his disciples. It is about exhausted disciples sleeping while the great spiritual drama of salvation unfolds around them. It is also about Jesus entering deeply into what it means to be entirely human. What Jesus sees in his disciples’ sleepy oblivion only mirrors his own struggles. When he nags at them for sleeping, we may overhear that he is really nagging himself, chiding himself, going back and forth between pleading with God and submitting to God.
This is so eternally significant for us because what is happening here is the building of a bridge between God and humanity at its very depths. This bridge will be continually built during Holy Week and on the cross, but here in the garden, the work begins. In the garden we see Jesus taking upon himself the perpetual struggle between the human spirit and the human flesh, between what we want to do and what we know to be right, between what is convenient and easy and what is sacrificial and deadly. In the garden God remains silent, not intervening to change the course of events. Instead, God enters into human weakness through Christ, struggling as we do with heavy eyes after a long day, with fear when faced with betrayal, with sorrow when faced with abandonment. In the garden, we discover that God understands, that Jesus understands. In the garden, Jesus experiences the wounds of indecisiveness, of arguing with God, of sleepiness, and, at times, of utter unawareness of the drama of salvation that is taking place. Jesus understands all of these things, and he will bear them in his own body all the way to the cross.
The writer of the book of Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the words of the hymn, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” Jesus knows our every weakness. Jesus knows our every weakness, our every fear, our every sadness and sorrow, because when he stood at the crossroads in the garden, he chose the way of obedience. Jesus chose to obey God’s will that he be handed over to suffering and death, that he face betrayal and persecution and abandonment. Jesus chose to obey God’s will that he face a shouting crowd and an unjust justice system. Jesus chose to obey God’s will that he take up a cross and walk from the center of Jerusalem to the outskirts of the city where the trash is dumped. Jesus chose to obey God’s will that he be crucified with two criminals, one on his left and one of his right. And Jesus chose to obey God’s will that he give up his life for the life of the world. All of it, the garden, the mock trial, the long walk to Calvary, the suffering and death—all of it took place so that Jesus can look each of us in the eye and say, “I know,” “I get it,” “I understand.”
We can do nothing but stand in awe of God’s great love and mercy on display here. All of this took place so that God could come closer to where we are. The merging of heaven and earth, of flesh and spirit, of you and me and God lives in the realm of miracles, of the unbelievable; it is stuff we could easily laugh at and dismiss as a good story or a myth. Yet, my friends, this is the heart of the Gospel, the very foundation of the good news that Christ came into the world to bring. We do not have a high priest, a Savior, a friend who is unable to sympathize with us when we are tested and tried, hurt and sorrowful, betrayed and knocked down. No, we have this Lord, this Jesus, this Christ who knows what it is like to have friends run away, who knows what it is like to be wrongly accused, who knows what it is like to be hurt in mind, body, and spirit. We can do nothing but stand in awe that God came to us and became one of us, and in time suffered on a cross to transform everything we know as reality.
This great mystery of our faith demands our awe, but it also issues a call to each one of us: stay awake. And we can either obey and answer this call or not. It mean more than staving off sleep. It means more than fighting the urge to take a nap. When Jesus calls us to stay awake, just as he did the disciples in the garden, he is asking us to be attentive: to ourselves, to the world, to the needs of our neighbors, and most importantly to what God is doing all around us. When Jesus calls us to stay awake, he is asking us to watch as the reign of God breaks into the world. At times it may be apparent: healing and miracles, storms that are quieted, crowds of thousands being fed. But at other times, God’s reign may not be as apparent and despair, violence, and gloom may be overwhelming. But still Jesus call us to stay awake, to shake off the drowsiness and lethargy.
When we stay awake, we will see many things. We will watch as God brings life out of dry and dusty places. We will watch as God brings healing and unity to people and communities riddled by violence and separation. We will watch as God heals century-old wounds and illuminates the path to peace. We will see God in those that we pass each day and we will take on their welfare as our own. We will watch as the indescribable mystery of life conquers the power of death. We will watch as the hungry are fed, the homeless find shelter, widows are strengthened, and orphans are taken in. When we stay awake we will see that God is real and really moving in the world around us, subtly and not so subtly transforming everything according to God’s will. And when we watch, when we stay awake, it is not just the world that undergoes a great transformation—we, too, will be changed.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in a little over a week’s time, we will stand by as our salvation is worked out on the cross and in an empty tomb. We will watch as the holy mystery of our faith unfolds around us. Will we obey Christ’s call to stay awake and look in awe on God’s love and mercy, or will we sleep? Will we be attentive to the death that gives us life, or will we nap the days away? Will we watch and listen and keep our eyes and hearts and minds open as death is defeated and darkness is finally vanquished, or will we drowsily go through the motions as if Easter is just an event we observe each year? My prayer, with the full hope and weight of the Gospel, is that we will all stay awake. When the day comes that we declare, “Christ is risen!” may God find us ready and alert. May it be so. Amen.