Once, God asked Augustine what he wanted to know. “Just two things,” came the reply, “yourself and myself.” Wise response. Too many of us fail in both quests I fear. On this strange journey that we are all on, from the cradle to the grave and beyond, the crucial question still grips us: will we be equipped for such a trip? Can we be sure that what we know of God will be enough to see us through any pain or exasperation? Are we sure that deep within, we are strong enough to face whatever is thrown at us? How shall I cope if life throws me a crisis I have never met before? Will my faith in God thrive in the fires of suffering? Three characters in this portion of our gospel reading: Peter, our Lord Jesus himself, and Judas. Each of them (as us) had no idea what they would do when the heat is turned up. One (Peter) it turns out had a big mouth but little faith. Another (Judas) couldn’t believe that his dreams of seeing the Romans overthrown were to lie shattered in the helpless bloody mess of the cross. And the other (our dear Lord) was faced with something no one had ever faced before, something so profoundly terrible, and yet, he who had more reason than most, came through the ordeal, his faith not only intact but strengthened, so that he was able to say, “Enough! The time has come!” FIRST THEN PETER: I must admit to feeling anxious when I hear enthusiastic young Christians promise to do anything or go anywhere for Christ. Of course, I applaud their new found faith, and I love that delicious sense of newness knowing Christ brings - it’s quite intoxicating. But then I look into my own heart and see all the petty compromises that spoiled similar vows; and I remember Peter. Jesus sees the disciples scattering, scandalised by what is about to happen to Jesus. They are nowhere near as strong as they’d like to think they are. That’s true of me too, I am sorry to say.
Like Peter, I have been ashamed to admit to knowing Jesus when questioned and I felt the answer I’d give would be socially awkward and embarrassing. Like the disciples, I can easily forget the promises of Jesus in the heat of the battle. Here is Peter, full of pride in his imagined strength and scorn for the weakness of others. Yet note he is not exceptional: verse 31, “and they all said the same thing.” But the ever kind Jesus, even here, when he is facing being deserted and isolation exactly at the time he will need the strength of friends, even now, Jesus gladly talks of a reunion after his resurrection (see verse 28). SECOND JESUS IN THE GARDEN - which forms the heart of the passage. Jesus and the disciples have sung one of the Hallel Psalms, the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 113-118), and they now retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane, a walk which would have taken about twenty minutes. This garden, whose name means ‘oil press’, and therefore we can conclude full of olive trees, was likely owned by a wealthy friend of Jesus. In built up cities, private gardens were often away from the housing - such places would have been tranquil, cool resorts to go to. Obviously, for Jesus it was one of his favourite places to go to. It must have been a sizeable area, for Jesus leaves 8 of the disciples at the entrance - Judas already having departed, and takes with him Peter, James and John; the three who had promised the most (James and John wanting to sit next to Jesus’ throne had boasted easily of their willingness to drink deep the same cup of suffering Jesus had to; and Peter we have heard about). We read that Jesus was “deeply distressed and troubled.” Words are failing here. They carry the sense of ‘terrified surprise’ - remember the King James’ version, ‘sore amazed’? Jesus is knowing extreme spiritual anguish unlike anything anyone has ever known. The usual Jewish posture for prayer was to stand with hands uplifted. If you conflate all the details from the other gospels, Jesus starts standing, then falls to his knees, only to throw himself prostrate on the ground. And there with his face planted in the dust and dirt of the garden, he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Peter, James and John could hear Jesus’ loud cries - we read in Luke’s gospel he was only a stone’s throw from them. They could see his prostrate form; they could see his frame convulse; and they could see his tears; and they could even see his sweat being pushed from his forehead and falling like blood - a rare medical condition called hematohidrosis, a condition that only occurs under the severest, extremest physical and emotional stress, in which blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture and burst.
Let’s be clear for a moment. We may be certain it wasn’t merely fear of death that made Jesus like this. There have been many examples of people going to their deaths, resigned and even singing. No, the answer lies in the nature of the cup he was looking into. Oh we are on holy ground and I don’t want either to be presumptuous or irreverent…but it was sin which Jesus saw swirling around in that cup of wrath. He sees all the brutality of human civilisations; he sees all the blasphemy and profanity; he sees all the jealousy, hatred, envy, lust, anger; he sees all the wars, all the Killing Fields, all the genocides, - he sees all the shame of men and women; he sees all the burdens of men and women that he has come to bear; he sees the eternity of miseries he has come to make his own - and he looks into those dark evil depths and he recoils. Sin is horrible; it is loathsome; and it involves Godforsakenness. He shrinks back from the terror of such abandonment. It is a cup of wrath too, for “He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Gazing into that cup, Hell opened up and he staggered under the weight of what he had to do: “for you shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” Deeper than this I can’t go - but no wonder as Luke records for us that God sent an angel to strengthen his beloved Son. Somehow, somehow our Lord says, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” His prayers have been answered.
By this time, all the disciples are weary and tired and keep falling asleep. It is a sad comment that often in the gospels, just at the most important revelatory moment, the disciples are weary, or blind, or dull of understanding. Had they watched as Jesus had told them, perhaps they would have seen the lights of torches flickering on the edge of the wood, and Jesus’ betrayer coming with the soldiers. They might have seen folk moving in and out of the trees, shadowy menaces. But there was no guard, and Jesus, the prince of peace, suffered the indignity of being met by “a large mob with swords and clubs.” It was only the beginning of the humiliating outrage that our dear Lord and Saviour would suffer as he was about to be stripped and spat upon, mocked and beaten, scourged and crucified naked. It’s a dramatic scene isn’t it? We read in John’s gospel that it was a cold night, and likely the Passover moon was shining brightly and crisply. Outside the garden, beyond the ravine, lay the scattered lights of Jerusalem. And for once, with Roman soldiers carrying swords, and Jewish Temple guards armed with their clubs, Jew and Gentile were united. A chilling sight then for those who had eyes to see, as the angry crowd with their flickering torches, harried Jesus out of the Garden, and down into the Kidron valley and then up the slopes of Olivet. THIRD JUDAS. And that kiss, that infamous kiss - for the word that is used is not the normal one, but an intensive one. It seems that Judas fell upon Jesus and kissed him affectionately and repeatedly. It is the kiss of a lover, not a betrayer. But it drips with horror. Judas, we must remember, had also once heard the call of Jesus and had left everything to follow him. Judas also took part in the healing trips that the disciples made (see Mark 6:7-13). Jesus when he chose him must have seen some potential in him. But as with us (and all who claim to follow Christ), our Saviour must have seen other things in Judas too: moral contradictions fighting within him, vying to have the mastery of his will, conflicts of light and darkness, courage and cowardice, devotion and self-service. And whilst we are not directly told why Judas betrayed Jesus …was it love of money, or jealousy, did he want to force his hand, or was he bitter at disappointed hopes and dreams?? … something changed within the erstwhile disciple, and becoming less content with how Jesus was behaving, and more uneasy within himself, he decided to betray Jesus. But now look at Jesus! Far from flinging Judas to one side, far from mouthing off at him for such a horrendous act of treachery, Jesus says, in Matthew’s version, “Friend, do what you came for.”
This is what a life submitted to God looks like; this is what a life steeped in prayer will do for you - you can love your enemies, and hold them close to you without hypocrisy and feelings of revenge. In calling Judas ‘friend’ Jesus is still reaching out to him. in the Kingdom, it appears, none of us has the right to hate. In the Kingdom, Jesus never misses an opportunity to be reconciled to his creation. Do you see something else in this account? Jesus is totally in charge. The action is fast and furious, but Jesus is the still centre. Peter can’t bear it and out comes his hidden sword and he lunges at Malchus, the high priest’s servant, and cuts off his ear - as if violence is the answer! The servant must have been terrified - he must have stood there, wide-eyed as the blood poured down his face and through his fingers as he instinctively reached up to the side of his face to feel the place where the ear had been hacked off. We know from Luke’s account, Jesus heals him. Oh the love of Jesus! Even now not thinking of himself and the trials that were awaiting him! Jesus heals the hurt Peter has caused - and he has been doing the same ever since as his followers have attacked each other, if not with swords always, at least with our words. In Matthew, we read, Jesus injects spiritual reality into this scene: he can call down 12 legions of angels (60,000 of them) from his Father’s throne to help him, and sort out all the baying mob in front of him. (By the way: think on that! How foolish we are not to rely more on the angels at our disposal, but, who, through our restlessness and our denying the overarching good providence of God we forget.) Jesus says the Scripture “must be fulfilled” - God’s word cannot be broken not even for his Son, not even at this desperate moment. Our passage ends with Jesus being led away, as a lamb to the slaughter, all the disciples deserting him.
Sad verse to end with - except for this: surely it provides one proof of the resurrection: for, you see, unless Jesus had been raised from the dead, you would never hear of this Christian faith again - as all his disciples were disowning him! There is then mentioned the case of the young man running off naked into the night. Most commentators agree this is John Mark himself. It’s a pathetic touch emphasising the aloneness of Jesus. This has been a raw privilege of grace to prepare this and preach it. Rarely have I felt so inadequate to sound these immensities of God’s revelation - no plumb line long enough has been invented to measure such depths. Back to how I started and Augustine’s request to know God and to know himself. Knowing the Lord of Gethsemane will give you a perspective on all you may have to suffer and undergo. For myself, I am more in awe of the Saviour and more conscious of my need to depend on him moment by moment. God help us to know him and ourselves better.