Jesus in Gethsemane
Focal Passage: Matthew 26:36-46
Background Text: Same
Purpose Statement: To realize that suffering can come to all parts of our lives
Key Verse: When he took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he began to feel sad and anxious. Then he said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me” (Matthew 26:37-38).
Difficulties, problems, and losses come to each of us throughout our lives. People we love––friends, family members, and spouses––face illnesses and die. We lose jobs and deal with financial concerns. We deal with the consequences of our poor decisions and those of other people. We face broken relationships and wonder how healing can ever come. We suffer. Some of the suffering is even beyond our imagination, and sometimes we wonder how we will ever survive such heart pain over situations that nearly destroys us.
This lesson focuses on suffering—personal, heartbreaking, and real suffering that comes to our lives. As we consider the suffering of Jesus in the garden, listen closely for the good news that can help us move through the suffering that we have experienced or will experience.
What Is Suffering?
When our sons were teenagers, my wife, Cheri, and I could have used a grant from the Department of Agriculture to assist with the purchase and preparation of the food required to fill their stomachs. Even after having healthy breakfasts and good lunches, by 4:00 in the afternoon, they had consumed their third full meal of the day. The amazing thing is, though, that the meal had no effect on their hunger when 5:30 or 6:00 rolled around. All the work of a full evening meal vanished before our eyes as the horde from the basement descended on the kitchen! They were polite enough to wait until about 8:30 before looking for a snack. We thought the ingestion of massive amounts of food was necessary to keep them from suffering the agony of empty stomachs.
Suffering is a subjective word; that is, the suffering each of us might identify belongs to us. You might look at what I call suffering and think it is silly, that I’m making a big deal out of nothing. However, any feelings we have rightfully belong to us. Though the ways we suffer vary greatly, the experience is one we all share at one time or another. The word suffer means “to bear, undergo, or endure” something. What we endure or undergo in terms of suffering is always something that creates pain or grief or fear. It’s just not a happy word for us to own.
Suffering is like having an aching big toe. No matter what we do, we can’t get away from the pain. It invades and paints a gray layer over everything. Even when we are involved in our everyday life, the pain is there. The distraction the aching creates keeps us from experiencing what the rest of life has to offer. We are suffering. Some of that suffering is almost overwhelming. The shock or the situation we are in may be so pervasive and life-robbing that we are nearly broken in two.
Think of the devastation caused by a hurricane or a tornado, when all seems lost, when lives are taken. The reaction of those whose lives seemed normal just a day before is justifiably agonizing. With loss and brokenness in life, with the destruction of those things that create the beautiful and happy framework of our lives, it appears that suffering is the only word that seems fit to use. Suffering is that terrible, honest tearing apart of life, the heaping of burdens and loss that becomes what we must undergo or endure, because there’s no other way to live at the time.
Matthew 26:37-38 offers us a description of Jesus at one of the lowest moments of his life. Read how Jesus described himself. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates Jesus as saying, “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” while in the New International Version (NIV), Jesus says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” The Common English Bible (CEB) translates Jesus as saying, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying.” Jesus was profoundly troubled. He was suffering.
While we certainly have not faced the circumstances Jesus faced that night, we have felt similar agony. We know what it feels like to face impending and unavoidable pain. The suffering resulting from the decision that Jesus came to, to die on behalf of the world, was agony, and he felt it. Jesus did not simply go through the motions of this garden of Gethsemane experience. He was deeply affected by what transpired there. Yes, he felt as if he was dying, because he would be betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, made a public spectacle of, and then hung on an instrument of humiliation and execution before the sun went down the next day.
When suffering seems to overwhelm us like ocean waves crashing over our heads, we can take comfort that Jesus knows what we are going through. Jesus speaks to each of us and says, “I know it hurts. I know the pain, and I cry with you over the struggle and suffering you are going through right now. Take my hand, and let’s go through this together.” Knowing that the Lord of the universe knows our pain doesn’t make the pain go away, but it should help us each morning as we wake to go through the next day with Jesus by our side.
What difference does it make for you to know that Jesus also suffered?
Friends Should Help
“Randy, I have cancer.” The phone call came on a beautiful spring day in the Dakotas. My friend called from ten hours away. He had visited a few different doctors and had experienced several invasive tests. If you have ever received a call like this, you know that nothing prepares you to hear those words from a friend. I didn’t know what to say, and I struggled against saying that everything was going to be okay. His voice carried fear and a broken spirit. Cancer, a malicious presence he didn’t know how to eradicate, had invaded his body.
So I said I was sorry and asked how he was feeling. I also asked about the next steps he was going to take. The big issue, of course, was how he was going to live in the midst of something threatening his living. I promised him I’d keep in touch and would hold him in prayer, and I told him to call me whenever he wanted to.
As faithful brothers in Christ, we both knew prayer was critical for his healing and that prayer indeed is powerful. Still, the suffering remained, and the uncertainty of the future was permeating and nearly kept him from living the days that he had been given. But I hoped that my words would somehow let him know that I was there for him for whatever that would mean to him as he underwent the struggle and suffering of cancer in his life.
When something comes into our lives that creates suffering and pain, we often reach out to someone we know and trust. At the core of our beings as humans, especially when something bad happens, we don’t want to be alone. Somehow just knowing that someone else knows what we are going through gives us the courage and the grace to be able to talk about it and to determine that it won’t overwhelm and control us.
Perhaps one of the saddest human experiences is to suffer in silence or to try to endure a horrible thing and keep it a secret. That’s not to say we stand on a street corner and announce our suffering. But it does mean that we are better off when we share our burdens with those who can help us shoulder the pain, or at least are able to know that we are in such pain and suffering in our lives. When my Dad was dying in the hospital, I spent several nights sitting up with him, just to be there and tell him it was all right when he would wake with fear in his voice.
At one of his most painful moments, Jesus called on his dear friends, his closest companions, Peter, James, and John. “I’m very sad,” he told them. “It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me” (Matthew 26:38). Remember who these three were to Jesus. This select trio had been with Jesus at his transfiguration (17:1). They vowed they were willing to drink from the same cup as Jesus (20:22). In other words, they were willing to die for him (26:33).
Keep alert. Be my friends. Stay here and just be with me, Jesus said to them. He wanted their presence and their attention. The fact is, there was nothing they could do except to be with him so that he would not have to suffer alone.
When has someone sat with you in your suffering? What was the most helpful thing they said or did?
The Time Has Come
After making his request of his close friends and disciples, Jesus “went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want’” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus’ prayer reflects his deep struggle, asking God first to deliver him from death but then stating firmly and clearly his commitment to God’s will.
It’s sad and almost painful, to read that, after Jesus prayed this poignant prayer, “he came back to the disciples and found them sleeping” (verse 40). They actually fell asleep three different times that evening (verses 42-43)!
They had one thing to do: to stay with Jesus and to stay awake. Instead, they slept and found comfort in the place where Jesus found agony. They fell far short of doing what should have been a simple thing. We like to think that we would never have done that, but we can certainly think of times when we have walked away from Jesus’ call to stay with him. It is not a matter of what we pledge we will do for Jesus. It’s a matter of what we do at each moment that shows our love is more powerful than our personal desires of comfort.
Sadly, Jesus needed the disciples, and they faded to sleep. “Look,” he told them, “the time has come for the Human One to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let’s go. Look, here comes my betrayer” (verses 45-46).
What have you committed to Jesus? What distracts you or pulls you away from keeping your commitment?
God Is With Us. We Are Not Alone.
Most often, we humans don’t do well all alone. Even when we think we are self-reliant, the sense of loneliness and emptiness in life is an entire other form of suffering that we usually try to avoid.
In October 2013, I was living in Rapid City, South Dakota, while Cheri was living in Fargo, North Dakota––nine hours away––where she found work. One day, it snowed hard in Rapid City. By the time it stopped three days later, over 31 inches of snow had fallen at my house, coupled with 44-mile-per-hour winds that gusted up to 71 miles per hour. Two hours after the snow and wind began, I lost electricity, phone, internet, and cellular service.
For three days, I was trapped in the house with no way to communicate with the outside world. An eight-foot by eight-foot by seven-foot-thick snow drift closed off my front doors. It is amazing how quiet and lonely it can be when you are alone in a house with no power, lights, heat, or anything!
If I never have to experience that again, it would be just fine with me! Sometime into the second day, I spontaneously began to talk to God. I shared a lot of feelings, a lot of ideas, of lot of anger, and a lot of requests for help. On day three, suddenly the power came back on! And then just as quickly, it went out for another six hours. By then, however, I was doing okay. It wasn’t mystical or deeply religious, but I experienced the presence of God with me. God kept saying, “It’s okay. What else do you need besides me?”
God was right. What I needed was the presence of the one who made me and was sustaining me. It was a powerful experience when all was said and done and grew my relationship with and my reliance on God in a good way.
That night in the garden, Jesus had hoped not to be alone. He had hoped for his friends to stay with him, but it was as if he were separated from all of them. That night, however, Jesus did have God. As he faced painful realities alone while his friends slept, with the presence of God, Jesus was able to come to a sense of peace, acceptance, and surrender. He knew that, in all things, God would be with him, even when he would feel that absence on the cross. He knew that God would bring life, even after death.
So it is with you and me. When we take the time to pray, to listen, and to realize that, when no one else is there, God is with us, we too can be filled with that presence and that promise, even when we are forced to drink of the cup from pain and suffering in our lives. God is still with us and will sustain us in all things with the love that will not let us go. This is our faith as Christians. This is God’s grace poured out on us when nothing else seems to work.
“We are not alone,” proclaims A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada. “We trust in God. . . . In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.”1
Knowing that God will always be with you, how does that change the way in which you deal with suffering in your life?
Hold me close, loving God, even as I suffer in my life, and help me to care for this world of suffering through your love; in Jesus’ name. Amen.
1 From “A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada,” The United Methodist Hymnal; page 883.
The Spiritual Practice of Fasting
When we think of fasting for spiritual purposes, we most likely think of abstaining from food. Certainly, that is one way to fast, one that is woven throughout both testaments of Scripture. Individuals in the Bible who fasted abstained from all food in solid and liquid forms.
Often, in Scripture, fasting was a community practice rather than an individual one. But fasting can be applied much more broadly than abstinence from food. We can fast from television, the computer, social media, shopping, destructive habits—anything that distracts us from the presence of God.
Fasting helps us clearly see those things that have power over us and control us, and it acknowledges our desire for God to help us turn away from those things. By removing the things that stand in the way of our relationship with God, we can focus more clearly on what God has to say to us and may be calling us to do.
Before you begin a food fast, you should check with your doctor to make sure you can safely do so. Have a plan in place for what you will do during the time you normally spend eating or engaging in other activities from which you are abstaining. Be clear on your spiritual purpose for fasting. Use this opportunity to be still, quiet, and prayerful. Ask God to remove the things from your life that impede your relationship with God, and replace those things with “all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8).