I have been revisiting Gethsemane in preparation for Maundy Thursday. I am struck afresh by the prophetic force of Jesus’ travail in the dark. Jesus is no eager suicide bomber rushing to his martyrdom. Instead He wrestles with His Father to see if there was anyway He could get out of going to the Cross. Here are His words as recorded for us by Matthew:
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 TNIV)
As D. A. Carson reminds us, Jesus did not suffer martyrdom. His was a unique death and a unique anguish.
Jesus did not suffer martyrdom. Can anyone imagine the words of (Matthew) 26:53 on the lips of a Maccabean martyr? … Jesus went to his death knowing that it was his father’s will that he face death, completely alone (27:46) as the sacrificial, wrath-averting Passover Lamb. As his death was unique, so also his anguish; and our best response to it is hushed worship … (“Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, 543)
Nevertheless, there was a choice to be made. There is no indication that Jesus would disobey the Father. He was asking if there was any other way. Once it was established that the Cross was the only way, Jesus embraced it. In doing so Jesus was practising what He had taught His disciples in the model prayer, in Matthew 6:10. This then is one key lesson from Gethsemane: followers of Jesus are to obey God even when it is difficult. The lesson is clear but hard to hear in the din of today’s consumerism dominated world.
Consumerism tells us daily and in many creative ways that the customer is king. You do what you like to do. And often we are encouraged to make choices that make us feel good. As Benjamin R. Barber points out, the modern consumer society has infantilised us, training us to choose the easy over the hard.
Ours (society) rewards the easy and penalizes the hard. It promises profits for life to those who cut corners and simplify the complex at every turn. Weight loss without exercise, marriage without commitment, painting or piano by the numbers without practice or discipline, internet “college degrees” without course work or learning, athletic success through steroids and showboating … morality without sacrifice, and virtue without effort. (Consumed, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, 87-88)
To Barber’s list, we could add, salvation without the cross, which interestingly, was the devil’s offer (Matthew 4: 8-11).
Thank God Jesus made the right choice. His obedience would lead to the Cross and the undoing of the disobedience of Adam. His obedience unto death opened the way for life and the birth of God’s new humanity.
As members of this humanity we too are confronted by choices. Once in awhile we are confronted by choices that involve choosing between God’s way and the devil’s way. How do we find the strength to follow our Lord? If indeed the “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26: 41), how do we find the strength to make the tough, right choices in a world that encourages us to take the easy way? We find two clues from Jesus’ victorious choice.
First, Jesus always trusted in the love of His Father. Even as He agonised over the prospect of the Cross, Jesus always knew that God was His Father (Matthew 26:39). As R. T. France reminds us:
The relationship of trust and loyalty between Father and Son which was put under scrutiny at the outset of Jesus’ ministry (4:1-11), proves able to survive even this ultimate test. (The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007, 1002)
We choose to obey God, even when it is tough, even when we don’t understand, because we trust our Abba Father. His love is perfect and all his ways are just. Jesus knew that and chose accordingly. At some point of our Christian pilgrimage, and perhaps many times in our journey this side of heaven, we need to know in the depth of our beings, the utter trustworthiness of the love and purposes of our Abba so that we would free fall for Him if He were to ask us to.
The second clue from Gethsemane as to how we can find the strength to make the tough decisions of life is somewhat of a negative one. We need a supportive community. Jesus made it clear that He wanted His three closest disciples to be with Him because of the gravity of the test that He was facing. Jesus is no unfeeling stoic. He freely tells His friends: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38b TNIV) The fact that His three friends fell asleep on the job does not negate the principle that we are meant to face the challenges of life in the company of faithful friends.
There is mystery at Gethsemane. We will never fully understand all that happened there two thousand years ago. But we know there was a tough decision to be made and that Jesus made the right one. And that He now invites us to take up our crosses and follow Him, fully trusting the Father, in the company of faithful friends. This Maundy Thursday we echo the words from Gethsemane: ” … not as I will, but as you will.”