Gethsemane – Agonizing Prayer
What we can learn from Jesus about praying for difficult situations in our lives, families and churches.
When I was a young child, my favourite season in the church calendar was undoubtedly Christmas, and again undoubtedly, for all the wrong reasons. It was all about presents and food. Christmas usually meant new cool toys and turkey dinner. Easter, on the other hand, meant a new Christian book of some sort and a roast of beef. In the eyes of a nine-year-old, neither could stand up to the delights of Christmas.
Today, however, I find that the season of Lent and the ensuing Holy Week are more significant for me because they convey two evocative themes - the ultimate cost of my rebellion and sin and God’s astounding propitiation for that sin through the sacrifice of my beloved Lord. How deep is the Saviour’s love for you and me!
One of the most poignant scenes in the unfolding passion of our Lord is his time of agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. You know the story (check out Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14: 32-42 and Luke 22: 40-46 for specific accounts). Jesus has just spent the evening with his disciples, washing their feet and sharing the Passover meal with them. He has challenged Peter’s typical bravado with the withering prophecy that his well-meaning disciple will deny even knowing Jesus three times before the dawn. They have gone out to a garden on the Mount of Olives where Jesus deeply desires to spend time with his Father in prayer and longs for the human support of his dearest friends.
Leaving the majority of disciples, Jesus takes Peter, James and John a little further into the garden and shares with them the anxiety and stress that he is experiencing. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” The disciples have never seen Jesus like this. He has always seemed confident and peaceful, despite angry mobs, outraged Pharisees or violent demoniacs. Their jaundiced view of Jesus’ mission and purpose begins to crack like an eggshell. The physical and psychological toll of their own stress over what is happening is too much for them. They retreat into sleep on three separate occasions, despite the Lord’s admonition to “watch and pray” with him.
Can you imagine yourself in that position – being asked to provide prayer support for the Messiah while he prepares himself for the most horrendous ordeal ever experienced on this planet? Undoubtedly, I would have fallen asleep too. Jesus’ only encouragement to them is to pray for protection from temptation. Desperately confused, scared and shaken, sleep becomes very appealing for all of us
What is happening in the heart of Jesus through this whole scene? Now abandoned even by the closest of his friends, he is alone with his Father. The pressure upon him is so great that Luke suggests that he may even have shed drops of blood from his brow, mingled with his sweat — “a medical condition known as hematidrosis, where extreme anguish or physical strain causes one's capillary blood vessels to dilate and burst, mixing sweat and blood” (ESV Study Bible).
Jesus is working through something that each of us also needs to settle, once and for all
We will never understand all that Jesus goes through on that night as he contemplates carrying upon himself all the sin, sickness and pain of the human race throughout the ages. Just the weight of my own accumulated sin is more terrifying than I can bear to conceive of. But Jesus is working through something that each of us also needs to settle, once and for all – the issue of God’s sovereignty and the supremacy of his will over ours. ““Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14: 36 ESV). In essence, “Father, is there no other way to accomplish my mission? But my will is submitted to yours, no matter what!” My heart breaks as I contemplate the fact that I caused that anguish. Not single-handedly, of course, but my sin and rebellion made it necessary.
As we pray about difficult situations in our lives, families and churches, are we equally as prepared as Jesus was to say ‘Not my will, Lord, but Yours be done”? When healings don’t seem to be coming, when downsizing costs us our job of twenty years, when our courts and governments make decisions that are ungodly and anti-scriptural, can we trust in the sovereignty of God and submit to his will? Can God really be trusted to know what he’s doing? My theology says, “Of course! How can you even ask such a question?”
Despite the Father’s immense and perfect love for his Son, he did not allow him to bypass the cross.
But when my heart is breaking over my friend’s potential loss of a loved one through cancer, and I struggle to know how to pray, I take great solace in looking for Jesus in Gethsemane. Despite the Father’s immense and perfect love for his Son, he did not allow him to bypass the cross. The implications of such an act were too catastrophic to entertain for a moment. In the same way, there are times when the Father won’t let us bypass hardship or difficulties either, because they are a part of his larger sovereign plan conceived before the beginning of the world. It is only in submitting our hearts to his will that we will ever find the heart-rest for which we so deeply yearn. I find myself praying, “Lord Jesus, on the night before the most infamous day in history, you wrestled with this issue that now confronts me. O Jesus, please help me to lay down my agenda that’s mostly driven by personal comfort and freedom from pain in the same manner that you did. Thank you that you will never fall asleep on me as your disciples did on you. Give me your strength to joyfully submit to the Father’s perfect will.”
The Irish composer and worship leader, Robin Mark, captures this surrender, this personal Gethsemane, so profoundly in his song, Jesus, All for Jesus:
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
For it's only in Your will that I am free,
For it's only in Your will that I am free,
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
As Holy Week rapidly approaches, may our hearts be always inclined toward him and our fervent prayer be, “Lord, may Jesus’ heart of submission be also in my life and in my intercession for others”. Amen.
Rev. Canon Garth Hunt
Canon for Prayer Support
Garth is the Bishop’s Canon for Prayer Support in ANiC and member for St. George’s Burlington. He lives in Ontario with his wife of over 40 years, Margaret. They have two sons and four grandchildren.