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Based on the Sermon Series:
Places of the Passion: A Sermon series by David R. Schmitt
with contributions by
Timothy A. Appel, Kelly Klages, Mark Knickelbein, and Larry Peters
© 2016 Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO.
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The first reading this evening contains some of the most comforting words concerning prayer in the entire Bible. Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26) These words teach us that no matter how awkward our prayer is, the Holy Spirit will work with it until it is perfect and then add His own groanings to it. This means that we can approach God as thought we were little children … as though we could hop up on His lap, hug His neck, and tell Him exactly what is on our minds.
Jesus Himself has given words for us to pray. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread, 12and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9–13) In the Gospel for this evening, we hear Jesus Himself wrestle with the third petition of that prayer: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We heard Him as He knelt down and prayed, 42saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:41–42)
As Luke tells the story of our Lord’s prayer in the garden, he wants us to notice that our Lord’s agony is over the work that He came to do. Doing His Father’s will; taking upon Himself the cup of God’s anger; dying for our sin. That is what this prayer is about. Luke summarizes it in a short sentence. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:41–42) That is all of the actual prayer that we hear. In less than ten seconds, we have heard Jesus’ prayer, and then we are on to the rest of the story.
It would be easy for us to miss the intensity and struggle in these words, but Luke will not let us do that. Perhaps for that very reason, Luke goes to great lengths to describe the agony. Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:44) In anguish, Jesus prays. Earnestly, He offers His words. Sweat like blood falls to the ground as the life of our Lord flows out in prayer. An angel of God lifts the veil of heaven to come to His Maker’s aid. What did Jesus say in all of this anguish? Luke only records one sentence. He doesn’t describe all the words, and he doesn’t describe all the hours. How long did Jesus pray? Luke doesn’t say. We only know that it was long enough for the disciples to fall asleep. So, although the bodies of the disciples were nearby, they were not really with Him. He engaged in the agony of intense prayer alone.
The prayer of Jesus is simple to say; yet it is profound in its depth of meaning and consequences. Many important ideas are simple in expression, but very difficult in execution. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be faithful to your spouse. Care for your children. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. These are simple words. They guide us in this life, and yet anyone who has said “I do” to these simple words knows how strong the struggle can be.
When one’s father is dying of cancer, when one’s child is not coming home at night, when one’s spouse is absent in long hours at work and silence in the bedroom, the agony is strong and the nights of prayer are long. Words can no longer contain the depth of our pain, and so we find ourselves saying the same thing again and again and again. Time stands still as emotions rush by: sorrow at what is being lost, joy at what for a time had been found, fear at what could happen, hope for what might be, confidence that God is watching, uncertainty that He hears, anger at our situation, compassion for our loved one, longing for it all to be over, fear that it could all end. We watch, and we pray, and we cry, and we fear, and soon, in exhaustion, we simply … fall asleep. There is only so much agony that we can bear, and our lives shut down under the struggle.
Luke tells us that the disciples slept that night a sleep like no other: “sleeping from sorrow” (v. 45). We can’t be too hard on them. They lived in a world without electric lights. Sundown meant bedtime. It was way past their bedtime. As much as they wanted to remain awake with their master, they couldn’t do it. They knew that their Lord was in agony. They wanted to remain with Him, but the exhaustion of sorrow overwhelmed them. They were unable to remain awake with Him.
Yet, our Lord continues to pray. While the disciples sleep from sorrow, while God’s people fail under the power of the struggle, while the world is too weak to accomplish the will of God, Jesus goes on. Jesus prays. Jesus rises to awaken His disciples. Jesus does His Father’s will. By showing us this contrast, Luke reveals to us that there is one thing stronger than even the simplest sorrow, and that is the simplest love: God’s love for the world giving His Only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Here, we see that love of God. The Father’s will is to give up His Son, to forsake Him in punishment for the sin of the world. The Son’s desire is to do the will of His Father, laying down His life that all the world might be saved. Only God could love like that, and only God could serve like that. A Father’s love, a Son’s service, and a world’s salvation are all gathered here tonight in this garden and offered up to God in the agony of this prayer. And what Luke wants us to know by recording this prayer is that God’s love is stronger than sorrow: Jesus in willing obedience submits to the will of His Father and says, “Thy will be done.” Jesus enters our places of sorrow and makes them places of His strength.
Jesus could have walked away that night. He knew that the soldiers would soon arrive to arrest Him. It would have been a simple thing to go somewhere else … be somewhere else. Never the less, Jesus knew that He had an appointment to carry your sin to a cross. He had an appointment to hang from that cross and endure the punishment of that sin in your place. He knew that this was the will of His Father. He prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
God’s will overcame human weakness that night. His love made a place of sorrow a place of strength. Tonight, then, I encourage you to live in that comfort. Yes, tomorrow we return to a world where the simplest things can create the greatest struggles. The simple will of God for us and our neighbor can produce times of agony and trial in our life. But God’s love is beyond our loving, and God’s strength is beyond our weakness. Nothing in this world can ever separate you from that love. God forgives your sins. He claims your life as His own. If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32) There is nothing in this world that God’s love has not conquered, and there is nothing that can separate you from that love. Your life is in His hands and, when you are there, you are in the hands of the one who made you and loves you.
Tonight, our Lord assures us that we are in the hands of our Maker. He conquered our weakness in the garden, so there is nothing that can separate us from His love. When we engage in those long nights of prayer, we pray to a God who listens. When we don’t have the words to express the depth of our feeling, He has given us His Spirit, interceding with groans that are too deep for words, bringing what our mouths cannot say to the heart of God, who hears. Even on those nights when we fall asleep from sorrow, we sleep in the kingdom of a God who loves. Sleep then. Rise then. Pray and labor knowing that you are members of a Kingdom where God watches over His loved ones even in their sleep. He has prepared a place for you to go in times of struggle and sorrow. A place of His loving strength. Rest now in His love. Rest now in His strength. Amen
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