Surely you have had a similar experience, being so tired that you can’t fight fatigue anymore and you drift off to slumber. We all should be able to identify with Peter, James, and John as they succumbed to exhaustion in Gethsemane, while Jesus steadfastly watched and prayed to His Father.
It had been a busy, exciting, scary, confusing, roller-coaster week for the disciples. No wonder they had sleepy eyes and just needed to see the inside of their eyelids for a while. Who knows if Peter, James, and John had gotten any shut-eye since they had heard the sermon from Jesus about staying awake and watching for the Last Day (Mark 13:32–37)? Maybe they had taken it quite literally. On top of that, what could be more sleep inducing than watching another person pray? And as far as their own praying went, well, haven’t you ever nodded off during your own prayers? They reclined on the soft grass in the garden, the cool night air was perfect for sleeping – a nap was inevitable, right?
Indeed, it was. It was sinful that they didn’t do as Jesus told them, but let’s be honest: neither would we have, if we had been in their shoes. Now is not the time for self-righteousness and Peter-, James-, and John-bashing. It happened the way it had to. This event teaches us to identify sinful humans – even believers! – as sleepyheads whose willing spirit cannot overcome the weakness of their flesh. On the other hand, this scene identifies Jesus as the Lord of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps, whose eyes were set only on doing God’s will. When it came time for all righteousness to be fulfilled and all the sin of the world to be paid for, it had to be Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. He had to be the only one awake to persevere through the homestretch of His active obedience, to suffer the pangs of hell in His passive obedience, and then to sleep the sleep of death in the tomb, for us men and for our salvation.
Today’s Passion Reading places before our eyes the depths of woe Jesus would suffer for us. We see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane – sorrowful and troubled, even to the point of His sacred heart failing right then and there. The weight of the world’s sins pressed down mightily upon Him; He fell upon His face in weakness and trembling, begging, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from Me.” The cup Jesus spoke of was the cup of His Father’s wrath against all the sin of the world. God’s wrath is His unmitigated anger, a furious outpouring of condemnation, the fires and torments of hell.
Jesus did not want to drink that cup. Perfect, sinless, holy Jesus, whose will was truly perfect, prayed that He would not have to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and He knew that it was possible for His Father to change things (Mark 14:36). This teaches us that death and hell are not good or desirable for humans. Death, decay, and eternal suffering was not God’s plan for humanity; those are consequences of Adam’s fall, which involved us all. Except for Jesus. He was sinless. He didn’t merit death; He didn’t deserve to drink the cup of God’s wrath. So His prayer certainly wasn’t cowardly or faithless but was the language of faith in the God for whom all things are possible.
Now, I did leave out some essential words from Jesus’ prayers. He didn’t stop with, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” He continued, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.” Again, He prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” And a third time, He prayed the same prayer.
And then the Father answered His Son’s prayer. While it was possible for the Father to remove the cup, the Father’s will was for Jesus to suffer to spare you. The Father answered Jesus’ prayer by giving His Son the strength to accept His good and gracious will, and the Son willingly went into captivity when Judas showed up to betray Him. Moments later, Jesus said that all this was done to “let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49). Surely the Scripture recorded in Isaiah 53 is in the background here. There, the Suffering Servant of the Lord is said to be stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of God’s people, even though He had done no violence and no lies were upon His lips. Why all this punishment on the Innocent Victim? Isaiah writes, “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief” (53:10). The Father willed to crush His own Son and make Him an offering for the guilt of our sin. Those of us who are parents cannot even begin to wrap our minds around how the Father could love us sinners enough to pour out His wrath against His own Son. It torments us to see our own children suffer. How could God kill His own Son? We must receive this news with awe and thanksgiving that the Lord has done this to save us from our sins; we simply trust God’s Word, which says that His good and gracious will was to love us by sacrificing His only-begotten Son.
But the Father eternally loves His Son, and Isaiah’s prophecy did not stop with the death of Jesus. It pointed forward to Easter, when Jesus appeared to the disciples, gazed upon them with living eyes, and said, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, their eyes looked upon His hands and His side. “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19–20). His nail-marked hands speak of God’s goodwill toward you and all sinners: “Peace be with you.” The scars on His hands reveal the good and gracious will of God, that peace between God and man had been made by Him who was delivered up for our sin and was raised for our justification.
Through all this, Jesus had eyes only for His Father’s will and, through this, fulfilled what He had told His disciples in John 6: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (vv. 38–40). The good and gracious will of God is that you set your eyes on the Son, believe in Him, and have eternal life as a free gift. With that Good News in mind, you can fall asleep in peace each night, awake to serve Him each morning, and when your eyes eventually go to sleep in death, be confident that they will awaken to everlasting life in the resurrection. Amen.