The events of Palm Sunday unfold so fast and so terribly it’s hard to keep up with it all. We begin with all the energy and excitement of a grand parade. Palm branches are spread everywhere, and we sing triumphant hymns as the procession weaves around the church. We join in crying out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Then almost immediately everything turns dark, spins out of control, and the whole story plunges into disaster. And what’s worse, we find ourselves caught up in the events. We who enthusiastically welcome Jesus are the same ones who a few moments later cry out, “Crucify him!”
But in the midst of the high drama there is one still time. Just before he was arrested, Jesus spent a few agonizing hours in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. By then he knew where things were headed. He had just finished his last meal with his disciples, and his betrayal and arrest were at hand.
And so, as he had done countless times before, he went off to a quiet place to pray. Gethsemane was where the decisions and actions of his brief, intense life came together. In Mark’s gospel we just heard Jesus is described as “distressed” and “agitated.” He threw himself on the ground to pray, Mark says. He pleaded with his disciples not to abandon him: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” On this night Jesus didn’t want to be alone. It’s the instinct we humans have of wanting someone at our side the night before surgery, or in the nursing home as death comes near.
In the agony of the Garden, everything his life had become was spread out before him. How had it come to this? For one thing, he saw that his life was about to end in failure. For three short years he had been carrying out his work of spreading the Good News of God’s Kingdom, and now it was in ruins. The crowds had been huge at first. They loved the healings; they came by the hundreds to hear his teaching. But by now they had drifted away, and many of the leaders were turning against him. His disciples were in hiding. It looked as if he would turn out to be one more failed prophet.
Had he pushed too hard? Should he have bided his time more? Why had he stormed into the Temple and overturned the moneychangers’ tables now? Might it have been better to go slower, to be less provocative? He had been so clear when he had done those things. Now he wasn’t so sure. Jesus was no God in human clothing here; he was one of us, God’s beloved, but unsure, confused, alone.
And maybe worst of all in this night of terrors was the haunting question, Where is God? For countless months he had gone about telling people of the love of the Generous Giver behind all of life. God had seemed powerfully present and at work, but where was God now when it all was unraveling, and everything he had hoped for and believed in seemed to be collapsing?
Few of us, I imagine, have been through anything even close to Christ’s night in Gethsemane. But my guess is that all of us have had Gethsemane nights of our own. We have seen our best intentions and our hardest work fall apart. We’ve handled something badly, we’ve hurt someone. We’ve found our job or marriage in deep trouble, after giving it what we thought were our best efforts. We’ve watched this economy throw our whole financial future into question.
Maybe we have to face the fact that part of the life we had counted on is being stripped away from us. In a novel by Richard Ford called Wildlife, a boy describes watching his mother coming to terms with life after her husband has deserted her. At one moment the mother and son clash, and then she comes back into the room and says,
‘Your life doesn’t mean what you have,
sweetheart, or what you get. It’s what you’re willing to
give up. That’s an old saying, I know. But it’s still true.
You need to have something to give up. Okay?’
‘What if you don’t want to give up
anything?’ [he] said.
‘Oh, well. Good luck. You have to.’ She smiled
and kissed [him] again. ‘That’s really not one of the
choices. You have to give things up. That’s the rule. It’s
the major rule for everything.’
But some of the hardest nights in the Garden are when we have to face just what we are willing to do for love. Jesus is now staring at what his love for God and us is going to cost him. And that happens for us too. A couple gets married and promises to love each other for life, for better for worse, for richer for poorer. They have no possible idea what that promise will ask of them—what kind of patience, what forgiveness, what struggle to stay together. “No one told us it could be this hard,” a woman once said to me after marital counseling.
Or a couple decides to have children, and it’s a very good thing they don’t know what love will ask of them or they might not do it—the lost sleep, the being patient when there’s no patience left, the sense that you once had a life and now it is dominated by these little creatures, the heartaches of adolescence and young adulthood. Parents do it for love, and the joy is immense. So is the cost, sometimes more than they ever dreamed.
When that Gethsemane moment comes, the prayer that Jesus offers is a model for us: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” That is our deepest desire—let us be spared this struggle, this confusion and this loss. He had hoped to bring people with open hands and hearts into a new life. And so he prayed, ‘Let me be spared this, I never wanted this, can you not let this pass from me?’
But Jesus’s prayer is qualified: “Father, if it is possible…” No, this time it wasn’t possible. God calls us into a world of limits, where free people are capable of good and ill. And because of that, God cannot be our escape hatch from the pain and struggles of our lives.
But then Jesus offers the heart of his prayer: “Yet not my will but yours be done.” That is finally what it comes to. The way through the long night is the way of accepting this moment as a place where God’s will can be found, and where God is present even if he seems hidden.
The other evening some of us were having dinner with our partner church Covenant Baptist Church in Anacostia, in the most struggling part of our city. During the evening their co pastors, Dennis and Christine Wiley, told the story of the courageous actions their church had taken through the years. They had called an African-American pastor to what was in the 1960s still a white Southern Baptist Church, and that led to major turmoil and many departures. Years later they called a woman, Christine, as co-pastor, something very rare in black churches. And recently, they led their church into blessing same-sex relationships—something unheard of in most African-American congregations.
Every time they took one of these actions, people left and finances plummeted, and every time they would just pick up from there, and keep preaching, teaching, and caring for their people. This last time had been really painful, with large losses of people and financial support, and it had to make a listener wonder, Why did you insist on pushing these causes at such a high cost? As if to anticipate the question, Pastor Chris explained, “It has taken me a lot of years of scripture study and prayer to get to the point where I can walk all the way up to the cross. It’s hard, really hard, but I’ve learned to do that. But the almost impossible thing is actually to get up on the cross. That’s what we’ve been learning how to do.”
That’s the hardest thing. To see how costly loving is going to be—what it will ask, what truth will have to be spoken, what risks it will call for—to walk all the way up to the cross and to go ahead and get up on it. For love.
What will we do for love? Sometimes it means unimaginable courage, as when Jesus decides to go all the way. Sometimes it means facing some issue we’ve been carrying and getting the help we need, or forgiving someone, or picking up a piece of the world’s pain and making it ours. And sometimes it is just staying in the concrete reality of the present, getting up on the cross—of our daily life—and working things through.
Some years ago the eighteen-year-old son of a close friend of mine fell from a roof and became almost entirely quadriplegic. When the crisis erupted, he and his wife could have given up, and as the months of hospital and rehab turned into years, their struggle must have been something like, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” But the cup has not passed from them in over ten years, as they continue to struggle to help their wonderful son have as much independence as he can.
It has been a hard journey of coping and it goes on. And they have gone through it with God, and are making it, a day at a time, they will tell you. They have not been defeated, they have won a victory. “Not my will but yours be done.” God’s will in the broken places is always the same—for life, love, healing.
In Gethsemane Jesus turned a corner. He accepted the failure and betrayal in his life and decided not to give up. Instead he would go all the way to the cross, he would trust God to lead him and go with him. On that cross he would take on the fear and rejection of a frightened, sinful world and give back God’s forgiveness and healing.
And in doing that, he claimed a great victory not just for himself, but for us. When we face our nights in Gethsemane we can know that Christ has been there. He not only went up to the cross, he got on it. He has faced the worst, and we can too. Because of him, we never have to go through any of it alone.
That’s what he did for love.