James was killed with a sword early in the Book of Acts. We hear a lot about Peter and John, but little about their constant companion, yet there he was at the raising of Jairus’s daughter, at the Transfiguration and now in the Garden he was one of the favored three; allowed to draw most closely to Jesus during his earthly life. Three points where Jesus showed his Godly power, his Godly glory and his human vulnerability were three points available only to his most intimate companions. The remaining eight were told to “sit here while I pray.”
The experience of Gethsemane is one that we can barely contemplate. We tend to underestimate it because Jesus, the God-Man, can withstand anything, can’t he? But this was Jesus at his most human. Was he afraid? I’m sure he was. He was well aware of what he was about to face. Not just the humiliation, the illegal trial, the spitting, the slapping, the punching, the scourging, the tearing of his beard, the carrying of the heavy cross, the nails, the hanging, the thirst; but more than that, the wrath of God, the whole anger of His own father on every soul that had sinned or would ever sin. Afraid? Why would he not be? He would be bearing it not with all the resources of the Godhead, but alone at his most human. The blessed communion of Father and Son was wrenched apart.
No wonder he prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. How would you react? How would I?
Is there any way I can escape from this. Of course, he could still escape. He knew Judas was coming to betray him. He could slip away. Israel is a small country. The border is not far. He wouldn’t even need to tell his disciples; those that were not asleep were some way back. He’d slipped through crowds wishing to kill him before; it was easy enough for him.
Was he tempted with thoughts like these? There was no certainty that he would go through with it. It wasn’t inevitable. Escape was an option.
He goes back to Peter, James and John and finds them sleeping.
“Could you not keep watch with me one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
Jesus knew what it was to be tempted by Satan. After his baptism he had spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and in his weakened state Satan had tempted him with food and possessions and power. What temptations would Satan have put before the disciples? These were the inner three; the special ones privy to Jesus’ most personal moments. But they were also the ones who came to Jesus and asked to sit one on his right and one on his left; and the one who said to Jesus, “should all desert you I will stand by you.”. They could be tempted by pride and ambition. As we know from what happened later, they could be tempted to take the cowardly way out.
Jesus returns to pray. “If it is possible take this cup from me.” The metaphor of a cup would have been a familiar one to Jesus; it was used by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk and Zechariah and signified the wrath of God. Others have drawn parallels with Socrates drinking his cup of Hemlock. There is a difference, though. Socrates had no choice, he was condemned to death. Jesus could have declined to drink. His death had to be a voluntary one. It has been fashionable lately to think of God as a bloody tyrant who sacrificed his own son. Wilfred Owens’s poem pictured him as such.
‘But Abram would not so, and slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.’
But it was not so. Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “Jesus… who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
He chose the cross, knowing what it would cost. In the garden he endured the anticipation of it. How did he manage? He prayed.
The three witnesses were able to convey how he prayed and how we can learn from him.
1] Humbly. He fell to the ground. If ever anyone could dare to be equal with God it was Jesus, yet he prostrated himself. What is our attitude in prayer? Bodily posture may help us to remember who we are before Him.
2] Aloud. I know he hears our innermost thoughts, but silent prayer leads to daydreaming, don’t you find?
3] Focused on God’s love. He prays not to ‘Almighty God, Creator and Controller of the Universe, redeemer of Mankind who will one day come and wake the dead’ or some such formula that distances God from us, but to ‘Abba’ the first word a baby utters in the presence of a parent, a word so full of love and intimacy.
4] Focused on God’s power, “Everything is possible for you.”
5] Focused on God’s will. “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
6] Finally, he persevered in prayer. Despite the sleep of his disciples, he kept returning to his prayer.
We can face any hardship, suffer any disgrace, endure any torture if we take it to the Lord in prayer.
Joseph Medlicott Scriven wrote only one poem in his life. He was due to be married, but his fiancé drowned on the evening before the marriage. His mother, lying on a bed of sickness was distraught. To comfort her he wrote this poem.
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit! O what needless pain we bear!
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.