They came to a place called Gethsemane. ‘Stay here’, said Jesus to the disciples, ‘while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John with him, and became quite overcome and deeply distressed. ‘ “My soul is disturbed within me”, he said, ‘right to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch.’ He went a little further, and fell on the ground and prayed that, if possible, the moment might pass from him. ‘Abba, father,’ he said, ‘all things are possible for you! Take this cup away from me! But – not what I want, but what you want.’ He returned and found them sleeping. ‘Are you asleep, Simon?’ he said to Peter. ‘Couldn’t you keep watch for a single hour? Watch and pray, so that you won’t come into the time of trouble. The spirit is eager, but the body is weak.’ Once more he went off and prayed, saying the same words. And again, when he returned, he found them asleep, because their eyes were very heavy. They had no words to answer him. But the third time he came, he said to them, ‘All right – sleep as much as you like now. Have a good rest. The job is done, the time has come – and look! The son of man is betrayed into the clutches of sinners. Get up, let’s be on our way. Here comes the man who’s going to betray me.’ At once, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a crowd, with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the legal experts, and the elders. The betrayer had given them a coded sign: ‘The one I kiss – that’s him! Seize him and take him away safely.’ He came up to Jesus at once. ‘Rabbi!’ he said, and kissed him. The crowd laid hands on him and seized him. One of the bystanders drew a sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus spoke to them. ‘Anyone would think’, he said, ‘you’d come after a brigand! Fancy needing swords and clubs to arrest me! Day after day I’ve been teaching in the Temple, under your noses, and you never laid a finger on me. But the scriptures must be fulfilled.’ Then they all abandoned him and ran away. A young man had followed him, wearing only a linen tunic over his otherwise naked body. They seized him, and he left the tunic and ran away naked.
Two generations ago, J. B. Phillips (best known for his translation of the New Testament) published a little book called Your God Is Too Small. It was a moving appeal for ordinary Christians to lift up their eyes and imaginations, and to realize that God is not simply a therapist, concerned with the humdrum, day-to-day matters of their personal lives and problems, but is the glorious sovereign of heaven and earth. We all need that kind of reminder on a regular basis.
But there is, perhaps, a more subtle point which needs to be made as well. When people start to get the point about the sovereignty, majesty and glory of the one true God, it is often difficult for them at the same time to glimpse and grasp the real divine greatness which the gospel stories reveal. But if we don’t get this point, as well as the larger one, we will fall back once more into the mistake of James and John, celebrating the greatness of God and hoping that some of that greatness will rub off on us in the usual, worldly sense.
All along in Mark’s book we have seen that Jesus is described as the one who, however surprisingly, is fulfilling the promises that Israel’s God will come back to his people at last, rescuing them and filling the world with his glory. Think back to the opening scene. Here is the preparatory messenger, here is the voice in the wilderness, and now here is the Coming One: my son, my beloved one, the one who makes me glad. Somehow, already, we have to get our heads around what Mark is saying: God promised that he would come back, but the one who’s come is Jesus, and Jesus is hailed by God himself as his beloved son.
Mark offers no theory about how this makes sense. The earliest Christians didn’t theorize: they worshipped. They remained firmly monotheistic: Jesus wasn’t a ‘second god’ added to the one they’d already got. But, somehow, they found that worshipping Jesus and worshipping the one whom Jesus called ‘father’ went together.
We might, as I say, just about be getting our heads and our hearts around this. But the scene we now witness strains this picture in a new way. It offers a whole new dimension of the word ‘God’ itself. Gethsemane stands at the heart of the whole early Christian picture of who God is, and hence of who we ourselves (bearing God’s image) are meant to be. And at the heart of Gethsemane there stands the unforgettable prayer that shows what love really means, the love that passes between father and son, the love that reaches out to this day into the dark places of the world: ‘Abba, father,’ he said, ‘all things are possible for you! Take this cup away from me! But – not what I want, but what you want.’
Not long ago, I heard a church leader declare that with this passage we actually see ‘conflict’ within the Trinity itself. (He was using this idea to justify continuing conflict within the church.) But Gethsemane is not about conflict. It is about love. This is the full, honest interchange of love in which the son lays before the father the true condition of his God-reflecting humanity, caught now in the necessary work of bearing the utter pain and sorrow of the world.
But, people might say, doesn’t this prayer show that Jesus and his father are, as it were, on opposite sides of the equation? Doesn’t it appear that Jesus wants to be released from his obligation, but knows that the father wills it anyway?
Not so fast. What Jesus’ prayer shows is the proper, right, natural reaction of any human being, and particularly the human being who completely reflected the life-giving God, to the dark forces of corruption and death. It shows that as Jesus went to the cross he was not doing it out of a distorted death-wish, a kind of crazy suicide mission. He continued, as one would expect from the life-restoring son of the life-giving father, to resist death with every fibre of his being. His very prayer to be rescued from it displays not a resistance to the father’s will, but a resistance to the forces of evil which result in death. There is no conflict here; only the deepest affirmation of the father’s will in all its aspects.
And now we ask again: is your God this big? Big enough to come and take on the forces of evil and death by dying under their weight and power? There’s a hymn which has a verse beginning, ‘Jesus is Lord! Yet from his throne eternal, in flesh he came to die in shame on Calvary’s tree.’ There is one word there that is wrong. It shouldn’t be ‘yet’. It should be ‘so’. Jesus is Lord, and so, and therefore, he came into the world, came to his own people, came to the place of fear and horror and shame and guilt and evil and darkness and death itself. He came out of love, love for the father, love for the world. That is what Mark’s story is telling us. All the theologians down the centuries have produced formulae to explain this. But it’s all here, in a nutshell, within this astonishing story.
And of course the disciples didn’t get it. First they fall asleep. Then they make a half-baked attempt to defend Jesus. And then – many people think this is Mark’s own signature, a shocking and shaming personal memory – one young man is grabbed by the tunic, so leaves the tunic and runs away naked. That says it all. Humankind, naked and ashamed in the garden, while the snake closes in for the kill. The son of man has arrived at the place where the problem began, to take its full force upon himself.
Lord Jesus, King and Master, help us to watch with you, to stay with you, to learn from your anguish the lessons of love.