Thank God Jesus trusted in the power of prayer.
It was nighttime…and in the garden shadows, the trees and the bushes took on wild, lively shapes. At some point, Jesus left his dearest friends behind, nagged by some inkling they would fall asleep. Alone and deeply troubled, Jesus went off by himself to pray. The same way he prayed throughout his lifetime. Prayers lifted up to the same God who sent him into the world. The same God who called him into ministry. The same God who set a path in front of Jesus and asked Jesus to follow faithfully, hopefully, obediently.
Falling to his knees in the garden, Jesus opened his hands and his heart. The tension of the moment caused him to sweat as if he was an athlete waiting for the signal to begin the race. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Knowing something about the pain and the shame and the danger he would soon face, Jesus asked God if there was another way. When you and I feel threatened, we have asked the same questions, “God, why me? Why can’t it be someone else? What did I do to deserve this?”
However, Jesus’ prayer did not end there. Instead, it ended this way…“yet, not my will but yours be done.” From the moment he was baptized in the Jordan River, Jesus lived according to the will of God. And now with his life on the line, the prayer was no different. It’s not what I want, God, it’s what you want.”
Prayer means listening for God’s will and trusting what God has in store for our lives. And prayer means moving forward with the assurance that God loves us enough to hold our hands and set our course and have our backs. As much as anything else Jesus did in his lifetime, Jesus modeled prayer. And in the end, prayer is what gave Jesus strength in the garden to face what was about to come…
Thank God Jesus knew who he was.
For a while in the Gospels, Jesus had been prophesying that in his suffering and death he would be handed over to the Gentiles. And that time had come. Betrayed by Judas with a kiss in the garden, denied by Peter who claimed not to even know him, and beaten by Roman soldiers for no apparent reason, Jesus now stood before Pilate.
Pilate’s main objective was to keep the peace. He was the governor of Rome and his mission was to consolidate and maintain power on behalf of the Roman Empire. Trying to figure out who Jesus was or what Jesus was trying to do was merely a means to this end. Likewise, whether Jesus was innocent or guilty mattered little to Pilate. As a man of great power and importance, Pilate had plenty of other things to think about.
What Pilate could not have anticipated was the seeming indifference with which Jesus answered his questions. “Are you the King of the Jews?”
“Eh…if you say so,” was the reply. It took only that one answer for Pilate to make up his mind.
I suppose Pilate didn’t want to be bothered anymore. Or maybe he saw in Jesus a man who refused to be put in a box. A man who would not be defined by those around him. And Pilate realized he could spend precious hours trying to pin Jesus down and never get anywhere.
From the beginning, the God who birthed Jesus into the world refused to put Jesus Christ into a box. Was Jesus the Messiah? God sent him to save God’s people. Was Jesus a healer? Jesus came to give life and hope to those who were broken in mind and body and spirit. Was Jesus a teacher? He came ready to tell stories that demonstrated God’s love and grace. Was Jesus a prophet? He came to hold people in power accountable and to turn systems of domination upside down so the last would be first and the first would be last.
It didn’t matter who was asking the questions…Pilate or anyone else on earth. Even in his moment of trial with his fate hanging in the balance, Jesus knew God was the only one who defined him. Was Jesus a king, a Messiah, a healer, a prophet, a Savior? Yes he was. And more. Likewise you and I are more than the world says we are. Because God defines us…in the name of Jesus.
Thank God Jesus forgave.
The crowd in Pilate’s courtyard chose Barabbas, a man who was both murderer and insurrectionist, to be set free over Jesus, and the sentence for Jesus was now final…crucifixion. After Simon of Cyrene carried the wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus laboring behind, the entourage finally reached Golgotha. The place known as “the Skull.” And on that hill, in a high and visible place where everyone nearby could see, they hung Jesus on the cross.
Jesus could have been angry, defiantly maintaining his innocence over the blatant miscarriage of justice. He could have been bitter, wondering where and why his friends disappeared at the time he needed them the most. He could have been incredulous. Trying to figure out how it all came to this and trying to comprehend how his death had suddenly become inevitable. Or he could have been complacent, reduced to silence and resigned to his own demise.
Yet as he hung on the cross, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were neither angry nor bitter. They were neither incredulous nor complacent. The first words? “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Forgive them, Jesus said. Forgive the Roman soldiers and the Jewish authorities. Forgive the disciples and the many other followers. Forgive those who claimed to be friends and those on record as being enemies.
No matter how much hurt people caused Jesus. No matter how short they fell of Jesus’ expectations. Despite the fact they shrunk away when they could have stepped up, washed their hands when they could have intervened, denied when they could have acknowledged. The sins, the mistakes, the tragic errors compounded along the way. In spite of the fact that people around him did not know what they were doing, Jesus spoke from the cross and offered forgiveness.
And when you and I come to the hour of our deaths, Jesus promises we too will be forgiven. Yes, we too will be granted a place in paradise…with Jesus by our side.
Thank God Jesus opened the way to God’s presence.
The soldiers cast lots for his clothing. The crowd stood near the foot of the cross and watched in morbid curiosity. Voices popped up periodically, many of them talking trash. Why can’t you save yourself…you were so good at saving everyone else!
And then it was noon and the land grew dark until three in the afternoon. At which point the curtain of the temple tore in two pieces. Fascinating. The curtain of the temple tore in two pieces because God was no longer satisfied being confined behind the temple walls. Instead of being shrouded in mystery and secret, God was coming out of the temple and into the world to make God’s ways known. Maybe.
Or the curtain of the temple was torn in two pieces because Jesus was about to enter into God’s presence. Jesus was about to make his way through the curtain that separated earth and heaven so he could dwell with God for all of eternity. Possibly.
Or the curtain of the temple was torn in two pieces as a sign of welcome. When he died on the cross, Jesus walked through the open curtain of the temple and paused for a moment. Then he turned around and looked back and beckoned to all God’s people. Come, for this is the way. I’m showing each of you and all of you. I’m leading you and inviting you to walk through this curtain. Come and follow me and find your own way to God.
We who claim to be Christians have been walking through that curtain ever since. Finding our way into God’s presence because Jesus wants nothing more than for you and me to follow in his footsteps. Walking into God’s arms and God’s company this day and every day and for all eternity.
So we give thanks and praise for the gift of Jesus Christ who saves us and redeems us and leads us home…Amen.