Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 27th of Second Month, 2022
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Luke 22:39-42,45-46
39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.
45 When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
Good morning, Friends!
Today it is good to be back in the meetinghouse for blended worship, with some of you here and some of you on Zoom, as it was until about six weeks ago. I am thankful that our local COVID numbers have declined considerably over the last couple of weeks. For the time being, as everyone here can observe, we are continuing our previous practices regarding mask-wearing and other precautions, and will be evaluating those in light of changing conditions and updated guidance.
But today is a difficult day to preach, Friends. With the grim news from Ukraine, it is hard to know where my focus should be. These reports are so distressing, and I run the risk of giving them so much attention that I have little room for reflection. On Friday, I e-mailed out to most of you a link to a blog post from Johan Maurer, a public Friend, former missionary in Russia, and trusted observer of public life. If you didn’t take the time to read it, it’s worth the ten minutes or so that it takes. Among other wisdom, the first thing that Johan counsels is:
Put prayer first. Let news feeds and social interactions be filtered through prayer. Let's try not to take in more than can fit through that filter.
“Put prayer first” is good counsel just about any time, I think, but I find it especially useful for this period we are in. A heart prepared in prayer is a heart less likely to be knocked off center by the information firehose of the Internet. A heart prepared in prayer is a heart that reaches towards God, acknowledging God’s presence, seeking God’s guidance, direction, and power.
And, actually, preparation in prayer is part of what today’s passage is about. Numerous places in Luke’s Gospel, we read that Jesus withdrew from public view to pray. This appears to have been a regular practice that he needed, in order to sustain his ministry. And it’s little wonder that he needed to pray; if I need it just to stay on an even keel when I’m scrolling through social media, how much more Jesus must have needed it when he was casting out demons, healing the sick, and proclaiming the Reign of God in the face of opposition.
The last time I spoke, we looked at some of God’s dealings with Abram, in Genesis 15. Remember that Abram is the one whom God chose to begin a new nation, a people chosen to bless all the peoples of the earth, the people who would become Israel. In that chapter, we saw God making a covenant with Abram that would formalize God’s relationship with Abram and all his descendants. We considered a few key words that undergird this relationship: covenant (Heb. berit) was one; lovingkindness, or covenant love (chesed), was another; and faithfulness (‘emunah) was the third. Today I want to consider faithfulness a little more, and how we see faithfulness in Jesus’ life and work.
First, we might think about Jesus’ faithfulness to mission: remember that he defines his mission in chapter four of Luke’s Gospel, when he stands in the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from the scroll of Isaiah:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
For the three years of his ministry, Jesus embodies this good-news-bringing, release-proclaiming, sight-restoring, freedom-giving mission. With the Spirit of the Lord upon him, he brings good news of the Reign of God to a people sorely oppressed, both by empire and a religious life that often created more burdens for people than it relieved.
And lest we forget, this mission is a nonviolent mission: there were plenty of others in Jesus’ day and age who sought release for captives and freedom for the oppressed through violence. Jesus could easily have been mistaken for a Zealot, or a member of any one of a number of other rebel groups. In fact, returning to Luke 22, in the very next passage after the one we’ve heard this morning, Jesus and his sleepy followers are confronted by Judas, the betrayer, and the Temple officials with their armed guards. Some of the disciples seem to think, “well, if there were ever a time to fight, it must be now,” and one of them takes a sword and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Jesus immediately puts a stop to this, and heals the wound of the man who has been hurt. Even in this moment of extremity, Jesus is faithful to God’s call to bring in a new way of being; a way of being established not on violence or coercion, but on healing and love; a way of being that extends that love even to enemies.
Second, we can note Jesus’ faithfulness to his friends. Today’s passage is another one of the many that paints the disciples in a not-very-flattering light. Jesus gives them what seems to be a simple assignment: stay here, and “pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (v40). Of course, his followers flub that one, for he finds them asleep when he returns (And if you're thinking, “Shouldn't there be more? Didn't he do this multiple times?”, that's in Mark’s & Matthew’s renditions of the story. Luke abbreviates it, with no repetitions). He finds them asleep, and while he reproves them for their inattention, he does not walk away from them. You might think he would have had enough, by now—they are very close to the decisive moment that he has been telling them about for days, and weeks, and months. If the disciples can’t even stay awake and pray at this point, what use are they to Jesus? But Jesus’ relationships with his friends are not based on calculations of utility; they are based upon covenant love, God’s steadfast lovingkindness. Recall Abram’s relationship with God; recall Abram’s many questions and complaints, and how God remained in faithful relationship with him, and with so many generations following Him. Jesus forged the same kind of relationship with his friends.
Now, about that instruction that Jesus gives to his followers: he bids them “pray that you may not come to the time of trial”; it seems to me that this is essentially the same prayer that he is shortly going to pray for himself. He's not really asking them to pray something that much different. Rather than giving them a simple assignment, “ask God that you’ll be safe,” he might be inviting them to something more: he might be inviting them also to struggle with what God’s will is in this situation, not just for themselves, but also for him. Perhaps he is inviting them into covenant solidarity with him. And even when they prove not to be up to that task, he remains faithful to them.
Now, in Jesus’ prayer, I think we see a third aspect of his faithfulness: his faithfulness to the will of God, to his Abba, to the one he calls Father. Earlier I noted that Luke tells us more than once of Jesus’ habits of prayer. However, here is one of just a few places in the Gospel where we are actually told what it was that Jesus prayed—the words that he spoke in private to God. There could be no more intimate moment; and to be clear, it is a moment of struggle. The only other time that we see Jesus in this kind of anguish is on the cross. Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus seem to falter, and ask that his hour—the event that he has long known is coming—might pass away and leave him untouched. As he grapples with his destiny, prostrate in prayer, his humanity is in full view.
Still, for as charged as this moment is, his prayer is very brief: ““Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And it comes down to one word, in English: “yet.” That “yet” is the fulcrum of faithfulness, the balancing point; that “yet” shows us the heart of Jesus’ struggle: putting aside his own will and yielding to what God wills.
And while Jesus was the first to utter this prayer, he was certainly not the last. Jesus had the first place in engaging in this struggle in this way, but so many more have come after him: the mothers and fathers of the church, in the decades that followed; Francis of Assisi, and Clare of Assisi; George Fox and Margaret Fell; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Jesus’ prayer at the Mount of Olives sets the pattern of faithfulness for any disciple: putting aside what we will and yielding to what God wills. “Yet.”
One other thing I want to note today about this passage, really just three more words in English: when Jesus returns to his followers, Luke tells us that he “found them sleeping because of grief” (v45). “Because of grief.” It is puzzling to me, at least in the immediate context of chap. 22, why this particular emotion shows up at this point—why grief? Jesus hasn’t left them, yet; are they finally yielding to what he has been telling them about his fate? Have his words about his body and blood at the Passover supper driven things home in a new way? Has there been a kind of cumulative effect of the last few tumultuous days in Jerusalem? It may be a bit hard to credit that the disciples have fully figured things out at this point. Yet clearly, they are exhausted, emotionally perhaps, and physically.
I think of times in my own life when I have fallen asleep in the face of an unbearable situation—sometimes literally asleep, and other times spiritually or emotionally asleep. When I was in college I could sleep through an exam if I knew I wasn't going to do well. I can't do that anymore… and thank heavens, I don't have to take exams anymore! But I could disconnect emotionally to the extent that I could just sleep through something I didn't want to do. As physical sleep becomes more difficult as an older adult, I still often fall asleep spiritually or emotionally. So here, I'm willing to extend sympathy to the disciples.
Today we hear many calls from activists in the streets to “stay woke” to whatever it is that is the concern of the moment. All of these concerns are important concerns; the one that we have heard, perhaps most directly and with the most charge in the last couple of years, is the call from the Black Lives Matter movement. Any kind of a call to stay awake requires a willingness to remain open and aware of suffering, and the possibility of joining in that suffering. Jesus, of course, faces this head-on in his prayer encounter there on the Mount of Olives.
But how do we, today, hear the call of faithfulness in this time of acute suffering for the people of Ukraine? How do we stay awake in the face of that suffering? And as we think of the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia, let’s not also forget the people of Yemen, and the people of the Horn of Africa—Ethiopia, Tigray, Eritrea—both of which regions have experienced armed conflict as intense as that in Ukraine, but which gets our attention much less—and to which, perhaps, we have fallen asleep.
Are we unable to hear call of faithfulness, weighed down as we are with grief and sorrow already? Or have we already yielded to the temptations of apathy and futility, so that, hearing the call, we are yet unwilling to heed it?
Jesus’ model of faithfulness calls us to stay awake and to pray; to remain open and aware of the suffering of the world; and in the fulcrum of “yet,” to seek to know what God’s will is for us, that God’s will might be done in us; that in some small way, suffering might be alleviated, the grieving might be comforted, the oppressed go free, and the faithfulness of God might be witnessed to by our faithfulness.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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