…“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want…”
I will never forget a story shared to me by Bill Mallard, one of my theology professors at Emory. He recalled a story of visiting a friend whose husband had died way too early in a tragic situation. As the people were at the house grieving, a friend of the husband asked Mallard in the presence of the wife, “Bill, where is God in all this?” Bill Mallard shared how he looked back with tears in his eyes and he replied, “God is here. And he is weeping with us.”
That’s not always how we think of God. We get that God is with us, but the weeping part has never been a part of our understanding.
N.T. Wright is the former Bishop of Durham and now Professor at the University of St. Andrews. When students would come to him and say, “I won’t be attending chapel, I don’t believe in God,” his reply was, “Which God is it you don’t believe in?” This would cause them a little hesitation, then they would begin to describe something like this, “I don’t believe in a God up in the sky looking down, a God who doesn’t care about humanity and suffering, a God who is removed from the world.” N.T. Wright’s response was, “I don’t believe in that God either!”
On this Palm Sunday and as we begin Holy Week, we are reminded of the last week of Jesus’ life. During this week, we see betrayal, suffering, and death. The death of Jesus at the hands of those in power. This was always God’s plan, but it doesn’t make it any easier for Jesus. You see, we seem to forget that Jesus was a man (yes, he was God in the flesh, but let us never forget that he was a man) – human flesh and blood just like us – and he suffered tremendously.
At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemene, Tom Long points out that “we see the collision of wills and desires at work”. This happens to us all the time in our Moments in the Wilderness. The collision is between the divine will and the human will. There are times when we can clearly draw lines of distinction between divine and human wills, but when times are difficult and suffering and grief are present, the lines are not as clear. We’ve all dealt with this – when something has happened to us – a broken relationship, divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of anything of value or importance – we struggle with the why. That is normal and God doesn’t have a problem with that at all. The hard part is when we move beyond the grief work and try to figure out the why. When we struggle to answer the why of the conflict between the human and divine wills, we find confusion and a lack of clarity. This causes many of us to believe God is not with us, God doesn’t care, or God somehow caused and we just have to accept it.
In the Garden of Gethsemene, we see Jesus grappling with the same thing. The tension between the divine will and the human will. Trust me; it’s not easy to see God and believe and understand when you are in the midst of great suffering. Here we see Jesus struggling in his soul. He is profoundly anguished. Jesus knows his life is in peril. He knows what is coming and he doesn’t face it with stoic resolve. He is emotional, full of sorrow, and distressed. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 42 and 43, his “soul is cast down” and he is “deeply grieved even to the point of death.”
In this moment of trouble, we have been taught that Jesus says, “Alright God, I know what I’ve got to do, give me the strength.” In almost every church Sunday school or sanctuary stained glass is the image of Jesus kneeling in the garden with his back straight, his eyes toward heaven, and a light beaming down. Funny thing is that the passage in Matthew 26 says that Jesus “threw himself down on the ground and prayed.” Jesus reveals deep pathos and humanity by asking God to provide a way out, an easier road that his life may be spared.
Jesus can relate to our grief and suffering. Not only because he has felt suffering and stared into it with the same questions we have, but because he also knows what if feels like to go through it alone. I think it is ironic that he asks his friends to stay up with him to pray. They cannot. This passage of waking them up and them falling back asleep communicates something we all know; we go through suffering alone. Jesus experienced this. Thomas Merton writes, “When a man [sic] suffers, he is most alone. Therefore, it is in suffering that we are most tested as persons. How can we face the awful interior questioning? What shall we answer when we come to be examined by pain? Without God, we are no longer persons. We lose our humanity and our dignity.” We must suffer with faith, knowing God is with us – knowing God weeps with us.
Let us look deeper into the life of Christ and say, “The God I believe in is not some God living in the sky who doesn’t know me or my struggles.” No, we serve a God who is revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus who died for us -yes; but Jesus who has also suffered. Jesus is acquainted with our griefs and our sorrows when we are in our moments of wilderness.