The crowds were divided about him. Some hung on every word he spoke; others challenged every sentence he uttered. Some had been healed by him; others felt threatened by him. Some worshiped him; others plotted to kill him. As Jesus entered Jerusalem the last week of his life, things were coming to head. He was in for a bumpy ride…and I’m not talking about the donkey on which he was mounted.
I recently finished teaching an online course called “Thinking Theologically in the 21st Century.” Each week, the participants were asked to describe their understanding of a different theological category—God, the Holy Spirit, human beings, the church. For the most part, people were on the same page with all the categories…
…except Jesus. That was the second week of class. After seeing how diverse class members’ understandings of Jesus were, I’m really glad we made it to Week 3.
Some people were certain that God sent Jesus to die for our sins; others weren’t sure they could believe in a God who ordained the torturous death of someone. For some, Jesus was God walking around in human disguise; for others, Jesus was a very good man who was more open to God than most. For some, Jesus is savior; for others, Jesus is a really great role model. There was little consensus among the group about who—exactly—Jesus was…except for this: everyone knew Jesus was important, not just to Christian faith, but to their own.
The same was true for the people in Jerusalem the day Jesus rode inon that donkey. While there was little consensus on who—precisely—Jesus was, nearly everyone knew he was important. While everyone had a different response to Jesus, everyone responded to him. And the responses of some led, eventually, to Jesus’ death.
Did Jesus have to die? It’s a question Jesus himself grapples with while praying in the garden.
It’s Thursday night, just four days after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when people had shouted “Hosanna!” and thrown their cloaks on the ground to honor Jesus. Since that day, Jesus had taught in the Temple, challenging the established structure of religion at every turn. In their turn, the religious leaders had challenged Jesus’ authority every chance they’d gotten.
By the time Jesus gathers with his disciples in the borrowed room for the Passover meal, whether or not he was sent by God to die, the likelihood of his death has become all but certain. It’s just not possible to challenge power structures without paying the price for it. In first century Judea, the price was crucifixion. Jesus knew it; the disciples knew it. There around the table, amid the remains of the Passover meal, everyone present had to know this wasn’t going to end well.
But—even in the face of dire circumstances—prayer always seems to help….so Jesus takes his disciples to the Mount of Olives–back to where the triumphal entry parade had begun just four days before—Jesus takes his disciples to the Mount of Olives to pray.
Here’s his prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Please, God, don’t let this happen. Please, I can do so much more work for the kin-dom if I stay! Please, God! Please, don’t let what I sense is going to happen happen. Please, God. Spare me. Please!
Have you ever been in a place like that? An uncomfortable place? A place you absolutely did not want to go? Have you ever asked God to remove the cup that’s before you? Have you ever asked God to swoop in and change the natural trajectory of events? Have you ever pleaded with God to pluck you from your current circumstances and place you somewhere else?
If you’ve ever been in that place, have you also been able to say with Jesus his next words: “Not my will, but yours be done”? The one thing you want most in life is withheld from you; the one thing that will make your life complete is not given; the one thing you feel it’s your destiny to do is taken away—Are you able to say, “Not my will, but yours be done?”
It couldn’t have been easy, giving up his own will to do God’s will. But that’s what Jesus does. And as soon as he does, an angel appears from heaven and gives him strength.
Now, what do you imagine Jesus does with that extra strength? Does he get up fully prepared to confront the religious authorities? Does he go rouse the sleeping disciples to teach them another lesson? Does he go to the Temple to preach another sermon?
No, when Jesus is given that extra portion of strength, Luke tells us that “in his anguish, he prayed more earnestly.” So, he’s been praying, he makes his peace with what he’s been praying about, he finds strength in the midst of his praying and he uses that newfound strength to pray some more? Why in the world does Jesus use his added strength to pray some more?
Listen to what he tells the disciples when he returns and finds them sleeping: “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”Pray, that you may not come into the time of trial. Maybe Jesus’ prayers become even more intense after giving himself over to God’s will because he doesn’t want to come into the time of trial. Maybe Jesus continues praying because he doesn’t want to back down from his resolve to do whatGod is calling him to do.
It’s not an easy thing to do, is it? When God calls us to happy things, to jobs or activities that evoke the best from us and allow us to use our gifts….that’s easy. Joyously easy. But when we’re called to do something that’s hard, something we hoped never to have to endure? Then it’s difficult, excruciatingto say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” And yet, if we are to follow Jesus’ example, that’s what we must do. If we are to fulfill God’s calling in our lives—even when that calling takes us to places we don’t want to go—we have to entrust ourselves to God’s care. As Jesus discovered in his prayer on the Mount of Olives—It is the only way.
There is one among us who has experienced the pain of being called to a place she never intended to go. I’ve invited Rochelle to tell her story through dance. Listen to the words of the song that she will share with us today . . .
Well, everybody’s got a story to tell
And everybody’s got a wound to be healed
I want to believe there’s beauty here
‘Cause oh, I get so tired of holding on
I can’t let go, I can’t move on
I want to believe there’s meaning here
How many times have you heard me cry out
“God please take this”?
How many times have you given me strength to
Just keep breathing?
Oh I need you
God, I need you now.
Standing on a road I didn’t plan
Wondering how I got to where I am
I’m trying to hear that still small voice
I’m trying to hear above the noise
Though I walk,
Though I walk through the shadows
And I, I am so afraid
Please stay, please stay right beside me
With every single step I take
Here are some final words from Rochelle: “How many times when the only grace God gives us is the ability to breathe. And sometimes, that is just enough. Just enough for that one day, that one moment. Then we look up and we are on this path . . . this path that WE did not intend to be on. But, our faith gives us the assurance that whether it’s Jesus walking through town towards an unplanned ending or it’s one of us struggling with life, we WILL make it. Jesus teaches us that God is always with us every step we take and that the Holy Spirit will fill us with the strength we need to go on.”
It happened for Jesus. It’s happened for Rochelle. It can happen for the rest of us, too.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
More from Rochelle: Dancing is when I experience God the most. I open my entire body and heart to the Holy Spirit. For the past two years, I have been hurting. Not physically but emotionally and spiritually. I helped the kids dance but that was different . . . I wasn’t as vulnerable. The song I selected for today is exactly how I have been feeling. The funny thing is, during this time of my “faith crisis” my faith has strangely been renewed. I have started Theology classes and have joined a writing group and most importantly, I have learned how to trust God a little bit more. During those times of your “faith crises” just hold on and breathe.
<!– 39 –>Jesus Prays on the Mount of Olives
39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him.40When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’*41Then 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.’ [[43Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.44In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]]*45When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief,46and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’