Here’s my sermon from Palm-Passion Sunday on Matthew 26.36-46, Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemane.
Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus and his friends and family, would’ve been poor.
Throughout that holy week, these hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would gather at table and temple and they would remember.
They would remember how they’d once suffered bondage under another empire, and how God had heard their outrage and sent someone to save them.
They would remember how God had promised them: “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Always.
They would remember how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God had delivered them from a Caesar called Pharaoh.
Passover was a political powder keg so every year Pontius Pilate would do his damnedest to keep Passover in the past tense.
Every year at the beginning of Passover week Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph, a shock-and-awe storm-trooping parade of horses and chariots and troops armed to the teeth and prisoners bound hand and foot and all of it led by imperial banners that dared as much as declared “Caesar is Lord.”
So when Jesus, at the beginning of that same week, rides into Jerusalem from the opposite direction there could be no mistaking what to expect next.
Deliverance from enemies. Defeat of them. Freedom. Exodus from slavery.
How could there be any mistaking, any confusing, when Jesus chooses to ride into town- on a donkey, exactly the way the prophet Zechariah had foretold that Israel’s King would return to them, triumphant and victorious, before he crushes their enemies.
There could be no mistaking what to expect next.
That’s why they shout ‘Hosanna! Save us!’ and wave palm branches as they do every year for the festival of Sukkoth, another holy day when they recalled their exodus from Egypt and prayed for God to send them a Messiah.
The only reason to shout Hosanna during Passover instead of Sukkoth is if you believed that the Messiah for whom you have prayed has arrived.
There could no mistaking what to expect next.
That’s why they welcome him with the words “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” the very words with which God’s People welcomed Solomon to the Temple.
The same words Israel sang upon Solomon’s enthronement. Solomon, David’s son. Solomon, the King.
There could be no mistake, no confusion, about what to expect next.
Not when he lights the match and tells his followers to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (i.e., absolutely nothing).
Not when he cracks a whip and turns over the Temple’s tables as though he’s dedicating it anew just as David’s son had done.
Not when he takes bread and wine and with them makes himself the New Moses.
And not when he gets up from the Exodus table, and leads his followers to, of all places, the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives was ground zero. The front line.
The Mount of Olives was the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised that God’s Messiah would initiate a victory of God’s People over the enemy that bound them.
From the parody of Pilate’s parade to the palm leaves, from the prophesied donkey to the shouts of hosanna, from Solomon’s welcome to the exodus table to the Mount of Olives every one in Jerusalem knew what to expect. There could be no mistaking all the signs.
They knew how God was going to use him.
He would be David to Rome’s Goliath.
He would face down a Pharaoh named Pilate, deliver the message that the Lord has heard the cries of his People and thus says he: “Let my People go.”
As though standing in the Red Sea bed, he would watch Pilate and Herod and all the rest swallowed up in and drowned by God’s righteousness. God’s justice.
They knew how God was going to use him.
And when he invites Peter, James, and John, the same three who’d gone with him to the top of Mt. Horeb where they beheld him transfigured into glory, to go with him to the top of the Mount of Olives they probably expect a similar sight.
To see him transfigured again.
To see him charged with God’s glory.
To see him armed with it.
Armed for the final and decisive battle.
The battle that every sign and scripture from that holy week has led them to expect.
There on the top of the Mount of Olives Jesus doesn’t look at all as he had on top of that other mountain.
Then, his face had shone like the sun. Now, it’s twisted into agony.
Then, they’d seen him dazzling white with splendor. Now, he’s distraught with doubt and dread.
Then, on top of that other mountain, Moses and the prophet Elijah had appeared on either side of him. Now, on this mountaintop, he’s alone, utterly, already forsaken, alone except for what the prophet Isaiah called the ‘cup of wrath’ that’s before him.
Then, God’s voice had torn through the sky with certainty “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Now, God doesn’t speak. At all.
So much so that Karl Barth says Jesus’ prayer in the Garden doesn’t even count as prayer because it’s not a dialogue with God. It’s a one way conversation. Because it’s not just that God doesn’t speak or answer back, God’s entirely absent from him, as dark and silent to him as the whale’s belly was to Jonah.
There, on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, and John with their half-drunk eyes- they see him transfigured again.
This would be Messiah who’d spoken bravely about carrying a cross transfigured to the point where he’s weak in the knees and terrified.
This would be Moses who’d stoically taken exodus bread and talked of his body being broken transfigured so that now he’s begging God to make it only a symbolic gesture.
This would be King who can probably still smell the hosanna palm leaves transfigured until he’s pleading for a Kingdom to come by any other means.
Peter and the sons of Zebedee, they see him transfigured a second time. From the Teacher who’d taught them to pray “Thy will be done…” to this slumped over shadow of his former self who knows the Father’s will not at all.
He’d boldly predicted his betrayal and crucifixion and now he’s telling them he’s “deeply grieved and agitated.”
Or, as the Greek inelegantly lays it out there, he tells them he’s “depressed and confused” such that what Jesus tells them in verse 38 is really “Remain here with me and stay awake, for I am so depressed I could die.”
And then he can only manage a few steps before he throws himself down on the ground, and the word Matthew uses there in verse 39, ekthembeistai, it means to shudder in horror, stricken and helpless.
He is, in every literal sense of the Greek, scared out of his mind. Or as the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus here, crying out frantically with great tears.
He is here exactly as Delacroix painted him: flat in the dirt, almost writhing, stretching out his arms, anguish in his eyes, his hands open in a desperate gesture of pleading.
God’s incarnate Son twisted into a golem of doubt and despair.
As though he’s gone from God’s own righteousness in the flesh to God’s rejection of it.
Peter, James, and John, the other disciples there on the Mount of Olives, any of the other pilgrims in Jerusalem that holy week- they’re not mistaken about what should come next. They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!”
They’re all correct about what to expect next. The donkey, the palm leaves, the Passover- it all points to it, they’re right. They’re all right to expect a battle.
A final, once for all, battle.
They’re just wrong about the enemy.
The enemy isn’t Pilate or Herod but the One Paul calls The Enemy.
The Pharaoh to whom we’re all- the entire human race- enslaved isn’t Caesar but Sin. Not your little s sins but Sin with a capital S, whom the New Testament calls the Ruler of this World, the Power behind all the Pharaohs and Pilates and Putins.
They’re all correct about what to expect, but their enemies are all propped up by a bigger one.
A battle is what the Gospel wants you to see in Gethsemane. The Gospel wants you to see God initiating a final confrontation with Satan, the Enemy, the Powers, Sin, Death with a capital D- the New Testament uses all those terms interchangeably, take your pick. But a battle is what you’re supposed to see.
Jesus says so himself: “Keep praying,” he tells the three disciples in the garden, “not to enter peiramos.”
The time of trial.
That’s not a generic word for any trial or hardship. That’s the New Testament’s word for the final apocalyptic battle between God and the Power of Sin.
The Gospels want you to see in the dark of Gethsemane the beginning of the battle anticipated by all those hosannas and palm branches.
But it’s not a battle that Jesus wages.
Jesus becomes its wages.
That is, the battle is waged in him.
From here on out, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, the will of God and the will of Satan coincide in him.
That’s why they’re both- God and Satan- absent from him here in the garden.
Here in the garden he can longer hear God the Father in prayer.
And here in the garden he lacks what even in the wilderness he had- the comfort of a clear and identifiable adversary.
Here in the garden, they’re both absent from him because they’re both set upon him. Their wills have converged on him. They’ve intersected in him.
He can’t see or hear them now because he’s the acted upon object of them.
He is forsaken- by both God and Satan.
They’ve taken their leave of him to work their wills upon him.
Just as we confess that in Christ’s flesh is the perfect union, both fully divine and fully human; here in the garden we also confess that in him there is another union, a hideous union, of wills:
The will of Sin to reject God forever by crucifying Jesus.
The will of God to reject Sin forever by crucifying Jesus.
That’s the shuddering revulsion that overwhelms Jesus in Gethsemane.
The cross isn’t a shock.
But this is: the realization breaking over him that the will of God will be done as the will of Satan is done.
In him, upon him,‘thy will be done’ will be done for both of them, God and Satan, on Earth as in Heaven and in Hell.
But that’s what Jesus freely assents to here in the garden.
He accepts that he will be the concrete and complete event of God’s rejection of Sin.
He agrees to be made vulnerable to the Power of Sin and God’s judgment of it.
He consents to absorb the worse that we can do, as slaves to Sin.
And he consents to absorb the worst that God can do- the worst that God will ever do.
As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “For our sake, God made him to be Sin who knew no sin.”
That’s what he accepts in getting up off the ground in Gethsemane.
And only he could accept it. Only he who was without sin- who was not enslaved by it- only he could freely choose, freely choose, to become it.
To be transfigured into Sin.
Thursday morning one of Aldersgate’s college students texted me a photo from the Washington Post along with a link to an article.
It was a photo of a little child, maybe 2 or 3 years old.
A boy or a girl, I don’t know- I couldn’t tell from the thick curly hair and red cheeks and a drab olive blanket covered up any pink or blue hued clue the child’s clothes might’ve given me.
From the child’s bright black eyes it looked like the child might be smiling, but you couldn’t be sure because a respirator was masking the child’s face where a smile might go.
Gloved grown-up hands rested on the child’s shoulders.
It wasn’t until I read the whole story that I realized those bright black eyes were empty.
“World Health Organization says Syria Chemical Attack Likely Involved Nerve Agent” ran the headline texted to me. And under the headline, under the hyperlink, the student texted me a question: “What do Christians say about this.”
And in the second line of text: a question mark.
Followed by an exclamation point.
What do Christians say?!
What do Christians say?
Looking into the vacant eyes of a nerve-gassed toddler?
What do we say?
Something trite about God’s love?
Maybe because we’ve turned God’s love into a cliche, maybe because we’ve so sentimentalized what the Church conveys in proclaiming “God loves you” but many people assume that Christians are naive about the dark reality of sin in the world.
But we’re a People who hang a torture device on an altar wall- we’re not naive. We’re not naive about the cruelties of which we’re capable. Nor are we naive about the dreadful seriousness God deals with those cruelties.
What do Christians say?
I don’t know that we have anything more to say than what we hear God say in Gethsemane.
The dread, final, righteous, wrath-filled “No” God speaks to Sin.
The nevertheless “Yes” God speaks to his enslaved sinful creatures.
The “Yes” God in Christ speaks to drinking the cup of wrath to its last drops.
That word ‘wrath’ gets confused in Church.
Sure, we’re all sinners in the hands of a wrathful God but scripture doesn’t mean it the way you hear it. God’s wrath doesn’t mean God is petulant and petty, raging at sinful creatures like you and me, reacting to our every infraction.
God, by definition, doesn’t react.
God’s wrath means that God never changes, that in Jesus Christ God has always been determined to reject the Power of Sin that binds his creatures as slaves.
So much so that God is dead set, literally over his dead body, dead set on killing it.
To set his people free from that Pharaoh. Once. For all.
St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
Here in Gethsemane, Christ empties himself even of that.
He empties himself completely, pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus.
There’s nothing left of his humanity.
He’s an empty vessel; so that, when he drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with our sinfulness.
From Gethsemane to Golgotha, that’s all there is of him.
He drinks the cup until he’s filled and running over.
You see, Jesus isn’t just a stand-in for a sinner like you or me. He isn’t just a substitute for another. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.
It isn’t that Jesus dies an innocent among thieves. He dies as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.
Jesus swallows all of it. Drinks all of it down and, in doing so, draws into himself the full force of humanity’s hatred for God.
He becomes our hatred for God.
He becomes our evil.
He becomes all of our injustice.
He becomes Sin.
So that upon the Cross he does not epitomize or announce the Kingdom of God in any way.
He is the concentrated reality of everything that stands against it.
He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.
He is every Caesar and every Judas.
Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror, and every chemical bomb.
All our greed. All our violence.
He is every ungodly act and every ungodly person.
He becomes all of it.
He becomes Sin.
So that God can forsake it.
For our sake.