Thursday night. Midnight.
The week has been full of finalities. The final visit to the temple. The final sermon. The final supper. And now, the most emotional hour of the week, the final prayer.
The garden is in shadows. The olive trees are knotted and gnarled. They twist five or six feet into the sky. Roots sprawl from trunks and claw deeply into the rocky soil.
The spring moon casts the garden in silver. Constellations sparkle against the black velvet of the night sky. Fleets of clouds float. A breeze cools. Insects sings. Leaves stir.
That’s him. Jesus in the grove. On the ground. The young man. The one in the sweat-coated garment. Kneeling. Imploring. His hair is plastered to his wet forehead. He agonizes.
A sound is heard in the trees. Snoring. Jesus looks across the garden at the dearest friends he has–they are asleep. They lean against the broad trunks and slumber. His yearnings don’t stir them. His distress doesn’t move them. They are tired.
He stands and walks through the shadowed trees and squats before them. “Please,” he asks, “please just stay awake with me.”
The Lord of the universe doesn’t want to be alone.
He can understand their weariness, though. He has given them more in the last few hours than they could possibly grasp. Never had the apostles known Jesus to talk so much. Never had they seen him speak with such urgency. His words were ferverent, fiery.
Thursday night…a few hours earlier.
It’s nearly midnight when they leave the upper room and descend through the streets of the city. They pass the Lower Pool and exit the Fountain Gate and walk out of Jerusalem. The roads are lined with the fires and tents of Passover pilgrims. Most are asleep, heavied with the evening meal. Those still awake think little of the band of men walking through the chalky road.
They pass through the valley and ascend the path which will take them to Gethsemane. The road is steep so they stop to rest. Somewhere within the city walls the twelfth apostle darts down a street. His feet has been washed by the man he will betray. His heart has been claimed by the Evil One he has heard. He runs to find Caiaphas.
The final encounter of the battle has begun.
As Jesus looks at the city of Jerusalem, he sees what the disciples can’t. It is here, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that the battle will end. He sees the staging of Satan. He sees the dashing of the demons. He sees the Evil One preparing for the final encounter. The enemy lurks as a spectre over the hour. Satan, the host of hatred, has seized the heart of Judas and whispered in the ear of Caiaphas. Satan, the master of death, has opened the caverns and prepared to recieve the source of light.
Hell is breaking loose.
History records it as a battle of the Jews against Jesus. It wasn’t. It was a battle of God against Satan.
And Jesus knew it. He knew that before the war was over, he would be taken captive. He knew that before victory would come defeat. He knew that before the throne would come the cup. He knew that before the light of Sunday would come the blackness of Friday.
And he is afraid.
He turns and begins the final ascent to the garden. When he reaches the entry he stops and turns his eyes toward his circle of friends. It will be the last time he sees them before they abandon him. He knows what they will do when the soldiers come. He knows their betrayal is only minutes away.
But he doesn’t accuse. He doesn’t lecture. Instead, he prays. His last moments with his disciples are in prayer. And the words he speaks are as eternal as the stars which hear them.
Imagine, for a moment, yourself in this situation. Your final hour with a son about to be sent overseas. Your last moments with your dying spouse. One last visit with your parents. What do you say? What do you do? What words do you choose?
It’s worth noting that Jesus chose prayer. He chose to pray for us. “I pray for these men. But I am also praying for all people who will believe in me because of the teaching of these men. Father, I pray that all people who believe in me can be one…I pray that these people can also be one in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.”
You need to note that in this final prayer, Jesus prayed for you. You need to underline in red and highlight in yellow his love: “I am also praying for all people who will believe in me because of the teaching.” That is you. As Jesus stepped into the garden, you were in his prayers. As Jesus looked into heaven, you were in his vision. As Jesus dreamed of the day when we will be where he is, he saw you there.
His final prayer was about you. His final pain was for you. His final passion was you.
He then turns, steps into the garden, and invites Peter, James and John to come. He tells them his soul is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” and begins to pray.
Never has he felt so alone. What must be done, only he can do. An angel can’t do it. No angel has the power to break open hell’s gate. A man can’t do it. No man has the purity to destroy sin’s claim. No force on earth can face the force of evil and win–except God.
“The spirit si willing, but the flesh is weak,” Jesus confesses.
His humanity begged to be delivered from what his divinity could see. Jesus, the carpenter, implores. Jesus, the man, peers into the dark pit and begs, “Can’t there be another way?”
Did he know the answer before he asked the question? Did his human heart hope his heavenly father had found another way? We don’t know. But we do know he asked to get out. We do know he begged for an exit. We do know there was a time when if he could have, he would have turned his back on the whole mess and gone away.
But he couldn’t.
He couldn’t because he saw you. Right there in the middle of a world which isn’t fair. He saw you cast into a river of life you didn’t request. He saw you betrayed by those you love. He saw you with a body which gets sick and a heart which grows weak.
He saw you in your own garden of gnarled trees and sleeping friends. He saw you staring into the pit of your own failures and the mouth of your own grave.
He saw you in your Garden of Gethsemane–and he didn’t want you to be alone.
He wanted you to know that he has been there, too. He knows what it’s like to be plotted against. He knows what it’s like to be confused. He knows what it’s like to be torn between two desires. He knows what it’s like to smell the stench of Satan. And, perhaps, most of all, he knows what its’s like to beg God to change his mind and to hear God say so gently, but firmly, “No.”
For that is what God says to Jesus. And Jesus accepts the answer. At some moment during the midnight hour an angel of mercy comes over the weary body of the man in the garden. As he stands, the anguish is gone from his eyes. His fist will clench no more. His heart will fight no more.
The battle is won. You may have thought it was won on Golgotha. It wasn’t. You may have thought the sign of victory is the empty tomb. It isn’t. The final battle was won in Gethsemane. And the sign of conquest is Jesus at peace in the olive trees.
For it was in the garden that he made his decision. He would rather go to hell for you than go to heaven without you.