Sermon Illustrations

Several years ago, I began to reflect on the happenings at Gethsemane. It started when I saw some movie in which an actor did an okay job of portraying Jesus, except that he failed abysmally in his attempt to show what I think Jesus' agony at Gethsemane must have been really like. I realized that no actor will ever capture the essence of Gethsemane to my satisfaction. I even doubted that it belongs in the thespian field. I concluded it is because his anguish was so extreme it cannot be equaled in pretense. I wondered why. Jesus is shown to have paled at a horrible specter, which he faced with a dread barely describable. He would endure it only by surrendering to the overriding will of his Father . My thoughts are summarized below, yet I'm quite sure I have not plumbed the depths of the subject.

It's not unusual for commentators to suggest that since Jesus was human, he dreaded death as is common among humans. That strikes my mind not with the ring of truth, but with a flat thud. Jesus was no less courageous than countless others who have faced imminent death serenely, as Bryant suggests, "...sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him, and lies down to pleasant dreams." Surely you've known some of them.

The idea (still considering that he was human) that Jesus' agony was brought on by a dread of suffering before his death seems equally vacuous and false. Make no mistake--a Roman scourging and death by crucifixion would be excruciating. But we have known people who suffered horribly from injuries, the ravages of war, and cruel disease over an extended time, whose smile never dimmed. An example that comes to mind is Damien, leper priest of Molokai, who eagerly volunteered in the 1860's to minister to a colony of lepers in Hawaii. He knew the danger--the virtual certainty--that he would contract the disease, and he eventually did. He died at age 49 after many months of horrible deterioration and debilitation which he endured peacefully, thanking God for the time he had been given to minister to the lepers. The point is not that Jesus suffered less than Damien, but that Damien--certainly no more noble than Jesus--did not even fret about his suffering to those friends closest to him. You may think of better examples.

I doubt that the intensity of Jesus' suffering in Gethsemane is explained by attempting to bifurcate his dual nature. It seems practically insulting to suggest that we may excuse Jesus for quailing at the approach of suffering and death for he was, after all, human.

Was is that Jesus would at last come into personal contact with sin? Not as one who goes among sinners, but divinely reckoned as the sinner? If this is the explanation, it must mean that the way he felt about engaging sin was no small thing to say the least. It would reveal that the doctrine of imputed righteousness, and the corresponding imputation of guilt to Jesus, is not a semantic shell game, but that Jesus really was accounted guilty of every sin that has ever been committed, or will be. And that the experience was to be unspeakably dreadful.

Or was it the consequent alienation from God of the one who "became sin" that produced such dread? Did Jesus see a roiling cauldron of sin, 10,000 times greater than the Pacific Ocean, as a "great gulf" between him and the Father, albeit briefly? Something like this certainly occurred, or his taking of the world's sins was without meaning. It's also consistent with his cry from the cross.

Were the world's sins actually loaded onto Jesus at Gethsemane? He departed Gethsemane apparently having accepted the harsh reality that either he was to suffer and die, or the human race was lost. See how resolutely he proceeds from that scene, seemingly unruffled by the arrest, trial, and crucifixion--the sole exception being his cry from the cross asking why God had forsaken him. Or is this idea pointlessly punctiliar, and the chain of events best viewed in a cause/effect perspective?

Adam Clarke goes further than anyone else whose writing I've read in ascribing great significance to Gethsemane. He writes, "In my opinion, the principal part of the redemption price was paid in this unprecedented and indescribable agony." Certainly, we should not diminish the suffering Jesus endured as he hung for hours on the cross. But it is undeniable that the suffering at Gethsemane reveals that Jesus suffered horrific dread there.

Have we fully understood what occurred at Gethsemane? I suspect that I have not, and may never, at least this side of eternity. But it seems worthy of our solemn contemplation.

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