February 23, 2005 Matthew 26:36-46
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation,” I tend to think of temptations to do things that I know I shouldn’t be doing. Whether it be watching the wrong type of TV show, losing my temper, or being impatient with someone - I am praying that God would give me the strength not to do those things. Either that, or this petition prays that God would keep the devil from tempting me or the world from leading me astray. When we pray Luther’s Evening Prayer we say, “forgive me all my sins, and graciously keep me this night.” In general, we pray for physical protection through the night. We don’t typically think of temptations coming to us in our or through our sleep. We also don’t think of it as a sin to go to sleep. Even Jesus slept on a normal basis. God also caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep. Sleep isn’t associated with sin usually.
Yet, there are times when sleeping does involve sinning. Proverbs 6:9-11 says, “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” I used to keep that verse on my closet door when I was single, and I woke up every morning feeling guilty - because I just couldn’t seem to get out of bed very early - and I knew that God wants us to work hard. When sleeping attributes to laziness, it becomes evil. Sleeping is an even more serious crime when you are supposed to be standing watch in the face of danger. When Saul was pursuing David, David was able to sneak into the camp and steal Saul’s water jug and spear from Saul. He then called out to Abner, who was protecting him. He said, “What you have done is not good. As surely as the LORD lives, you and your men deserve to die, because you did not guard your master, the LORD’s anointed. Look around you. Where are the king’s spear and water jug that were near his head?” (1 Sa 26:16) This is true even more so then - in the spiritual sense. When you do not stand watch against the devil’s temptations or the worlds, the results can be catastrophic - an eternity in hell. In the parable of the Groom and the Bridesmaids, Jesus talks about how the bridesmaids all fell asleep while waiting for the Groom to come. This wasn’t good, because some of them - in falling asleep - didn’t realize that their oil was running out of their lamps. When the Bridegroom came, they were locked out of the Wedding - forever - partly because they fell asleep.
In our text for tonight, there is a combination of evil sleep - both physical and spiritual. Jesus had predicted to them that one of them would betray him. The disciples didn’t realize which one would betray him. So they went through the anguish of wondering which one it was - maybe even themselves. What was even worse was that Jesus once again predicted that all would fall away on account of him, and that he would be put to death! In the face of this betrayal, Jesus brought His disciples along to spend his last moments in humiliation - for support and strength. He said to them, “stay here and keep watch with me.” Like a soldier waiting for an attack, it was their job to keep watch. Jesus wanted their prayers and their support - to know that they cared and they were standing by Him.
When he needed them most, what did they do? Three times Jesus came back from praying, every time what did he find them doing? Sleeping. Why was this? The three gospels gives several different reasons.
1) The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.
2) their eyes were heavy
3) they were exhausted from sorrow
With a combination of sorrow and just pure physical exhaustion - they couldn’t will their eyes to stay awake. Even though Jesus rebuked them, they still slept. Even though they wanted to, they just couldn’t do it anymore. We can understand their weakness, but that doesn’t EXCUSE it. In falling asleep, they let their Master down. What a disappointing show of allegiance. In seeing Jesus’ distress, they should have stayed awake and prayed along with Him, keeping guard by His side.
This reminds me of what happened to the churches in Revelation. Whereas some churches were staying strong in the midst of persecution, there were other churches - like the ones in Sardis and Laodicea - who weren’t going through any problems of persecution or false doctrine. Yet what did Jesus say to them? Revelation 3:2-3 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. These words to Sardis scare me. When I look at myself, and our congregation, I wonder what God would say to us? What does it say about us - when we can’t get 100% attendance amidst NO persecution? What does it say about our Synod if we have to call back missionaries from world missions because of a lack of funds? What does it say when our own children are not willing to come to Bible classes or learn memory work? It says we’re weak. It says we’re falling asleep. The most dangerous attack from Satan - maybe it isn’t the all out assault - but the lullaby music - the luxurious life that eventually lulls us to sleep.
There was once a guy who was near to going through a divorce with his wife. In the midst of these problems, she was talking with her friend about what color to paint the living room. The husband was appalled at this. He said, “here we are, almost going through a divorce, and all she’s worried about is what color of paint we’re going to put in our living room.” In a similar way, it must be appalling to our God - to see us backsliding - and all we worry about is how far our debt is reduced, how much money we have saved up for retirement, or what kind of a car we’re going to buy! It must be appalling to God to see our society get more and more perverted - only to have our parents not do a THING to try and protect their children from this influence. It must be appalling for God to see us yawn as the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Wake up! We’re in a war here!
As we see these hand picked disciples falling asleep - as we open this garbage bag of sin - what good can come of it? It’s good for us to not only SEE it happen, but also to hear WHY it happens. Jesus said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” When we see their garbage, it gives us an ever present reminder that we aren’t as STRONG as we think we are. These were God’s hand chosen disciples falling asleep! I know there are many young men and women who thought they would never have premarital sex, only to find themselves on the LOSING end. Judas may have thought he would NEVER commit the same sins as the tax collectors. Little did he know how weak his flesh really was. The flesh is WEAK - even as Christians - the flesh remains weak. This look at the disciples sleep teaches us - NEVER TRUST YOUR FLESH. It will look for any reason to sleep. It will find any excuse to do what IT wants. We need to see this, so that we don’t become overly confident or arrogant. Even with your baptism, the flesh is something that sticks with you until the day you die. It is always lazy. It always wants to take the easy road. It always wants to sleep. When you don’t remember this, it will start to run your life.
What is even better is to see how Jesus reacted to their sleepiness. What did Jesus do? First of all, he didn’t just let them keep sleeping without warning. He woke them up and told them what to do. He warned them, “watch and pray!” He told them how weak their flesh was. Yet Jesus realized it was a losing battle to try and keep them awake. So how did he respond? “He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. . . . He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.” Instead of falling asleep, Jesus forced His body to stay awake and prayed all the more. He knew that the only Person He could trust in was His Father. He know the only Person who could save Him from this coming trial was His Father. The disciples weakness drove Jesus to go back to the Father again and again. Jesus used it for His good.
Notice how these prayers progressed. Jesus went from saying, “if it is possible” to take the cup away, to praying, “if it is NOT possible.” God the Father was bringing Jesus to the realization that the only way to save the world was by going to the cross. There was no other way. As the disciples were sleeping, through these prayers Jesus was getting a clear answer and direction from God - that the only way to go was to the cross. Luke 22 also adds that, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” Through this alone time with the Father, Jesus was strengthened in His resolution and understanding. Instead of finding strength in sleep, Jesus found strength in prayer - in communication with God. Instead of sleeping in the face of war, Jesus prepared for the Ultimate Battle with sin, death, and the devil. In Jesus we see a stark contrast between a sinful and weak reaction to sorrow and war, and the Godly reaction. When Judas then came, Jesus was able to say, “Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” Instead of being tired, He was rejuvenated for battle.
What good does this contrast do us? At first, it is embarrassing for us to think about how we are so weak - like the disciples. It makes us sad to think about how often we give into our weak flesh, when we shouldn’t! No matter how many resolutions or promises we try to make to be “better” dads, moms, or kids, we continually find ourselves falling asleep on the job. Yet as we see Jesus response, we can gain great comfort. It shows us how patient, loving, and strong Jesus really was. Jesus would have had every right to completely denounce the disciples and disown them. They had fallen asleep! But instead of disowning them, He encouraged them. What a patient Savior!
Even more encouraging, is to see Jesus’ what Jesus does through this in trial. He too would have been tempted to fall asleep. His sorrow was the greatest of all. HE was the one being betrayed. But instead, overcoming His weak flesh, Jesus stayed focus on one thing - His trip to the cross. He would not allow His sorrow to overwhelm Him. He wouldn’t allow Himself to die at the thought of going to the cross. In Jesus, we see the perfect example of focus, trust, and strength. In Jesus we see a true warrior at work. He was willing to discipline His flesh - and make it go to a most painful place - to the cross. In seeing the weakness of his disciples - He was reminded of WHY He was there in the first place - to live and die for THEM. When we see Jesus pray in the Garden, it is a strong reminder to us as to WHY we trust in HIM for our salvation. There is no one else we would rather have to fight sin and death. There is no one else we would rather obey the law as our substitute. I might compare it to looking back at a draft in the pros. When the Green Bay Packers traded away a first round draft choice for Brett Favre, everyone wondered whether it was worth the trade. However, when he ended up winning the Superbowl and breaking so many records, the initial risk was definitely ratified. In a much more grand way, when you say, “Jesus is my Savior,” you are stating that you are putting all your bets on HIM to live a perfect life as your substitute. You are also saying that you want Him to take on the devil, hell, and death as your substitute. We can’t have a slacker do this. We can’t have someone who is lazy. We need someone who is up for the task. We see that Savior in tonight’s text. In great contrast to these seemingly strong disciples, Jesus stands head and shoulders above them. He reassures us that HE is the right Savior.
Every time you take the Lord’s Supper - maybe you could think of this effort then, in the Garden. In the Lord’s Supper - you receive the actual flesh of the Lord. This is not some weak and sinful flesh, but it is the flesh of God - the same flesh that Jesus sacrificed in the Garden, and more importantly on the cross. As you eat and drink it, let it be a reminder to you, “this is the Flesh that I am trusting in for my salvation. It is pure flesh. It is not sinful. It was that which Jesus beat and forced to go on a cross.” The garbage of the disciples in the Garden makes this painfully obvious. In doing this, then, God will turn this garbage into our good.
At our most recent Pastors’ Conference here we talked about how to handle criticism. It isn’t easy handling criticism, especially when you’re always right. What was really interesting was that one of the Hmong missionaries in Kansas City stood up and said something like, “it is thought of as an honor to be criticized in our culture, because it shows that the person criticizing you has concern for you and is recognizing you.” I thought, “wow, I need to get into that culture, because I sure don’t like being criticized. I don’t like it one bit. It makes me feel like a big loser.”
In a similar way, it must have been somewhat embarrassing for the disciples to have this sleeping episode in the lasting pages of Scripture. Who wants their periods of weakness to be shown to the world? Yet when we reflect on their sleep, it also painfully reminds us that we also have garbage bags full of laziness. We are lazy and more sleepy than we should be. What good does this do us? As this sin is exposed, it is a blatant reminder that we aren’t as strong as we should be. We need someone else’s flesh, someone else’s strength, to withstand the wrath of God. Jesus shows us in the Garden where that flesh is found - in the flesh of God. When we rely on HIS flesh for our salvation - God uses it for our good. Amen.