Summary: As we look at the events in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of Christ’s crucifixion, I ask "Is the twenty-first century Church asleep?" A sermon to stir the church to pray.
’WAKE UP, O SLEEPER!’
I want to begin this morning with a quote:
"At a certain meeting of ministers and church officers, one after another doubted the value of prayer meetings; all confessed that they had a very small attendance, and several acknowledged without the slightest compunction that they had quite given them up. What means this? Are churches in a right condition when they have only one meeting for prayer in a week, and that a mere skeleton?"
That’s not from this week’s Baptist Times, or anything like that, but is from an article written by Charles Haddon Spurgeon in 1887. And yet the same concern surely applies to much of the western Church today, and the situation is, almost certainly, even more serious than it was 117 years ago. This morning, as we again consider the topic of prayer, we’re going to ask "Does the Church take prayer sufficiently seriously?"
First, let’s take a look at the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His arrest and crucifixion.
SLEEPING ON THE JOB:
It’s impossible for us to comprehend what Jesus went through during that last evening of His human life on Earth. He had known all along that He would give up His life for the sake of the world – a perfect sacrifice that would save, rather than condemn, us – and yet the agony He experienced as the time of His execution, and of His abandonment by His Father, approached is completely unimaginable; but we do get some idea of its depth from what we see in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus and His closest disciples, except for Judas Iscariot, have left the room in which they celebrated Passover and they walk just outside the city, over the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives with all its olive groves, and arrive at a garden called Gethsemane, which itself means ’olive-press’. It was probably a walled or fenced garden owned by a believer who let Jesus and the Twelve use it as a place for retreat and prayer – we know from John 18: 2 that "Jesus often met there with His disciples", so it’s not at all surprising that, later, Judas Iscariot also knew where to lead the troops to arrest Him.
When they enter the garden, Jesus leaves eight of His disciples there at the entrance, taking just Peter, James and John on further. Then, feeling deep distress, he asks these three friends to wait while He goes to pray on His own – "Stay here and keep watch with me," He says to them. Now, it’s pretty obvious that, when Jesus says "Keep watch", He means "stay awake" and, although He doesn’t explicitly tell them to pray as well, I’m pretty sure that’s what He would be hoping they might do – after all, He’s told them just a short time before that He’s about to be betrayed and killed, and, right at that moment, He’s clearly in great distress. For me, ’keeping watch’ with someone means keeping someone company and participating in what they are doing; but Peter, James and John certainly don’t follow their Master’s example – while He prays in anguish, they doze off to sleep.
When He returns to them and finds them sleeping, He rouses them and asks Peter, "How is it that you three were not able to keep watch with me even for one hour? Keep watch and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Whilst it is He who will face the ultimate test in just a few hours’ time at Calvary, Jesus knows that the only way that His closest friends will endure their own testing, when it comes, is through concerted prayer. And yet here they are, unable to stay awake long enough to utter a single prayer for their Master, or for themselves. You might have thought that Peter, having already been told by Jesus that he would deny knowing Him three times before the cock crowed twice, would spend some time praying for strength and resolve – but his body is tired and he succumbs to his sleepiness.
Jesus goes off to pray again and what the Bible account shows us is the perfect example for us to follow: first of all, Jesus responds to temptation with prayer and, then, He agrees to abide by His Father’s will – that’s exactly what we should do, but so often we try to mould God’s will to fit ours. Anyway, when Jesus goes back to the three disciples, again He finds them asleep, but this time there’s no suggestion that He wakes them up. Instead, He prays again, in exactly the same way as before, and then He gets them up, just in time for the arrival of Judas Iscariot and the armed guard.