Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the September 2001 edition of Essentials  


  E. D. Trueblood is one of my favourite Christian philosophers. He wrote a book called A Place to Stand. He describes the book as "the outcome of more than forty years of mental struggle" as a Christian who is also a philosopher. One of those struggles had to do with prayer. Here is how he starts his chapter on the reality of prayer: Graham Cole has been Principal of Ridley College since 1991 and begins lecturing
  Only in maturity did there dawn upon me the tremendous significance of the fact that Jesus prayed. This came finally as something which tipped the balance in my intellectual struggle. Though I already felt deeply the importance of prayer, I felt to an equal degree the obstacles involved in its practice. . . . But when I realized that Christ actually prayed, all was different. The record shows that He prayed at each serious crisis of His public career . . . (p. 82). at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Illinois, in the New Year.
  One of those serious crises took place in the Garden of Gethsemane as Luke tells us in Luke 22: 39-46. The context is the Passion Week. Soon Jesus will be betrayed. Soon He will be tried. Soon He will be killed. This is how the passage runs in the NRSV:  
  39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not enter the time of trial [ or temptation]." 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed. 42 "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup form me; yet not my will but yours be done." 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 When he got up from prayer, he came to his disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46 and he said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial [or temptation]."  
  Let me ask two questions of our passage. What may we learn of prayer from this story from Luke? What may we learn of the Son of God who so prayed?  
  Prayer and Adversity  
  Let's start with prayer and adversity. Recall the context. As early as v. 3 we are told that Satan had invaded Judas' life who then engineers the betrayal of His master. Then in v. 15 we find Jesus Himself, in the context of that first Lord's Supper, speaking of His coming sufferings. Next in v. 24 we see the disciples squabbling over their status in the corporation as it were. Finally in v. 31 Jesus tells Peter that Satan had targeted Peter and the other disciples. Indeed Peter would soon deny His Lord (v.34).  
  This then is the backdrop to our passage: conspiracy, betrayal, squabbling and denial or in other words, adversity. Against this backdrop Jesus says, "Pray!" (v. 40). For what do you do when the oven is turned up to 500 degrees and you're lying on the baking tray? What do you do when the pressure of opposition to the will of God is such that the temptation is to shift your ground? What do you do when the heat is on? According to Jesus, Pray! Put another way when the heat is on, you relate all the more deeply to your God in prayer. Just as Jesus relates all the more deeply to His heavenly Father in prayer in the garden.  
  Significantly it seems to me our Lord's prayer and the prayer He encourages from His disciples is not about escaping adversity. It is not about asking God to turn the heat off. Rather prayer becomes a strategy for staying aligned with the will of God in the face of trail and the temptation that comes with it. We stay aligned when the forces of darkness want us to shift ground and enter into the temptation to abandon the will of God.  
  Does not each of us know something of that pressure to shift ground? Of course, only a fraction's worth compared to Jesus' own experience, but for us, no less real. Don't we know something of it when our spouse or our parents or our friends subtly or blatantly make us feel uncomfortable because of our Christian commitment? As Paley said, "Who can refute a sneer?" I remember vividly the day when I told my late father that I was going to train for the ministry. He put his head in his hands and lamented, "O God, not a bishop in the family!"  
  What do we see in our Lord's case? He knows the pressure. Indeed it was there much earlier in Luke's story when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness in Luke 4, tempted three times in fact and now in Luke 22 here it is again. See how very human Jesus is in the face of the pressure. "Father, if possible, another way please." There is no religious fanaticism here, no Tom Cruise "Mission Impossible" heroics. There is no obsession with martyrdom but instead a full realization of the horror of the cross to come.  
  So then, adversity is the context of this prayer in the garden. But not just adversity.  

Prayer and Possibility

  Let's note Jesus in the garden also explores prayer and possibility.  
  Jesus lives in an open universe, not a closed one. A universe open to human decision-making which makes a difference. A universe open to devilish decision-making which makes a difference. And one open to divine decision-making which makes all the difference.  
  Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, " A man's life is lived forwards, but only understood backwards." I wonder if it is because of this reality that we tend to look back and read an inevitability into human affairs that's misleading. So we look back after nearly 2,000 years to the cross and see only inevitability, only necessity. But Jesus in the garden was open to other possibilities. As He said in one of the other gospels, "Don't you think that I cannot right now appeal to my Father and He will at once send twelve legions of angels to rescue me?" (Matt. 26:53).  
  We must be careful as Christians not to so accent the sovereignty of God over human affairs that we reduce ourselves, though we bear the divine image remember, to cartoon strip characters. As though we simply play out a script written elsewhere, fully drawn elsewhere, fully produced elsewhere but only now playing in time. But as I understand the Bible, the living God is engaged in a living way with His creation. There is divine decision-making. Of course there is. But there is also openness.  
  What a revolution in our prayer life it might cause if we really believed that our prayers may be part of the divine remaking of creation. As Pascal said, "God has instituted prayer that we might have the dignity of being causes in His world." Jesus explores both that openness and exhibits that dignity.  
  And yet having said that I must immediately go on to speak of prayer and necessity.  

Prayer and Necessity

  "Prayer and possibility" is only part of the story. Because Jesus having explored the possibility of another way, another godly way, affirms, "yet not my will but yours be done" (v.42). Jesus really is the godly Son of God for whom the bottom line is the Father's will and in that will there is no other way than the way of the cross. That way means nothing less than draining the cup of God's judgement upon human sin as spoken of in the Psalms (like Psalm 75:8) and the prophets (like Isaiah 51:17).  
  Jesus makes it plain that there was a prophetic necessity about His coming death. Indeed the cross and the death He was to die there were to be the fulfillment of ancient prediction and the fulfillment of His own prophetic words spoken earlier in Luke's story. In Luke 9 He spoke of Himself as the Son of Man for whom it was necessary (dei) to suffer and to die (vv. 21-22).  
  I wonder what might happen if I spent more time thinking through the story of Gethsemane and of the Christ who prayed there with sweat like great drops of blood as one ancient version has it. I wonder whether then I might realize afresh the grandeur of the love of God who spared not His own Son and of the Son did not spare Himself. For what we are seeing in our story of Jesus praying is how prayer and responsibility embrace.  

Prayer and Responsibility

  The temptation, as we have seen, was for Jesus to be deflected from the will of God. But in praying He stays aligned with that very will and takes to Himself the responsibility of the cross and with it He soon drains the cup of divine judgement for our sakes. Thus He will do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He makes a way back for us to the God from whom we have moved away.  
  So Jesus stayed aligned. But what happened to those disciples? They sleep. Jesus twice – like a pair of brackets to the story - commands them to pray and not enter into temptation's grip (v. 40 and v. 46). But what do we see? We see Peter in particular, the one who said so categorically that he would go into death for Jesus (v. 33) sleep rather than pray and soon he denies His Lord three times. The bold Peter of v. 33 becomes the weeping Peter of v. 62. He shifted ground in the face of adversity. That temptation remains for us, does it not?  
  Some years ago I met a remarkable Christian woman. She was from Boston and on study leave with her husband in Cambridge. She had faced adversity in her life on a scale I have yet to face. As a relatively young mother with small children she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. As she lay in hospital a friend visited and said to her that this experience would either make her a better person or a bitter one. She chose the better way. Let me suggest that a key difference to how we respond to adversity may lie in whether we really hear Jesus' word to His disciples in the garden or not. "Pray lest temptation overwhelm you" as the New Testament scholar Jeremias translates v. 40. In adversity our responsibility is to stay aligned with the will of God.  
  So then what have we seen in answer to our two questions?  
  We have seen that prayer is not talking to oneself but to the living God and that adversity brings with it the temptation to shift from Him. But for the godly person adversity becomes the occasion for an even deeper embrace of the will of God. There is nothing glib or facile about this for as we heard in one ancient line of interpretation Jesus sweated as it were "blood and tears" (v. 44).  
  What about the Lord Himself? We have seen that His humanity is real. His is no cartoon humanity. Do you know what I mean? The language is human. The movements are human. For Jesus the pressure was real. For Jesus the struggle in the garden was real. And for us His triumph has secured a destiny that no darkness can extinguish. For that triumph, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, reveals to us the Son of God whose prayers were heard in that garden and who learned obedience through what He suffered (Hebrews 5: 7-10). And that obedience - even to the extent of death a cross – is the hinge on which our salvation turns, a hinge no rust can touch. So pray!  

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