Turn Not From His Griefs Away. Wednesday after Reminiscere, 2016
Wednesday after Reminiscere (Vespers/Final)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Passion History, Part 2: Gethsemane
February 24, 2016
“Turn Not From His Griefs Away”
It’s easy for us to pass over Jesus’ suffering quickly. To not allow it to sink in.
That is an indicator of the hardness in our hearts. Even if the account of Jesus’ Passion had nothing to do with us, sympathy and love for other people should cause us to feel pity and sadness when we hear about the agonies Jesus suffered without having deserved it in any way. But of course living in the world as it is, we are used to hearing about people suffering, experiencing tragedy, and dying. Every day young men are shot and killed in Chicago, and it doesn’t even get on the news. It’s easy for most of us to be numb to other people’s suffering until it has something to do with us.
But Jesus’ anguish has everything to do with us. Our hard hearts don’t believe this, but it is true.
Because it is true it is important for us to turn our faces toward and not away from Jesus as He suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane. To open our ears and not allow our hearts to remain cold and indifferent as His Passion is read and preached. His pain has everything to do with you, if you could only perceive it.
In the reading, Jesus has His disciples sit down while He goes a little way off to pray. He tells them, “Watch with Me.” He doesn’t ask them to go do some work, to go preach or distribute alms to the poor. They are only to stay awake and watch Him as He prays.
That doesn’t sound like a very exciting thing to watch. But Jesus tells them “watch with Me” for good reason. By staying awake and praying they will fortify themselves against the spiritual attack that is coming, “the hour of the power of darkness” He spoke about.
But by watching as He prays, and not turning away from His agony, from the torment of His soul, they will see what was usually invisible to their hard hearts.
They would see in Jesus’ tears and sobs to God His Father a glimpse of the true nature of sin. And they would begin to perceive in Jesus’ horrible agony a little of His love and the Father’s love toward them.
And for the same reason Jesus speaks these words: “Watch with Me” not only for them, but for us. If we do not turn away from Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane, we will be strengthened against temptation. We will begin to perceive what it means when we confess “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” And we will also see, as Jesus is crushed by anxiety and torment, something of His love for us.
Go to dark Gethsemane
All who feel the tempter’s pow’r
Your Redeemer’s conflict see
Watch with Him one bitter hour.
Turn not from His griefs away;
Learn from Jesus Christ to pray. (LSB p. 436)
Jesus’ Agony in Gethsemane
Jesus’ agony in the garden may not be obvious from hearing the story read. When we hear of Jesus being flogged by Pilate, crowned with thorns, having His hands and feet pierced by nails, the physical suffering is more readily apparent.
Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane is not so much physical as emotional and spiritual. But in reality, that means that His suffering in Gethsemane was worse than mere physical pain.
Jesus makes this clear when He asks His disciples to watch with Him. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” He says. He doesn’t complain of bodily pain, but suffering in His soul. And the pain is so great that He is brought to the gates of death.
We shouldn’t write off these words of Jesus as an exaggeration. His suffering is so severe an angel comes to strengthen Him, otherwise He would perish there in Gethsemane.
But how can suffering in the soul be so severe that you could die from it?
There is an engraving by the famous artist Albrecht Dürer (Engraved Passion, “The Agony in the Garden”) that seems to capture this torment. In it Jesus is kneeling in the garden. Peter, James, and John are in the foreground asleep. Off to the left of the picture an angel appears in a cloud, holding up a wooden cross before Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus lifts His hands straight up in the air. His face looks almost angry, and His mouth is open as though He is shouting at the angel or God. Perhaps He is in the midst of a groan. Whatever it is, the woodcut captures the turmoil and agony of a man who looks as if He is being torn apart from inside.
People do experience such suffering of soul that they die. They suffer such inner torment that they take their own lives. Perhaps it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, as they say today; or perhaps, as Luther thought, the devil harasses people with despondency and sorrow until they give way to despair.
Other people experience torment of soul that is explicitly spiritual. They become overwhelmed with the awareness of their sins; they become painfully conscious of God’s wrath against sin. Luther experienced this, and occasionally people still do today. When a person undergoes this they are not merely depressed but are actually experiencing a little of the pains of hell. They experience separation from God and can’t find rest from their spiritual agony. Luther expresses this in his hymn “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB p. 556, st. 3):
My own good works all came to naught,
No grace or merit gaining:
Free will against God’s judgment fought
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered.
Luther is not being metaphorical there. Consciousness of sin and God’s wrath against it are the pangs of hell itself.
But even the greatest saints only experience a small taste of those agonies. What Jesus experienced in the garden was far beyond that. He was experiencing the undiluted anger and judgmetn of God in His soul. As He looked to what was to come, He saw that He was going to be forsaken by God on the cross. He was bearing the full force of God’s anger. The grief and anguish this caused Jesus was enough to kill Him without whips, nails, and the Roman spear. Had the angel not come to Him and God not supported Him He would have died in God’s anger. All alone in the night He wrestled with God.
And so Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Jesus was fulfilled: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:3-4) He was sorrowful to the point of death because He was not bearing His own sorrows but ours, and those of the whole world.
The grief and regret that sinners in hell experience for eternity for their sins was on Him. In hell the damned will be gnawed forever by a worm that does not die—their conscience accusing them, “You brought this on yourself by rejecting God! Why did you do that?” They long to be able to go back and repent but they can’t. There is no hope. That is also what we have merited by every one of our numberless sins. That is the bitter cup that Jesus drinks on the Mount of Olives—alone.
The most terrible part of Jesus’ torment is that, as He anticipates what is coming, He is not merely facing human enemies in Jerusalem. He isn’t merely facing Satan and the unclean spirits. But it is God His Father whose hand is coming down on Him. Jesus makes that clear to the disciples when they first enter the garden. He says, “You will all fall away from Me this night, because it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26:31, Zechariah 13:5) Jesus is the Good Shepherd; His disciples are the sheep. And the prophecy Jesus quotes makes it clear that the One who strikes down the Good Shepherd is God Himself. God Himself strikes down His Son because He is carrying on Himself the guilt of the world’s sins. So it is God who judges Jesus, God who condemns Him, God who is angry with Him.
It’s no wonder that Jesus prays in great agony and grief. He casts Himself down on His face and begs His Abba, His dear Father, to take this cup away. And as His prayers are answered with “No” from His Father, He becomes more anguished. He has known since before the world was created that this is what must be, yet He asks His Father to let ther ebe another way. And as He prays His sweat becomes like great drops of blood streaming from His body. He waters the garden with bloody sweat. And the Father looks at His beloved Son in agony, falling apart, writhing like a worm, and says, “No, You must drink this cup.” That is what we see when we watch with Jesus—the Father, who has said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”—will not spare His beloved Son the anguish of His wrath. He does not spare His Son because nothing less will atone for our sins. In Jesus’ torment we see what sin is and what it does. It brings torment and agony to Christ. And what will it do to those who don’t repent?
That’s why Jesus tells the disciples and us to watch. But they don’t. They fall asleep. It’s too much for them to bear. So, in addition to all the other sufferings, Jesus also bears this—that He is utterly alone in His anguish, abandoned by God and all men, even His friends.
Who can bear to watch Jesus suffer?
Why would we want to look at Jesus like this? Who can bear to see the Son of God, our Lord, laid in the dust like this, being destroyed like this?
But Jesus calls us to do it. “Watch with Me.” He knows we need to see Him like this because we are weak. We fall into sin so easily.
Jesus has told the apostles, “You will all fall away tonight.” The version we read said, “You will all be offended,” but it means “fall away”—that is, leave Jesus, fall from grace, lose faith and the Holy Spirit. Many evangelical preachers teach that this is impossible—true Christians can never fall away. That isn’t true. When a Christian gives into temptation and lets sin master him, he falls from faith. When the disciples abandoned and denied Christ, they fell away from Him. And when we fall into unrepentant sin we also fall away from Christ. We forfeit eternal life until we are again brough to contrition and repentance. This is a present danger for us. That’s why Jeuss warns the apostles and us to “watch and pray,” so that we may not fall into temptation.
However, we often believe that this can never happen to us. Peter said, “I will never deny You, even if I have to die with You.” Peter had too much confidence in his own spiritual strength. And so do we. That’s why Jesus wants us to watch with Him.
Watchin with Him means being alert to the devil’s temptation and calling on God for help. This is spiritual warfare. But the disciples fell asleep. Jesus pointed out this inconsistency to Peter. “Couldn’t you even watch one hour?” How are you going to die with me if you can’t even stay awake and pray for an hour?
The question applies to us as well. Why is it that we think we are so strong when we can’t even overcome small temptations? Why is it that we think we’re so strong that we can afford to do without His Word, prayer, and gathering with other Christians?
Peter wanted to die rather than deny Jesus. That was a good intention. It came from the Holy Spirit. But Peter’s flesh was weak. Jesus knew, as the One who had done combat with Satan and successfully resisted his assaults, how weak our flesh is. Unlike Jesus we are born corrupted by sin; He knew that our flesh is so great a liability that it makes us unable to resist Satan’s temptation apart from the help of God which we invoke through prayer.
“I know that in my flesh dwells no good thing,” St. Paul says in Romans chapter seven. Elsewhere he says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8) And He tells us that our flesh always fights agains the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).
In other words, we should not trust ourselves in the slightest, not even to overcome the smallest temptations, but only in God’s help and grace.
But as we watch and pray with Christ, we receive armor against Satan’s attacks, and we call in heavenly reinforcments. Through Jesus’ agonies, the lust of our flesh is checked. Through prayer Satan is driven off and we receive heavenly aid.
But Peter and the others neglect these armor and weapons. Finally Jesus asks them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” They are napping and indulging the desires of their flesh at precisely the wrong time. And the result is catastrophic.
First they try to attack the men that come to arrest Jesus. They don’t realize that by doing this they are opposing God’s will. They take up an earthly sword, which is useless agains the spiritual enemies they are really fighting, the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6).
And when Jesus rebukes them for this, and they see that they are not going to prevent being arrested and killed themselves if they stay with Jesus, they abandon Him.
This is what we do by nature? Do you recognize yourself in the story? All of it is a result of not watching with Jesus.
We put confidence in our flesh. We turn away from Jesus’ agonies, not wanting to see His bloody sweat, tears and groans, not realizing that Jesus’ suffering is the only way our flesh is overcome and put to death. We indulge our flesh instead, seeking what pleases it instead of denying it, taking our cross, and seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness.
In the end we also fall and forsake Jesus in trying to hold on to our lives.
This is the reason for Jesus’ agony.
It is because His disciples, then and now, are like this, that Jesus experiences this agony.
He is suffering because we have loved the flesh more than we loved God, because we trusted in ourselves instead of the Lord. He is in agony because of our willfulness because we have done what pleased us instead of seeking to accomplish God’s will for us, as Jesus did when He prayed, “Your will, not mine, be done.”
He is in agony because even when we watch and pray, when we are faithful, the sinful flesh clings to us and leaves its stain even on the good works we do at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Were it not for Jesus’ suffering that makes us clean in God’s sight even our good works could not please God.
Because of these things Jesus faces God’s wrath in Gethsemane.
But here in Jesus’ agony, we see not only our sins and God’s wrath, but the unquenchable fire of God’s love.
Because Jesus goes to this suffering willingly. And the Father gives His Son to this torment willingly.
Jesus says when His disciples try to prevent His arrest, “Do you think I cannot pray to My Father…and He will send me 12 legions of angels” instead of 12 poorly-armed fishermen? As Jesus is being led away in chains to trial, even then He could ask the Father to spare Him the torment of the cross and abandonment by God. He could pray that and the Father would give Him what He asked.
Jesus doesn’t pray for that. He goes out ot meet the armed mob that is going to take Him in chains to the chief priest. He goes, knowing all that would happen, having concluded His prayer to His Father: “Your will be done.”
So we see the Father’s will in Gethsemane: to give His Son to suffer for our sins, that they should be atoned for and covered. And the Son is of one will with the Father. He also goes willing to His suffering for our sakes.
From watching Jesus’ agony, you can see the mystery of God’s love for sinners. He goes willingly to this torment out of love for His selfish, self-indulgent disciples. Peter. You. Me.
What kind of love must it be that would embrace the pains of hell for someone else?
That is the love of God the Father and God the Son for you.
A lamb goes uncomplaining forth
The guilt of sinners bearing.
And laden with the sins of earth
None else the burden sharing.
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer.
He bears the stripes, the wounds, the lies
The mockery, and yet replies:
All this I gladly suffer. (LSB p. 438 st. 1)
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria