Praying in the Garden

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”

Luke 22:39-46, NRSV

We joke in my family that my sister’s spiritual gift is sleeping. No matter what is going on, it seems, she can cope with it by sleeping: a big transition, a loss, a celebration – none of these would so wire her up or stress her out that she couldn’t lay down and rest, deeply.

I used to be jealous of this – because I was almost always the opposite. I couldn’t fall asleep, for excitement; or I couldn’t stay asleep, for stress. In the most challenging, stimulating times of my life, sleep was something I couldn’t count on. It was fleeting at best and elusive at worst.

Until, that is, this pandemic started. Ever since, I have been exhausted. Every day, I need a nap – somewhere between 45 minutes and 2 hours – just to function from morning until evening. And, reading this passage, I have an idea why that is.

When Jesus got up from prayer, the writer of Luke tells us, he found the disciples sleeping “because of grief.”

It was all too much for them. They couldn’t understand, or process, or handle, Jesus’ repeated predictions of his betrayal and death; the strange words he said to them about bodies and blood over dinner in the Upper Room – and so when he took them to the garden in the middle of the night, they fell asleep. I get that, now. I get what it means to be so overwhelmed that your body and soul just need to rest.

But there is another part to this story: isolation. I’m sure Jesus already felt quite alone, adrift, set apart, because he was the only one who fully understood what was coming next, and it was his life that would be taken as a sacrifice. But then his closest friends, overwhelmed by grief, fell asleep, and he must have felt utterly, truly alone.

So alone that some ancient manuscripts added those two sentences about an angel coming to help him, and his sweat becoming like drops of blood on the ground. (Not all the manuscripts contain these verses, which means they were likely added to or subtracted from some texts.) Jesus was so alone, and the picture so bleak, that the story demanded some relief; even if it was an angel; even if not everyone agreed that it really happened.

I’ll bet that you, reading this, are feeling one of these two things acutely right now: grief, or isolation. Maybe both.

That it might all feel like more than you can bear.

This story doesn’t fix any of that, but it can reassure us: Jesus gets it.

He has been there, in the garden. He has wondered if even God cared enough to take away some of the suffering. He has felt terribly alone, and burdened, and grieved. He has prayed for it all to go away.

As we journey through Holy Week, the darkness gets deeper before the light comes. It feels all too real right now, as we know that the pandemic will likely get worse before it gets better.

But let this be a consolation to you: that no matter where you are, no matter what you are feeling, Jesus gets it.

He has been there; has felt those deep and complicated emotions.

He has carried their burden on his own.

And because he has, you don’t have to.

Because he has, you do not go it alone, but with a Savior who knows what you suffer. Who grieves with you, who prays with you, and who walks with you every step of the way.

Thanks be to God.

-Pastor Jen

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