By Eugene C. Scott
Late one night after supper Jesus and his friends stole through the dark, dangerous streets of Jerusalem, talking quietly among themselves. Once out of town, Jesus led them to a safe and silent place to pray. Something wicked loomed on the horizon. And Jesus knew he needed a miracle to face it. They climbed a hill to an ancient olive garden. The gnarled tree trunks, as big around as the massive mill stones which pressed their olives into oil, stood supporting the speckled sky. Their maudlin shadows crisscrossed on the ground and Jesus’ somber mood transformed Gethsemane into a many-pillared temple.
In this shadowy sanctuary Jesus stopped the procession saying, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Peter, James, and John touched their Lord tenderly and nodded their willingness to do anything. But the long day of travel, and the heavy Passover meal, the wine, and the quiet, dark night overwhelmed them and, though Jesus prayed so passionately he sweat blood, they dropped off to sleep. Twice Jesus interrupted his prayers to wake them, but each time they lolled off again.
How could they sleep? Didn’t they suspect what was coming? Couldn’t they stay awake and pray? Those are the questions we ask of this story in Matthew chapter 26. Jesus too asks these questions. He also answers them.
“The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” he asserts.
So why do we spend so much time chastising the sleepy disciples? They were tired! They were human! They were self-centered! These are not profound observations. Sinful, weak human beings tend to fall asleep–no matter what (just ask any long-winded pastor). We also make promises we can’t keep. Moreover, we lie; we gossip; we kill! This is not new information. These are just a few of the sins Jesus bore on the cross for us. They are why he had to face that torture.
The real question this account stirs up is not why the disciples can’t pray but why Jesus does? Wasn’t he already in tune with the Father?
Not without prayer.
Jesus prayed because he knew facing life alone, in this case death, equals the height of folly. Clement of Alexandria called prayer keeping company with God. Today we would call it “hanging out.” Jesus constantly sought the company and wisdom of his Father. Prayer simply helped Them hang out. Why hang out with God?
Jesus said it this way, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” The Gethsemane story exists not to portray slothful disciples, but to teach us the first function of prayer–keeping company with God. Notice that Jesus’ garden prayer produces no spectacular miracle. No angels rip open the heavens and rescue him. He simply rises from his knees with new strength–strength derived from keeping company with the Father.
“Rise, let us go,” he says calmly. “Here comes my betrayer.”
Is prayer time for you to “hang out” with God? Or is it a tool to manipulate miraculous escapes? Yes, Jesus asked for an escape: “may this cup be taken from me.” But in the end Jesus knows the deepest miracle is the change inside him not a change in his destiny. “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
In the end, peace comes not from burning bushes, miraculous escapes, or bolts of lightning, but from time spent talking, listening, arguing, sitting in awkward silence, hanging out with God. Prayer activates osmosis, unclogging our poluted hearts and allowing peace to permeate our lives. Are you in need of a miracle? Try what Jesus did. Pray. Keep company with God.
By Eugene C. Scott