They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14.32-36.
In the Aramaic everyday language of Jesus and his disciples, the first words that Jesus speaks in his distress contain an echo of a verse in the Psalms. “My soul is overwhelmed” is a re-phrasing of the words “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” in Psalm 42. And it is an overwhelming of sorrow so strong that it is almost killing him — that is the sense of “to the point of death”. But for all his anguish, Jesus knows how the verse in Psalm 42 ends — “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God” (Psalm 42.5, 11). Like the psalmist, Jesus comes to God in the Garden deeply troubled, his heart breaking with sorrow, but not without hope, and not without faith in the power of the Father either to carry him through the ordeal that he sees bearing down on him, or to rescue him from it.
For Jesus’ prayer makes it clear that rescue is, on one level at least, still a possibility and the thing that he desperately desires. He is only 33. He does not want to die; and he particularly does not want to die a slow, agonising death by crucifixion. Crucifixions were common throughout Palestine under Roman occupation, and Jesus will have seen too many men screaming in agony on crosses by the roadside for him to view the prospect of joining them with anything other than horror.
But what Jesus fears now, in Gethsemane, as he looks at what lies ahead is far more than physical pain alone, for he speaks of “the cup”, and the cup, to any Jew versed in the Scriptures, is not primarily the cup of suffering but the cup of God’s wrath, God’s absolute uncompromising aversion, antipathy and hostility to sin (Isaiah 51.22 and many other references). Jesus has come to earth to drink that cup of wrath for me so that neither I nor anyone else who puts their trust in him will ever personally have to drink it. But Jesus cannot begin to imagine what being on the receiving end of wrath might be like — all he has ever known is the unclouded love of the Father for his one and only Son — and the prospect terrifies him so much that, as Luke tells us, “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22.44).
The normal posture for prayer in Jesus’ day was to stand with hands raised (Luke 18.11; 1 Timothy 2.8) but Jesus is in such anguish that he prostrates himself. He calls upon God using the most intimate of familial titles, Abba, and then says something that only Mark records: “everything is possible for you”. That is the basis on which Jesus can contemplate a rescue even at this late stage. The Father can do anything. Indeed, a little later, as Jesus is being arrested, he tells Peter:”Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26.53). Yes, the Father can rescue him; but far more than he wants to be rescued, Jesus wants to do the Father’s will.
Often, “if it be thy will” is seen as a cop-out in prayer … something we throw in because we have no faith that our prayer will be answered and that will provide the reason why it hasn’t been when it’s not. But surely, here in Gethsemane, I am being shown just how vital it is that “if it be thy will” undergirds every prayer that I ever pray. Everything is possible, yes; but not everything is consistent with the Father’s redeeming purposes in the world and I usually do not know whether that is true or not of the things that I am praying for.
In Gethsemane, Jesus shows me how “if it be thy will” is, in fact, not a prayer of unbelief but the ultimate prayer of faith, for it is the prayer of someone who trusts God enough to submit all personal desires — however desperate and heartfelt and intense — to his love-driven, redemptive, bringing-many-sons-to-glory, perfect will.
Lord, teach me to pray like that.