Theme: It’s hard to obey when God doesn’t do things our way. Jesus shows us that the way to fight the battle to obey is to learn to pray.
This continues the sermon series “The Passion,” leading us through Lent and preparing our hearts and minds for the Easter celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The scripture texts match those of this year’s Lenten study groups, and is based upon “Journey to the Cross” written by Debbie Schmidt.
This series also helps us explore some of the issues brought up by the recent movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
There is something I’m convinced of is that everybody, no matter who, everybody in this world has the secret or not so secret desire that everything in the world will work out according to our plan. Amen, yeah! I know I’m like that and most of the people that I’ve met so far on a deeper level in this church definitely fill that category. You know if I invest in stocks, I expect those to be the stocks to go up and down. I mean, I’m convinced that the world is supposed to work. If I’m go to give up something good to eat and eat something healthy, then darn it, I want to feel healthy and I want to live forever. I mean I just, you know, and if you take a new job then this has to be the place where everybody there works in harmony and they’re are all angelic, because this is my new job. Now, I happen to be in a place where that is true, but we think that way about life and we can’t help but thinking that way about spiritual life too. We expect God to do things our way. I discovered that sometimes God doesn’t do things my way even when it makes perfect sense to do it.
I want to share with you a story about a time for us in Japan. This was an extremely painful time for us, the final few years we were there. We went to Japan with great dreams about how we would spend our whole career there, learn the language and reach out to an unreached people, a people that we still love. But I never seemed to get a ministry that fit my guests and year after year I would do things that just didn’t fit, but I do them because it was the only thing there to do. And finally after being there for six years, we saw an opportunity. Very soon our church there in Japan that had partially a Japanese congregation and partially an English speaking congregation would need a new pastor, their pastor was leaving. It was in the city where we already lived. We already had a house there. It made perfect sense. That’s where my gifts were. Since 1985, I had desired to be a pastor and here it was 1996, I had waited 11 more years and here it was. This makes sense. And so I prayed about it and I felt a leading towards it and there was a momentum, other people who got word that I was thinking about it a little bit and they said, “Yes your gifts are there. You’ve got Japanese. You’ve got English. You’re a preacher. This is going to work.”
I waited two years and I was one of the last two people they were looking at and they decided for the other person. I still don’t know why. It still makes sense to me that I fit and right at that moment that that door closed on me, and let me tell you it closed. You know sometimes doors close lightly on you and other times doors close on your body flies back and you are bleeding. That was the kind of door closing it was for me. Right as that door closed, you know how people say when God closes a door he opens a window, well God opened a door, but it wasn’t like anything that I expected. What He opened up was there was a need for a pastor, entirely in Japanese of a church that had five members. They were all profoundly disabled and there were only 10 or 15 that met for worship. The church could never grow really beyond 50 people because that is the maximum number of people who lived in that facility. I really felt God’s call to do that. And I felt like it was a bad joke. That my first pastor in my life was going to be at something we could barely call a church. But I felt God’s call to do it. Debbie concurred and in prayer and in struggling we decided to do that. And for two years I served in that role and then at the end of that two years, God freed us up and gave us clear leading that it was time to come back to the United States. God did not do it the way I expected. And let me tell you, I did not go graciously into it. I did obey it, but I complained every day for two years. I am not exaggerating, every day. I was willing to sacrifice, but on my terms. Sacrifice for me meant you go to another country, live in a smaller house, take the train instead of drive a car, learn a new language, but God was messing with my ministry and I did not like that.
Some of us might face that sort of issue in our lives. We struggle with what it means to follow Jesus. We are willing to follow, but we are willing to follow on our terms. And so what happens when things go differently than we expect. God changes things. It’s not working out like we expected. What’s our response at a time like that? Well, we are not the only people to struggle with this. Peter struggled with this too. Peter had spent time with Jesus. Peter had spent three years following Jesus and Peter had a sense that he knew what God’s will was. He knew Jesus and he believed he knew God’s plan. So naturally Jesus was going to have to act a certain way because this is what a Messiah does. But then all of sudden Peter ran into the reality that Jesus wasn’t playing on his plan.
Now we talk a lot about Peter being a coward because in the 14th chapter of The Book of Mark and in other gospels there is a very clear sense that Peter comes to a point where in front of just common people with no weapons or anything else like that, he denies even knowing Jesus and people say he was a coward. But I don’t think that is true. Because in the 14th chapter there is a conversation between Peter and Jesus and it shows up again in other gospels, where Jesus says in a little while I am going to be betrayed and you all are going to deny me. You are just going to flee and Peter says look that might be true of the other folks, but it is not true about me, even if the others fall away, I will not, I will even die for you.
Well when Jesus is in the garden a little later, he is in the garden and a bunch of people come with swords and clubs, we know from the gospel accounts that it’s Peter who pulls out the sword and is willing to fight. Peter is ready to die for Jesus. He was serious when he said I am willing to die for you. He is outnumbered, he might be the only disciple with a sword, he’s ready to go, he’s going to die, but he is going to die for the Messiah. He was willing to die for Jesus as long as Jesus was willing to fight. And when Jesus then doesn’t fight, Peter’s plan come collapsing in on itself. His whole idea of what God was doing comes crashing down and with it; Peter’s own faith comes crashing down. Peter had a crisis. Maybe we have crises like that. Maybe we don’t deny Jesus explicitly, but there are times that God isn’t doing it our way, he’s changed the rules, it’s not working out like we thought it would and our faith is challenged as well. Peter faced these problems and he failed, but Jesus faced the same kind of problem and He succeeded.
So I would like us to look in the Book of Mark, chapter 14 and we will begin at the 32nd verse.
“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.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon, he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go. Here comes my betrayer.”
When I say that Jesus faced the same struggles that we do, I think a few of us are probably thinking, sure he was God, you know? He is in a different category. Of course he succeeded. I think at times like this when we watch Jesus struggling, we have got to remember that a central part of Christian teaching is that Jesus was fully human, which means he had a fully human struggle with this kind of temptation. And we see here that Jesus had a game plan. Jesus had a game plan. It’s real clear. Take this cup from me. That’s what he wants to happen. God if it is at all possible, you can do all things. Have you ever prayed that kind of prayer? God you can do all things, therefore, do this for me. That’s what Jesus is doing. Don’t read this in some kind of antiseptic fashion. Take this cup from me. You can do everything God. You can do this. Take it away. But God doesn’t. At the hardest day of human history, the hardest day of Jesus’ life, God, the God of Love, makes the decision to send Jesus to the cross. Take this cup from me and the answer from God to Jesus is to that part of the request, no. But Jesus had said nevertheless not what I will, but what you want to be done.
It had to be so hard on Jesus because Jesus here is taking the penalty for what we deserve. Our selfishness, our willfulness, our incredible capacity to ignore God and ignore each other. But it’s not just Jesus that faces moments like this. We face them too. And so when we come to that moment in life where we are facing these struggles, how do we respond? Jesus here is a model for us. In tough times just like Jesus we need to pray, we need to listen, we need to wait. Peter might have lost this struggle because Peter is sleeping while Jesus is praying. Peter is about ready to face the worse day of his life as well and he is not ready. Jesus comes back and says; can’t you stay awake for an hour? Pray so that you won’t fall in to this temptation, because your spirit is willing but your body is weak. You are not going to do it. So Peter wakes up a little later and Peter does take action for Jesus and it ends up being the wrong action for Jesus and as we see in another gospel, Jesus actually has to heal the damage that he does. Jesus prays. He struggles with it. God takes this away. Then he waits, he listens, he prays again. Good sense would have said get out of the garden. Leave Jerusalem. Put some miles between you and these leaders, but he doesn’t because he knows that God has to make the choice here and so he waits. And finally he comes back to his disciples and says, “The time has come.” Does it make sense? Sometimes what God does when he leads us like this, no I can’t say it always does, it’s tough.
I think of a person who is a wonderful Bible teacher. She’s an author, she is an accomplished author, she is asked to speak all over the nation and for 13 years her husband served as pastor in a church that would never let her lead any Bible classes, not even for women. It wasn’t because they had some principle about women in leadership, I mean you can respect that. It wasn’t because they didn’t like her. For 13 years they served there because they felt that God had made a call that was bigger than her comfort and her being affirmed. It was extremely difficult. I know another family that did outreach to handicapped people, to disabled people. For seven years they did a worship service every Wednesday at a residential center. Seven years they did it before they saw the first person become a Christian. Why did God make them wait seven years? I don’t know. Why did God call us to go to Japan to go through the excruciating trouble of learning Japanese and believe me, that wasn’t fun, only to shut the door later? I am glad he did. But I don’t know why he did.
So, sometimes God does these things we don’t understand and yet they are clear to us and so as last week we were saying that the responses that God calls from us when we don’t know what he is going to do, but sometimes we know what he wants us to do and we have a different kind of struggle. Maybe some of us are facing some kind of hard choice right now. Maybe it’s the struggle to commit your life to Jesus for the first time. I can’t see him and God has let the world be like this, it’s beautiful on the one hand, and it chaotic on the other. And you are struggling with that decision to follow Jesus. Maybe its that you already follow Jesus but you realize that there is something precious that you have been holding on to and now God is saying let it go. It might be a relationship that you know that there is something about this relationship is wrong and you are feeling the call to let go. Maybe it’s a problem with alcohol or drug abuse and you know it’s wrong and you know things have to change. Maybe its not something you have to let go, maybe it is something that God is calling you to, that’s making you afraid. You don’t want to take that step because it is too much of a risk. What are you going to do? Because there comes a point in our walk with God that he reminds us that he is God with a capital G. He is not a little God somewhere, that we go to get a special favor from at a certain shrine in this place or that place. He is the creator of heaven and earth. He can even ask us to die. There is no way around it. God is looking for obedience and the question we all struggle with together is will we listen? Will we pray? Will we obey? Because there is no other way.
Let’s pray. Gracious God, we do call you a gracious God because we need that grace and we remember that right now, even as we struggle with our own problems in following you. We remember that as we pray, as we come before you with our feelings and our desires and hopes that you will give us the grace to follow you and to do the right thing if we wait for your power and so we commit ourselves to you, and we ask that we really might live lives that bring honor to you, for we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.