Rocherty UMC October 16th, 2021
Really Good News: “In the Garden, Alone”
Mark 14:26-52 

 

“I come to the Garden alone…while the dew is still on the roses.”  Thus begins one of the favorite hymns of the church. I’ve sung it countless times at funerals, church services, and of course, hymn sings.  But I have to admit, it’s not one of my favorite hymns.  And you might ask why? After all, it’s comforting, it’s got a great melody, and it’s very popular.
Well, the reason I don’t like it all that much is this “alone” part.  Now, I understand that many people get great comfort from this hymn…and if you’re one of them, please don’t let me ruin your sunshine.  But for me, as someone who has been through more than a few times that I’d call “dark nights of the soul,” I don’t find going anywhere alone to be at all comforting.
If I were re-writing this today, I might pen these words: “I come to the garden with friends…” or “I come to the garden with family.”  For all the fact that I’m an introvert, I need time with people I love. People I care for. People that mean something to me.  I know I’m just not as good alone. I need community.
And as we heard in the Scriptures today, Jesus had that same need.  We’ve been with Jesus now in Mark’s Gospel throughout his entire public ministry. He’s been baptized by John; he’s preached good news to all sorts of people. He’s healed the sick, cast out demons, even raised the dead! He taught good news about the Kingdom, and he’s made that Kingdom manifest in the right way throughout the Holy Land.  And finally, he’s come to Jerusalem to cast judgment on the Temple and the religious establishment that operates it.  Their days are numbered. Jesus told his followers to be awake for he comes at any time.
Last time we were in Mark, two weeks ago, Jesus went to the Upper Room. Do you remember what happened there? He announced his betrayal at the hands of one of his closest friends, and he celebrated one final Passover with his new family of disciples. And now, leaving the Upper Room, he takes his followers, still in a celebratory mood, to the Mount of Olives, singing a festal song, one of the Hallel psalms sung by Passover pilgrims.
But now things change so quickly it seems that, as readers and hearers of Mark’s Gospel, we’ll soon be suffering from whiplash.  Now instead of celebration of God’s deliverance from Egypt, Jesus is starting to prophesy suffering followed by a scattering of the happy, joyful group in terror and confusion.  God came into the heartache of Israel in Egypt and set her free. And now Jesus is preparing to do the same for all of humanity.  He set me free…he set me free…We’re free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last…
But at what cost?
At a cost of everything. And it begins with his closest friends turning away from him and leaving him… in the garden, alone.  Jesus told the disciples bluntly, “you’ll all fall away.” And then he quoted prophecy from the book of Zechariah, chapter 13.  God will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.  Jesus, the good shepherd will soon be stricken, stricken of God as Isaiah 53 foretold…and all of his friends would desert him…soon to happen as we’ll see in a moment.
But even in the midst of this devastating news, there is hope. For immediately he says: after he is risen—Jesus now predicts and promises his resurrection for the fifth time—Jesus will go on ahead of them and there will be a great restoration in Galilee.  But before that time comes passion and perdition, suffering and agony building to a crescendo in nothing less than the death of God…
But into our contemplations breaks the all-too-confident voice of Simon Peter. He declares up and down that even though the world turns against him, he, Simon Peter, hero of the apostles and loyalist of loyalists will never ever, EVER, turn away from his Lord.
And immediately Jesus pulls out the giant hat pin and pops this balloon of pride.  In a stunning and wordy account, Jesus uses three different time indicators to point out that today…this night…before the rooster crows twice…Peter will have denied Jesus not once. Not twice. But three times. The loyalist turns traitor.  Oh, how the mighty will fall…
Yet Peter remains convinced. He still thinks that “though none go with me, still I will follow.” I’ll “never say a mumblin’ word” and “I’ll be there when they crucify my Lord” …maybe even on the cross next door.  Why does he think this? Are these delusions of grandeur, heroism?  Perhaps Peter is still thinking Jesus will come around and take up a position of power. For sure, Peter is on a high – what a great week so far! Triumphal entry, overturning tables, teaching, knocking those uppity priests, teachers, and political men down a peg or two… We can learn a few things from Peter, but let’s continue for now.
And now Jesus leads the group to a place of prayer. A beautiful garden. And see? Jesus doesn’t GO to this garden alone…he brings his closest friends with him. More specifically he takes his inner circle with him as he withdraws a few feet ahead of the rest of the twelve and he goes to pray.
And it is in this prayer that we see Jesus at his most human.  Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to watch and to pray for him and with him.  Jesus is about to ask the Father if there is any way, any way at all that things could go otherwise. That the cup of wrath for sin and death whose ransom he will soon offer his own life up for can be taken away…
You know, it’s terribly troubling when our heroes in life seem to demonstrate weakness.  When those who seem to have their act together begin to fall apart.  I wonder what the disciples must have been thinking as they watched this desperate plea in the garden.
I think I know something of what this is like.  I watched my hero, my father, slowly die of cancer when I was in my late teens.  I virtually worshipped my dad growing up.  He was strong, he was intelligent, he was charismatic, and he was the hardest worker I knew.  And suddenly, when the cancer began to win, he started a slow and then increasingly quick downward spiral.
If it wasn’t the cancer that killed him, it might have been the chemotherapy and radiation and the surgery to try and remove the cancer from his lungs.  A man who spurned pain on a daily basis and never so much as grumbled when he stubbed a toe or hit himself with a hammer suddenly was weeping like a child and retching in buckets because he was too weak to walk to the bathroom unaided.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen, quips the poet. And I know that feeling. I saw it with my own eyes.  And so did the disciples.  They saw Jesus at his most frightened. His most vulnerable. His most distraught.  The feeling of the sin of the world and the power of death overwhelmed him to the point of death…a notion Jesus borrowed from the psalms of lament. 
And still…Jesus’ friends couldn’t keep watch. They couldn’t pry their eyes open long enough to bear with him as he prayed…hope against hope…for the Father to change the plan, to make a way where there seemed to be no way. Anything but Calvary. Anything but the Cross. Anything but to die the death of a brigand, a common criminal…to not even get a proper burial.
But it was not to be.  And not for lack of trying. For if you look carefully at the text, you’ll see that Jesus prays not once, not twice, but three times for the cup to pass from him. The cup of God’s wrath against sin, death, and the evil of the world. And three times he gets no answer.  He is left in the garden.  Utterly alone. Forsaken by his friends.  And seemingly, forsaken by Abba Father, the one in which he trusted, he hoped, with whom he kept the most intimate of relationships.
And all to suddenly, the moment has come.  He seems to tell his disciples, confusingly: ok, now keep sleeping. And then in the next moment he shouts, “Enough! The hour has come, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”
And enter stage left, comes Judas. And he’s not alone. No, he’s come with a mob armed with swords and wooden clubs. This is the kind of rabble mob that would go after a political revolutionary, a violent man surrounded by violent body guards, ready to fight and resist… not the way to approach or apprehend a heretical teacher. So, what gives? Well, it seems that the teachers of the law, the Scribes, and the chief priests are taking no chances. They had not only the authority, but the expectation of keeping the peace in the city during these large festivals. They want to make sure Jesus is dealt with and dealt with quickly. So, they bring their small, loyal army to this remote mountain lookout. And they want it done quietly, so they choose the dead of night.
And, right on cue, Judas gives the pre-arranged sign. The one he will kiss—the normal greeting between a rabbi and his disciples—that is the one who you must arrest and take under guard.   Why not “the one who reeks of that ointment from earlier?” Why not “the one who you’ve all seen teaching?” Why not, “the one who humiliated you all in public the other day?” Well, betrayal from a friend, from family, from one you love, hurts the most. And the kiss comes.  The kiss of peace has now become the kiss of death.  Oh Judas, what have you done?
In just a moment, it’s all over. Jesus does not resist, but he does ask a question that yet again strips the men bare and points out the obvious evil in their hearts. “Am I a robber that you’ve come at me with swords and clubs?” Another way to take that in Greek is this: “Am I leading a revolution that you’ve come at me like a brigand?” He adds, you had plenty of opportunity to confront me as I’ve spent weeks teaching in the Temple. And now you come like this?  What gives?
He gets no reply, save to be bound up and carted away.
And to add insult to injury, as Jesus predicted, and right on cue, all of the disciples make a beeline for the nearest exit and abandon him.  Even staunch Peter, the one who swore up and down that nothing, no nothing, would separate him from Jesus. I have no way of proving this, but if I were a betting man, I’d bet that Peter was one of the first to bolt straight away. We’ll get to Peter in a minute.
But then, the last? This is the most intriguing detail of all in the gospel, to me. A young man straggles behind. Some people think that this is John Mark inserting himself into the story as kind of a cameo, like Alfred Hitchcock used to put himself in all of his movies. So, John Mark inserts himself here. He is in the garden with Jesus in nothing but his fine linen undergarment. At once, a hand reaches out. Thinking he is seized; he shirks aside the garment and runs away naked for the hills.
Whatever the truth of the John Mark hypothesis, we know that this little detail is historical because who would want to embarrass themselves by placing this in the story?
How about us, friends?  How do we handle disappointment? A promise broken, a friend forgotten, overlooked, left behind. Maybe even disappointment with God. How do we handle it when the chips are down, and God seems to be silent? How do we comport ourselves in those dark nights of the soul? What do we do when our heroes are found lacking and all we believe is found to be based on assumptions and wishful thinking?
Commentator Mark Strauss warns us against three extremes we might rush to.
The first extreme is to follow the model of Judas and reject God out of hand—to turn against him.  When Judas saw that Jesus wasn’t going to be the revolutionary war hero he was waiting for, he turned traitor.  While it might not look like it, when we place our own desires, our own plans, our own ideas of what a good life should look like—when we put anything in God’s place in our lives, we do the same thing. We make our own gods and reject the God who loves us.
The second thing we might do is to follow in the footsteps of the disciples.  When the tables turn and we are face-to-face with suffering, we might be tempted to head to the hills and hide and watch to see what is going on.  We might think we’re safe and just playing the long game, but we’ve turned away from God even as the Judas’ of the world have done…
And finally, let us learn not to be rash and impetuous like Peter. Let us not take our swords and strike at the ear of the ones trying to capture us. Revenge gets us nowhere. Se, Peter was proving his point: he wasn’t running away, he was standing and fighting! But as God says repeatedly, Vengeance is something reserved only for him. That means judgment, too. That’s all reserved for the one who will someday set the whole world to rights. I think Peter ran because he finally got it – all the times he ignored Jesus’ predictions of suffering, now he sees – Jesus actually meant it. Don’t fight. Suffer. And in that moment, feeling vulnerable, chastised, empty-handed, at a dead end, no possible way now to imagine himself as Jesus’ best man —that’s when he ran.
So, what do WE do when all seems lost?  We must do what the disciples failed to do. We watch. We stay awake. And we pray.  We don’t pray like Peter or Judas, for our own way. We pray like Jesus did. God’s will be done. Pray. I don’t want to suffer, but if I must, then I will. Pray for peace. Pray for comfort. But always end your prayers with, but not my own will, but yours God be done.
Jesus’ moment of glory is now – in suffering, submitting; not retaliating, not hating, not cursing; but choosing the better way. The way of love. So, friends, let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, let us follow him, not just when it is easy, but even to dark Gethsemane. For we know that even in death itself, there is the promise of new life. The sure hope of resurrection. Amen.