Saturday, March 23, 2013
Lenten Midweek Service (Luke 22:39-46)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the text just read from Luke chapter twenty-two. Dear friends in Christ, one of the more popular biblical scenes to paint or enshrine in stained glass is the image of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane; in fact, if I’m remembering correctly, there are at least four different renditions of this event at St. John’s. In 1730 the Italian painter Sebastiano Ricci tried his hand at this familiar scene, painting the work that you have as a bulletin insert this evening. His brushstrokes illuminate both the angel and Jesus with heavenly light: our Lord is on His knees, His head bowed to the ground, the angel floating between earth and heaven, covered in glory. First-century Jews typically prayed standing up, but Jesus is so weighed down by the burden of this world’s sin that He falls to the ground, He cannot find the strength even to stand. The disciples are there, shrouded by the darkness of that evening. In short, all the characters of our text for tonight are in this painting, except one: Satan.
It isn’t very surprising that Ricci fails to paint Satan explicitly into the scene; Luke fails to mention him, too. But make no mistake, Satan is there. His presence is acknowledged by the exhortation of Jesus, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Christ wants them to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that He gave as one of His greatest gifts to them, the prayer that contains the petition, “Lead us not into temptation.” Luther gives us the explanation: “We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.” In the Garden that night, Satan will deceive, he will mislead. He wants the disciples to be led into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. He wants the disciples to be scandalized by the cross. He wants them to reject the sufferings of Jesus, to reject His cross, which Satan correctly tells them will lead to their own. Satan wants to them to seek their own good, to avoid Christ’s sufferings to save their own skins.
Ricci shows us that Satan’s temptations have had their effect. Jesus called on His disciples to “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” They should be in the light, praying with Jesus, fighting against Satan, asking the Father to keep them all from temptation, asking for strength to face the hours and days ahead. But instead, they are in the darkness. So much so, that on your black-and-white copy, you can barely see them. Luke tells us, “And when [Jesus] rose from prayer, He came to the disciples, and found them sleeping for sorrow.” They fail to stay awake and pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” They are lulled to sleep by Satan, and so they will be completely unprepared for what will come; they will flee at the sight of the cross. Zechariah prophesied, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” The sheep are ready to scatter; the offense of the cross will drive them away. Satan has triumphed over the disciples; they have failed to be faithful.
But the conflict between Satan and the disciples is only a sideshow; the main event is happening in the very center of the painting. Ricci has portrayed for us the decisive moment of Christ’s passion, the moment that has the potential to change history. Luke tells us what is happening. “And [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.’” We cannot see Satan, but he is there, giving to Jesus the same temptation that he offered in the wilderness: ‘You can have all the glory without the cross.’ And Jesus is on the very edge of giving in. He asks for the cup to be removed, the cup of suffering, the cup of divine wrath, the cup that you deserved to drink for your sins and rebellion against God. That is what ashes upon your head declare: the cup doesn’t belong to Christ, it belongs to you! And here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks for the cup to be given back to you, to drink down to the dregs. Jesus asks the Father to spare Him from the cross—the whole reason He became man and walked this earth in the first place. Your eternal salvation hangs in the balance. No wonder Luke tells us: “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
There is perhaps no other moment in Christ’s life that we see His human nature so clearly as when He asks to be spared the cross. But that isn’t the end of His prayer. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Sebastiano Ricci shows us the Father’s answer. The angel comes down from heaven, carrying a cup, the cup of God’s wrath over sin, the full weight of the punishment that the rebellion of all people has earned. Ricci doesn’t paint it this way, but that cup is marked with a cross of ashes, for it is your cup, and mine. And that cup is offered to Jesus to drink, down to the dregs. The angel has one finger extended to heaven; without a word, he is declaring to Jesus that yes, this is the Father’s will. He has called upon His Son to drink this cup; this is the only way that creation can be delivered from the bondage of sin and death. This cup is His will. The decisive moment has come; will Jesus take that cup, or will He leave it for us to drink? Our eyes turn toward our Lord for the answer. The angel bears the cup that fulfills the Father’s will; the open hand of Jesus tells us He has accepted that will. The angel points to the Father, Jesus points to the ground; His path lies on this earth, from the garden, to the courtroom, to the cross. He submits to the Father’s will; He will drink the cup, He will face the cross. Satan is conquered; Jesus has triumphed where His disciples failed.
You and I are also in this painting; we too are hiding in the darkness, facing the assaults of Satan. He wants us to be scandalized by the cross this Lenten season, to flee from it like the disciples did. He wants us to seek to save our own skin rather than willingly take up the cross and follow Jesus. He wants us to be timid, cowering with fear, fear that paralyzes us from serving our neighbor, from speaking the words of the Gospel, from bolding standing for Christ in a world under the sway of the anti-christ. His tune has never changed; he wants us to desire to be gods, and no god, he whispers, should bear a cross.
Like the disciples, we are lulled to sleep. We fail to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” and instead we slumber. We fail to confess Christ when we are confronted with the cross. It’s easy to speak of Christ, to serve your neighbor, when there is no cost, when we’re safely within the borders of the Christian Church. But when confessing Jesus, when serving your neighbor in body and soul, when standing against this world all carry a hefty price tag, we cower, we fear, we fail, we flee. Like the disciples on that Maundy Thursday evening, we are scattered when the cross comes into view. That is why we are here, because we have failed, we have fallen for Satan’s lies, we have been unable to “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” But where we have failed, Christ has overcome.
The moment that Sebastiano Ricci captures is the decisive moment; our salvation stands on the edge of a knife. But with the submission of Jesus to the Father’s will, our salvation is as good as done. Our Lord was on His knees, wrestling with the cross, wrestling with His sufferings, wrestling with the Father’s will, the plan of salvation. But then He rose. Luke tells us, “And when He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow.” This is a word of resurrection; as Jesus rose from prayer obedient to the Father’s will, so He will rise from the grave having accomplished that will. There is now no question of Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will, even unto death. He conquers where we fail; He conquers for us, in our place. His obedience is given in place of our disobedience, and He takes that cup and drains it, so that we never have to. His triumph over Satan’s attacks makes all the difference, for you, for me, for all eternity. In the Name of Jesus, who conquered temptation by submitting to the Father’s will for our salvation, Amen.