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First Reading = Psalm 1
1Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
We are in our last few weeks of our series looking at the questions that God and Jesus ask in the Bible. These questions get at something within our souls. They are for our benefit, not Jesus’ or God’s. Last week we heard about the justice of God.
This week we are with Jesus at his most vulnerable moment. If he were ever going to deviate from God’s plan, this period of disorientation and crushing grief in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been it. Jesus knew that his betrayer was on the way. Jesus knew that the cross was about to move from his future to his present. Jesus was possibly experiencing separation from God for the first time in his life. He could have walked away. He could have run. He could have lived to teach another day. But he didn’t. He stayed to fulfill God’s radical plan to reconcile all of us to himself. Thank God for that – and I mean that in every way possible.
Given that this was his moment of decision, the Garden of Gethsemane is really where the victory over death and separation from God was won. The cross was a horrible consequence of the decision he made in the Garden. The resurrection was the wonderful good news, but only as a consequence of the decision he made in the Garden. This Garden was where the victory was won – the rest was implementation.
But in our text today, we’re not quite there yet. Jesus is disoriented. He is “deeply grieved, even to death.” He is emotionally destroyed. And even though he knows that his friends will abandon him this night, he hopes against hope that his three closest friends will remain awake and pray for him in this dark hour. Will his three closest friends be dependable disciples?
Main Scripture = Mark 14:32-42
32They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
While I spent most of my childhood and my young adult years in Austin, my middle and high school years were spent in the sprawling metropolis of Clifton, TX. It boasted the only traffic light in the county. I think it has exploded in growth since I left, and now there are two traffic lights! The primary entertainment in town was the one screen movie theater. But my family ran that movie theater, so I was running the concession stand.
So I needed to head to the big city to find something different. I speak, of course, of Waco, TX. You may not be impressed by Waco, but it was all we had for hours in any direction. And my parents were finally letting me drive myself to Waco. I had remained shackled to the local area in my car – a clear injustice – but I had finally earned the right to expand my horizons.
There was one stipulation. My parents had to go somewhere on an errand, but they would call our house phone at a particular time. I had to be there to answer it, or I wouldn’t be driving myself to Waco again anytime soon. I had to show that I was dependable.
Now, if my parents are listening to this, please skip forward about 60 seconds. That would be helpful. Now that they’re not listening in, I can tell you what happened. I lost track of time. I was going to be late. Not super late, but definitely a few minutes late. I was going to miss that call. The distance was too great. Nothing could be done about it.
Well…not nothing. Doing a little math in my head, I realized that with the proper application of excessive speed, which my car was happy to provide, I could make it. Just barely. I knew where the police tended to place their speed traps. I knew where I could “safely” step on it. And so I did.
As I pulled in to the driveway, I leaped from the car and sprinted in to the sound of the phone ringing once…ringing twice…ringing three times. “Hi, Mom and Dad! Yeah, I’m home, just like I said I would. Just remember, I’m the dependable brother!”
OK, Mom and Dad, it’s safe for you to resume watching. Don’t rewind, please.
I made it in time, but was I really being dependable? I think my parents would rather I be a few minutes late than know what the speedometer was showing on some straight stretches of rural Texas highway. I was in the right place at the right time, but I wasn’t really being all that dependable.
Peter, James, and John were also at the right place at the right time. But they weren’t really being all that dependable. These three received the great honor of being on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured before them and he conversed with Moses and Elijah. They didn’t fall asleep for that one, for some reason.
But Jesus was hoping that these three would be dependable when he honored them with the chance to be nearer than the others as he went to pray to God. Instead, they hit the snooze button.
Now, in their defense, has your mind ever wandered while you’re praying? Or, and this is far worse, has your mind ever wandered during a sermon? Oh the humanity!
I have definitely fallen asleep while praying late at night. Have you? It’s a pretty common thing. But Jesus wasn’t hoping for common. He was hoping that these three would be dependable disciples in his hour of agony. But alas, they were more like us than they were like Jesus on this particular evening. How dependable are you in your life? How dependable are you in your faith?
Of course, we probably need to ask what it even means to be a dependable or responsible disciple of Jesus. Falling asleep while praying for Jesus is probably not in the definition of a dependable disciple, but what is?
I think we can infer one key aspect of a dependable disciple of Jesus from our text. Jesus wanted Peter, James, and John to pray. He prayed on his own, but he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make their lips move and sound come out so that they prayed the words that he wanted them to pray. Jesus didn’t animate their bodies to pray like some kind of puppet master. They had to pray. They had to take responsibility for praying.
I’ve shared before that I went to the Hawaii Leadership Practicum a number of years ago. And Wayne Cordeiro, the lead pastor, was telling us that there are some things that no one else can do for you. I thought he was going to talk about our unique calling from God, or being strategic with our time at church. Instead, he said, “No one else can be husband to my wife. No one else can be father to my children. And no one else can follow Jesus for me. No one else can do those things for you either.”
To be a dependable disciple, we have to do the actual work of faith. We have to take responsibility for praying, just as Peter, James, and John were supposed to. We have to take responsibility for asking Jesus for guidance in our lives. We have to take responsibility for serving others. We have to take responsibility for reading and reflecting on Scripture. No one’s going to follow Jesus for you.
We are responsible for doing the work of faith on our own. A sermon is a tool to help your faith growth. It’s not me reading and reflecting on the Bible so that you don’t have to. That’s not how it works. What work of faith might Jesus be hoping to see from you? Is it prayer like Peter, James, and John? Is it an act of service? Is it reflecting on what Jesus said in the Bible?
To get at the second major component of being a dependable disciple, let me tell you about a card game. I started off telling you about a time I was excessively speeding, and now I’m going to tell you about card tournament. Aren’t you just amazed at how holy your pastor is?
I was working as a computer programmer between college and seminary, and a bunch of other engineers and programmers from the company created a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. I actually don’t enjoy poker, and I had never played Texas Hold ‘Em in my life. I didn’t even know the rules. But I was bored and a little lonely, so I decided to join the tournament. And the tournament was about bragging rights, not money, so I was game.
Two hours before the tournament began, I searched on the Internet, “how to play Texas Hold ‘Em” and “simple Texas Hold ‘Em strategies.” By the time I was done reading, I was slightly better than if I had read “Texas Hold ‘Em for Dummies.” But winning wasn’t really the plan. I just wanted to have fun with my fellow geeks.
I had exactly two strategies. My main strategy was deciding I wouldn’t chase a hand. If I started off with nothing, I folded early instead of losing my chips chasing bad hands. My second strategy was to identify a handful of useful bluffing scenarios. I decided if one of those scenarios played out, I wouldn’t hesitate to go “all in” with all of my chips. That’s it. Bail out of a bad hand early, and swing for the fences if the opportunity arose. I finished third in the whole company. The guy who won called me on that big bluff!
I did well, but I didn’t win. And that’s OK. I felt like I played the cards I was dealt pretty well. Sometimes that meant I had to fold. Sometimes that meant I played the odds but still lost. Sometimes that meant I won a few rounds. My goal was to play my cards well.
That’s the second aspect of being a dependable disciple. Play the cards you’re dealt, and play them as well as you can. Some hands you’re dealt a big opportunity, and maybe you need to swing for the fences. Other times you are dealt a losing hand, and being dependable means playing those well, too.
Gordon T Smith, the president of Ambrose Seminary, said that the cards we are dealt include “our gifts, talents, and potential, of course. But also the range of setbacks, disappointments, and limitations that have been thrust on us.” Those hands aren’t just throw-away hands. Jesus cares about how you play those bad cards just as much as he cares about how you handle your big opportunities.
It’s kind of like a golf handicap. Actually this year, the entire world of golf came together to finalize the World Handicap System. The new system can be applied to any course in the world. Under the new system, you take your average score against par from the eight best scores from your last twenty rounds of golf. Every course in the world is getting an official rating for this new system. So if you’re a thirty handicap, you’re likely to be thirty over par. When you play your next round of golf at any course in the world, you’re then competing against yourself to be better than your handicap. Given your ability, how well did you play this course on this day?
As a benefit to me, they raised the maximum handicap to 54 strokes over par. So if I improve by twenty strokes or so I can have an official handicap!
The whole idea is that you’re trying to do your best given your ability. It’s not about beating Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy. You can’t do that. But can you beat your average handicap? Given your ability, how well did you play this course on this day?
We aren’t expected to be world-famous saints. A tiny number of people get those cards. A tiny number of people have a faith handicap low enough for that. That’s probably not you. But you’re not expected to do that. To be a dependable disciple, it’s just about doing the best you can with the ability you have and with the circumstances you have.
How are you playing your good hands? How are you playing your bad hands? Relative to your average handicap, how are you playing the course of your life right now? Are you improving, flat, or is your handicap going up?
Of course, there is a limit to how much we only think about our lives in terms of our own handicaps and our own cards. After an accident at sea, five survivors are huddled on a lifeboat together. Two of them are sitting near the front of the lifeboat, and they’re watching the other three furiously bail water out of the back end of the lifeboat where a hole has developed. One of the men at the front of the lifeboat says to the other, “Thank God that hole isn’t in our end of the boat!” I’ll let you connect your own dots on that one.
But to return to our text, how would you have responded to these sadly sleeping disciples? If three of your closest friends fell asleep while they were supposed to praying for you in your hour of agony, how would you have responded to them?
How did Jesus respond? His first response is the disappointed question, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” That’s very understandable.
But what did he say next? “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Jesus had every right to demand better performance from them. Instead, he felt compassion for them. He asked them to pray that they be protected from temptation. He gave them direction in their prayer. He complimented them for their spirit being willing – they wanted to do the right thing! He reached down to lift them up. He encouraged them even while they were failing him.
In response to his disciples not being dependable, Jesus responded with encouragement and grace. Thank God for that – and I mean that in every way possible.
Sometimes we don’t do those things that no one can do for us. Sometimes we don’t do the work of faith. Sometimes we don’t play our cards well. Sometimes we don’t play well given our abilities and this course on this day. Sometimes we aren’t dependable or reliable disciples. Maybe a lot of the time we aren’t dependable disciples.
Jesus responds to us the same way he responded to Peter, James, and John when they disappointed him in our text today. Encouragement. Grace. Guidance. And an invitation to prayer.
Jesus doesn’t want you to give up if you’re not a dependable disciple. Jesus doesn’t want you to retire from faith if you’re not responsible.
When I was on the tennis team in high school, one of my friends was furious with himself whenever he missed a shot. And neither of us was close to the best on the team, so that happened frequently. He would take his tennis racket and hit himself in the leg or on his back in anger at himself. Of course, he frequently broke his racket that way. And one time he accidentally hit himself on the spine and crumpled to the court in pain. What did that achieve? Nothing but pain.
Now it might be easy to laugh at that or see how useless that was, but many of us beat ourselves up in a less visible way when we mess up or when things don’t go our way. It doesn’t make Jesus love you more if you feel really bad about messing up. If you beat yourself up for messing up, you don’t achieve anything other than broken rackets and some extra bruises. That doesn’t get you anywhere with Jesus.
Even when we disappoint Jesus, he offers encouragement and guidance and prayer for next time. I’ll take that over whacking myself with a tennis racket any day. How about you? Where do you need to allow Jesus to encourage you instead of beating yourself up?
Sisters and brothers, Jesus gave us all the guidance we need to be dependable disciples – to be responsible in our faith. Jesus is ready to do the heavy lifting if we’ll do the work of faith and follow him. Jesus wants to see us play our cards well, to play well against our handicap in life.
But he also knows that we won’t always do that. In fact, he knows that we might rarely do that well. He doesn’t shake his fist at us and demand better performance. No. He offers us encouragement. And grace. And prayer for next time. Thank God for that – and I mean that in every way possible. Amen.