Greetings Bethel! This is not how I anticipated us meeting again when I left for Florida just over a week ago. I am grateful for the technology that enables me to do this, but I am reminded of the words of John in his second letter, where he says, “Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”(v.12) Soon, brothers and sisters, we will again be face to face and our joy will be complete. Before we turn again to the story of Jesus, I want to take just a few moments for us to reflect on what it means to live as Christians, to have faith in Christ, in the midst of the current crisis.
At the time of recording this, 259,043 people have been infected with COVID-19 in 176 countries and 10,545 people have died. The majority of these cases have begun since the beginning of March. In order to stop the spread of the virus and to keep the medical community from being overwhelmed, many countries across the world have put restrictions on travel and large gatherings, including Ontario, which is why you are seeing my face on a screen this morning. I know each of us has a different story to tell when it comes to COVID-19. For some of us, our lives have not been drastically affected so far. At most, this has been an inconvenience and you might be wondering if this whole thing is just one big over-reaction. Honestly, I hope you are right. I hope this is not and does not become as serious as many experts in the medical community fear. I would like nothing more than for us to look back and say that we did more than we should have. What I would not want is for us to look back and say we were far less careful and far less cautious than we should have been. For others of us, this crisis has caused plans to be cancelled, has led to sleepless nights as we wonder whether we or those we love will be able to come home or be stranded across the globe. For some of us, we have family with compromised immune systems and the idea of a virus that might come and steal them from us leaves our stomach in knots. For some of us, COVID-19 has meant having to go to work when you would feel safer staying home. For others, it has meant being unable to go to work and wondering whether you can pay your bills this month. For many in our church and for brothers and sisters in Christ across the world, this has been a very trying couple weeks. We should and we will be praying for the medical workers, for researchers, for government officials, for customs workers and airport security who put themselves in the path of the virus in order to keep us safe, for those whose livelihood is at stake.
What does it look like for us to live as Christians in the face of COVID-19. I would like to quickly suggest two errors we should avoid: Fear and Folly.
- Fear – We all know that the world is gripped by fear right now, but one of the most frequent refrains in the Bible is ‘be not afraid.’ Isaiah 43 says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” or Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.” “Do not be afraid” is refrain heard in the voice of the angel to Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds. Be not afraid. Getting sucked into the fear and the panic of the world is not a Christian witness. Buying and hoarding with no regard for our neighbor is not a Christian witness. Concern and caution are good, but panic does not display trust in Jesus Christ. So as the world slows down and the pattern of our lives shifts for the next few weeks, let us bear witness to Christ by trusting the word he speaks to us over and over again, “Be not afraid.”
- Folly – While Christians are right to trust that the whole world is in God’s hands, there is a version of saying, “God is in control” that is not truly an exercise in faith, but masks a foolish indifference or a callous recklessness when it comes to our neighbors. In short, there is a way of saying, “God is in control” that really means, “I don’t really care.” In the name of ‘trusting in God’ we can be reckless in regards to our neighbor. So be smart. Wash your hands. But also care well for each other. If you have a need, call an elder. We are all here for you. Take the extra time you have to write a letter, send an email, or make a phone call to someone so that you stay connected without risking their health. Let’s be wise.
- Faith – Christians can avoid both fear and folly because, in Christ, we have been given a higher view and a longer view of what is happening in front of us. We have a higher view, because – as the psalmist says – “our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Or as the psalmist says elsewhere, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip, he who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” We can have firm, calm faith in the face of this crisis because we do know the source of every good and perfect gift, because we do know that God is sovereign and that even when the world seems spinning out of control or spinning to a stop, the king is still on the throne. Jesus Christ is still ruling over all creation. Part of the panic we see comes from genuine concern and part of it from the feeling of powerlessness in the face of something like a virus or the invisibility of what we are resisting. Yet, Christians take a higher view, trusting that though things seem out of our control at times, nothing is beyond his power. Christians can also have faith because we have a longer view. We can be patient and compassionate in the face of COVID-19 because our eyes are fixed on eternity. Even as we wisely stay at home, as I submit and hunker down in my house for the next two weeks, I know that what Jesus Christ has secured for me through his shed blood and that the Holy Spirit has sealed upon my heart can never be taken away. No virus can take me out of the Father’s hands. What truly matters most for this life and the life to come has been made sure in Jesus Christ, so I can face this virus with patience and trust in my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
- Opportunity – many in our community will be wrestling with fear and their own mortality in the coming days and weeks. People will be wondering and asking questions as death tolls rise and the virus spreads, even as we work hard to prevent that. Perhaps, when we finally step out from this, we will find the fields ripe with opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the questions of life, death, sin, and salvation, that people have been putting off and distracting themselves from will begin to come home and you and I will have the chance to share the hope that we have within us, the hope of the world in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So my prayer is that, by the grace of God, you would be strengthened even as we are unable to gather together. But I also pray that as we pray and sing and trust in the Lord, God would be even now preparing the fields for the harvest.
Let’s turn together to the story of Jesus, the true story from the book that we love. If you have a Bible in front of you, turn with me to Mark 14:32-52. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Mark 14:32-52. We are picking up the story after the Last Supper, when Judas has left and Jesus takes his disciples out to Gethsemane to pray. But before we hear God’s word, let’s pray together.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
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? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh 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 delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.
Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “the one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
“Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Everyday I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled.
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Jesus and his disciples went to a place called Gethsemane. Gethsemane – or Gat Shamim – is the word for an olive press. At the time of Jesus, after olives were picked, they would be placed in a press. The press had a long beam stuck into the wall that could be moved up and down like a lever. The olives were place under the beam and then a heavy weight was placed on the far end of the beam. The weight would pull the beam down and crush the olives, pressing them and squeezing every ounce of oil out of them. The oil would run out thicker than your finger and after multiple pressings the remaining olives would be dry as dust.
Jesus takes his disciples to a olive press, to a place where a weight was placed and the olives were squeezed under incredible pressure. And it is here that Jesus prays that the cup that he is called to drink would be passed from him. I think this is no accident.
Jesus is coming under incredible pressure here in Gethsemane. Like those olives in the press, the weight that Jesus is about to bear will crush him. Jesus has known all along that his mission would lead him to death on a cross, but the weight of what that would mean starts to press upon him here. Three times, Jesus goes out and prays, like olives pressed three times in the press, the weight increases upon Jesus.
At this time, Jesus prays, “Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Jesus prays with incredible intimacy and trust in the Father. He calls him, “Abba,” which would have been a term of shocking closeness for Jews of Jesus’ day. God was LORD Almighty, one did not dare presume to speak too friendly with God. To call God ‘Father,’ let alone the intimate term, ‘Abba’ would have been unthinkable. But Jesus shows just how close he is to the Father’s heart. He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Jesus prays, even in Gethsemane with an intimate closeness with the Father.
He also prays with incredible trust. “Everything is possible for you.” Jesus prays with confidence. He knows the power and goodness of the Father. He has no lingering doubts about God’s ability to do everything good for him.
Then Jesus prays, “Take this cup from me.” What cup? What is Jesus talking about? In the Bible, God speaks of his wrath like a cup of wine that one day the wicked will drink. Listen with me to the voice of Jeremiah:
For thus the LORD, the God of Israel, says to me, “Take this cup of the wine of wrath from My hand and cause all the nations to whom I send you to drink it. “They will drink and stagger and go mad because of the sword that I will send among them.” Then I took the cup from the LORD’S hand and made all the nations to whom the LORD sent me drink it:
or Psalm 75:
for a cup is in the hands of the Lord, and the wine foams; it is well mixed and he pours out of this; surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.
Scripture reveals a God who is holy, good, and loving, but who is also angry at sin and all its consequences. God rejects sin in all its forms. And this rejection takes the form of loving, holy wrath that is poured out against sin.
The Bible reveals a God whose love of sinners and righteous anger against sin are not in competition. Our sin, our wickedness, our disobedience puts us at war with God and justly deserving of his wrath. Paul will say in Ephesians that we are by nature objects of wrath. And God’s righteous anger at our sin is sometimes pictured as a cup of wine that we, the wicked, must drink down the dregs.
This cup is one that each of us deserves to drink.
Wrath is not a popular belief today. Our culture reacts defiantly against any notion of God having wrath against sin. Sin might be uncomfortable and a problem, but don’t talk about God being angry at sin. That’s all Old Testament stuff, that’s medieval. A loving God wouldn’t truly be angry about sin, not angry enough to have wrath. But God’s anger and God’s wrath is not like ours. It isn’t petty, vindictive, or cruel. Instead, it is perfectly consistent with God’s perfect love.
Listen again to Jesus: “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
At Gethsemane, Jesus speaks of a cup even he would not want to drink. Could it be that Jesus, in Gethsemane, knew the betrayal he would face, knew the trial, the torture, and the painful death, knew that soon the sins of the whole world would be placed on his shoulders? Could it be that Jesus saw that soon, on the cross, he would drink that cup – the cup of God’s wrath?
I think Jesus knew what was coming. I think he knew what cup he was about to drink. He wanted another way. Three times he prayed, Take this cup from me. I don’t want to drink it. Not this cup! Not the cup of wrath. Yet not what I will, but what you will.
And that very night he was betrayed, and the next morning, Jesus drank that cup. The only truly innocent one was convicted and sentenced to death. The only person in history who did not deserve to suffer God’s wrath against sin, became sin for us, taking on the sins of the world and dying in our place. He drank God’s wrath and his anger against sin and he drank it down to its dregs. For you, for me.
And now, if we are in Christ, the cup is empty. Jesus drank it for us.
This is the good news! The cup we deserve to drink, the punishment we deserve to endure, Jesus had taken every last drop for us.
I’m not comfortable with trying to scare people into heaven or with ‘turn or burn’ preaching, but we need to face reality today. The assurance that the cup is empty is only for those who are in Christ. Only those who belong to him receive the gracious benefit of what he has done on their behalf. Apart from Christ, that cup is still full and we will still drink it one day.
But in Christ, we do not get what we deserve. He has already born it our own behalf. He drank the cup for us. For all who are in Christ, it is empty…and it is finished.
As we close, I want us to think briefly together about prayer. Prayer is the central activity of Jesus between the Last Supper and the arrival of Judas. Jesus prays and, in the mystery of God, what he prays for he does not receive. The cup does not pass from him. Instead, he must drink it. The salvation we cherish comes about, in part, because Jesus did not get what he prayed for. Jesus, in his human nature, was like all of us and wanted to avoid drinking the cup of wrath, but he submitted his human will to the Father’s. yet not what I will, but what you will.
As he prays, what does Jesus call his disciples to be doing: Stay here and keep watch. I think this is good advice and an excellent example for us in the coming weeks. As we cannot gather in person, it may be tempting to grow sleepy in our faith, to get weary in our prayers, for our eyes to grow heavy, like the disciples did on that night long ago. Yet, Jesus’ words are for us: Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
So this week, listen well to the words of Jesus – watch and pray. Let this time be an opportunity to grow in prayerfulness and watchfulness in your Christian life.
In the Spirit of obedience to Christ, let’s pray together: