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“Questions at the Cross: Could You Not Keep Watch with Me?
Matthew 26:40

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service II—February 20, 2013

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

During Lent this year, for both our special evening and Sunday morning services, we are considering “Questions at the Cross,” questions asked by Jesus and others during the first Holy Week.  The entire sermon series is listed on the back of this evening’s bulletin.

So far we have looked at the question Jesus asked in preparation for the Last Supper, “Where Is My Guest Room?” And the question Judas asked before his dastardly deed, “What Will You Give Me If I Betray Him?”   This evening we continue with the question Jesus asks Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Could You Not Keep Watch with Me?”

The events of this evening’s Gospel Reading take place on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, memorialized in the Words of Institution for Holy Communion as “the night when he was betrayed.”  The Gospels tell us that after their Last Supper in the Upper Room, Jesus and his disciples sing a final hymn, and then hike down through the Kidron Valley on the eastern side of Jerusalem, up the Mount of Olives, and into an olive grove called the Garden of Gethsemane.

I’ve been blessed to visit Jerusalem several times.  I bought this Lenten stole there 31 years ago, when I was a pre-seminary college student.  So, I have made this hike from Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.  The city, where the Last Supper took place, is built up on Mt. Zion.  On the east side of the city runs the Kidron Valley, which is a deep ravine.  The land rises up from this ravine to the Mount of Olives, where the Garden of Gethsemane is located.  Going from Jerusalem down into the Kidron Valley and back up to the Garden of Gethsemane is about a half-hour of pretty arduous climbing.  It’s like hiking down the Loess Hills from Sioux City, about where the War Eagle statute is located, and then climbing back up again.

When they arrive at the Garden of Gethsemane most of the disciples stay at the entrance while Jesus goes inside with his three closest disciples, and dearest earthly friends, Peter, James, and John.  “Sit here while I go over there and pray,” he tells them.  “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me. . .  Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

During their hike together over to the garden Jesus warned them about the greatest temptation that soon would be coming upon them: “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.”  Over and over again, Jesus had clearly told his disciples the horrifying things that awaited him at Jerusalem: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death, and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” But, even though Jesus had explicitly warned his disciples exactly what his horrible fate at Jerusalem that week would be, they still couldn’t accept it, they still thought there must be a glorious outcome to that week, for Jesus, and for them too. 

On their way to Jerusalem, James and John had contrived to have their mother ask Jesus a favor: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  When the other disciples heard about this, they were angry with the brothers.  You see, despite all that Jesus told them about his imminent suffering and death at Jerusalem, they thought he was going there to be acclaimed by the people as a great king.  And, just as the winning presidential candidate’s top campaign aides follow him into the White House, the disciples were certain that as Jesus’ chosen followers by the end of Holy Week they would be in power too, ruling with the great King Jesus from Pontius Pilate’s palace.

But, now, instead, in just a few hours he will suffer under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried.  The only crown upon Jesus’ head will be a painful crown of thorns pressed down upon his bloody brow.  The only royal purple robe this king will wear is when he is dressed in mockery by the soldiers.  The only scepter he will bear is a staff they thrust into his hands to complete the comical costume, and then use to savagely beat him.  The only homage he will receive is when his tormentors kneel before him and taunt him with the sarcastic cry, “Hail, king of the Jews!”  Instead of gloriously reigning from Pontius Pilate’s palace, as the disciples dream, in just a few hours that is where he will be condemned to death.  Instead of being inaugurated to rule upon a throne, King Jesus will be hung to die upon a cross.

“‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus warns Peter on the way over to Gethsemane, ‘today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows you will deny me three times.’  But, Peter insisted emphatically, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.’ And all the others said the same.”  That was the greatest temptation that will soon be coming upon them, what the New Testament calls the shame, the offense, the scandal of the cross.  Tempted to turn away from Jesus and deny him as their Lord and Master in his hour of agony.

And that is exactly what happens.  After Jesus’ arrest in the garden, Peter at first follows and waits in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace while Jesus is on trial inside.  But, when a servant girl challenges him, “Are you not one of his disciples?” Peter calls down curses on himself and swears, “I don’t know the man!”  And, it isn’t only Peter who denies him.  For, on the way to Gethsemane all the disciples had pledged to die with him rather than ever deny him.  But, the Gospels sadly report that just an hour later, when he is arrested, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.”

“Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?  . . .  Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  It is natural that the disciples would be sleepy.  It’s been a long week and a long day.  Now it’s about 11:00 o’clock at night, they’ve just eaten a large meal at the Last Supper, and then they hiked down Mt. Zion, through the Kidron Valley, and back up to the Garden of Gethsemane.  So, when Jesus chastises them, it’s not so much for being sleepy.  He chastises them because their natural sleepiness is also symbolic: symbolic of their spiritual weakness and lethargy, and our spiritual weakness and lethargy.

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Like the disciples, our flesh is weak.  Just as they succumb to physical sleep, we often are afflicted with spiritual weakness and lethargy.  Paul expresses it this way in Romans: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”

Just as the disciples in the weakness of the flesh are overcome with sleep, we in the weakness of our flesh fall prey to many sins.   There is only one antidote to our spiritual lethargy: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”  Prayer is like a spiritual energy drink to help you overcome your spiritual lethargy, so that you have the strength to resist temptation.

We see this in the example of Jesus himself, as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is tempted far beyond what any mere human ever has been.  For, he is being tempted to avoid the greatest agony in history, taking the sins of the world upon himself.  He is being tempted to avoid the shame, the offense, the scandal of the cross.  “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” he told his disciples.

And, what does Jesus do when confronted with this horrible burden, and the terrible temptation to avoid his suffering and death on the cross?   “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed.”  Prayer is a like a spiritual energy drink, which strengthens him to fulfill his heavenly Father’s will.

Three times he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  His suffering and crucifixion is like a bitter cup of poison looming before him—that he must drink and die.   He asks his Father if there is any other way, but each time he concludes, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

The disciples deserted Jesus and fled because they thought Holy Week had turned out all wrong; they thought Jesus was a failure.  It isn’t until after his resurrection that they understand and believe in the power of his death on the cross for our salvation.  As Peter proclaims in the book of Acts:  “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.  But . . . God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. . .  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. . . everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Peter later puts it this way in his First Epistle: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross . . . by his wounds you have been healed.”  Your sins are all forgiven because Jesus bore your sins in his body on the cross, paid for your sins with his suffering and death—by his wounds you have been healed!

The book of Hebrews says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”  The spiritual energy drink of prayer gives Jesus power to face the most agonizing, toughest time anyone has ever experienced.  He wants you to have that same power for the agonizing, tough times, the trials and temptations, that you face in your life.  “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. . .  Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

“Prayer” in this verse means first of all our individual, personal prayers and devotions.  As Jesus promises, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened unto you.” 

The “prayer” Jesus speaks of also includes what you’re doing here this evening, worshipping, singing, hearing his word, praying together with your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And just as Jesus “on the night when he was betrayed” knelt in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to receive strength from his heavenly Father, you kneel in prayer at the Lord’s altar to receive his body and blood to strengthen you in the true faith unto life everlasting.

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. . . Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”  But, when you live out your life without your personal prayers and devotions, the Lord asks you, like he did the disciples, “Could you not keep watch with me . . . ?” 

When you do not read your Bible, or attend Bible class or Sunday School, the Lord asks you, like he did the disciples, “Could you not keep watch with me . . . ?”

When you are absent from the services of the Lord’s house, the Lord asks you, like he did the disciples, “Could you not keep watch with me . . . ?”  

When your place is empty at the Lord’s table, the Lord asks you, like he did the disciples, “Could you not keep watch with me . . . ?”

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. . . Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”


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