Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On prayers in the Garden

“Then Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:41-42)

This is one of the few prayers of Jesus that has been recorded for us. It comes from the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, and it teaches three truths about prayer:

(1) Jesus is not bashful about saying what he wants.

(2) Jesus knows he may not get what he wants.

(3) Jesus will ultimately align himself with what God is doing in the world.

Anybody who prays can speak of these insights. We must ask God for our heart’s desires. We have to respect God enough to receive whatever answer is given to our requests. And when the dust settles, the deeper call is to accept whatever God provides or doesn’t provide, so that we can participate in God’s greater desires for the world.

Some are surprised that Jesus prayed to avoid his death. That, after all, is the “cup” which he wants removed. The church records this all-too-human moment in the Savior’s life. It seems as if he seeks an alternative to the cross. And why not? There will be humiliation, brutality, scorn, and heavenly silence. What healthy soul seeks such things?

Yet, whatever the reason, no alternative is provided - - and Jesus is crucified.

Later in Luke’s writings, the church will declare that Christ’s death on the cross was the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Yes, but such declarations can never be made in advance. It’s only after we hear the sound of hammer and nails that we hear Jesus pray again: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” God answers that prayer affirmatively. The cross becomes the signpost of salvation.

Centuries later, there’s a chapel in the Garden of Gethsemane called “The Church of All Nations.” It is surrounded by olive trees. In the garden, tour guides chat piously how some of those trees are ancient enough to have heard Jesus pray. Maybe so. But as you approach the door of the chapel, a sign warns: “No Explanations Inside the Church.”

The chapel of prayer is not a place for tourists or pious chatter. It is only for those who stand before the mystery of God’s ways in the world. It is for those who ask while kneeling.

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