Tuesday 15 April 2014

Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42)

I am coming home

Life was hard for 30-year old Wang Yongqiang. His mother committed suicide after a painful struggle with illness. His father suffers from a back injury preventing him from walking properly. Last year, Wang left his village in Hebei, China to work as a construction worker in Singapore. The money he gets helps to pay for his father’s medical bills and his daughter’s school fees.

But now that the one-year contract was over, Wang was finally coming home. He called his wife and asked her what she wanted from Singapore. “Anything,” she said. Wang surprised her by buying a ring for 1,800 yuan - a month’s paycheck in their village.

Wang knew his wife had lost her wedding ring while he was away. “If you didn’t lose it,” he said, “how can I buy something else for you?” He was so excited about the ring that he sent a photo to her mobile phone: The ring was gold with a decorative flower in a red box. Very Asian.

One week later, Wang took a five-hour bus-ride from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Before midnight on March 8th, 2014, Wang Yongqiang boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Today marks day thirty-six since the plane went missing.

His last words were, “Tell all our relatives I am coming home.”

Prayer is hard

When you are faced with a sudden tragedy and dealing with tremendous loss, the hardest thing you can do is pray. And yet, the most honest thing you can do is pray.

Prayer is hard when you’re hurt. When you’re angry and you’re frustrated, prayer is just hard. At the same time, prayer is honest. Everything inside you says, “Help me, please. Help me.”

In our passage today, Jesus prays this kind of prayer. In verse 34, Jesus says, “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” He falls to the ground and he prays.

I want us to see three things in today’s passage. I want us to see (1) Jesus praying with fear; (2) Jesus praying with friends; and (3) Jesus praying with faith.

Praying with fear

We begin with verse 32.

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.”
Mark 14:32-34

Jesus prays with fear in his heart. But how can Jesus be afraid of anything? He has faced demons. He has faced the devil. In a few moments, he knows he is going to face Judas and says, “Let’s go and meet my betrayer!” Jesus is fearless throughout Mark’s gospel.

But not here. Jesus is a broken man. Here, in a garden called Gethsemane, moments away from the cross, Jesus does not want to die. Let me say that again: Jesus does not want to die. And Jesus prays that he will not have to die.

Look at verse 35:

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.”
Mark 14:35-36

Essentially, Jesus is saying: Is there is any other way? Is there any other way for God to save without him being sacrificed. Any other way for us to be forgiven and for him not to be forsaken. Jesus is praying with fear.

The movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” released ten years ago, opens with this scene of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. If you watched it, you will remember how violent was the portrayal of Jesus’ torture leading up to the cross. The flesh being ripped from his back. The blood staining his entire body. The nails driven into his hands. The movie displayed how painful and how horrific it was for Jesus to go to the cross.

But the movie begins here - in the garden - because Jesus’ prayer here tells us why he died. Not just how he died but why he died. Not just how painful but how fearful it was. The cross was God’s will to condemn his son.

“Abba, Father,” Jesus says.

Doesn’t Jesus teach us to call God, “Our Father”? “Which of you,” Jesus says, “if his son asks for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:9-11)

Yet here, we find Jesus asking but not receiving. “Take this cup from me,” Jesus asks. “Let this hour pass from me,” he begs. “I do not want to die.”

The answer was no.

The cup which Jesus asks to be taken away is a picture of God's judgement over sin. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah described it as the cup of God's anger - all of his punishment for all of sin condensed into a single drink. It is interesting that a few verses earlier, Jesus gave thanks for the cup, shared the cup with his friends, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant poured out for many." Christians celebrate this in communion today.

Jesus understood that his death would mean our forgiveness. But Jesus also understood that his death would mean taking our judgement. On the cross, Jesus would be separated from his Father, crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" That's the bible's definition of death: To be forsaken - abandoned - by God. Knowing that, Jesus prayed that if possible, the cup would be taken away. He prayed that if possible, he wouldn't have to die.

Friends, when you find it hard to pray because prayer is just too difficult - just too painful - you are in good company. Jesus prayed with tears in his eyes and pain in his heart. But still, he prayed.

To pray is to ask God. I know a lot of people say, “Praying is just like talking to God.” That is not true. To pray is to ask God. And even though we might ask for wrong things with wrong motives - even though that’s true and the bible does warn us about that - the real problem is: many of us don’t ask. We do not pray.

Prayer is hard but prayer is also honest. “Please heal me. I do not want to die.” In a few moments, we will see what it means to pray with friends; which is what we usually do here in the Chinese Church. There is a crisis; we organise a prayer meeting; get all our friends together; and someone stands up to pray for our comfort, another one stands up to pray for our healing. But I am talking about how you deal with your pain when no one else is in the room. And I’m telling you: You can pray. Your sorrow and your pain should lead to pray not away from it. It should bring you to your knees.

Because Jesus prayed knowing the answer to his prayer was not the one he was looking for. Because Jesus prayed when no-one else was praying for him.

Praying with friends

Verse 37:

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
Mark 14:37-38

Three years ago, I was preached on this passage and after the sermon someone came up to me to apologise. He said, “Do you the part where you said, ‘Are you asleep?’ Well, I was asleep. During your sermon.”

It is possible to read this verse and think Jesus wanted them to feel bad. They were supposed to pray but they fell asleep - three times! But Jesus doesn’t say that. “Watch and pray for my sake.” No, Jesus says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Jesus was worried about them.

They thought Jesus was being paranoid. In verse 27, when Jesus says, “You will all fall away,” Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” Big words. “You can count on me, Jesus. I’ll be there.” That’s why Jesus says to him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?”

The reason we don’t pray is the reason we do not listen. It’s pride. It’s not that you’re busy or lazy or you don’t know how. It’s because you’re proud. “I can deal with that problem myself.” Even when God says, “No, you can’t,” you think, “He’s talking about someone else because I’m OK.”

Get this: Jesus is not asking them to pray for him. He is saying: they need to pray for themselves. At the end of Rock bible study when we go round and share our prayer requests, and you say, “Don’t trouble yourself.” You think you’re being humble. You’re being stupid.

Verse 39:

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.
Mark 14:39-40

Meaning: They had no excuse. They had a big dinner. It was late. You know how it is. Jesus caught them sleeping and they were embarrassed, that’s all.

But I think the reason why Mark tells us, “They did not know what to say,” is: they knew they messed up. Even if they didn’t understand what was going on, “The Son of Man will be betrayed” - “What did he mean by that?”; even if it had been a long day; even if they thought Jesus was crazy; they could see him falling to the ground; hear him calling out, “Father! Father!” If your friend comes to you and says, “This is killing me,” and you ignore him? You are a lousy friend.

But the amazing thing is, Jesus loves his lousy friends.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)

Three times, they fall asleep. Three times, Simon denies Jesus. Three times, Jesus prays and reminds them to pray. It’s not a coincidence. Jesus is faithful even when we’re faithless.

I know that the easiest way to embarrass a roomful of Christians is to ask them, “How is your prayer life?” Many of us practice “horizontal” prayer times - those last five seconds in bed before you fall asleep. But I also know, Jesus is not guilting his friends into doing quiet time. He is worried for them. He is saying, “You don’t pray - you’re not prepared. Not for temptation. Not for suffering. If you don’t pray, you are standing on shaky ground.”

1 John 2:1 says that when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. Do you know what an advocate means? When you mess up big time, Jesus is praying for your forgiveness. He is saying to God, “Father, forgive them.” Even when we’re faithless, he is faithful.

I met a friend recently and asked him, “What’s new?” He said, “I have six months to live.” How do you respond to something like that? For what it’s worth, I said,  “Thank you for being honest with me. I am so sorry to hear that.” We talked about God. We talked about what the next six months would be like. But really, all he wanted to talk about was his family: how his mum took the news; how his kids would deal with the funeral.

Jesus is hours away from the cross and he is concerned for his friends. He prays for them, he prays with them; he reminds them to pray.

Praying with faith

Verse 41:

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 betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Mark 14:41-42

Jesus is betrayed, arrested and condemned. Good Friday - which is this Friday - reminds us that all this happened. So, the question is: How could Jesus have prayed with faith if God did not save him from death?

The bible tells us - this is Hebrews Chapter 5, verse 7 - “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

God heard his prayer and God answered his prayer. How can that be? He asked not to die but he died. He asked not to suffer but he was crucified. How could God have heard his prayer?

Because Jesus asked for God’s will to be done. And on the cross, God’s will was done.

What does it mean to pray with faith? Health and wealth and blessing? I was once in a church where the pastor prayed for a Mercedes Benz. “I have faith that God will give me that car.” Nonsense. If you understand Gethsemane, praying with faith means saying, “Not my will but yours.” It means trusting in God and entrusting yourself to God. It is seeking after God’s glory and not your glory.

Friends, prayer is not some kind of technique to get God to do what you want: Say the right words, use the right technique, God will bless you. Prayer is a reflection of your relationship with God. What we see in Jesus’ prayer is how much he loved his Father. What we see in Jesus’ prayer is how much he submitted himself to his Father. Prayer is a reflection of your relationship with God. What would your prayer life say about your relationship with God? Jesus’ prayer showed how much he loved his Father.

But if you are not a Christian here today, I want you to see how much God loves you. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” God loved you so much he gave his only Son.

If there was any other way, would God have sacrificed his Son? If you could be saved another way - by following Mohammed, by following Buddha - would God have sent Jesus to the cross? When Christians say Jesus is the only way, the only truth, the only life - people think that’s arrogant. But if you understand Jesus’ prayer, that is the most loving thing God could ever do for you. Because the only way God could forgive your sin was by sending his Son to die for your sin.

Jesus prayed with fear - because death is fearful. Jesus prayed with friends - not because he needed their prayers but because they needed his. Jesus prayed with faith - asking that God’s will be done, through the cross, through his death and through his resurrection - so that God would be glorified and that we could be justified.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Romans 8:32

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for giving us your Son,
The Lord Jesus Christ.
As a sacrifice for our sin.

For the sake of your Son,
forgive us and change us.
And by your Holy Spirit,
enable us to live a life pleasing to you.

Not my will but yours be done.

In Jesus’ name we pray,


Thursday 3 April 2014

God's mission - 2013 annual review


Most within the Chinese Church know us as the English Ministry. Some refer to our gatherings - quite rightly - as the youth ministry, with all their potential and zeal. But a friend recently asked me, “How is the international ministry at the Chinese Church?”

That really encouraged me - for us to be known as an international ministry of the Chinese Church - not because we’ve had hoards of people come to our gatherings (our average attendance is twenty!) but because (1) we’ve tried to be as welcoming as possible to newcomers (remembering Jesus’ words in Matt 25:38) and (2) we are part of God’s bigger plan to reach not simply the Chinese but all the nations of the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The biblical word for this is, of course, mission. As I reflect on the happenings of 2013, I present them under three missional headings: (1) God’s mission in his word, (2) God’s mission in his world, and (3) God’s mission for his church.

1. God’s mission in his word

At the centre of all our gatherings has been the preaching of the bible as the Word of God. We began the year finishing the book of Galatians in a series entitled, “Unnatural”; looking at how unnatural our lives appear to an unbelieving world, how supernatural God’s work is in sustaining the believer’s faith and how spiritual fruit results in people living not for themselves but for Jesus Christ.

We spent most of the year covering Acts 1 to 14, beginning with the ascension of Christ, moving on to Pentecost and the birth of the church, quickly leading to intense persecution of believers, scattering the Christians across the Gentile world. We saw how God’s way is not necessarily our way when it comes to accomplishing his mission. God is able to use difficult circumstances, like persecution; even difficult people, like Saul, to bring many to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Finally, we saw the birth of international missions: Paul and Barnabas sent out from a church they had planted in Antioch, which was incidentally, the first internationally-led church.

Our year-end series, “One-to-one”, was based on personal conversations with Jesus Christ as recorded in the first five chapters of John’s gospel. Each week, we heard Jesus speaking directly to individuals - to his friends, to his mum, to a theology professor, to a woman with a shameful past - different people with different circumstances; each time dealing with their presumptions and prejudices, each time revealing who he really is and what he came to do on the cross. In listening to Jesus speaking to them, my prayer was for God to enable us to hear Jesus speaking to us today.

2. God’s mission in his world

The Cambridge International Outreach (CIO) is a mission held each summer to reach language students. For two weeks, Winnie, Judy, Howai and Calvin joined a team of thirty Christians (who had also come from other parts of the world) to run language cafes and build friendships with internationals. It was a wonderful opportunity to work alongside brothers and sisters from other parts of the world in mission, to engage in meaningful conversations about Jesus with people who have genuine questions about the Christian faith and to be deeply encouraged hearing the gospel again and again for ourselves.

3. God’s mission for his church

Rock Fellowship had not just one, nor two, but THREE major retreats this year! Beginning with Word Alive in April, we took three cars up to Wales where we spent five days soaking in clear and inspiring teaching from the bible.

A couple of months later, we had our very first SOLID//ROCK Summer Weekend Away at Letton Hall, a majestic manor located in the beautiful English countryside of Norfolk. Bartow Wylie walked us through the entire book of Philippians to help us see what God sees when he looks at our lives in Christ.

We were back again in December for our Winter Weekend Away. This time, James Poole reminded us the reasons “Why we need the gospel” from the book of Romans - because of our sin, because of God’s anger over our sin and because of God’s solution to our sin through the cross of Jesus Christ.

With regards to mission, the purpose of these retreats was never to get us to do something but to rejoice in what God has already done. God’s mission is fulfilled in the church; and these gatherings - not least the meetings we have each Sunday, and each Wednesday night at Rock Fellowship - are reminders of that endpoint to his mission: that the world might look at the church and marvel at God’s handiwork in bringing sinful men and women together into his kingdom through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:10).

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for the work
That you finished
Through Jesus’ death on the cross

Forgive us when we forget that
It is your mission
and not ours;
Your glory that matters,
and not ours

Please give us the strength and courage
The faithfulness and the joy
To speak about Jesus
and to carry out his mission
To our friends, to our family,
And to the ends of the earth

In Jesus name we pray,