Sunday, March 20, 2016

"At the Center" (Luke 22: 39-46)

What would you do if you knew this was your last night?
Last night for what? Doesn’t matter.
Let’s say you are a presidential candidate, and it’s the last night before the election. What would you do? You’d be campaigning. You’d be working hard, furiously, giving speeches until your voice is hoarse, going from place to place to place, trying to get every last vote you can.
It would be a very busy last night.
Let’s say it’s the last night before a big test. What would you do? You’d study. You’d drink some coffee, and study some more.
It would be a very busy last night.
Let’s say it’s your last night on earth. A close friend has already gone to alert your enemies of your wherabouts, and they are on their way to arrest you, an arrest that you know will lead to your execution. What would you do?
Run? Hide? Prepare to fight?
Jesus has supper with his friends… and then he goes out to the garden to pray.
Now, maybe a student studying for a big test would say a little prayer in the midst of their studying; or maybe a presidential candidate would mutter a little prayer as they walk up to the podium. But Jesus’s prayer is not like that. He prays so long that his friends actually fall asleep waiting for him to finish. This, despite all the anxiety they may have been feeling.
Is that how you would spend your last night?
On this Palm Sunday, my focus is on Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane. It ties in very well with the focus on prayer we’ve had throughout this Lenten season.
And I’d like to get a little technical with you here this morning.
The first thing I want to share with you is that not everything in the scripture we just heard was written by Luke. Scholars have determined that verses 43 and 44 were written by someone else, and added later. Those are the verses that talk about Jesus being in anguish, needing an angel to come and give him strength, and his sweat becoming like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
That’s not a part of Luke’s story. These details were added in. When scholars study scriptures, they note that these verses aren’t even included in all of the ancient manuscripts; some of those ancient sources have them, and some do not.
And they just don’t fit with how Luke thinks of Jesus. Throughout the entire gospel of Luke, Jesus is in control. He’s at peace. No matter what is happening around him.
That is a difference between Jesus in Luke, and Jesus as he appears in Mark’s gospel. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is distressed; he is agitated; he is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. And that’s before he even starts praying.
Jesus can be quite emotional in Mark’s gospel.
But not in Luke. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is always in control of his emotions. Always. The only exception is here, in verses 43 and 44. Because Luke didn’t write those verses.
Now, I want to show you something. For our in-depth study this morning, let’s omit these two verses. Let’s take them out. I’m not saying we should completely remove them from our Bibles, but just for now, for the sake of our study, let’s omit them, and see what happens.
The scene opens with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” But look how the scene ends: It ends with Jesus saying those same words.
So at the beginning and at the end, Jesus says to his disciples, “Pray… Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
Now, we’re going to move in from those two parallel sayings. We’re going to move in from the beginning and the end, toward the center. Because what we have here is what is called a chiastic scripture passage.
Chiastic comes from the Greek letter CHI, which looks to us like the letter X. And what do you notice about the shape of the letter X? It’s symmetrical. It’s wide at the top, wide at the bottom, but the two lines come together at the center.
This scripture passage works the same. It’s symmetrical. You could fold it in the middle, and what happens at the beginning matches what happens at the end.
And at the center of this scripture passage, it all comes together.
At the beginning and the end, Jesus says to his disciples: “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” See that?
Let’s move in a little bit closer to the center. We’re not going all the way to the center yet, just a little bit.
After Jesus tells the disciples to pray the first time, the scripture says “he withdrew from them.”
Down at the bottom, before he tells them again to pray, the scripture says “he came to them.”
The symmetry continues; you can see how these two phrases match up. He withdraws from the disciples. He comes back to the disciples.
Moving in a little closer to the center from the top, we read that Jesus “knelt down.”
Moving in a little closer to the center from the bottom, in the corresponding passage, we read that Jesus “got up.”
Still, the symmetry continues.
And then we arrive at the center. And at the center are the words Jesus prayed: “Father, if you are willling, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
At the center, we have Jesus praying.
At the beginning and the end, we have Jesus telling his disciples to pray.
At the center, Jesus prays that he may not give in to the temptation to seek his own will, but that God’s will be done.
At the beginning and end, Jesus tells his disciples to pray that they may not give in to temptation.
You see the symmetry? You see the chiastic structure of this passage?
It’s beautiful, no?
Chiasms like this appear throughout the Bible. You can find them in Genesis, Eccelsiastes, Amos, Isaiah, Joshua, Romans, and elsewhere. The whole story of Noah’s ark, almost four chapters long, has a chiastic structure.
One of the benefits of a chiastic structure is that it helps you remember the story. Keep in mind, the story of Noah and the ark was passed down orally from generation to generation before it was ever put to paper. And it’s a long story to remember. With a chiastic structure, you really only have to remember half the story, working your way to the center; working your way from the center to the end is then a piece of cake.
So if you remember that Noah waited seven days for the flood to begin, and then it rained for forty days, and then there were 150 days of water covering the earth, then it shouldn’t be hard to remember that Noah waited 150 more days for the water to start going down, then 40 days until he sent out the raven, and then seven days until he sent out the dove.
And at the very center of that story is the phrase: “God remembered Noah,” which really is what the story is all about, right?
At the center of the story is where it all comes together. And at the center of our scripture passage from Luke is prayer.
Of course, prayer is also at the beginning and the end.
On Jesus’s last night – his last few hours, actually – he spent his time in prayer.
We are entering the holiest week of the year. If you haven’t been spending much time in prayer this Lenten season, be sure to find some time to pray this week.
Prayer, of course, takes many forms.
Reading the psalms is prayer.
Singing a song of praise is prayer, if the meaning of the words is in your heart.
Sitting in silence is prayer.
Some people can’t sit; walking a path in quiet contemplation is prayer, coloring in a coloring book is prayer, writing in a spiritual journal is prayer.
Doing a craft can be prayer, if it helps focus your thoughts on God. Gardening can be prayer.
I myself engage in any number of these different ways of praying. I’ve said it before: the way I pray up here in the pulpit is a very specific type of prayer, a public worship prayer. My prayers in private are certainy a lot less structured, and a lot less wordy.
A few weeks ago, I lay in bed, awake and anxious. Earlier that day I had started looking at this Palm Sunday scripture, and Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane. I started repeating to myself the prayer Jesus said: “Not my will, but yours.” Repeating that over and over to myself, I found calm, and was able to fall asleep.
On Friday I will be here at noon, in the sanctuary to pray. Depending on who shows up, we may say a prayer together, we may sing a song, but mostly we’ll just sit in silence. There won’t be any structure to it. I’ll print out some prayers, and Bibles and hymnals will of course be available.
I know not all of you can come on Friday. But you can pray at home. And you can come Thursday evening to our Maundy Thursday worship.  Hopefully I’ll be there, I was too sick to come last year!
After Jesus had finished praying – while he was still telling the disciples that they needed to pray so that they may avoid temptation – one who was not there with them praying arrived with a crowd to arrest Jesus.
Judas did not pray to avoid temptation, and there he was, betraying Jesus with a kiss.
As for the other disciples, temptation arrived for them as well.
One of them even pulled out his weapon and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. But Jesus said, “No more of that!” and he touched and healed that slave’s ear.
Clearly, the temptation to violence is one of the greatest – and perhaps the greatest – temptation that Jesus wanted the disciples to avoid.
Then they seized Jesus and led him away. The disciple named Peter followed at a distance, but when he was asked if he was with Jesus, he denied it. Three times.
Perhaps he, also, should have stayed awake and prayed to avoid temptation.
When Jesus told the disciples to pray that they may not come into temptation, I think he – or at least Luke – intended that message for us as well. There is temptation all around us.
Most significantly, I think, is the temptation to water down the radical, transforming message of the gospel. We’re really good at giving lip service to the gospel – just as Judas gave lip service to Jesus.
But every day, we face the temptation to store up treasures on earth rather than in heaven.
We face the temptation to make Jesus our own personal savior, rather than the savior of the whole world.
We face the temptation to say what we need to say to save our own life, much like Peter did.
And, we face the temptation to use violence. As individuals we may not be violent in our actions, but we live in a world where nations – including our own – are too quick to resort to violence. We still support state-sanctioned executions. We look the other way when violence is committed on our city streets. We forget that Jesus never once engaged in acts of violence, not even to save his own life.
There are a lot of temptations in life. There are many distractions that pull us away from the life we should be living.
But remember: at the center of it all is a God who remembers.
At the center of it all is prayer.
Prayer is at the center.
May it be so for you.

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