King George V said at Flanders in 1922:
‘We can truly say that the whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead… and in the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come, then this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.’
The simple answer to that question the King asked himself is that there is an advocate of peace who is on a completely different plane even to that massed multitude – and that is Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Matthew 26.36-46. is the account of Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsmane after the Last Supper on the night before he died. We’re working our way through these final chapters of Matthew’s Gospel on Sunday mornings, and this is where we’ve got to today. But it’s very apt for Remembrance Sunday. On the day when we remember those who have died in war and honour the sacrifice that they made, what could be more fitting than also to remember the death of Jesus and to think about how he approached his death and to learn from him.
I’d like us to notice four things about Jesus here, and to think about what each one means for us. Firstly, Jesus is overwhelmed with sorrow. Secondly, Jesus submits to his Father’s will. Thirdly, Jesus encourages his disciples. And fourthly, Jesus goes to his death.
First, JESUS IS OVERWHELMED WITH SORROW
Take a look again at verses 36-38:
‘Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”Jesus knows full well what lies ahead of him. He’s told the disciples repeatedly that he’s going to be crucified. He’s under no illusions. And he’s heading to the cross not only to die an agonising physical death – but to take on himself the punishment justly due to fall on the world because of our sin. What that experience of suffering was like for him is beyond us to grasp. We cannot go to that holy place. But as we’re allowed to overhear him in Gethsemane, we are given just a glimpse of his suffering. And this is his suffering as he is thinking about what lies ahead. This is just the prelude. “My soul is overwhelmed even to the point of death”, he tells the disciples. He’s so disturbed and so full of sorrow at the prospect before him that the pressure almost crushes the life out of him there and then.
War brings great suffering, of course. Private Harry Patch is the last surviving British soldier to have fought in the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War. He turned 110 this summer. He recalled a day in 1917:
At Pilckem Ridge I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces when we went over the top. I came across a Cornishman, ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel… He was beyond all human aid… He just said 'Mother'. [And he died.] I will never forget it.
Just a generation after that the world was at war again. I have stood in Normandy, like many of us, no doubt, among wave upon wave of neat white crosses, each with carved into it a name, a rank, an age, a date – and most of them just boys, often teenagers, younger than my own son. Mankind has paid a heavy, heavy price for turning its back on God and his ways of love.
The reality that lies behind Remembrance Sunday is almost too much for our minds and hearts to bear. But it’s right that we make the deliberate effort that’s necessary. It’s right that we face head on the brutal facts of war in living memory, and remember the countless millions of lives that have been lost. And it’s right that in this country we thank God for the freedom that even now we enjoy as a result of the tremendous sacrifices made by earlier generations.
But if we want to find hope, and if we want things to change, it’s not enough to remember the sacrifice of those who died in war. If we’re going to find a way out, we have to remember continually that other brutal and bloody death – the death of Jesus. The words of Jesus at Gethsemane focus our minds on what he went through for the sin of the world that is the underlying cause of all war. Never forget the depth of the suffering of Jesus for us. That’s the first thing for us to see here: Jesus is overwhelmed with sorrow. Then:
Secondly, JESUS SUBMITS TO THE FATHER’S WILL
You can see this in verse 39:
‘Going a little farther, [Jesus] fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”’
Then after Jesus has spoken with the disciples, he prays again (verse 42):
“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
Knowing full well what it will mean, Jesus freely and voluntarily submits to his heavenly Father’s will. At one level, it is plainly not what he wants. “Not as I will,” he prays – and yet that very prayer is a declaration that at the deepest level his will is precisely that the Father’s will be done, whatever the consequences for him. This is the Holy Trinity in action – at the very moment that the distinction between the Father and the Son is made evident, so is their unity.
What does this mean for us? For one thing, be thankful to Jesus that for our sakes he was willing to do what he didn’t want to do, if I can reverently put it like that. The suffering he went through for us was no optical illusion or spiritual sleight of hand. It was real and he didn’t want it. But he willingly accepted it. Be thankful to him – always.
And for another thing, be inspired by the example of Jesus to submit to God’s will for your life. It might be hard, in any number of ways. It will not be as hard as the experience Jesus went through out of love for us. Thank God we’re not called to die his death. But we are called to learn to love like him.
An Army Chaplain of World War I wrote to his civilian congregation from a Casualty Clearing Station in Pas de Calais in France in August 1916:
The lad in Bed 8 was wounded…, and as I go to Bed 7 he observes, “He is my pal, he is. He wanted to join me out here and he came up ten days ago. He went up with me to the trenches last night – his first time in. I’m afraid he’s bad. Hard luck, isn’t it, first night?” No 7 died that night… Only two hours. But in a short time he fulfilled a long time. Two hours is plenty out here to give all you have to give – the sacrifice of your life.
The greatest love is ready to give everything, even to die if necessary. All other forms of love, the kinds with which we’re most familiar, are mixed with earth-bound self-interest. The greatest love sets aside self-interest and is ready to lay down its life those who are loved. Most warfare is conducted with very mixed motives, but such love is at times exemplified in the heat of battle.
The obituary of an old soldier who had seen much action quoted the citation that accompanied the award of the Military Cross to him. He was, it said, "completely imperturbable under heavy artillery and mortar fire" and carried on his work with "complete disregard for his own safety". "He has been completely unsparing of himself..." it concluded. He did not spare himself.
Look at Jesus, and learn to submit to God’s will for your life. We are not to spare ourselves, but to give ourselves in his service – just as Jesus submits to his Father’s will. That’s the second thing for us to see. Thirdly, JESUS ENCOURAGES HIS DISCIPLES
For this, let me read verses 40-44:
Then [Jesus] returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
It’s not just them who struggle to “watch and pray”. Surely we see ourselves reflected in the way those disciples behave. They are weak. We are weak. We need to be clear about that and not kid ourselves. Be aware of how weak we are under pressure. And know what the antidote to our weakness is. What is it? It is to pray. Keep asking God to help you “watch and pray”. We can only overcome our weakness by drawing on his strength to change us.
When we become friends of Jesus, he changes us from within. We have a new nature. That new nature is like Jesus. It has his characteristics. It gives us the capacity for purposeful self-sacrifice.
Selfishness is still alive within us, even if it is no longer at the very core of our being. There is still a great struggle within us between self-centredness and our readiness for sacrificial service of others. We still have a lot to learn about living a life of the greatest love, and keeping spiritually alert and prayerful. It is the living friendship of Jesus, and the power of his Spirit within us, which enable us to do that.
A medical officer who closely observed the aircrews of Bomber Command came to the conclusion that we each have a finite stock of courage. The battle-hardened veteran was a mythical figure, he realised. Sustained exposure to danger did not harden a soldier but eroded his limited resources. What armed forces needed was a system of rotation in and out of battle which eked out that stock of courage.
Like Peter and those other disciples, our ability to keep on watching and praying is indeed severely limited. But the resources of Jesus are unlimited. If we are to watch and pray, and live for him, we need to be drawing on his resources and not relying on our own.
We need to fight against the selfishness that persists within us. Again and again we must commit ourselves to lives of purposeful self-sacrifice for the sake of others. And we need to know that we can only live like that if we stay close to Jesus - depending on him, trusting him, drawing strength from him.
Watching and prayer and sustaining a life of daily giving to others is in some ways as difficult as being ready literally to die. I remember a few years ago talking to a very old man called Herbert Jenkinson shortly before he died. In his late teens he had fought in the trenches of the First World War. Later, for many decades, he had been a missionary in Africa. I imagined that as he looked back over his life, it would be that time in the blood soaked fields of France that would stand out for him as his toughest experience. Not so. It was the struggles of serving Christ as a missionary once the first flush of youthful zeal had passed that he remembered as the greatest challenge of his life.
Age does not weary those who have died, but we who live easily grow weary. The 19th century social reformer Lord Shaftesbury worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the poor. He was motivated by his faith in Christ. As an elderly man he said once to a close friend:
‘If I followed my own inclination I would sit in my armchair and take it easy for the rest of my life. But I dare not do it. I must work as long as life lasts.’
So must we, with God’s help. We need to be aware of how weak we are under pressure without help. And we need to keep asking him to help us to “watch and pray”. Take encouragement from Jesus. That’s the third thing for us to see here. Then finally:
Fourthly, JESUS GOES TO HIS DEATHLook on to verses 45-46:
‘Then [Jesus] returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”’
Here’s a newspaper report from July of this year. It relates to an incident in Helmand Province, Afghanistan last February:
‘A Royal Marine who jumped on a hand grenade to save the lives of three comrades is to receive the George Cross for gallantry. The hand grenade, part of a Taliban booby trap, rolled among the Marines during an operation in Afghanistan earlier this year. Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher had less than seven seconds to make up his mind about whether to risk sacrificing his own life to save his friends. Without hesitation he chose to save his friends. “It was a case of either having four of us as fatalities or badly wounded or one,” he said after the incident. Lance Corporal Croucher was part of a company of 40 Commando sent to investigate a suspected Taliban bomb-making factory … when he set off the trip wire that unleashed the grenade. “I thought I’ve set the … thing off and I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect the others.”
Remarkably, Lance Corporal Croucher survived without serious injury. Jesus deliberately set out, knowing he would not escape death. Lance Corporal Croucher was willing to die for his friends. Jesus died for his enemies. He died so we could become his friends. He died to liberate us from sin and death and hell. One soldier remembered taking part in the liberation of France following the Normandy landings. He said:
‘... we found villagers and townspeople who clustered beside the road, waving and throwing flowers, and shouting words of encouragement as we sped by. If we paused for a moment's respite, amidst our own sweat and dust, they would run to greet us, arms outstretched, with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks. Five years of emotional deprivation expressed itself in a volcanic surge of feeling which engulfed us all. I was hugged and kissed until my face and ribs ached…’
There in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus went to his death. He died to liberate us. On the cross he won the decisive victory. So grieve over the depth of human sin that breaks out in warfare again and again with such terrible consequences and that sent Jesus to his death. But above all, rejoice in the redemption that came by the cross. Jesus died to set us free. War and death is not the last word about humanity. There is hope. And that hope lies in Jesus.
So what can we learn as we watch Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus is overwhelmed with sorrow. Never forget the depth of his suffering for the world. Jesus submits to his Father’s will. We need to be thankful that he was willing to do that for our sakes – and learn to submit to God’s will for our lives. Jesus encourages his disciples to watch and pray – so draw strength from him. Jesus goes to his death. So grieve over the sin of the world that sent him to the cross. But rejoice that he died to set us free.