“The Uncertainty of Obedience”

Mark 14:32-42

Final in the series “Embracing the Uncertain”

Obedience.  Parents, we like it when our kids willingly do what we ask them to do, don’t we?  Pet owners, we like obedience from our pets, too.  Employers appreciate and value employees who do what is expected in the way it is expected.  Legislators and law enforcement want us to obey our laws for the protection and promotion of civil society.

Obedience ensures safety.  Don’t touch the hot stove. Hold my hand in the parking lot. But obedience gets a little trickier for us as we grow up.  Teens don’t often like to follow Mom and Dad’s rules, no matter how many of those rules are for their safety.  Even as adults, we sometimes play fast and loose with the rules ourselves.  That 35 mph speed limit is just a suggestion, right?

The disciples knew whose rules they wanted to follow, but they weren’t necessarily known for their obedience.  They argued when Jesus told them to stop.  They tried to heal relying on their own power, rather than praying for God’s power.  But on that first day of the week, they carried out Jesus’ instructions.  As he told them, they went into a village, found a colt, untied it and brought it to him.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day, as the crowds waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna.”  The atmosphere was abuzz.  It was a celebration, in line with the words of the prophet, who had written, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on the foal of a donkey.”  That day, even the crowds were obedient to the rules.

Yet, as we know, human obedience and loyalty is often fickle.  This holy week that began in shouts of praise and joy ended in cries of lament and sorrow.  It was a week of life and death, of gaining and losing, of obedience and disobedience.  Before it was over, the triumphant cries of hosanna became angry shouts of “Crucify him.”

The disciples began the week obeying Jesus’ words.  However, in Gethsemane, as Jesus prayed, they fell into disobedience and disloyalty.

Jesus and his disciples had celebrated the Passover meal. Passover is a Jewish feast that commemorates God leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea and into freedom in the wilderness and eventually to the Promised Land.  It is a lengthy, ritualistic meal, during which symbolic foods are shared as the story is retold.  Wine was also part of the celebration.

After the meal, they went to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus predicted that all his disciples would abandon him.  But Peter objected:  “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (Mark 14:29).  In other words, Peter claimed he would be strong and true enough to stay the course, to stick with Jesus, no matter what happened.  But Jesus warned him that Peter would deny him three times that very night.  Peter answered, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (14:31).

On the Mount of Olives, they came to a place called Gethsemane.  He left all but Peter, James and John, who he took with him as he went to pray.  Jesus became deeply distressed and asked the three to stay awake and watch in prayer as he went further to pray.  However, each time Jesus came back from praying, he found the three of them asleep.  Peter who had told Jesus he could count on him; James and John who earlier had told Jesus they could bear whatever he would go through – all three failed to stay awake and pray that night, as Jesus prayed in distress.

After this scene, one of his disciples, Judas, returned with the Temple police and Jewish leaders, and he betrayed Jesus into their hands.  When Jesus was arrested and taken away, his disciples all fled for their lives into the darkness, running for their lives in whatever direction seemed good at the time.  Except Peter.  He followed Jesus at a safe distance.

We should not be too quick to condemn the disciples for sleeping or even for fleeing.  It was likely very late at night; they had all enjoyed wine with their Passover dinner.  Jesus went off to pray, for who knows how long, and it’s hard sometimes just to stay awake in prayer first thing in the morning or in worship.  Yet the writer wants us to understand something about this aspect of the story.

Jesus had told his disciples to stay awake, keep watch and pray.  Not so they could be his bodyguards, but because he knew what was coming next.  He knew he would be arrested and handed over by his enemies for crucifixion and death.  So he offered them time to prepare themselves through prayer for what was coming.  He had tried to tell them on multiple occasions, even that evening, but they did not understand.

So they squandered their opportunity to pray by sleeping.  They were not prepared.  They had failed to recognize the coming trial.  When the time came to rise and go, they got up and went in the wrong direction – away from Jesus.

To be prepared to obey God’s call in our lives, we, too, must stay awake, keep watch and pray continually.  Falling asleep, which is the New Testament image for not maintaining a vital relationship with God.  Sometimes we sleep because we are tired and distracted by many things in life, so it is easier to take our faith for granted than to tend it.  At other times, the challenges and questions of life can seem too difficult and complex.  Still other times, we tell ourselves that we have arrived, so we don’t need to tend our soul and grow in faith, so we sleep because there’s nothing more to do.  Falling asleep in our spiritual lives also presumes that our spirits are willing, but fails to realize that our flesh is weak. Only by learning to remain awake in prayer can we be ready to go the way of Jesus when the time comes.

While the disciples provide the example of the limits of human willingness to obey God’s call, the Gospels convey to us the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was perfectly obedient to the purpose of God.  Jesus lived his life and carried out his ministry obedient to God’s will.  The Apostle Paul points out the extent of Jesus’ obedience to God in his letter to the Philippians.  In the second chapter he wrote:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

And yet Gethsemane paints the picture of us of our Lord who struggles with obeying this point of God’s purpose. In fact, the Greek word describing Jesus’ feelings indicates the greatest degree of struggle and suffering. Alone in Gethsemane, he prays three times, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).

One of the most difficult ideas in Christianity for some to accept is that Jesus Christ was both fully divine and fully human.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane intends to reveal the humanity of Jesus.  He is someone who understands our human condition, because he has experienced life in our flesh.  The author of the book of Hebrews lifted up this point in Hebrews 5:7-9a, where it reads, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him …”   In chapter 4 of Hebrews, the writer stated, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Jesus remained obedient to God’s purpose, even as he prayed for the cup to be removed.  In the end, he submitted himself to God’s will, and prayed, “Yet not what I want, but what you want,” or in the words of another translation, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”

Jesus could remain obedient to God because of his relationship with God, even in the hardest moments of his life.  His obedience led him in chains to the council of Jewish leaders, who wanted him dead because he was disrupting their system and challenging their authority. He was turned over to the Roman governor, who despite finding no guilt in Jesus and because he wanted to keep the peace, handed Jesus over to be mocked, beaten and crucified on a Roman cross.  He died in humiliation, between two criminals, and was buried in a borrowed tomb, before his body could be fully prepared for burial because the Sabbath day was about to begin.

As Paul wrote, “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”  Jesus came into the disobedience of the world so he could show us the way of obedience to God.  He came to offer us a new way of life and of being, one that runs counter to the world (even disobedient to the world) and is faithful, loyal and obedient to God.  In obedience to God we discover true freedom and hope for life in the world today and in eternity to God.

The question for us is, Which path will we follow?  Here, on this Palm and Passion Sunday, we are celebrating the arrival of this Jesus.  Will we choose to follow the Jesus who fulfills our needs, meets our expectations and makes us comfortable?  We’d like the Jesus who brings us glory, but we forget that he was glorified because of his humble and obedient suffering.

Or will we allow him to lead us into the uncertain places of surrender, self-sacrifice and obedience?  What areas of your life have you chosen not to follow him, but chosen a comfortable path?  Maybe you’ve given in to temptations that control you, guilt and shame that haunt you, prejudice that warps your thinking, bitterness that keeps you from forgiving, selfishness that presents you from offering your gifts and time to make a difference, anxiety that blocks God’s joy.  Or maybe you’ve given in to something else.  Whatever it is, learn from the Palm Sunday crowds and align your actions and will with those of Jesus, who comes as he is. Learn from the disciples and wake up from your sleep so you can be prepared and follow Jesus no matter the cost.

Doing this begins with a choice today and continues with a constant choosing.  It also requires a regular discipline of hearing God’s voice and learning to trust and surrender.

How do we hear God’s voice?  Rely on scripture.  Through the Bible we can listen for the word of God working in our lives.  We can find guidance, hope, encouragement and confidence for even the toughest moments of life.  If you don’t read scripture regularly, I invite you to see the list of scriptures for Holy Week in The Messenger.  It’s a good way to get started.

Rely on other Christians.  Surround yourself with thoughtful, prayerful people you can trust.  Choose people who have your best interest in mind, even if it means they might tell you something you don’t want to hear.  Invite them to be brutally honest.  And always check what they tell you against scripture.

Pray continually – as you read scripture, as you listen to others, and in silence, listen for the voice of God.  Even when it seems that our prayers aren’t doing any good, remember that every time you pray, it is doing good.  God is present and listening. God cares and loves you.  By the way, as Jesus modeled, don’t be afraid to tell God your deepest thoughts and feelings.

Jesus remained obedient to God’s purpose, even though it meant suffering.  Why did he do it?  It was not out of duty or obligation.  It was because of his love for you and me.  Because of his obedience, we are offered a fresh start in life, with our sins forgiven and our guilt and shame removed.  He invites us to enter into that life by responding to the invitation and walking in his way of obedience, praying to God, “Not what I want, but what you want.”

Comments are closed.