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One of the great mysteries of our faith is how it could be possible that the God who made the universe could possibly enter into time and humanity. In the garden of Gethsemane, we see just how human, just how like-us, Jesus became.

 

Matthew 26:36-56

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 26.

This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, which is a time of fasting in the Church calendar before Easter; remembering the brevity of our lives and pausing to wait and contemplate, praying with the psalmist: “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.

This kind of fasting and contemplation in our time and place is wildly countercultural. And if you ever hear, in our culture, the idea of life being short, usually it’s towards the conclusion, not that we should pause and wait, but that we should dive in, head first, sleep when we’re dead. Life is short, we say, so live it. I typed the phrase “life is short” into a search engine this week, and the wisdom of the world I received in response was to pursue passions, have an affair, take a trip. In our city, our bars are open 24/7. A famous bar near my house celebrates Christmas year-round. My wife read me a comment one of her friends posted online on Ash Wednesday: “Just two more weeks to the St. Patrick’s Day parade,” it read, “Can’t wait.”

And I get it—I love our city and its celebration of life, itself, if nothing else. But I also love the church’s steady insistence through the ages of our world to slow down. To take intentional time to wait, even in the midst of remembering how brief our lives are. To take a whole day each week to rest and play. God is constantly trying to teach us our limitedness, and his sufficiency. The truth is, the only thing necessary for true joy in our world is to love God and to be loved by him. Happiness, thriving, isn’t out there somewhere, you don’t have to find or earn it—you can’t. Thriving is found in dependence upon Christ and his kingdom. The reason we’re meant to fast and number our days, in Scripture, is so we can remember how unnecessary we are to everything truly important in the world.

Before you were born, God was accomplishing peace on earth, restoration of his world, salvation of his people. When you die, his work will not cease or be hindered. You are able to rest.

We’re starting a new series this morning, through this season of Lent, on what is traditionally known as the stations of the cross, which help us think through the moments leading up to the death of Christ. The stations are basically fourteen scenes in the last 24 hours of Christ’s life. Our good Friday service this year is going to be centered on praying through the stations of the cross, which—especially if you’ve never taken part in anything like that before—can be deeply meaningful. Today we are looking at the first two stations: Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus betrayed by Judas.

Read with me: Matthew 26:36-56. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

When you picture Jesus, what do you picture? What kind of man is he in your mind? Think about the expression you usually give him. Is he smiling, joking with the disciples? When he’s teaching, is he staring importantly at the skies, Charlton Heston style, or is he energetic, interacting with the people around him, interested, asking questions and waiting for genuine answers. Is he very stern and serious? Angry perhaps, hoping you’ll slip up so he can smite you with a holy smiting?

My conception of Jesus started with the pictures hung in my Sunday school classes, of a very kindly blue-eyed man with long hair. Something like this. Caucasian-looking, usually with a very well-groomed beard. White robe—I mean spotless—usually with a purple sash, new-looking leather sandals, which makes sense. I mean, it’s church, so you wash your clothes and wear your church shoes, right? If I had to do it, why should Jesus be any exception? I’m poking fun, a little bit, of those paintings, because when I first began to understand who Jesus was in history, I felt a bit lied to—but not anymore, now I kind of love these pictures of a Jesus who looks like me, and I think Jesus would love them, too.

For a while, I resented those depictions of Jesus. I would have told you very pointedly that they were so inaccurate. Jesus was Jewish, and he was poor, so brown skin stained browner by the sun. His clothes were dirty, his hair curly, with long hair around his ears left long out of Jewish custom of the time, the rest of his hair cut roughly with a knife. Razors were a later invention out of Africa, so imagine an unkempt beard. He worked construction, so strong, but people also tried to slander him as a drunkard and a glutton, so I imagine at least a little weight on him.

While it can be helpful to imagine Jesus, perhaps a little more accurately, I would point out that realism in literature is also a more recent invention, like the razor. The gospel writers wouldn’t have concerned themselves with communicating with any kind of accuracy as to dates or the way things looked. They are trying to communicate other things about Jesus than the way he looked.

I remember the first time I ever heard the claim that Jesus was black; I was offended. I was in college in a black literature class studying Marcus Garvey. I was feeling very defensive that year, I was at a state school, go vols, taking freshman biology, the bio professor was antagonistic to religious belief. Plus, my youth group had sent me away armed with a determination not to “go off the deep end,” but they never really explained what the deep end was. So I put black Jesus in a category in my mind together with drinking and evolution and textual criticism and episcopalianism, and anything which may qualify as “the deep end.”

Then in seminary, I became very close friends with a Nigerian man who told me when he imagines Jesus, he imagines him as a black man, and he said it with a smile so winning I couldn’t be offended, but I was so curious. This man was a pastor, a theologian, going back to Nigeria to take part in revival there. I asked him why he imagined Jesus that way, and he said he thought Jesus would want him to imagine him to be one of his people, one of his ancestors. He said Jesus emptied himself because he wanted to become a person like me, so I know he is a Jewish man, but I imagine him like me, too.

Looking back now, I realize those pictures in my Sunday school class taught me some very valuable lessons after all. They taught me the God of the universe became a person like me, a person who is kind, whom I can trust, who loves me.

And by now you may be wondering why on earth I’m talking about any of this. It’s because I want you to understand today, to really sit with the humanity of Christ. The main thing I want you to take away from my sermon today is just how human Jesus became when he emptied himself in the incarnation.

We tend to slant one way or the other in our thinking about Jesus. We either consider him to be divine, transcendent God, or we consider him to be just a man, a good man, maybe, a teacher, but not God. I would invite you today to believe and have faith in the astounding truth of the gospel, that in Jesus God became human in order to fulfill the law, and in fulfilling the law, in being righteous he provided a way for God to live among his people again. We were once left outside his kingdom’s gates, and because of Jesus we can be welcomed in, because in him we can be made righteous, too.

If you struggle with conceiving of Jesus as divine, it’s probably not your idea of Jesus which needs to change, but your idea of divinity. We tend to think of gods in our time as cold, calculating beings, completely removed from the world. Like space itself, the gods of modernity are only approachable through cold, clean scientific study. No emotion, only universal law. The medievals and ancients knew better. They considered the universe to be filled with life and light, God the force moving all of the spheres. We’ve lost so much knowledge as a culture since the middle ages.

But if your struggle is the opposite, which I think is probably the case for most Christians, and you struggle to conceive of Jesus as really, truly, human. I want you to see in our passage how human Jesus became. He has doubts in this passage and questions God’s will in his life. He has fears, to the point of losing control of himself, sweating blood, which a quick online medical search will tell you is seen only in people in acute distress, terrified. This is not a person who is calm, emotionless, and composed. Not a God who is cold and vacuous. Omnipotent and controlling. This is one who is more afraid than you probably ever have been. Afraid and mournful—the word in the passage translated as sorrowful unto death bears an image with it of death surrounding his soul. That’s how he’s feeling.

We see Jesus weeping twice in the Bible, that I know of. For the most part, he’s filled with joy and joking. Even in his sermons and in tense moments, he’s kidding around, but twice he allows his otherwise indomitable joy to break into tears. At the death of his friend, Lazarus, and here, in the garden. Both times, he’s crying for death and mourning. Once at the death of his friend, and once at his own death, his spirit is surrounded with it, he’s overcome by the wrongness of death in this world.

I want you to imagine Jesus in this moment, losing control, because again, I want you to see just how human he’s become. It’s important for you to know that we don’t worship a cold, calculating judge of universal law. We worship a God who is with us. One who knows what it is to be afraid, even terrified out of control; to be betrayed by a friend and abandoned by those who were supposed to be by his side.

Jesus’ “emptying himself” wasn’t just leaving a throne and the joy of heaven. He also gave up the army that could have fought for him. He gave up the position he could have had if he did ask his followers to rise up and fight against Rome that night. He left a place where no one could have made him afraid, and where his soul would exult in life.

I told you last week about my friend who imagined what he would do with god-like powers. This is what our God decided to do with it. In the words of my friend, “he wanted to become a person like me.”

In every church I’ve been a part of, the people in the church have struggled with being human. We would rather think of ourselves and present ourselves as people without struggle. People without limit. People who are unafraid, who have nothing to mourn. “How are you, I’m good. How are you?” And the irony of our struggle with being human is that the only person who ever was good, without sin, with no need to mourn or be afraid, emptied himself in order to be truly human.

The model I see in Christ is not one of posturing to be considered righteous. The model I see in Christ is one of seeking out brokenness in order to be together with broken people, meaning all of us. If we never get to a place where we are able to see Jesus as truly human; if we never get to a place where we are able to confess ourselves as truly human, we remain alone in our sin. If we learn to confess and forgive, we, like Christ himself, are able to be together with the people of God again.

So if you are here this morning, and you have doubts about why God has allowed you to suffer, know that God understands your doubts because he had them, too. Or if you’ve been afraid, and you haven’t been able to hold it together, know that he was afraid, too. Or if you feel like everyone who was supposed to be your friend has left you. Know that the creator of the entire universe, the prime mover who sets the heaven on their course, also came to be a person like you. And because he’s crossed that divide, you can believe and have hope that God is with you. His real presence is with us today.

I would invite you this morning to pray to God as if he emptied himself to make himself just like you. As if, when you confess your fears and doubts he will hear them and understand them because he has felt the same.

And I want to cut short here and close in a pretty unusual way this morning for us, and for our church. I want to end with poetry and contemplation. The Bible is filled with it. Even though we don’t talk much about it anymore, throughout the history of our faith, most people have believed poetry and music were the means of joining your mind and your soul, allowing them to interact.

So again, this is strange for us, but strange is not always bad, let’s do this. If you’ll allow me, and if you’re able, I want you to get on your knees as a posture of humility before God to begin this lenten season, and I’m going to read two poems, one from the Bible’s poetic prayerbook, and one of mine.

[1] Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
[2] Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

[3] For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
[4] Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
[5] Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
[6] Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

[7] Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
[8] Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
[9] Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
[10] Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
[11] Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
[12] Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

[13] Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
[14] Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
[15] O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
[16] For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
[17] The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

[18] Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem; (ESV)

Twice Jesus wept for Lazarus
Once for himself and once for me
there, joy and sorrow, water and blood,
mixed wine in Getsemani.
Without blood you have no part
In me (nor humanity)
We reject the wine, ask for another cup
And are forgiven; so did he

“If you had been there,” we say, and should;
Our part is fury and grief
A taste of wine and in it find
Water and blood, mourning and peace

the place where joy and sorrow meet
Blood and water from side, hands, feet