“Experience the Passion” Series
Sermon 1: “Experience God’s Pure Love” (Gethsemane)
March 5/6, 2005
It’s such a powerful opening scene. We don’t expect to see Jesus like that – his face glistening with sweat mixed with blood, his hair tangled, staggering about as if he was wounded, or carrying some enormous burden. He seems to need the presence and the prayers of his disciples. Agonizing in his own prayers to his Abba – “Please, please, find another way. Please, it’s crushing me.” And in the movie there is Satan, beautiful and ugly, seductive and taunting, reveling in Jesus’ torment, trying to plant seeds of doubt, and disobedience. The snake slithering towards him, and on him.
And you can see the turning point. When Jesus says those powerful words to his Abba, “Not my will, but yours. Whatever you ask, I’ll do.” And he pushes himself up from the ground. And he stands, tall and steady. And he looks Satan in the eye, with determination, and strength. And he raises his heel and crushes the snake. Isn’t that a great scene? The struggle, then the calm. The fear, then the resolve.
And more powerful than the cinematography was the meaning – he may have been God, but that didn’t mean the passion was easy. He would feel every lash, he would feel the thorns, he would feel the nails . . . and perhaps far more. If it had been easy for him, it would not be as powerful for us. It wasn’t easy to bend his will to his Abba’s. it wasn’t easy to love us that much. Max Lucado tries to capture the depth of Jesus’ love in that scene with these words: “He’d rather go to hell for you than go to heaven without you.”
But when you stop to think about it, there’s something in that scene even more powerful than Jesus’ decision to surrender to God. There’s something even more powerful than Jesus’ willingness to give his life for ours. There’s a love in that scene even more gripping than Jesus’ love.
Another one of my teachers, a guy named Ravi Zacharias – powerful Christian thinker and writer. He tells about a man he met in Belgium named Wilfred, his interpreter. There was something about him – a man who had been gentled by life’s pains, and scarred by some of its heavier burdens. Do you know people like that? They’ve been through it, and there is a quiet strength and wisdom about them. Well he began to tell Ravi about how he had given his life to Jesus, and how his faith had been tested, hard. The long pauses and the tone of his voice revealed the intensity of his emotions.
Wilfred was attending a conference in Sweden. They were focusing on the reality of heaven and the greatness of our hope when he got the call from home. Through her sobs his wife told him that his nine month old baby had just died, without warning, in its crib. He said that the news brought him to the lowest point in his life – the devastation defied words. The anguish and the anger built up in his heart to volcanic proportions, threatening to spew out uncontainable grief. He packed his bags, bought a train ticket, and sat alone looking out the window where nothing seemed to ease the ache.
Wilfred said that across the aisle a young man sat reading his Bible, opposite two others who were not hiding their disdain for that Bible. The young man finally responded to their taunts, and their debate grew until one of his tormentors, anger unmasked, leaned over and said, “If your God is as loving and kind as you say he is, tell me why he lets the innocent suffer? Why does he permit so much warfare? Why does he allow little children to die? What kind of love is that?”
The questions stabbed Wilfred in a way he had never felt before, and he caught himself on the verge of blurting out, “Yes, you religious zealot! Answer them, and me, and tell us why God lets children die. What sort of love is that? But he said a strange mental transformation took place in his mind. He found himself saying, “Do you mind if I say something? I’ll tell you how much God loves you: he gave his only Son to die for you.”
The young men interrupted him and argued how easy it was for Wilfred to make such platonic pronouncements disconnected from the concrete world of death and desolation. Wilfred waited a moment, because he needed to summon up every bit of courage and conviction to speak. He said, “No, no, my friends. I am not distanced from the real world of pain and death. In fact, the reason I am on this train is because I am heading home for the funeral of my nine-month-old son. He died just a few hours ago, and it has given the cross a whole new meaning for me. Now I know what kind of God it is who loves me, a God who willfully gave his Son for me.”
Jesus said, “The greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends.” (John 15.13) But I’ll bet Jesus would have agreed that their might be an even more profound love – to give the life of your child . . . for a friend . . . or for an enemy. There are things, I think, I hope, I’d give my life for. There are fewer things, I believe, I’d give the life of my son for.
I can’t fully understand the death of a child. I’ve never experienced it. But I have an inkling. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more emotion that I felt that first night the war began. Andy was on the border of Kuwait, ready to move with that first wave into Iraq. The news coverage was non-stop – our planes were bombing Bagdad, they were firing missiles back. We expected those missiles to contain chemical or biological agents. Andy called home that first night, right before moving north. He said, “Don’t worry” (one of the stupider things he has said in his lifetime). He said, “We’re okay. We’ve seen the patriots firing, we’ve seen a missile shot down, and one landed not too far from here, but we’re okay.” And for a year Julie and I battled to cast our anxieties at the feet of God – without much success.
It was hard seeing my son go into harm’s way – I’ve have rather gone myself. I was proud of him, still am. But it’s hard for a dad. For what would you send your precious child into harm’s way? I believed what he was doing was important. We are in a war with those who hate us and who will fight us without honor. They killed thousands of us on one day. They will kill us again when they figure out how. My son went to war to protect my wife, and my daughter, and my grandchild. Would you send your child into harm’s way to protect others you love?
Because Andy and thousands of others of our sons and daughters went into harm’s way, an evil man has been cut down, and millions who lived in terror have a chance at freedom and hope. But most Iraqis still despise us – despite our sacrifice on their behalf. Would you send your son into harm’s way for those who reject and hate you? . . . God did.
Listen to what the Bible says: “No one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5.7-8) Abba sent his precious son, not for those who were worthy, but for the unworthy, and the ungrateful . . . for all of us, and for all of them.
The love of Jesus amazes us, the love of the Father astounds us perhaps even more. The guys who wrote the Bible kept coming back to this amazing love. One of the most famous verses in all the Bible, John 3.16. It doesn’t focus on Jesus’ love, it’s about the love of his Father. It says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
Here’s what Max Lucado wrote. He said, “Consider what God did. He gave his Son. His only Son. Would you do that? Would you offer the life of your child for someone else? I wouldn’t. There are those for whom I would give my life. But ask me to make a list of those for whom I would kill my daughter? The sheet will be blank. I don’t need a pencil. The list has no names. But God’s list contains the name of every person who ever lived. For this is the scope of his love. And this is the reason for the cross. He loves the world. Aren’t you glad the verse does not read: ‘For God so loved the rich . . . For God so loved the famous . . . For God so loved the thin . . .’ It doesn’t. Nor does it state, ‘For God so loved the Europeans, or Africans . . . the sober or successful . . . the young or the old.’ How wide is God’s love? Wide enough for the whole world. Are you included in the world? Then you are included in God’s love.”
Listen to what the apostle Paul says, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” He means, if God is for you, who cares who stands against you. He says, “Since God did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t God, who gave us Christ, also give us everything else?” (Romans 8.31-32) A guy named Octavius Winslow (strange name, smart guy) wrote this: “Who delivered Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money. Not Pilate, for fear. Not the Jews, for envy. But the Father, for love.” Abba delivered his own Son for love, for his love for you. It blew Paul’s mind.
Listen to what the apostle John says, “God showed us how much he loved us by sending his only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.” It’s not that Jesus came to earth to die to placate an angry Father-God. It was the Father who loved us so much he sent his Son to stand in our place. John says, “This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4.9-10)
You can’t see it clearly in the English, but the Greek tells us something powerful. The English says Jesus was God’s “only” Son. Some Bibles read “his only begotten Son,” or “his one and only Son.” But it’s a little more than that. It means “unique,” “one of a kind.” There are many children of God, there is one Son of God. God didn’t send one of his many children, he sent his “one and only.” We’re God’s kids by creation, Jesus by kind – he is God. God didn’t sacrifice the purest and best of his children, he sacrificed his one and only Son. That’s how much he loves us.
But it’s even more than that. It’s more than his sending Jesus to a whipping post and to a cross. Some people think that God’s sacrifice wasn’t all that much because he knew he’d see Jesus again. He knew he’d raise him up in three days. Whitney Borders is part of our long-range worship planning team. We were talking about this last week, whether God’s pain was light because he knew the resurrection was coming. Well Whitney lost a child. She knew she’d see her baby again, some day. But to see her pain, and to see her die . . . Even with hope, there is devastation defying description, and anguish and anger that can reach volcanic proportions, bewilderment and grief. Whitney said, “Anyone who has suffered the death of a child has a taste of what Abba was feeling when Jesus was in that garden.”
But it’s even more than that. The fact is, there are things worse than physical pain. There are things worse than death. Jesus lived a perfect life, the Bible says. That doesn’t mean he didn’t stumble and skins his knees. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get splinters in the carpenter shop, or that he never got the measles or the flu, or that he had the perfect body. It means that he never sinned. The Bible says that “He faced every temptation we do, yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4.15) He lived a life of perfect obedience. He never felt the shame of sin. He never felt the horror we feel when we realize what we’ve done. He never felt the oppression of a sin that we just can’t seem to escape.
Until his passion. It was more than just physical pain. It was more than just physical death. Abba took our sins, all of them – every bit of dishonor, and rebelliousness, and shame – and draped them around his perfect Sons’s shoulders. There are some things worse than physical pain and death. The Bible says, “God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so that we could be put right with God.” (2 Corinthians 5.21) It says, “God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin,” “to be our sin.” I wonder if that burden was even heavier than the pain and the death he knew was coming? It’s one thing to send your son to die. It’s another thing to drape the enormity of our sin over his perfect one’s shoulders. But that’s how much he loved us.
It’s such a powerful opening scene. Jesus’ face glistening with sweat mixed with blood, his hair tangled, staggering about as if he was carrying some enormous burden. Agonizing in his prayers to his Abba – “Please, please, find another way. Please, it’s crushing me.” Satan, beautiful and ugly, seductive and taunting, reveling in Jesus’ torment, trying to plant seeds of doubt, and disobedience.
And then the turning point. When Jesus says those powerful words to his Abba, “Okay. Not my will, but yours. Whatever you ask, I’ll do.” And he pushes himself up from the ground. And he stands, tall and steady. And he looks Satan in the eye, with determination, and strength. And he raises his heel and crushes the snake.
And in that garden Jesus proves how deeply he loves us. It would be anything but easy. He would feel every lash, he would feel the thorns, he would feel the nails . . . and perhaps far more. If it had been easy for him, it would not be as powerful for us. It wasn’t easy for him to love us that much. But – he proved “He’d rather go to hell for us than go to heaven without us.”
But the truth is, perhaps his was not the most powerful sacrifice in that garden. There was someone else in that garden, never quite visible in the movie, but powerfully there. The light reflecting off the moon was a hint of his presence. The clouds moving above gave a sense of his presence. We know Abba is there. Watching. Listening.
He hears his son begging. He’s not begging as we so often do – for more candy, or for more toys, or for more pleasures. He’s begging his dad to take the hurt away. He’s begging his daddy to help him with a burden that feels unbearable. He says, “Abba – Daddy – everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me.” (Mark 36) “Please, Daddy, find another way.” You hear the heart of Jesus. Can you imagine the heart of Abba?
Could God have found another way? It’s hard for me to imagine he couldn’t. God is infinitely powerful. And God is infinitely smart. And God is infinitely creative. And he could have saved us in an infinite number of ways, far less painful to his precious Son. Was this the only path he could have mapped for his Son?
And yet one of two things happened in that garden. When Jesus begged his Father for help, either his Abba was silent, or he spoke a gentle, but firm “No.” It appears to me that, as with so many of our prayers, the Father was silent. He prayed – silence. He prayed again – silence. He begged again, it says . . . silence. Perhaps here in the garden was the first inkling of that passion when Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Or perhaps each time he prayed what he heard was a gentle, but firm “No.” Until Jesus said, “Okay. Your will be done.”
Could God have found another way? I suspect he could have. So why didn’t he? Perhaps because in that garden God was proving beyond the shadow of your doubt, beyond your shame, beyond your unworthiness, how much he loves you. If you wonder if God really loves you, just as you are; if you wonder whether God still loves you, despite where you’ve been; if you wonder if God can keep loving you as often as you have failed him, remember this: God would rather send his Son to hell for you than bring him home without you. That’s the lesson of the garden. Experience God’s pure love.