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Faithful under pressure

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Mark 14,27-52

 

Overconfident

I’ve been skiing twice in my life. Two half days on the slopes.

The first time, at Mt Hotham in Victoria, I was over-confident. I had assumed I’d be able to pop the skis on and pretty much go for it, because I was able to do other things like water ski and skateboard. But it was really quite humiliating. I fell over every 10 seconds for the first couple of hours, before finally getting the hang of the basics…

 

The second time was about 5 years later, with Anna and some friends in Abetone, north of Florence in Italy. This time, I had no pretentions about being able to ski. I hadn’t skied since that one humiliating morning at Mt Hotham, and I could see that these mountains were much bigger and the ski runs would be way beyond me. So I headed straight for the baby practice hill to take some lessons with a bunch of kids half my size…

My friends, however, were much more confident. Perhaps a little too confident… an hour later they were back, and one of them, Sarah, was shaking and really not doing very well. She wasn’t really talking. She had been a little over-confident. She had launched herself down the ski run, picking up speed until she really couldn’t turn or stop and she stacked big time. Fortunately she didn’t break anything or go zooming off a cliff! But she was very shaken up and not keen to get back out there.

 

Overconfidence is rarely a good thing. I’m not saying we need to talk ourselves down, or assume we can’t do something, or not give something a go. I’m saying that being over-confident – assuming we’ve got something when we really don’t know if we do – that usually leads to stuffing things up.

Whether it’s preparing for an exam or a job interview, or thinking you can be a master sourdough baker because you saw someone do it on TV once… being over-confident means we become complacent. We don’t prepare properly. We don’t watch out for danger – we’re not wary of our limitations or lack of experience.

And so we usually pave the way for our own failure. And whilst that can be really quite serious on the ski slopes, it can be even more devastating when it comes to our spiritual life…

 

Crunch Time – Jesus and his disciples face ‘the hour’

Our passage today, the middle section of Mark chapter 14, is crunch time for Jesus and his disciples. Conflict has been mounting between himself and the religious leaders. Jesus has been preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon be handed over to his enemies and ultimately killed. He’s just declared that he knows one of them will betray him. As he shared the Passover meal with them, he spoke of his body being given over to death for the sake of God’s covenant promises. He has said that after that meal, he won’t drink of the fruit of the vine again until all things are renewed. The hour is imminent.

And now, it has arrived. It the middle of our passage, Jesus declares, “The hour has come! Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.” Judas arrives to betray him with a kiss. He has spoken of this moment, and now it is here to set in motion the rest of what Jesus has predicted.

 

You know the game mouse trap? Where you set up the board with lots of pieces all connected together to form a complex trap. When the time comes, you wind up handle, which makes a boot to kick a little bucket with a ball in it, which then sets in motion a whole series of events that lead to a cage dropping down on the mouse? This moment – Judas arriving to betray him – is like that boot being released and setting everything in motion.

He will now be handed over to the religious leaders, condemned to death, and then handed over to the gentiles to be beaten, mocked and killed. It’s crunch time.

And as they face the hour, the reality of crunch time, Jesus disciples find they have been a little over-confident. They throw Jesus’ warnings back in his face – they will never fall away! They ignore his pleas to stay alert and pray against temptation. They are complacent and they fall asleep on the watch. And so when they face the pressure, when it’s crunch time, they crumble. They scatter. They abandon Jesus. The final scene is of one young disciple fleeing naked, having shrugged off his garment so he can escape, rather than face the music with Jesus.

But against the backdrop of this sad story is a different picture. As these events unfold we see Jesus squarely facing the reality of what is to come, all too aware of how difficult he will find it. He agonises in prayer over the temptation to run away from it all, whilst being determined to submit to God’s will. And so he comes out the other side, faithful to God’s will – able to stand calmly under pressure.

And so what we’re going to do now is step through this narrative from these two different perspectives – thinking about what it might mean for us to either fail or be faithful under pressure.

 

Confidence and Complacency – A recipe for failure

So firstly, focusing on the response of the disciples, what we see is confidence and complacency, which pave the way for complete failure.

 

Over-confidence => denial & delusion

The first scene opens, in verse 27, with Jesus warning his disciples that they will all fall away – they will stumble when the blow finally lands on him. They’re walking in the quiet of the night amongst the olive groves outside the city, aware of what Jesus has just said about betrayal and his life being sacrificed. And Jesus tells them they will all fall away – they won’t be able to stand their ground.

But Peter is having none of it. “Even if everyone falls away, I will not.” He can imagine others falling away – they’re not made of the same stuff he is. They don’t love Jesus in the same way he does. He just can’t imagine stumbling like that himself.

And so Jesus pushes the point even harder. He moves from a general expectation, based on a prophecy in Scripture, to a very specific and confronting prediction.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

Jesus looks into the confident, earnest face of Peter and says, “Within a few hours you will deny even knowing me three times…”

It’s hard for Peter to compute what Jesus is saying. That’s not me. You can’t be right. I would never do that. And so he insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And Mark reports that ‘all the others said the same.’

It’s easy to understand the emphatic denial of Peter and the rest of the disciples. How could they go from devotion and trust to disowning Jesus – falling away and abandoning him – in a matter of hours?

They just can’t see it happening.

 

I think we’ve all been there. I would never do that. I couldn’t possibly.

But as noble as it might sound to profess unwavering loyalty, presuming that we would never stumble or stuff up in some particular way is the very thing that makes us more likely to do so!

Christians who end up committing adultery or embezzling funds don’t usually plan to do so from the very beginning. Of course, at some point a determination to go through with it comes to the surface. They plan and deceive and act. It’s not an accident. But it doesn’t begin that way. They deceive others after they have first deceived themselves. They justify to themselves why this is necessary, why it’s the only real option, why it’s ok – why God understands. And the first step in this direction is telling ourselves we could never possibly do something like that.

But why wouldn’t we? Why couldn’t you?

What makes you different to everyone else? Why would I be more untouchable by sin and temptation than all those who’ve stumbled before me?

Is it because my will is stronger? Because I’m a more mature Christian? I understand the Bible better? I’ve experienced the power of God in my life?

If I find it hard to imagine stumbling and falling like other people do because of who I am, then I’m making a big mistake – I’m deluded – and I’m paving the way for my own failure, just like Peter and the rest of the disciples.

You see, their overconfidence – their emphatic denial that they would ever deny Jesus led them into complacency. It fuelled a sleepiness and a false sense of security that was a critical step towards their failure when the pressure came.

 

Complacency: Failure to Watch and Pray

After this conversation between Jesus and his disciples while they are walking, they arrive at a place called Gethsemane. Jesus wants to spend time in prayer for what he is about to face. He tells most of the disciples to sit and wait for him. Then he takes his closest three friends, Peter, James and John a little further away. He explains how deeply distressed he is. And he asks them to remain and stay awake while he goes even further along to pray by himself, wrestling with what God is calling him to do.

 

Stay Awake

In verse 34, when he tells these three disciples to ‘stay awake’, it’s the exact same word he used at the end of Chapter 13 in his warning to ‘keep watch’ for the day when Jesus will return. He’s explaining that no-one knows when that time will come, and our job is to be alert and watchful – to stay awake and watch for the return of our Lord. Like a servant watching and waiting for the master of the house to return.

Staying awake is a metaphor for living lives that are conscious of Jesus’ Lordship and imminent return. It’s being wary of sin and distraction. Remaining focused on who we are and where our future lies. Just like being found sleeping is a metaphor for being distracted, losing focus – being absorbed in the world and effectively forgetting that Jesus is indeed returning to establish his kingdom. Jesus warns us, “Don’t let the master find you sleeping! Watch! Stay awake!”

And now he asks his disciples to stay awake – to wait and watch while he prays. And what do they do? They fall asleep. Verse 37, Jesus returns from anguished prayer and “he came and found them sleeping.” It’s literally the same phrase as the warning in chapter 13 – ‘Don’t let him find you sleeping!’, ‘He came and found them sleeping!’ Jesus is disappointed. He has warned them – they are in danger of falling away – he’s told them to stay awake and watch. And here they are, drowsing in a false sense of security.

“Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. This is exactly what they need to do. And it’s exactly what they don’t do.

A second and third time, Jesus goes to pray and comes back and finds them sleeping. They can’t keep their eyes open… They don’t know what to say – what can they say?

It’s hard to blame the disciples for falling asleep in the middle of the night after a big meal and a long walk. It’s easy to imagine falling asleep along with them. It would have been hard from their perspective to see the importance of staying awake while Jesus was off praying.

But it was part of a downward spiral for the disciples – from arrogant denial that they could possibly fall away, to complacency here in the olive grove, through to total abandonment of Jesus in moments to come.

 

Heed the warning from their example

The literal sleepiness of the disciples – their failure to ‘stay awake’ while Jesus was away praying – is a real-life parable or illustration of what Jesus warns us about at the end of Chapter 13. Here in church it’s easy to see the importance of ‘keeping watch’ and living conscious of Jesus’ return. Out there, with the demands and distractions of life it suddenly seems to make a whole lot more sense to ‘take a nap’… What’s the urgency? What’s the fuss?

This passage is not teaching us that we should all pretend we don’t need sleep and just pray through the night, each and every night. I’d last 20 minutes into the first night before giving up! No, this particular challenge for the disciples to literally stay awake and pray on this very night is a reminder for us to ‘be alert’ – to live as people who are prayerfully awaiting the return of Jesus.

We are to be well aware of our own weaknesses and limitations. We are to be wary of sin lurking in our hearts and minds. We are to be watchful of the demands and distractions of life that lead us to be absorbed with the here and now and to squeeze what we can out of life for ourselves. We are to watch and pray that we don’t fall into temptation. Not just when we see the danger looming in our vision – but all the time, even when there is no apparent problem. We are to watch and pray so that we don’t fall into temptation. Prevention is the best cure.

Are you watching and praying? Or are you slipping off into sleep, numbed by a false sense of security in your own will power or in your circumstances – that you’d never stumble or fall away like those other people…?

 

Failure: Fight and Flight

Well, as we know, this over-confidence and complacency leads to failure in the end. Failure to watch and pray leads to failure to stand by Jesus when the pressure comes and the temptation to flee hits them hard.

As Jesus returns the third time and finds them sleeping, he knows that the time has come. From verse 41, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” And just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

Mark then explains that ‘the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 [And so] going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46The men seized Jesus and arrested him.’

This is crunch time. The hour has come.

And how do the disciples react to this sudden turn of events? Not well. First, there’s a fleeting moment of bravado – one of them draws his sword and takes a wild swing, slicing off the ear of the high priest’s servant. In the gospel of John we read that this disciple is in fact Peter himself. Perhaps his boasting earlier is still ringing in his ears and so with adrenaline flowing through his body, his first instinct is to fight.

But when Jesus doesn’t call them to action, when he laments that this group of thugs even thinks they needswords and clubs to come and take him, as if he’s a criminal… well, then the bravado disappears. Fight gives way to flight. They all deserted him and ran away. They ALL fall away.

And we’re left with that bizarre scene. Mark could have just finished with the statement that they all run away. But he includes this strange final detail… “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”

Over confidence – denial and delusion – has led to complacency and sleepiness. Which has finally worked itself out in failure – the disciples do exactly what they said they would never, ever do. They flee, deserting Jesus and abandoning him to his own fate while they protect themselves. And Jesus is left, staring at the garment in the guard’s hand – all that’s left of his ‘faithful’ followers…

 

It’s a picture designed to disturb us. To wake us up. To highlight to us that, yes, we do need to ‘stay awake and pray’ lest we too fall like they did.

Perhaps you know too well what it’s like to stumble like this – to crumble and flee when the pressure comes. Or perhaps, by God’s grace, it’s a hypothetical situation for you…

But the warning is the same. Don’t presume. Don’t wait till it’s too late. Watch and pray. We are no better than them. It’s God who will make the difference, if only we will watch and pray, trusting not in our will power or inherent goodness or our circumstances, but in the power of God’s Spirit at work in us. Watch and pray.

 

Faithfulness under pressure

Well, against this backdrop of the sad example of the disciples, we have the shining example of Jesus. Like a diamond placed on a dark cloth, so that its brightness shines all the more brilliantly, the way Jesus faces temptation and stands under pressure here, accepting God’s will for him, contrasts powerfully with the failure of the disciples.

 

Trust in God’s plan as revealed in the Scriptures

I think what stands out to me first as I consider Jesus’ example is that it all begins and ends with knowing, trusting and submitting to God’s plan as revealed in the Scriptures.

The warning that Jesus gives about his disciples falling away in the opening verse is given on the basis of Scripture. We’ve seen lots of connections between the prophecy of Zechariah, the book we’ve been reading in our first Bible reading, and the account of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. And here, Jesus points again to a prophecy in Zechariah – one that we actually read out earlier in the service from Chapter 13. “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”

Jesus knows what Scripture says will happen to God’s Messiah. He knows that his suffering, his death, is an integral part of God’s plan of redemption. He knows that God is about to strike his righteous Shepherd, and so he knows the sheep will be scattered.

And then the final thing Jesus says in our passage today, down in verse 49 is ‘But the Scriptures must be fulfilled’. Jesus understands that what is happening to him is in fulfilment of Scripture. He knows it is the fulfilment of God’s plan and so he accepts it – he submits to God’s will as revealed in the Scripture.

When Jesus is praying in the garden, which we’ll look at more in a moment, and he says to God, “Not what I will, but what you will,” it’s not just a vague sentiment; He’s submitting himself to what he believes God has revealed in the Scriptures.

Faithfulness to God under pressure begins and ends with knowing, trusting and accepting God’s sovereign plan as revealed in the Bible. We’re not going to stand under pressure without knowing and trusting what God says in the Bible.

 

Faithfulness through Prayer

But the heart of this passage and the example of Jesus in the face of the trial to come, is his raw, honest and yet submissive prayer to God, his Father. Jesus does what he challenges his disciples to do, he watches and prays that he might not fall into temptation. And I think we’re meant to see that it’s an essential part of his response to the pressure he faces.

After sharing that he is deeply distressed and grieved, almost to the point of death, he then goes a little farther to pray on his own. Mark recounts for us that ‘he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba , Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”’

 

Do you see what this prayer, what this scene, reveals to us about Jesus and what he’s facing? About how he faces it?

Jesus really doesn’t want to do this! This is the full humanity of Jesus clearly exposed. He is facing the reality of enduring the cup of God’s wrath against all human sin. He knows what is coming, and he pleads with his almighty and loving Father to take it away. “All things are possible for you, please take this cup from me.” This is a real request that if there is any other way, then let’s take it! It flows from the real humanity and real anguish of Jesus in the face of God’s judgement.

But there is no other way, and Jesus knows it. We need to appreciate that from this scene. If there was any other way to redeem humanity than God’s one and only Son dying in our place, then that’s what God would have done. There was no other way.

And so this scene reveals Jesus crying out to his Father, on the one hand to take this cup away from him, but at the same time, even more so, to help him endure it. As much as Jesus desperately wants this hour to pass by him, even more, he wants to be faithful to God’s will.

His cry to God as ‘Abba, Father’ reveals the intimacy of the relationship. Abba is like the Aramaic word for ‘daddy’. And from this relationship of trust and intimacy, Jesus calls out both ‘take the cup away, please – if it’s possible!’ and also, ‘yet not my will, but your will.’ Jesus wrestles in prayer with the will of his Father, baulking at the reality of it, yet trusting and accepting it, knowing the love of his Father.

 

Sharing in the Sonship of Jesus

And this is what we are invited into as disciples of Jesus. The Apostle Paul explains that the Spirit of Jesus dwells within us and teaches us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit of Jesus teaches us to trust in the will of our heavenly Father, knowing his love for us as his children. We trust in God’s goodness and power, even when following his will looks scary and painful, because we know he’s not going to let go of us – in the end, we will be safe in his care.

To be a follower of Jesus is to wrestle in prayer with what we want and what God wants, and ultimately to choose what God wants as what we really want. It’s to learn to pray, ‘yet not my will, but what you will.’ It’s not denying what we want or pretending it’s easy. But all the same, choosing his will for us as our greatest good. To be a follower of Jesus is to identify with him in this moment.

Now, we need to remember that the good news of Christianity is first and foremost that we share in the Sonship of Jesus, not because we perfectly imitate his faithfulness, but because we trust in his faithfulness, fully aware of our own failure to be faithful like him. Identifying with Jesus in this moment, is first accepting his faithfulness in place of our failure.

But then, from that place of grateful trust, learning to follow in his footsteps.

 

So have you learnt to pray like this? To wrestle in prayer with God’s will for your life? Not trying to discern God’s will through some kind of mystical meditation, but praying over what God clearly reveals in his Word, the Scriptures, about how we are to live… Bringing the many and various things you would rather do instead before God in prayer, and in that prayer, confessing, accepting, ‘yet not what I will, but what you will’. Have you learnt to pray like that?

Perhaps, like me, you have prayed like this at times, but it doesn’t feel like a recent memory. It’s too easy isn’t it, to fall asleep instead. To literally choose sleep rather than making time to pray at night or in the morning. And figuratively, to slip into that complacent slumber – that distracted way of life… failing, forgetting, to watch and to pray – wrestling with God’s will, entrusting ourselves to it.

 

Standing under pressure

This passage in Mark’s gospel is a bell – an alarm clock – ringing loudly to wake us up. It holds out the glaring failure of the disciples and the profound faithfulness of Jesus to us in warning and encouragement.

Because Jesus watches and prays; because he wrestles in prayer with the will of God and submits himself in prayer to the will of God, he stands under pressure. Follow his example.

The disciples react with fear – fighting back and then giving flight, whilst Jesus calmly accepts what lies ahead of him. The disciples were over-confident and complacent, and so they crumbled under pressure. Jesus was wary of the weakness of his flesh. So he watched and prayed that he would not fall into temptation. When crunch time came, he stood and he went to the cross.

Are you watching and praying, so that you don’t fall into temptation – so that you stand under pressure? Or are you just complacently falling into sin – falling asleep and paving the way to your own failure?

Don’t assume “You’ve got this.” Watch and pray, so that you do! Give yourself a chance!

You know, that second time I went skiing, I did end up skiing the proper run, down hills and twists and turns I never imagined I would be able to do at the beginning of the day. Because I was real about my limitations, I didn’t get ahead of myself. And in the end, I stood under pressure. It was exhilarating!

Be honest with yourself and with God. Learn to wrestle in prayer with God’s will and the reality of your heart and mind. Don’t be overconfident or complacent when it comes to sin and living for Christ. Watch and pray, knowing how easily you could fall if it was just up to you.

Learn to submit yourself to God’s will, trusting his good plans for you; trusting not in yourself, but in him who is at work in you.