Prayer, Faithfulness & Failure

Chatswood Baptist Church

Luke 22:39-65

Struggling to improve?

When I was in primary school I did a couple of years of Little Athletics. It was the only official ‘out of school sport’ I ever did (my parents were more active in supporting music than sport, so if I didn’t make it happen, it didn’t happen!). Now I was naturally pretty good at athletics. Not amazing, but not bad. Above average. I had the body for it – skinny, speedy and wiry. But I noticed I wasn’t really getting better. The other kids seemed to be slowly improving at the Saturday meets, and I seemed to be stuck. And one day when I was commenting about this after the Javelin event, one of the helpers said to me… “Well Matthew, you can’t expect to improve if you never come to training during the week.” 

And I was like, “Whaatt? Training…? What’s that?” This was in my second year of athletics, and I had somehow managed to never hear about training. I don’t know if my parents knew about it, but they never told me and certainly hadn’t encouraged me to go! I had just been turning up to the main event and wondering why I wasn’t doing any better than last time… like a musician who only ever played at concerts.

Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. Not necessarily being ignorant of the whole concept of training and practice! But feeling frustrated that you’re not improving at something, when all along there’s a good reason you’re not improving. Maybe you’ve tried to learn a language, but you just don’t spend the time you need to going over vocab and grammar every day. Maybe you’ve been trying to get fit, wondering why it’s not happening… but the reality is that you haven’t really changed your diet or your exercise patterns. Whatever it is – learning an instrument, understanding physics, playing pool or tennis… it all takes practice and training. Effort devoted towards learning a skill and preparing ourselves for performing in a certain way in certain situations. And if we don’t do what’s required, we won’t get any better.

We know this. And yet, I think many of us, myself included, wonder why we struggle in the Christian life – struggle to be faithful, to be godly, loving and pure in the way we know we are called to be – and yet we neglect the fundamental means of facing this struggle and growing in faithfulness. We don’t pray for it. We don’t wrestle in prayer in the face of temptation and pressure, that we might be faithful and resist temptation. And so we fall into sin and self-preservation, wondering why we do…

Now, as soon as I say that, I want to also say that many people here are probably very faithful in prayer, and I don’t want to paint you all with the same brush I deserve! And I also recognise that our struggle against sin and temptation in this life is bigger and more complex than how faithfully we pray about it. The Bible is very clear that we will always struggle in this life, and there’s no trick or ‘secret practice’ that will set you soaring above the rest of us weak and stumbling humans… so hear those qualifications. But our passage in Luke’s gospel today holds up the challenge to pray for faithfulness as a core issue in facing temptation and pressure as Christians, and I think the clear message is that failure to persevere in prayer like this will inevitably lead to more failure under pressure.

Three Confronting Scenes

Our passage today from Luke’s gospel is a turning point in the narrative. We’ve been exploring Luke 19-24, and we’ve witnessed an escalating conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus after he arrives in Jerusalem and teaches each day in the temple courts. The leaders want to get rid of him, but are frustrated by the crowds and their support for Jesus. Then last week we read about Judas, one of Jesus’ own close circle of disciples, who conspires with the leaders to betray him. At the same time, Jesus tries to help his disciples understand the true significance of his death – he is the true Passover lamb, bearing their sin and bringing the blessings of the new covenant through his blood shed for them. Now, in our passage, we reach a climax – the point that Jesus has been anticipating for some time – the actual betrayal and arrest of Jesus, leading within 24 hours to his crucifixion and death.

Our passage is presented in three confronting scenes. Two locations, but three scenes. First there’s the quiet but anguished scene of prayer on the Mount of Olives. Then in the second scene, the quiet is disturbed with a crowd arriving to arrest Jesus, led by Judas the betrayer. And finally, after the crowd seizes Jesus, we are led to a scene in the courtyard of the High Priest, which zooms in on Peter’s tragic denial of Jesus.

And what we can’t help but see as these three scenes unfold is the contrast between Jesus and his disciples, focusing in ultimately on Peter. On the one hand, we have the faithfulness of Jesus – his steadfast obedience to God’s will in the face of terrible personal suffering, which is forged in anguished prayer. And then on the other hand, we see the failure of Peter and the other disciples. First their failure to heed the call to pray in the face of the temptations and pressure to come, followed by their failure to stand with Christ in his suffering. We see them in scene two fighting. They still fail to accept the necessary path of suffering that Jesus must take and which they must follow. And then in the third scene we see the flip side – Peter ‘giving flight’ in fearful self-preservation, rather than be identified with Jesus in his arrest. And I think we’re meant to connect the failure of the disciples in these scenes with their failure to heed Jesus’ call to pray in the first place. It’s meant to motivate us all the more to heed Jesus’ call to prayer…

Scene 1: Prayer in the Garden 

Focusing in on scene one then, we are presented with the call to prayer, that we might not fall into temptation. The section begins and ends with this very call from Jesus to his disciples, in verses 40 and then 46. And in the middle we have Jesus’ own example of earnest prayer, focused on accepting and embracing his fathers will. Verse 39 sets the scene for us…

39Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed…

‘Take this cup from me…’

Luke has told us already that Jesus would go out and spend the nights on the Mount of Olives and then come into Jerusalem to teach in the temple by day. And so ‘as usual’, he goes out to the Mount of Olives… and yet this time is not going to be ‘as usual’. This will be the last time. This time he urges his disciples to pray that they wouldn’t fall into temptation, and then withdraws to pray to his heavenly Father himself. And what he prays draws us into a profound struggle going on inside him.

 42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 

Jesus asks if there might be another way. He asks God his Father to pleasetake this cup away. We need to appreciate the depth of the anguish, the distress, of Jesus as he faces the reality of dying as the Passover lamb. When he prays, take ‘this cup’ from me, it’s not just a way of speaking about ‘something’ he has to do, like we might say something is our ‘lot in life’. The language of ‘this cup’ is an allusion to old testament passages that talk about the cup of God’s wrath, poured out on the nations in terrible judgement. 

In Jeremiah chapter 25 for example, God says to Jeremiah, “Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.” And then the message builds up to a description of God roaring against all who live on the earth, bringing judgement on all mankind. It finishes with a terrible picture of humanity slain ‘from one end of the earth to the other’. It is stark and disturbing. And Jesus knows that he is being called to endure this wrath and punishment himself. Not because he deserves it, but so that he might endure the wrath of God against our sin in our place, and we might experience mercy instead. 

And he doesn’t wantto face this. The reality of going through with it is causing overwhelming anguish. He is sweating from anxiety and distress – his sweat is flowing from him like drops of blood falling to the ground. He is so distressed an angel appears to strengthen him and encourage him in his struggle. He pleads with his Father to take this cup from him. “If there is any other way. If you are willing.” If there could be a way for him to be faithful and to redeem his people other than facing this cup… “please, take this cup from me”, Jesus prays. “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”

God’s will above his own 

This is the incredible resolution of Jesus alongside his anguish and personal preference. He doesn’t want to endure the cup of his Father’s wrath. But even more he wants to be obedient to his Father’s will. More than life itself, more than anything, he wants to submit himself to the wisdom, goodness and authority of his Father. Ultimately he shares his Father’s desire to secure our redemption, even if it costs him everything. This is the first thing that strikes me about Jesus’ prayer. It’s his willingness to face the horrors of the cross, not because he’s so tough – not because he doesn’t think it won’t really be that bad, or that the final outcome trivializes the pain; no he faces the cross utterly aware of the horror before him, because he loves us and he wants to do his Fathers will above all else. 

This prayer and his action to follow speak powerfully of Jesus’ love for us and his obedience to his Father, and they speak powerfully about the kind of mindset weare called to as his followers. Whether you’re exploring what it means to be a Christian, or you’re 20 years down the path of following Christ; know that thisis what it means to be a follower of Christ. Willingness to submit ourselves to God’s will for the good of others, even when it costs us.

There really is no other way

Something else we need to appreciate from this scene is what it says about the absolute necessity of the death of Jesus in securing our redemption. This anguished scene in the garden of Gethsemane, this prayer of Jesus, highlights that there really was no other way for God to redeem humanity other than through the death of his Son. If there was, he would have done it. In Matthew’s account of this scene, he describes Jesus as praying first, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me…” And then, “if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it,may your will be done.” This prayer of Jesus, and the fact of his crucifixion to follow underlines that there was no other wayfor us to experience God’s mercy than Jesus enduring the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf. 

And what that also means is that there really is no other way for us or anyone else to be reconciled to God other than through faith in Jesus and his sacrifice. If it was and is possible to be forgiven and enter into heaven in any other way than through Jesus – through faith in him on the basis of his death for you – if it was possible any other way, then God would have gladly held out that option. Anything other than make his own Son drink the cup of his wrath against us. 

And yet we keep talking about the goodness of humanity and how there must be other ways to avoid God’s judgement. There must be some way that all those well-meaning and friendly atheists, Muslims and Buddhists are going to be in heaven after all. We can’t claim to be the only way to God! But you see, the point is not whether they are relatively kind and well-meaning. The point is there is no other way. If there wasany other way, God would have embraced it and Jesus would have gladly proclaimed it.

Faithfulness Forged in Prayer

Well as I said earlier, this profound example of faithfulness to the will of God, forged in anguished prayer, is contrasted starkly with the disciple’s sleepy prayerlessness. Luke closes this scene from verse 45…

45  When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46“Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

It’s not that it’s surprising or even unreasonable that they should have fallen asleep. I’m quite certain I would have fallen asleep. It’s that Jesus has told them to pray and then he himself has been wrestling in prayer all night. And what we go on to see is that Jesus’ time in prayer has left him resolved and ready to do God’s will, knowing full well what it will cost him. Whereas the disciple’s failure to stay awake and pray leads to fearful and self-preserving reactions rather than standing with Jesus.

Why is prayer like this so important? Two basic reasons. First and foremost is that God is in fact sovereign – God is in charge of this world. And so when facing temptation and pressure, it makes sense to ask the One who is in fact in control to bring about good outcomes, rather than just depending on ourselves or whoever or whatever else. We pray that we wouldn’t fall into temptation because God is ultimately the one who will keep us from falling. 

But secondly, we pray because through prayer, and particularly through the kind of prayer that Jesus models to us here, we shape and bend our hearts and minds into alignment with God’s will. Luke explains in verse 44, that Jesus, ‘being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly.’ His increasing anguish called for more earnest prayer. No doubt more earnest pleading that ‘if there be any other way, please, may you take this cup from me’. But also praying more earnestly, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done.’ In earnest prayer we dwell on what God is calling us to do. And as we do that, we explore and expose the fears and desires of our hearts that pull against what God is calling us to, and we confess them to God. And as we continue wrestling in prayer, we hand those fears and desires over to God and entrust ourselves to his good and wise purposes. In prayer, we learn to submit ourselves to God’s word and his will for us. 

And that’s why heeding this call from Jesus to pray that we would not fall into temptation is so foundational to actually resisting temptation. That’s why if we’re not praying like this, we’re probably not resisting temptation… and believe me, I’m preaching to myself more than anyone else here. I’m really not a ‘prayer warrior’. I’m not telling you to imitate me. But I do know – I have known– the reality of wrestling in prayer like this, and I can hear God calling me from this passage to ‘get up and pray’ rather than giving in to sleep. Whether it’s literally sleeping rather than praying – alwayssleeping rather than praying – or just putting our minds to sleep with TV and distraction rather than praying… either way, we need to heed the call to get up and pray so that we will not fall into temptation.

Scene 2: Betrayal in the Garden 

Well as Luke recounts from verse 47, as Jesus is still speaking, a crowd came up with Judas, one of the Twelve, leading them. We move to scene two. We’re still in the garden, but as Jesus rises from prayer fully resolved about what he must do, things start to happen. The moment of betrayal and arrest has come.

Betrayed with a kiss

Luke explains that Judas approached Jesus to kiss him, and at this point, the nature and intentions of this crowd is not clearly stated. In fact, so far, the ‘crowd’ has been in support of Jesus. But this is a crowd made up of Jesus’ opponents, come in the quiet of night – the hour when darkness reigns – and Jesus knows what is happening. And so before Judas can even kiss him, Jesus asks, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” It’s a question that reveals Jesus’ control and awareness of the situation, and it confronts Judas. It halts him in his action, urging him, even now to reconsider what he’s doing – for the sake of his own soul. 

The Folly of Fighting back

But Jesus’ followers now suddenly see what’s happening, and they want to fight back. “Lord, should we strike with our swards?” they ask. And without waiting for a reply, one of them strikes at the servant of the high priest and cuts off his ear. Luke leaves the identity of this disciple a mystery, but John tells us that it was Peter himself. Earlier that night, over the Passover meal, when Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, Peter had boldly declared he would go with him to prison and to death. And at this point, this is what he seems to think that involves – fighting‘to the death’. 

His failure to pray against temptation has left him prone to react with fear and aggression, falling into the trap of fighting back against the opposition of the world with the same kind of opposition. Fighting evil with evil. If we don’t pray that we won’t fall into temptation, chances are when we feel threatened as Christians, when we feel pressure and opposition for being associated with Jesus, our first reaction will be to strike back – to protect ourselves and make ourselves feel better. But by wrestling in prayer with God’s call, Jesus is able to entrust himself to God’s care in the face of this injustice rather than fight back. 

Loving your Enemies

And so Jesus intervenes immediately. “No more of this!” he cries out, and he reaches out and touches the man’s ear and heals him. This is just incredible on so many levels isn’t it!? Aside from it being one more amazing display of the power of God revealed through Jesus, it’s a powerful statement from Jesus that his kingdom is a kingdom of peace, not violence. That’s what his disciples are still struggling to get. The kingdom of God is established by overcoming sin through submission to the will of God, not by beating our enemies into submission to us. 

But even more, this action is a very real and personal example of Jesus living out his teaching to love your enemies. If I was in Jesus’ position, with these jealous and vindictive people coming to arrest me and have me killed, and then one of my followers took a swipe at one of them and hurt them… it would be so tempting to smile. Of course, to tell Peter to put his sword away, but to leave that ear right where it was lying and take some small pleasure in this little act of retribution. But Jesus really does love his enemies. It’s not just talk. He reaches out tenderly to this man who has come to drag him away unjustly, and he heals him.

Confronting Cowards

But whilst Jesus doesn’t fight back, neither does he shy away from confronting his enemies. In the last few verses of this scene, from verse 52, Jesus addresses the crowd of religious leaders and their guards and rebukes them for sneaking up on him with swords and clubs in the middle of the night as if he’s leading a rebellion. He’s just shown what kind of man he is in healing the servant’s ear. Coming at night with weapons says more about themand the nature of theirintentions than it does about him… He points out that they have no real grounds for arresting him, or they would have done it during the day. No, they are coming to grab him like this because this is theirhour – when darkness reigns.

Scene 3: Denial in the Courtyard 

And so we move to the third and final scene in the courtyard of the high priest, where they have taken Jesus, having finally sprang into action and seized him. But the lens focuses in on Peter at this point, who has followed at a distance. And here we see the flip side of Peter’s fearful reaction to the opposition rearing up at Jesus. Whereas a moment ago he was swinging his sword, ready to ‘fight to the death’, now he crumples in a heap of self-preservation, denying that he even knows Jesus. 

Fear & Failure

Luke narrates for us from verse 55… 55And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them.  56A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” 57 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. 

Perhaps Peter is caught off guard. He wanted to keep an eye on Jesus – and he didn’t think anyone would recognize him. And perhaps in the moment he thinks it’s strategic to pretend he’s just some random visitor to the city… or perhaps he’s suddenly gripped by fear at being associated with Jesus now that the tables have turned. Whatever the reason he denies to this servant girl that he even knows Jesus.

58 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. 59 About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Surely after an hour of sitting and dwelling on the fact that he has just denied knowing Jesus or being associated with him he’s starting to think he’s done the wrong thing. Surely now he will screw up the courage to be identified with Jesus… 

60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62And he went outside and wept bitterly.

And meanwhile, 63The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. 64They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” 65And they said many other insulting things to him.

The Horror of Denial

It’s terrible isn’t it. He denies him once again – emphatically distancing himself from Jesus. And at that very moment, as the words are in his mouth, the rooster crows… and as the crowing of the rooster is filling his head and dread is starting to fill his heart, he sees Jesus turn and look straight at him. And Peter remembers. And he breaks down. You put yourself in his shoes and you can see Jesus staring straight into your soul. He’s not angry. He’s not bitter. He’s not trying to make you feel bad to make himself feel better. But he’s staring straight at you as the words of denial are still falling off your lips and the crow of the rooster is ringing in your ears. 

How could Peter do anything other than run outside and weep bitterly?! Weeping at his shame, at his fear, at his faithless self-preservation… He weeps over the fact that he not only denied his friend and Lord in his darkest hour, but he did it hours after pledging that he would never everdeny him – after Jesus warned him that he would in fact deny him just like this! Jesus had urged him, stay awake and pray that you would not fall into temptation. But Peter fell asleep instead. And now he has fallen hard into temptation… and it breaks him. 

A Sober Warning

Peter’s denial of Jesus here has long served as both a warning, but also ironically as a comfort to Christians. 

It’s a warning of course in that it’s terrible and none of us want to find ourselves denying our Lord and Saviour when push comes to shove like this. When we start to feel the heat for being associated with Jesus, we don’t want to crumple in a heap and deny him. And Peter’s denial is held up as a warning, kind of like a billboard on the highway, showing a car mangled from a car crash, urging you to slow down. You don’t want to crash and burn like this. Stop and think. Pray that you would not fall into temptation. Consider what you’re going to face and pray that you might not fall. Pray that fear of alienation would not rule you. You can see how Jesus’ first call to his disciples to pray flows through to this tragic outworking of their failure to pray. Peter’s denial underlines the vital necessity of heeding the call to pray earnestly that we might not fall into temptation.

A Comfort in Failure

But then the flip side is of course that this is not the end for Peter. Jesus warned him in the first place, knowing he would still fall, but warning him so that he would remember his encouragement to turn back and strengthen his brothers afterwards. Peter’s denial shows us that no one is beyond falling hard, and that it doesn’t need to be the end of our faith. Jesus prayed that his faith would not be shipwrecked. And when he comes to terms with the resurrection of Jesus and is filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter turns back dramatically. He becomes a pillar of the church – a man willing to endure all things to stand with Christ and proclaim his gospel.

Peter & Judas: What matters is what you do next…

You see, what we need to remember if and when we struggle and fall like Peter is that what matters is what you do next. Of course it matters if we sin and deny Jesus like this in the first place. It’s huge – many of us don’t take it anywhere seriously enough! The main point of this whole passage is to heed the call to pray earnestly so that we would notfall into temptation like this! So yes, it matters. But if and when we do fall, in big ways or small, we can’t undo that – we can’t wind back the clock; and so what matters now is how we respond.

People often draw attention to the contrast between Judas and Peter and their different reactions to their acts of betrayal. They have both denied and betrayed Jesus in some sense. And although we don’t read about it in Luke’s gospel, Judas is apparently filled with remorse at what he’s done and even tries to return the money, before finally hanging himself. They are both gripped by remorse and grief at what they’ve done, and wish they could wind back the clock. We all know that feeling. But one of them turns back and resolves to serve Christ faithfully, whilst the other hangs himself in guilty grief. The Apostle Paul talks about the difference between godly sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation, verses a worldly grief that brings only death in the end. Quite possibly he had in mind Peter and Judas as he wrote. 

But as we apply this to ourselves, what we need to focus on is not how they felt, but what they did. It’s unhelpful in the end to try to analyse our grief and figure out if it’s godly or worldly – whether it’s more like Peter or Judas. I imagine Peter and Judas felt pretty similar – both very sorry for themselves and wishing things could be different. But what’s different is that Peter turned back and Judas didn’t. Peter wore his shame and his failure, accepting that he had failed terribly. But he hung on. And in the end, he accepted Jesus’ forgiveness for himself, and determined to serve him faithfully. But Judas didn’t. He let his sorrow and shame drive him away from Jesus into despair and death. The difference in the end is how they responded – what they did next. If and when we fall, we need to remember to turn back in repentance and throw ourselves on God’s grace. In the end, we need to let each failure drive us to pray all the more earnestly that God would lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Prayer, Faithfulness & Failure

So as these three scenes have unfolded before us, have you been affected by them? Have you been struck by the faithfulness of Jesus in sharp contrast with the failure of his disciples? Have you seen how the faithfulness of Jesus was not cheap and easily won, but forged in anguished prayer as he wrestled with his Father’s will? Have you seen the folly of fighting back and appreciated the horror of denial? Have you recognised that same instinct to self-preservation in the face of opposition that might lead you to deny your Lord? And have you seen that if we want to learn from these examples and have any chance of following Christ rather than Peter, we need to give ourselves to earnest prayer? As we face the realities of following a rejected and suffering Messiah in this world, let’s pray that we would not fall into temptation. Let’s learn to wrestle in prayer for this, knowing that it matters. And if and when we do fall – let’s turn back and pray all the more.