Matthew 26:36-46


There are places secular and places sacred in this world of ours that mark events of great importance.  There are places marked on the maps of the world where great battles were fought.  Places where great victories were won. 

Gethsemane is such a place.  It was the place of a battle of immense proportions though it took place within the exprience of a solitary man.  It was a momentous struggle that held the fate of humanity in its grasp.  Jesus had come to a place called “GETHSEMANE” which means “The Oil Press.”  A place of great pressure where the olives were crushed, and where the burden that Jesus carried almost crushed him.

The Garden of Gethsemane was holy ground for Jesus.  He had been here before, and prayer in this place for him became more focused, less distracted.  It became holy ground to the church.  It was here that Jesus had fought a temptation stronger than any he had faced on the mount of temptation some months earlier.  It is holy ground, but we are allowed to eavesdrop in on this moment of personal conflict.

  1. The Troubled Saviour

The Jesus we meet in the garden is a different man than we have met before.  We have met Jesus in a hundred different situations, and his composure is remarkable.  He seems unruffled by the pressures upon him.  He is always under critical attack, and yet we sense in him a majestic man who is not flustered by the pressure.  It is easy to believe him to be divine.

He has spoken of his impending death many times before, but he has always been matter-of-fact about his dying.  He understands it to be the will of His father and he sets his face like a flint towards Jerusalem and his death.

But in the Garden of the Oil Press, that mask of composure falls and the man at peace now becomes deeply troubled.  The crisis is now at hand, and there is no aloofness in the face of it, but emotions that are stirred to their depths. Matthew tells us that he was very sorrowful and troubled.  Mark tells us he was greatly distressed.  Luke tells us he was sweating great drops. Jesus the man of peace is disturbed.  He is feeling overwhelmed by what the next few hours holds.  The great test of his life has always been pending, but now it is almost here.

He speaks to the disciples who have been following him.  They have been puzzled by his resoluteness to this moment, but in the garden he divulges to them exactly how he feels for the first time in their time together.  “My soul is very sorrowful, so sad I could almost die of it.”

When he begins his praying we sense the urgency of his heart.  “O my father, if it is possible, let this cup, this assignment, pass from me.”  He wants to escape the cross.  He does not want to go through the next hours that he knows will be terrible. 

Three times he prayed.  The first time he prayed it was close to an hour.  We are not sure how long he took on each of the other two times.  But this praying is persistent and repeated.  Three times he asks God to suggest an alternative to this death.  In later years Paul faced a thorn in the flesh.  It was a nasty thing that plagued his life incessantly.  Paul tells his story.  Three times I asked God to remove it.  The prayers of a desperate man seeking relief.  Perhaps Jesus hoped to escape death at the last minute like Isaac had done long ago.

In this garden of the oil press, he feels the weight of his father’s will pressing the very life out of him.  Like all of us, he wants to live.  He wants to escape the cross.  But Jesus wants the will of his father even more than life.  In that garden compound, he faces the ambivalence of following his natural feelings and doing what is right.  But his instinct for survival is not as strong as his intention to do what God wants. 

But though he wills to do the will of God, he feels terribly vulnerable. Terribly alone.  So this account tells not only of his struggle, but of his opening himself up to his best friends.

2.         The Need of companions

When he gets to the garden eight of the disciples are left outside the enclosure.  It may be that the private garden is too small for a dozen men, but large enough for the four?  It may be that he wants no one intruding on his final moments of prayer with his Father, so the eight act as a defense against being interrupted by strangers.

But instead of going into the garden enclosure by himself, he takes three of his disciples with him. They are the same three that he has shared other high moments with before. 

He says to the three, “Remain with me”, “Watch with me.”  Then he moves a bit farther into the garden to have some privacy as he prayed.  But after a while, he wants to feel the three men hanging in there with him.   He feels the need of their companionship so much that he interrupts his praying three times to check in with them.  He wants the reassurance that they are there with him.  Praying for him.  

You can sense the disappointment in his voice. “Couldn’t you watch with me for just an hour?” this most difficult hour of his life.  He wakes them and urges them to stay awake and to pray.  A while later he returns to find them asleep again.  This time he does not wake them.  He returns to his lonely vigil.   He prays again and returns to find them fast asleep.  His friends are with him, but not with him in the moments he feels most the need for companionship.

3.         The Sleeping Disciples

It is interesting to note that when Matthew tells us about this event, he takes more time to note that the disciples were sleeping, than that Jesus was in prayer.  Three times Matthew makes note of the sleeping. “They were sleeping.” The second time they are sleeping for “Their eyes were heavy.”  Then the third time He finds them “Still sleeping.”

Their sleeping is of concern to Jesus. But not simply because they are not standing or kneeling with him in his hour of trial.  He is concerned for them.  The first time he awakens them he says, “Could you not watch with me for one hour?  He needed them awake and praying for his sake.  But he then says, “Watch and pray so that you may not fail in your time of trial.”  This night will not only be difficult for him; it is going to be difficult for them.

Jesus prays in Gethsemane, and finds a remarkable composure for the trial and the crucifixion.  He passes the test because he has prayed and found the help of his Father.

The disciples sleep instead of praying. And when the test comes, they fail terribly.  They run off into the night leaving him with his captors.  A few hours later, Peter stands by the fireside and denies any knowledge of Jesus. He leaves that scene with profanity pouring from his mouth, and then the hot tears that flood to his eyes, as he too runs off in shame.  The disciples faced their hour of trial and collapsed in the face of it. Jesus says, “Pray so that you do not succumb to the test.” They slept and failed.

When Jesus had awakened them, he understood these men. He says, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”  Peter was willing: He had said with all integrity, “Though everyone else leave you, I will never forsake you…. (vs 35)   But the flesh was weak and he is heard to say, “I do not know the man…” The other 10 were willing.  They all said after Peter that they would not desert their master, (vs 35) but the flesh is weak and they fled into the darkness.  These men were not wicked men.  They were simply weak men.  They needed the strength that comes from God.  Luke tells us that as Jesus prayed in that garden, an angel came and strengthened Him.  No such angels came to strengthen those who slept.


Jesus was often found to be praying.  He who needed it least, used prayer the most. The disciples needed prayer the most, and practiced it the least.  

Matthew, who writes his version of the story of Jesus several decades after the Gethsemane incident, is concerned  for the church of his own day.  His congregation faced great pressure from the Jewish community and from the Roman government.  He sees many of them collapsing before the pressure.  He is urging his church to prayer in his retelling of the story. 

If he were allowed to speak to our congregation this morning he would urge us to the same practice.  “Prayer,” he would say, “is more important than you dream.”

Yet, I must confess that I am a creature of the Twentieth Century.  Self-reliance is our password for life.  

“I did it my way” is the theme song of our age.  The plentiful physical resources of our life deceive us into thinking those are the primary resources for living.  With wealth and health we can get by! Not so!

That is obvious from the degree of disintegration that marks our lives. We live life under stress, instead of at peace.  Difficult circumstances come to all of us sooner or later, and those who have taken advantage of the possibilities of prayer find themselves going through the crisis with minimal damage.  But those who have been only self-reliant and not God-reliant, find themselves as weak as the early disciples, and find themselves capitulating in the face of pressure.

The song writer has urged us to go to dark Gethsemane to learn from Jesus Christ to pray.  During this season of Lent, let each of us take the call to personal prayer seriously.  The Lenten season is a great time for making vows to God to take seriously His call to watch and pray along with Him.

Hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane.”