Matthew 26:45-56Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Perhaps no one before nor anyone since has felt so alone.
Perhaps there has never been a greater feeling of abandonment than this...
Tonight's Scripture lesson speaks of disciples sleeping when they were to be watching, a friend's betrayal sealed with a kiss, and it culminates with Jesus' disciples deserting him in his hour of greatest need.
Jesus, the one who called disciples to follow, invested his life in them, walked among the people, touched the lepers, healed the blind, released the captives, befriended the outcasts, ate with the sinners, welcomed the stranger, fed the masses, taught the crowds. This Jesus now found himself alone, abandoned at the end of all things. Or was it the beginning…?
Can you imagine such a person being left all alone in his time of most desperate need?
Can you imagine feeling such abandonment?
Of course you can. We all can.
For we too have experienced it. We all have been left alone.
We have experienced a similar pain in the unexpected departure, the agonizing diagnosis, the painful disappointment, the big mistake, the unpopular decision, the sudden death. Yes, we have known more than our fair share of abandonment. And nothing can make us feel more alone.
Because of this, because of our personal experiences, we may find an odd sense of comfort, of relief, in this painful story of abandonment that we heard read this evening. For in his abandonment, this God of the incarnation, who took on flesh and bone like us, understands what it means to be fully human. On this night there he stands, the man acquainted with sorrow, the one rejected and despised by humanity, Jesus of Nazareth, fully human and fully divine - alone.
"Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, that we to judge thee have in hate pretended? By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted!"
Yes, this Jesus, the one who now goes alone to his trial and crucifixion, knows what it means to be abandoned even by those closest to him.
When we hear tonight's passage read, it is easy to focus on all of that. The main force of the story seems to be the the betrayer's kiss, the drawn sword, the armed mob coming to take Jesus, and the disciples abandoning Jesus. Yet a closer look at our text reveals that something more may be happening. That there may be yet another storyline hiding in plain view within the narrative.
There are two groups of people in the garden with Jesus. Standing with him were the sleepy disciples, those who had been called by Jesus to pray, to follow him, to witness his actions, to hear his teaching, to learn from the master. Juxtaposed against this small ragtag group is the mob bearing clubs and swords that had been assembled to arrest the one who would be betrayed with a friend's kiss. These two groups could not have been more different from one other. One group standing in support of the one they had come to know as a teacher, master, and friend. The other group moving forward to take this troublemaker, rabble-rouser, and enemy of the state and temple by force to end his farce. Yes, these two groups could not be any more different from one another in their make up or in their mission. And there they stood facing one another at one of the most defining moment of the narrative with Jesus standing in their midst.
And then, the author of Matthew tells us that one of those who was a follower of Jesus decided to met force with force. A sword is drawn. A slashing move is made. A wound is inflicted in defense of the Messiah, as if he needed to be defended. Jesus greets this defensive act with a stern word to the disciple, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." Your act of "bravery" is standing in the way of the manner in which things are to take place. This drawn sword, a symbol of violence, is not representative of the one who proclaimed peace and turning the other cheek. Tom Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology writes of this exchange, "This act is not an expression of valor, but another instance of grievous misunderstanding…This pathetic attempt at armed resistance is essentially an attempt to change God's script…" (Long 1997). What this disciple was trying to defend was not the Jesus that stood before him but the idea of the Christ he desired Jesus to be. With his stern words, Jesus is challenging his friend to abandon the ideal to which he was clinging so that he may come near to the Christ that stood before him even if that meant the painful journey to the cross.
Then, as if to link the disciple's act to the assembled mob, turning toward them Jesus said, "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me." Like the disciple who drew his sword, this assembled posse was mistaken in their assumptions about who this Jesus was and who the Messiah would be. This Messiah, this anointed one, was nothing like the one for whom they had been waiting. This was not the Messiah of their dreams and their religious wonderings. Because he did not fit their preconceived notions, the leaders of this mob fashioned him to be no more than a common thief, some kind of vigilante gang leader - a bandit. In his very presence, Jesus was challenging their visions which had blinded them to the reality of the one in their midst, the humble one who entered the city on the back of a donkey. The compassionate one who touched those declared unclean and forgave the sins of even the most destitute. The fiery one who came to cleanse the temple of the money changers, religious brokers and political barkers. And they couldn't stand it, so they sought to destroy him.
These two groups gathered in the garden are not so different after all. The assumptions of both the disciples and the crowd have been exposed for what they were; an attempt to mold Jesus in their own image to fit their understanding of who they thought he should be. Jesus would not acquiesce to the wishes of either. Jesus was singleminded in his focus and fierce in his determination. This is a God that goes in an unexpected direction. This is a God who works in unexpected ways. This is a God of surprise. This is a God who followed his destiny for the very ones who would seek to control him or destroy him.
Tonight, we are faced with the same temptations as the crowd that came to seize Jesus and the disciple who drew his sword. We press and pull; we squeeze and mash; we cling and even try to completely change this Jesus to fit him into our predetermined mold of who we think he could or should be for personal security, religious piety, or political gain. But this is no safe Messiah. This is no sanitary savior. We cannot make this Jesus the way we want him to be. Our assumptions and our desires will always come up short in defining who this Jesus is.
And that is the difficulty of this night and the next three days. In them we are faced with the challenge, the call, the mandate to abandon any idea of God that does not include the anguish of these three days. We must be willing to abandon what we think of Jesus in order for us to meet him more fully for who he is.
Franciscan friar and spiritual director Richard Rohr wrote, "This was Jesus' great revelation, surprise, and a scandal that we have still not comprehended. God is not what we thought God could or should be!" (Rohr 2002).
Yes, on this night Jesus was abandoned. This abandoned one also calls to all of us to abandon our attempts to cling tightly to our preconceived notions of who Jesus is. We are called to leave behind any attempt to destroy that which doesn't fit into our own understandings of who he should be. We must do so in order that we might discover the one who willingly goes toward the cross. As one theologian writes, if we don't "we will end up bowing down before our own conceptual creations forged from the raw materials of our self-image, rather than bowing before the one who stands over and above creation...the God we are in relationship with is bigger, better and different than our understanding of that God" (Rollins 2006).
At this table, tonight, and in these next three days may we find ourselves shaken out of our comfortable understanding of Jesus so that we may discover him anew for who he truly is, the one who will never abandon us.
This has become our beginning.
Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997. Print.
Rohr, Richard. Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation. Franciscan Media, 2002. disc 3. CD.
Rollins, Peter. How (not) to Speak of God. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006. Print.