April 5, 2012

On Being Prepared (Maundy Thursday)

Passage: Matthew 26:17
Service Type:

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

If you could know exactly when you were going to die, how would that knowledge change the way you live today?

Think about this for a moment.  If you could look into the future, and see exactly the time, place and circumstances of your death, - would that knowledge make any difference to the way you live your life now?

Some people would find that kind of knowledge far too overwhelming for them.  For example, if they knew there were going to be stricken with an incurable disease that would cause them severe suffering and pain, - they’d simply give up; - perhaps even commit suicide; because they couldn’t face such a horrific future.

It takes a great deal of courage to face the future, especially when that future has some difficult trials in store for you.

My daughter-in-law comes from a family that has a history of Huntington’s chorea, a neuro-degenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive decline and psychiatric problems.  It’s a disease that is passed on genetically; - which means that any child born to an effected parent has a 50-50 chance of inheriting the disease.

A few years ago, scientists came up with a test that can determine whether or not a person, whose father or mother has the disease, also carries that gene in their body.  For those brave enough to take the test, - positive results are virtually a death sentence’ a death sentence postponed only a certain number of years.  The child may not know exactly when the disease will strike, but they know for certain that some day it will!

As you can imagine, it takes a great deal of courage to submit to this test.  It takes even more courage to live with the results, if you happen to be one of the unlucky ones who is carrying the genetic disorder.

In 1999, my daughter-in-law chose to be tested.  At the time she and my son already had two daughters. Before she received the results, Grace and I went away on holiday, to conduct a tour of the Holy Land.

On the morning that we were in a hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we received a brief written message was delivered to our hotel room.  It was from our son.  The message, while brief, was momentous.  It read simply:  “Test negative.  Margaret is clear.”

The implication of this message was that, not only was our daughter-in-law never going to suffer from Huntington’s chorea, but neither would any of her daughters.

Within a half hour of receiving this wonderful news, - I shared it with the members of our tour group shortly after we’d boarded a small boat  and travelled out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee, to celebrate holy communion.  It was a communion service that I’ll never forget.

It’s so much easier to face the future when you have good news.  But unfortunately that’s not always what the future holds for us.

Throughout the Gospels, there’s one persistent theme.  We see it particularly in the events of Holy Week.  It is one of preparation.  Many of Jesus’ public sermons and discussions with His disciples carry this theme:  always be prepared for the future.

In Luke’s Gospel we read that Jesus told His followers:  “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they
may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”  (Luke 12:35-46)

A little while later, in the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus reinforced this message with these words:
“God said to the rich farmer ‘You fool!’  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  (Luke 12: 13-21)

Matthews’ Gospel records the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids in which Jesus warns: - “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – referring to the time when we will have to make an accounting of our lives. (Matthew. 25:1-13)

Fortunately, (or perhaps unfortunately), most of us will never know in advance the hour or the day when our lives will end.  That wasn’t the case with our Lord.  He knew not only the hour, but all the horrendous circumstances of how He was going to die.

So how did Jesus respond to that knowledge?   All four Gospels tell us that Jesus carefully prepared Himself and those around Him, as His death approached.  In the Gospel narrative of Holy Week we see Jesus preparing in distinct three ways.

1. Physical Preparation
First He made physical preparations.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak all record these preparations.  Turning to Matthew’s commentary, we read:

And Jesus said to His disciples:  “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says:  My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’"  And so the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they  prepared the Passover meal.” (Matthew 26:18-19)

That Passover meal, (which we call the ‘last Supper’) was for the benefit of both Jesus and His disciples.  Jesus used the setting of the Passover meal to prepare His disciples for the time when He would not longer be with them.  He wanted them to have a sacrament which they could celebrate whenever they gathered together, that would remind them of His death and resurrection, and the specific meaning of those events for them.  He wanted them to know that, although He would not be with them in the flesh, He would always be present with them in Spirit.

These preparations which Jesus made on that night so long ago, were intended, not only for His disciples, but also for us, so that whenever we gather around the table, to partake of the bread and wine; (symbols of Christ’s body and blood); we too will remember, that Christ died for us and rose again, and is alive and with us still.

2. Preparation Through Example
The second act of preparation involved setting an example; an example designed to help His disciples understand that they needed to change their perception of the role they were to fulfill in the Kingdom of God.  It’s John who tells us what Jesus did:

“During supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off His outer robe, and tied a towel around Himself.  Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around Him.” (John 13:3-5)

The disciples had thought that because of their close association with their Master they would occupy senior positions in the Kingdom of God.  In fact, not many days earlier, they had argued among themselves as to which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  But now, in this act of washing their feet, Jesus made it very clear that if they wanted to continue to be His disciples, they must be willing to humble themselves and assume the role of a servant.

The foot washing was an object lesson, meant to show believers down through the ages, that the way to salvation, leads not through personal achievement or self-seeking glory, but rather through service to others.

3. Preparation Through Prayer
Jesus’ last act of preparation was one that was deeply personal.  He needed to prepare Himself for the horror and unspeakable agony that awaited Him on the cross.

Picture the scene with me, if you will:

With the supper over, Jesus leads His disciples out of the gates of the city, down into the Kidron Valley, to a pathway that leads to the Mount of Olives; and to a beautiful, peaceful grove of olive trees (some of which are still growing today), a place known as Gethsemane.

Jesus and His disciples had been here many times before, but on this occasion things are different.  On this particular night, Jesus leaves all but 3 of the disciples at the gate, asking them to watch and wait.  With only His closest disciples, He goes deeper into the garden.

Then leaving even these faithful three, He walks further into the garden, to be alone in prayer with His Heavenly Father.

Many artists have attempted over the years to capture this moment on canvas.  One of the most famous pictures portrays Jesus kneeling, hands folded on a rock; His face, surrounded by a halo, is gazing heavenward.  In this portrait, the face of Jesus appears serene and peaceful.

But that’s not how it was!!!  Not that night.

Mark has recorded a far more graphic description telling us that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated” (and that) “He threw Himself on the ground” and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.  His words were:

‘Abba, Father, for You all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ (Mark 14:33, 36)

However, to fully grasp the intensity of that moment, we have to turn to Luke’s Gospel.  It is Luke, the physician, who gives us the most graphic description, saying that:

“being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood failing down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:44)

Some theologians have discounted Luke’s description assuming it to be an exaggeration, meant to show passion of Jesus’ prayer.  But recently medical science has discovered that, although extremely rare, there is a condition known as “hematohidrosis” in which when a person is under extreme stress, the blood vessels surrounding the sweat glands actually dilate to the point of rupture, forcing blood to mix with sweat.

What is most remarkable about Jesus’ prayer that night, is that, while it is obvious He dreaded what lay ahead (with an intensity beyond anything we can imagine), His conversation with God, His heavenly Father, gave Him both the strength and the courage to confront the horror of the Cross without flinching.

And so it was, that having completed all His preparations, Jesus rose from prayer and faced His adversaries fearlessly.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.