The Weight On My Soul

The Weight On My Soul – Maundy Thursday, 2019
[Luke 22:39-46]
          “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
J.K. Johnston tells an old story about a small town that had been historically “dry,” – no alcohol allowed in the town. But then a local business man decided to build a tavern. A group of Christians from the local church were concerned about this and so they planned an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene. It just so happened that shortly thereafter lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground. The owner of the bar sued the church, claiming that the prayers of the congregation were responsible, but the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were not responsible. The presiding judge, after his initial review of the case, stated, “no matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear – the tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not.”[1]
          Tonight is Maundy Thursday, where we look at what Jesus does on the night before he is crucified. Now, there’s a lot that happens on that night. He washes their feet like a servant, he eats the Passover meal, breaks bread, drinks wine, he talks about betrayal, he predicts Peter’s denial and a few other things – but after all of that – he goes to the garden to pray. And I want to focus in on that moment of the night. Tonight I want to talk about the power of prayer.


          Now, one thing I like to do to understand a piece of scripture is to read the stuff before and after the text to get a framework for what’s happening. Verse 39 Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives, but right before that is a very strange passage that almost nobody talks about. It says verse 35, [read v.35-38]. So after the dinner, but before he gets to the garden, Jesus is looking to buy a sword. He preparing to fulfill the scripture that says he will be counted among the lawless. And his disciples pull out two swords, apparently at least two of them have swords and Jesus says, “that will be enough.” And I can’t help but go, “what?” Have you ever heard that part of the story before? Why does Jesus need a sword? Maybe he was thinking he would need to fight for his freedom when the time came? He knows something bad is coming, but is it possible that Jesus is preparing to fight his way out? To avoid the pain that is coming? Right before he goes in to pray, he makes sure that his group has at least two swords. Very peculiar. We’ll come back to that.
          Verse 39, [read v.39]. He went to the Mount of Olives to pray, as was his custom. The whole week Jesus was in Jerusalem, he would spend the day in the city, but every night he would go out to the garden to pray and to rest. People seem to think that when Jesus goes to the garden to pray it’s something special, but this is something Jesus did every single day. What’s special about tonight is that Maundy Thursday was the last time he got pray alone with God, not the only time. Daily prayer was important to the Son of God. So he gets to the garden with his followers, and he goes off by himself to pray. Verse 42 [read it]. Jesus prays, “if you are willing” – meaning that sometimes God is NOT willing. Sometimes we pray for something, and God says no. Jesus starts, “If you are willing. And then he says, “remove this cup from me.” Which means, I don’t want what is coming. I don’t want this pain. I don’t want this horrible situation. Jesus is having a very human moment. Crying out to God – please stop the bad things from happening in my life. Have you ever had this prayer? Remove this cup. I don’t want it anymore. Jesus says, “take this cup from me,” but I always think about the things in this life as weights. Maybe this is just me, but I’m stressed, and overwhelmed and worn out, weary – I drag. I feel as though gravity is stronger, I can’t move, I can’t walk, I can’t get up. I have this weight on my shoulders. Jesus says take this cup, but I would probably be crying out, “please take this weight off my shoulders.”
          Jesus finishes his prayer with “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Jesus begs God to take away the bad things in his life, the cup, the weight, the shadow – God, please take it away, but then he adds not my will, but yours be done. Meaning, I want your plan more than I want my plan, even if I hate your plan. Even if I hate what is coming in my life – I trust you, I love you and I will follow you, even if it’s painful for me. That is an incredibly difficult prayer to pray. And then verse 44 is the most intense verse in the whole evening, [read v.44]. Jesus prayed so hard, in such anguish and stress and intensity – that his sweat turned to blood. And that’s not an exaggeration, that’s not a miracle or anything – that’s a real thing that happens to people. It’s called hematidrosis, and it’s a condition in which capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture causing them to exude blood instead of water. It occurs only under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress. This is not a casual prayer. Jesus is praying so fervently that he is under extreme physical and emotional distress.

          And then he gets up from his time of prayer, and returns to the disciples, finds them sleeping, because of course they’re going to let him down. He wakes them up and then at that moment Judas comes back with a crowd of people, ready to arrest Jesus. And this is that moment where those swords become really important. It says, [read v.50-51]. Jesus stops his disciples from defending him. Now, remember back in verse 38 when he wanted swords, whatever he was thinking at that time – something is different now. Jesus says, “no more of this.” I’m not going to use swords to get what I want. And they take him away to be tried, beaten, mocked, and eventually – tomorrow, crucified. Something happened in that garden, during that prayer. That prayer prepared him for getting arrested. He endures some truly terrible things, but that prayer gave him hope and strength and the swords are no longer necessary.


          So, let’s take a second here and look closely at the issue of prayer. Why do we pray? How does it work? And what we find is that this story destroys a couple of false teachings about prayer. For example, some people think that you have to be a good person for God to listen to your prayer. Or they’ll say, if you are a good person, if you give enough money, if you do enough good deeds – God will give you what you want. And yet, here we have evidence that contradicts that idea. Jesus is the son of God, the only human being that ever lived who was perfect – and God does NOT give him what he wants. Jesus says, “take this cup from me” and God says no. So praying to get what we want is not about how good we are. The second false teaching is, “well, if you’re a good person and you’re not getting what you want from God – then you must praying wrong. You’re not using the right words or you’re not being serious enough or honest enough, you have to be sincere in your prayers.” Well, that’s not right either. Because Jesus was praying perfectly, as seriously and honestly as anyone has ever prayed in the history of prayer, the man was sweating blood – and yet, he still did not get what he wanted. Well this is very frustrating.. I mean, how does it work? How do I make my prayers effective, how do I get what I want from God? [pause]. Unless, effective prayer is not about getting what I want. Maybe prayer is not about changing God’s mind. E. Stanley Jones once said, “Prayer is surrender – surrender to the will of God and cooperation with that will. If I throw out a boathook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.”[2] Prayer is about submitting our lives to God’s plan and trusting God, and letting go of the picture we had in our head. Sometimes in our lives God will say no. It’s not about how good we are. It’s not about good deeds, or donating to God, or even being serious enough – Jesus shows us all that. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Not my will, but yours be done.

     Okay, sure. I’ve heard all that before – it’s all part of God’s plan. We should pray for God’s will, and not our will. Great, but can I just – can I take a moment to be upset about that? Can I have that moment of honesty to say that maybe there are times in life when I’m not a fan of God’s plan. I mean, does that mean that I should never pray for change? Should we just sit quietly and accept our lot in life? Should we look at the horrible things in our lives and meekly accept it as “part of God’s plan?” Let’s get real intense for a second – when someone is raped, murdered, when someone lies, dies, cries – are we supposed to shrug and throw out the hope of something better?” Are we just supposed to use the phrase, “it’s all part of God’s plan” as a bumper sticker that covers the various evils of the world? How many people have left the church saying, “if this is God’s plan, I won’t follow that God?” Do you know people like that? Have you ever had a moment in your life when you get a little grumpy with “God’s plan”? I mean, if it’s all about God’s will and not my will – then does it even matter if I pray? Should I just give up and shut up?
Absolutely not! We do not give up, and here’s why. Think about this, if prayer did nothing – why would Jesus even bother praying? And Jesus didn’t pray casually, as if it didn’t matter. Jesus prayed for things to change, Jesus prayed so desperately, so fervently, so intensely for things to change. Please God, I don’t want to go through this. Jesus prayed so intensely he was sweating blood. His blood vessels ruptured under the extreme mental anxiety. Jesus believed in the power of prayer…and then I look at this story, not just the prayer but the stuff before and after and I think about how Jesus wanted swords, and then didn’t want swords. It’s almost like whatever happened in that garden steadied him. It’s almost like after that time of prayer – Jesus was ready for what was coming. Jesus prayed, because he wanted to know that God could redeem what was coming.

Truth is, we can handle anything the world throws at us, as long as we know God can redeem it. Listen to me very carefully. God’s will is resurrection. God’s will is redemption. God’s will is life, and love and goodness and hope. God does not will evil, God does not want evil – he hates evil, he allows it, and that is only for a time until redemption comes. He lets tomorrow happen, good Friday, so that Sunday can come. Without God all pain is needless pain, all pain is suffering, and all suffering is empty, evil. But with God, pain can be given a purpose. Though it can horrible for evil to exist at all, God can lift us up. God can redeem your pain. And so maybe prayer is not about changing God’s mind. Maybe prayer is about preparing me to deal with the world. Prayer gives us hope. Prayer is preparation. Prayer is preparation. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


          Do you have a cup that you want to pass from your life? Do you have a burden or a weight that is dragging you down? Do you have a struggle in your life? Something you wish God would take away? And you don’t know how much longer you can hold it. Bring your burden to Jesus. Lay down the weight of your soul. Jesus came to that garden, and he put it all in front of God. He prayed as intensely as he could. He put it all out there. But he never lost faith in God, he trusted God – so that he could accept whatever answer God gave. Even if God says no, you have to deal with this pain for now – Jesus knew that God could redeem it. If I have to go through this, there must be a reason. If I have to deal with this pain today, I know you will redeem it tomorrow. I realized Jesus was praying the serenity prayer. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. And if you have laid down your burdens before God, no matter what comes – good or bad, you know you can handle it, because God is with you. Bring your burden to Jesus, lay down the weight of your soul. It doesn’t mean there isn’t pain, it just means you don’t have to carry it alone.   

Bring your burden to Jesus, bring it to God in prayer. Pray like Jesus prayed. Fervently. Honestly. Earnestly. Every single day. Pray boldly for change. If you are struggling with something, bring to God. Do not be embarrassed of your weakness. Do not be embarrassed that you are tired or worn out by the world. Pray boldly for change. Pray desperately for change. Bring your burden to Jesus, and lay it down. Feel that weight lift off your shoulders. Trust in God’s work. Begin to believe in the God of redemption. Begin to believe that this present pain is not the end of the story. If we pray for change, and God tells us no, or tells us “not yet” – then we have an assurance from Jesus that God will redeem this present pain. Sometimes we have to endure for a season, but that endurance is a season that has an end date. In this life or the next, redemption is coming – so you can lay the burden down. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


      Do you think it makes a difference? Prayer. This idea that Jesus gave us, laying down our burdens daily before God – asking for change, even if we don’t get it – because the process of asking and trusting God prepares us and makes us stronger and helps us to face the broken world that’s out there. Does it really make a difference? Sometimes, when I get frustrated I wonder – what is the point? But then I read the rest of the story. I read all the things that Jesus goes through, that Jesus endures for us on the cross. I read about the death that is coming in less than a day and I realized he could not have done that if he was not ready. If he had not brought it to God and walked away certain that God could redeem it. Prayer is preparation. It makes all the difference. And so I’ll leave you with this – may you accept the things you cannot change. May you have the courage to change the things you can, and may you have the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

[1] J.K. Johnston, Why Christians Sin, Discovery House, 1992, p. 129. [2] E. Stanley Jones, Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome, K Hughes, Tyndale, 1988, p. 73.