You may not have ever noticed our first Scriptural text for the morning or ever contemplated its context.
Moses has come down from the mountain bearing those fundamental instructions from God that we call the Ten Commandments. The Israelites have witnessed Moses in conversation with God, but now have sensed that God’s Presence is descending down the mountain, drawing nigh to their community. They behold the awesome power of his Holy Nearness. Rather than being delighted by this prospect, the Israelites are filled with dread. The awesome, awful power of God utterly frightens them. So they utter this strange plea to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”
Ironic, isn’t it? It is God who has delivered the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt, God who has fed them with manna and quail, God who has guided them with smoke and fire. Yet all of these blessings have come to them once-removed, mediated through Moses’ intercession. Now God is uncomfortably near, seemingly ready to speak to them directly. The prospect of encountering the very aliveness of God makes them quiver with anxiety. For to experience the absolute Reality of God in God’s pure holiness and power would strip from them every superficial impulse and would force them to confront directly the wonder and seriousness of life. They cannot handle the aliveness of God!
Compare the reluctance of those Hebrews to encounter the aliveness of God with the reluctance of the disciples afraid to mirror the aliveness of Jesus. Jesus lived every day with intensity and enthusiasm, revealing the nature and purpose of his heavenly Father in every moment, the very definition of Christ-hood. Jesus is a man of absolute love – thus the world wants to kill him. Discerning this murderous intent, Jesus retreats to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray for strength, and he brings his disciples along with him, hoping to draw encouragement from their company and their prayers. But even as our Lord falls on his face, praying in anguish, “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me,” his disciples sleep. The disciples do not want the pressure of engaging in intercessory prayer on their Savior’s behalf. To do so would strip from them all of their superficial impulses and impress upon their shallow souls the wonder and seriousness of life.
I suspect that most people, if asked about the purpose of life, would answer, “I simply want to be happy.” But Alexander Solzhenitsyn was right when he observed that if we were born to be happy, we wouldn’t be born to die. We are born in Christ for a different purpose, to grasp and embody the virtues and values of the Kingdom of God, to register in the depth of our being the wonder and seriousness of this great privilege that we call life.
I suspect that most of us would prefer to live on the surface of our existence. We don’t want to be pulled from the surface of life to plumb the depths of life’s wonder and meaning. Like those ancient Israelites and Jesus’ disciples, our unspoken prayer is, ‘Lord, do not call me to confront the dimension of life’s depth of meaning, do not summon me to wrestle with the seriousness of life, lest such an effort overwhelm me. Let me remain living on the surface of my existence.’
But such a prayer, this very real if unacknowledged prayer that we often pray, is like a fish praying, “God, don’t put me in water, lest I drown,’ or a bird praying, “Lord, don’t throw me into the air, lest I fall.” Fish are made for water, birds are made for air. We are made to engage God seriously. We were made to answer the summons of God with the whole of our being. We are made to answer the call to be ambassadors for God’s eternal Kingdom. Answering this call is the very commitment that will give our lives enduring purpose. Yet it is the call that we endeavor to resist. C.S. Lewis made this point dramatically in one of his science fiction books where the story’s hero spends his time resisting the summons of the Holy One. But only when he succumbs to the invitation of the Holy One does his life find meaning and peace. Likewise, when I first entered seminary, all of the upperclassmen warned me, “Richard, don’t take systematic theology. It is too hard. The teachers are so tough.” So I waited until my last year of school to take systematic theology, and then discovered the intellectual meat for which my soul had long been hungering and came into contact with the most influential theological mentor of my spiritual pilgrimage. For ten years I did nothing but read and write systematic theology because it conveyed to me the seriousness and wonder of life. The great truth of our lives is that we are fashioned by God for God. We are made to wrestle with the seriousness and wonder of life.
Our little Baptist Association in Charlotte built a chapel next to the men’s homeless shelter, so we could better minister to the street people. One lady in my congregation took the lead in sponsoring this ministry, which involved an extraordinary investment of her time and energy. I finally asked her why she was willing to put forth such effort. She replied, “When I was a little girl our house backed up to the railroad. My father, a minister, would take food out on the back porch to feed the hoboes who rode the rails. Sometimes he would let me sit with him as he visited with those rough men. I watched how he treated those poor people with compassion, love and respect; his example left a deep impression. When my father died, I felt God summoning me to practice a faith that made that kind of profound difference in people’s lives, and when we opened this chapel next to the shelter, I knew God was telling me it was time for me to practice a serious, sacrificial faith.”
“Wake up!” says Jesus to the disciples. “Could you not stay awake for an hour? Wake up! Wake up and pray.” In this moment of spiritual crisis the faith of even Jesus’ best disciples is weighed in the balance and found wanting. They know that throughout their time with Jesus they have been content to let him carry the spiritual weight. They have not disciplined themselves to grow in maturity and understanding. But now they hear Jesus telling them that he needs their intercessory prayers, and they are not up to the challenge. Does that situation not resonate with some of you? You slide into the pew on Sunday morning and you slide out after the service, having checked some spiritual box. But you have not really invested your life in any meaningful way in the fellowship. You have not given of yourself in any meaningful way to edify or nurture the church family. You have heard the summons of Christ saying, ‘I need you to be involved,’ but you have ignored that divine call, continuing to slide in and slide out of worship each Sunday without making any real investment. The disciples hear Jesus saying to them in this anguished hour, “I need you!” but they are not able to answer the call.
“Wake up!” Jesus challenges the disciples. “Wake up and pray! For the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
Jesus is saying to the disciples, ‘You are spiritual wannabes. You suffer from a case of the want-to’s.’ The disciples want to be more profound in their commitment to Christ, want to be more mature in witness, but they haven’t invested themselves sufficiently in their spiritual development. They haven’t disciplined themselves sufficiently to expand their spiritual understanding or power. Their spirits are willing – but their ‘flesh’ has not come off the sidelines. Many of us want to be more spiritually mature, want to be more invested in God’s Kingdom, but we really haven’t come off the sidelines. We really haven’t allowed our souls to become fully awake and responsive to the wonder and seriousness of life.
Jesus goes off alone and falls to the ground again in anguished prayer, imploring his heavenly Father, “If it be Thy will, let this cup pass from me.” Meanwhile, his disciples slumber. Could it be that they are simply bored? Pray for an hour, are you kidding! Pray for another hour? Really? Even though Jesus has sought to impress upon them the gravity of the evening, they think it is just one more ordinary night at the end of another regular day. While Jesus utilizes every moment of his dwindling life, the disciples are stifling yawns. For you can be bored by anything if you put your mind to it. As Frederick Buechner notes, there were people bored at opening night of Hamlet, there were people bored hearing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Strange to say, the disciples could be bored in the garden of Gethsemane on the eve of Good Friday. Because given the choice between living fully alive to the seriousness and wonder of life and investing everything we have in opportunities of service to God and others, or being bored, many of us choose boredom, because it is safer. It’s the path of least resistance. When Jesus goes back to pray, the disciples go back to sleep.
In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Emily, who has just died, watches her loved ones bury her and observes to her fellow dead companions, “Live people don’t understand, do they?” “No dear, not very much,” another replies. Emily continues, “They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?” Even so, Emily wants to live a day of her life over again. The others discourage her, but she insists on going back to see her family eat breakfast on her twelfth birthday. The stage manager warns her, ”You not only live, but you watch yourself living it.” She soon understands what he means. She sees her mother, young and beautiful, sees her father at the height of his powers, sees a birthday card from the boy she will one day marry, and she exclaims, “I can’t bear it! . . . I can’t look at everything hard enough. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?” “No,” says the stage manager. “The saints and poets, maybe, they do some.” Emily says, “I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are. Just blind people. . . . To move around in a cloud of ignorance. . . . to waste time as though you had a million years. . . . to be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another. The living do not understand.”
Yet there come into our lives a few moments when we have a chance to glimpse the wonder and seriousness of life. About thirty years ago, Melissa had delivered our daughter Clara in the early morning. Melissa had a nasty habit of delivering babies only to have her blood pressure drop precipitously, scaring the doctors. So they handed me Clara and ushered me out of the delivery room. We were alone. I took Clara to the hospital window, and her eyes opened just as a shaft of light burst through the clouds and illumined the world for the first time in her life, her first dawn. Suddenly, it was as if the world had been made new for me, as if the first day of creation had dawned afresh. My vision suddenly blurred with tears. For I had been granted a new glimpse of the wonder and seriousness that is life.
Jesus is more alive in dying than everyone around him is in living. Jesus engages in impassioned prayer, asking his heavenly Father for more life, but if not more life, then more meaning in his life – “Father, not my will but Thine be done.” Jesus commands the disciples, “Rise and see! Rise and see!” The truth is, everyone of us will enter a Gethsemane moment in our own lives. If you knew you had one month, or maybe one year, to live, would you live the same way you are living now? Or would you value your relationship with your loved ones more passionately, would you relish each day more energetically, would you cultivate your relationship with God more intentionally? If it was your last day on earth, would you not look into the eyes of the people you cherish and try to remember the color of their eyes? Tell me, without looking, what is the color of your spouse’s eyes, what is the color of your children’s eyes, what’s the color of your best friend’s eyes, what’s the color of your parents’ eyes? Jesus commands us, “Rise and see!” But do we? The first word that many of us learned to read was “See.” See Dick. See Jane. See Spot. See, see, see, look, look, look! But somewhere along the way we stopped looking at life and seeing with informed and impassioned vision. We stopped trying to look at everything hard enough. So we live somewhat insensate to the wonder and seriousness of life.
The truth is, only in living joyously can we understand what it means to live life eternally. The great Mickey Mantle once joked that if he had known he was going to live so long he would have taken better care of himself. Knowing that we are destined to live eternally, how do we take care of our lives? Knowing that every day carries the potential for actions that have everlasting consequences, how do we live? Those who do not know God’s gracious nature may say, “Do not speak to us, oh God, lest we die!” But we are God’s children. We live in God’s world. Our life is God’s gift. Jesus rises from that Gethsemane ground to go to the cross that we might live and live abundantly. Do we truly do so? Jesus rises from that grave that we might rise above all that weighs us down. Jesus rises from the sleep of death that we might wake up and see how little time we have to look at everything hard enough. Jesus rises from death that we might live fully awake to the seriousness and wonder of our existence for as long as God gives us breath. Do we really do so?