As I am reading through the gospels with my children during this Lenten season, I am struck once more by how often we read about Jesus making time to get away and talk with God.
Mark records Jesus getting up in the morning, while it was still dark, to find a solitary place where he prayed. Matthew records Jesus dismissing his disciples and heading up to a mountainside where he could be alone with God. Luke writes how Jesus spent the entire night praying, calling out to God.
Luke records Jesus crying out to God in prayer on the eve of his crucifixion. And when Jesus did that, Luke writes that an angel from heaven “appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22: 43). While Jesus was crying out to God in the garden, his disciples were nearby. Although he’d asked them to pray, they were sleeping.
As I closed the book for the night, tucked in my boys and headed off to my own bed, I began to wonder… how often, at the end of the day, I choose sleep over prayer. I sleep as a way to escape the problems of the day rather than cry out to God, as a way to gain strength to face those same problems.
In the Garden, on the night Jesus was betrayed, we see God once again offering something Jesus desperately needs. As a response to Jesus’ prayer, as a loving response to Jesus’ cry for help, God, gives Jesus strength.
Oftentimes, when faced with what seems like an impossible task, I find myself doing one of two things—either running around frantic, trying to control the outcome, or shutting down—sleeping—in order to avoid it.
But Jesus’ approach is different. On that particular night, He must have been physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and spiritually stretched. He knew what was coming. The task must have seemed impossible. But instead of running around or sleeping off the stress, He goes directly to His Father. He cries out to God. And God, in his mercy, gives him strength.
Many years before that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, David, God’s anointed King, spent a lot of time crying out to God. When he found himself in an impossible situation, this man of God, this man after God’s own heart, held nothing back as he expressed his distress to God. Psalm 13 is particularly telling of his need to cry out to God. Read the contrast from David’s first few lines to his last few lines.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?…
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
David cries out to God. He lets fly his frustration. But by the end of the Psalm, David changes his tune. His attitude is reworked. Somehow, as the words pour out, God pours strength in. By the end of the Psalm, David writes, BUT I TRUST YOU.
The night Jesus prayed in the garden, I can only imagine how much he might have wanted to just close his eyes and sleep, hoping that when he woke, it would all be over. Sometimes the problems of this world bring us to that point too, where we wish we could just make it all go away.
But God has a different way. He shows us that when we cry out to him, he responds. He responds with exactly what we need to accomplish what he has set for us to do. In his mercy, God gives us what we need. All He asks, is that we cry out to him.
Then Christ, with the understanding of someone who’s gone through a time of weakness, turns around and offers the same strength to us.
Dear Lord, we thank you for this time before Easter—time to reflect on the story of your great sacrifice for us, of the pain you must have felt leading up to the crucifixion, and of the humanity of Christ, for it is through his humanity that we see how to come to you, how to cry out to you, and how to pray. Thank you for always responding to our prayers with exactly what you know we need. Help us to remember that your grace is sufficient for us and that through our weakness, your strength shines through. In gratefulness, we give you praise. Amen.
One of my practices during Lent is to read through a book called “The King Nobody Wanted,” an old book of my mother’s that she saved from her childhood—a book that she read to my brothers and me each Lenten season when we were growing up. It tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion and resurrection. While deeply rooted in Scripture, it reads more like a novel, and is responsible for much of my understanding of who Jesus is, what he did here on earth, and why he had to die so that I might be able to live.
While I certainly didn’t understand it at the time, I believe my Mom was reading this story each year as a way to help us prepare our hearts and minds for Easter. And now that I’m the Mom, I do the same. As life swirls around so quickly, readying our hearts and minds is both gratifying and necessary.
Jesus walked with his disciples for years, teaching and training them to understand the impact of His work on earth. And when the time came for Him to say goodbye, He took the opportunity to gather with them one last time, in the upper room, to celebrate the Passover feast and to remind them once again, how deeply He cared for them.
The Passover feast was celebrated each year at the same time. It was an especially holy event for the Jewish people in that it observed the time when God spared them from the plague of physical death and brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus took the opportunity to celebrate the symbols associated with Passover and infused them with fresh meaning as a way to remember the sacrifice He was about to make, a sacrifice that would save us from death and slavery as well—a spiritual death and a spiritual slavery. While his disciples may not have known it at the time, Jesus was preparing their hearts too.
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22: 17-20)
Jesus would offer his body so that we could be passed over by the wages of sin that plague our daily lives and instead, be restored to a right relationship with God the Father. He poured out his blood so that we could be spared from the iniquity that causes not only a spiritual death, but leaves us separated from God. He offered himself up for each of us as a once-and-for-all, everlasting and Holy sacrifice, so that we could have an eternal connection with the One who is sovereign, who is mercy, who is always with us.
The days preceding Easter are a wonderful time to prepare our hearts. Your tradition may call for observing Lent, attending services, or giving something up to recognize the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. Perhaps you read through the gospels or watch a Passion drama. Regardless of what you choose, recognize that Jesus took time to prepare the hearts of his followers for what was to come. He knew how painful it would be for those who loved him to see him suffer and die on a cross. But He also knew to let them know that this would not be the end, but only the beginning of a fuller life lived in relationship with him.
And as He prepared to leave those he loved, Jesus reminded them that because of His sacrifice, this life is not all there is. And until that time when they would see Him face to face, He would always be with them, just as He is always with us.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
Father, thank you for what you did on the cross for us. Help us to prepare our hearts and minds the same way that you prepared the hearts and minds of your disciples, so that we can understand the true depth of your love for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
My son came home from school one day and grabbed the dust pan and broom. I had wondered if this boy who rarely jumps into chores without my prompting had suddenly become responsible and independent during the course of the school day. As I was getting ready to sit down and congratulate myself for training him right, I heard him say, “Got it!” With that declaration, he grabbed a Ziploc bag from his pocket and carefully poured in the dust bunnies he had collected from under our couch.
By the expression on my face, he could see that I was quite confused. “It’s for science,” he said. “We are studying what kind of stuff makes up dust. We’re dissecting it!”
I didn’t know if I should be proud or offended that he knew just where to find these suspicious little dust-globs. I thought that I’d been successful at keeping those little buggers hidden. When it was time to host a party or even just a friend or two, I would take great pains to go through the house collecting and eliminating these pesky little reminders that people actually live in my home. I much prefer creating the impression that my family so squeaky clean and happy that even the dust bunnies don’t gather here.
But my son knew better. He knew just where to find the shady characters. And now, he was going to dissect the very dirt that can expose me for what I am… a hider, a fake, a person who needed help. By literally sweeping the dust under the rug, my house appeared clean and free from people who might want to dissect it.
Dust is not something we want on display. It’s not something we proudly hold up as a prize to be earned. Rather, dust is unwanted, something to hide. Dust is, well… dirty.
Sometimes I clean up my life the same way I clean up my house. I polish, sweep, and scrub away anything that might give the impression that I am somehow less than. I sweep some things under the rug like failures, mistakes, and shame. My “dust” could be the argument I had with my brother, the anger that sometimes takes over, or the regret that still plagues me from my childhood. Polish up. Sweep away. Buff and shine. Yes, I clean up quite well.
But on Ash Wednesday, we enter into that sanctuary buffed and shined only to kneel before the altar and receive the sign of the cross with the dust of the earth. We allow ourselves, our whole selves, to be seen. We put it all out there. We walk back down that aisle exposed for who we really are. And we see the dust on others too.
In that dusty cross placed on our foreheads, we are reminded where we came from. We are reminded that we were once just dust, but in the hands of our creator, we became something beautiful. We became sons and daughters. And even in our dirty, broken state, we are still deeply loved. And because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, we are clean.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in
Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)
Dust is a public testimony to who we really are—broken people in need of a Savior. The dust removes the façade that Christians are somehow cleaner or brighter or better than others. Rather, the ash on our foreheads reminds us that from dust we first came and to dust we will return. There is a richness in that dirt… a transparency to our condition. The dust levels the playing field and points instead to Christ.
So this Lenten season, consider gathering those dust bunnies in a Ziploc bag, not to dissect but to acknowledge that even dust can be beautiful when touched by the hand of God who loves us.
*Lent begins this Wednesday, February 14th
In talking through the Easter story this week with my young son, he asked an interesting question.
“Why didn’t people like Jesus? He helped people. He made their diseases go away. He even raised that little girl from the dead. Why would people want to kill him?”
He asks a compelling question. What could this man have possibly done to cause the people who celebrated Him and revered Him as Messiah, to do an about face—to turn on him and cheer for his death?