Date: February 26, 1939
Prayer for a Blessed Lenten Devotion
O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world:
We thank Thee that in boundless mercy Thou didst take upon Thyself the reproach of the cross and uncomplainingly endured its shame. As we behold the depth of Thy sorrows, give us hearts, contrite yet firmly trusting Thy grace to grant us complete forgiveness, life with Thee, and eternal salvation. O Jesus, what could we do without Thy love? How empty of hope our souls would be were they deprived of Thy sustaining mercy! Keep us watchful, prayerful, as once more we begin to kneel with Thee in the garden of Thine agony! Leave us not to ourselves, divine Redeemer; for too easily do we fall into the sleep of security. Desert us not to the forces of the world about us, for with fatal swiftness can we deny Thee. Make this Lenten season, by the Spirit’s blessing, holy weeks of repentance, conversion, and deeper faith for many throughout the land. Send us daily the enlightening Comforter, who can draw us nearer to Thy cross and help us discard all evil desires, repulse all temptations, as Thou didst by the power of the Scriptures. More than any other lesson in life teach us the meaning of Gethsemane and Golgotha, so that together with all the sinful and the suffering we may be brought into fellowship with Thee and find through faith in Thy mercies the victory that overcometh the world. Hear us and bless our Lenten worship, O Christ, our Savior! Amen.
Being in an agony, He prayed more earnestly. – Luke 22:44
WHEN the first missionaries came to Greenland with the message of the Cross, they met unspeakable depravity and stubborn resistance. Dwarfed in body and stunted in soul, the Eskimos mocked the preaching of the Christian workers, destroyed their food, and poisoned their dogs. These ambassadors of Christ might work and plead as long as they could, the flint-hearted natives answered only with sarcastic replies and blasphemous taunts. Hardly one real convert was made in seventeen years of heroic, persevering endeavor. But then something happened by which this frozen indifference toward God began to thaw. One day Missionary Beck was telling a group of Eskimos the story of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, describing the agonies that almost broke the Savior’s heart in this Garden of His sorrows, when suddenly one of the natives, a certain Kajarnak, who up till this time had not heard even one word of the Bible, suddenly cried: “Oh, what was that? Tell me that story once more! I, too, want to be saved.” Never before had an Eskimo on Greenland spoken words like these, and with tear-filled eyes the missionary repeated the whole Lenten story, starting with the agony in Gethsemane and ending with the death on the cross. That message touched his heart, and after careful instruction Kajarnak was baptized in 1739, just two hundred years ago. Before long his wife and children were likewise converted, among the first of many Greenlanders brought to their Savior, after one man had seen Jesus in Gethsemane.
Today as we start our Lenten pilgrimage to those sacred sites where the Son of God suffered for us, we, too, begin at that Garden of unfathomed grief. Perhaps some of you have kept your hearts closed to Christ; for many in this audience live in rebellion against God,—sarcastic, taunting men and women, who pride themselves that they can get along without Christ. Many of you have not once in your lives stepped into a church. A nineteen-year-old girl near Pittsburgh recently wrote that she had never seen the inside of a church. A would-be suicide in California, recovering from a self-inflicted wound, pleads: “What can I do? Please help me! I don’t know what a church is. I’ve never entered one in my life.” May the radio prove a blessed invention for many as in these moments it brings vast multitudes from coast to coast, who may never before have heard of our broadcast mission, the story of their Savior, kneeling, pleading, suffering in the Garden of anguish. I pray God that those who are living in rebellion against Him like Kajarnak may cry out: “Tell me that story once more! I, too, want to be saved!”
As we begin the review of Christ’s Lenten sufferings, let us
GO TO DARK GETHSEMANE!
and there, treading with careful feet—for we are on sacred ground—approach reverently to watch with Jesus, of whom our text (Saint Luke, chapter twenty-two, verse forty-four) records in short, sorrow-marked words: “Being in an agony, He prayed more earnestly.”
TO BEHOLD THE SAVIOR’S AGONIES
It probably took our Lord less than twenty minutes on that last night of His earthly life to walk from the place of the Upper Chamber, where He had just instituted the Sacrament of His own holy body and blood, to the Garden, on the gentle slopes of Mount Olivet; but it takes more than twenty centuries even partially to plumb the depths of His agonizing sorrow there. Today reverent hands have planted a hundred varieties of fragrant flowers in the half-mile-wide enclosure that well-founded tradition identifies as Gethsemane, one of the few places around Jerusalem left unmolested during centuries of bloodshed. Yet, while the Garden is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful spots in the entire Holy Land, how dark its shadows on that night of betrayal! How cruel and crushing its silent indifference to the agony that made the Savior gasp: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” Huge, gnarled olive-trees, proud in the dignity of many centuries, still cover large sections of the Garden; and some botanists tell us tradition may be right when it insists that these are the trees or at least their offshoots which towered over Gethsemane in the Savior’s day. If they did, what rack of torture these trees witnessed as the silver moonlight penetrated their leaves to reveal Christ in the throes of that convulsive anguish!
Jesus entered the Garden, which perhaps belonged to some friend or patron, not in the spirit of adventure nor in ignorance of what awaited Him, but for one purpose: to prepare for the doom and terror of His death. There, probably in a secluded, overshadowed spot, Jesus began the intense suffering which was to continue, almost without interruption, until the death on the cross mercifully ended His anguish. No one can fathom the intensity of that piercing soul pain. All we know of that sorrow in the Garden is contained in the few verses of Scripture which tell us how Jesus knelt and prayed, not once but three times, that He might be spared this ordeal and that the cup of agony might be taken from Him; how in that crushing torment, which no mere mortal could ever endure, Jesus collapsed and was strengthened by an angel from heaven; how the Lord of life almost died under the pressure of these overwhelming sorrows.—Some of you groan and bend and break under the weight of sorrows, and perhaps you wonder how you can continue to carry on when day after day adds new burdens, when almost daily new grief rises to torture you. But with anguish immeasurably greater than all men combined have ever suffered concentrated on that divine Sufferer there in the Garden, we wonder how He could endure that soul-clutching ordeal which had made Him shudder long before He entered Gethsemane.
Far more vital to us is this pointed question: “What were the sorrows that almost brought Christ’s death before He could be nailed to the cross? Why did Jesus have to suffer in this unparalleled pain?” We cannot begin to understand the mystery of Gethsemane unless we believe with all our hearts that this agony of the Garden is the beginning of His suffering for the sins of the world. I never feel so much like joining the disciples James and John, who wanted to invoke destructive fire from heaven upon the enemies of Christ, as when I read in some skeptical, sarcastic book the statement that Jesus was afraid to die, that He knelt in the Garden as a coward instead of a Conqueror. History knows of depraved criminals who mounted the scaffold boasting of their superiority over Jesus and sneering: “He sweat because of terror in His last moments, but I die undisturbed.” The same taunt has been repeated from century to century until our own day. Christ unwilling to die? How could He be when He might have escaped death easily, yet refused to turn from the unswerving pathway to the cross? If one glance of His almighty power could send the armed mob prostrate, another glance could have kept them defeated. If one angel could destroy all the regiments in an Assyrian army, what could the twelve legions of Christ’s angels not do to His enemies? In all the trials of mock justice that during the next fifteen hours were to hear the case of Jesus, He could have spoken many a word that would have meant liberty. But in those critical moments He remained silent. The glorious truth that I ask you to believe is this, that Christ wanted to die!
God “laid on Him,” Isaiah foretells, “the iniquity of us all,” and this blessed prophecy began its fulfillment in the Garden. Here Jesus was thrown upon the damp earth by the crushing impact of human iniquity. We speak of Christ as the sin-bearing Savior; yet how little we can plumb the depths of sin’s torture! Think of the consequences of one transgression here on earth! A father or a mother sins, and for generations diseased, stunted, abnormal children pay the penalty of parental folly. In a rage of anger a man, even as Cain, strikes down his fellowman, and the floodgates of misery are opened upon the murderer, his family, those dependent upon his victim. The prisons are often crowded to overflowing with people who started on the road to disgrace through one particular sin. In your own lives the thought of some haunting specter of your wrongdoing often arises, to disquiet you by day and by night, a transgression for which you would willingly do a hundredfold penance if only penance could undo what has been evilly done. Now, if you feel that tugging, clutching power exerted by one sin in your life, how terrifying the load of all the sins in one life and then of heaped sins in the lives of all men in all ages! Now, this terrorizing total of all human wrong Jesus began to bear in His own holy body there in the unrelieved solitude of the olive-grove. No wonder He fell to the ground! No wonder the sweat, like great drops of crimson blood, beaded His forehead! No wonder that His piteous cry reechoes three times through the midnight stillness of the Garden: “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cap pass from Me!”
But how much more appalling than the load of sin was its eternal punishment that began to grip Jesus in dark Gethsemane! We have accustomed ourselves in these past years to speak casually of large numbers, to mention even billions with indifference! Our mathematicians have devised special methods of designating incomprehensible figures. But no advance in science and no multiplication of numerals can express the extent of the Savior’s anguish in suffering for the sins of the world. I hope you recognize the destructive punishment which a righteous God has placed on a single violation of His Law. Now picture to yourselves as far as you can what soul distress, what an agony of hell, what terror of God-forsakenness, what pain of separation from the loving Father, what immeasurable eternities of torture,—what horror of damnation, must follow in the wake of all history’s and all mankind’s sin! That unfathomable suffering, and nothing less, Jesus took upon Himself in the sorrow that began there in dark Gethsemane.
It has remained for our age to heap cutting scorn on these sacred truths and nonchalantly to laugh at the Bible and its condemnation of wrong. We see vice glorified, immorality applauded, corruption tolerated, falsehood enthroned, adultery made fashionable, murder minimized, children’s disobedience extolled, parents’ indifference condoned, perjury unchallenged, covetousness acclaimed. Sin at most becomes a social mistake and—may God show them their error!—to some of these radicals ungodliness has become even a social asset! Yet, no matter how we disguise sin, embellish it, excuse it, remember until your dying day that whatever blind, stupid men may think of it, to God Almighty the sin in your life is that hateful, destructive power which, if unremoved, will bring you to sorrow even before the grave and to hell after the grave. If nothing has been able to tear you away from deadly indifference to iniquity; if you have hushed your conscience so long that it utters only feeble protests, then nothing any man can say will influence you to change your course. Only one hope remains—that you behold your Savior during that awful hour in the Garden and ponder the meaning of His suffering so unequaled that the word used for “agony” in our text is found only here in the entire Bible. As you learn the terrifying consequences of your sins and believe you could be freed from its slavery only by the abysmal suffering of Christ, may the Spirit take complete possession of your hearts, so that with Kajarnak, the Eskimo disciple, you, deeply repentant, may say: “Tell me that story once more! I, too, want to be saved!”
Let me restate this personally directed message: Go to dark Gethsemane and behold your Savior suffering for your sins. Saint Paul was ready to endure the torments of hell if by that sacrifice he might avert eternal destruction from his countrymen. But no man, not even the Apostle Paul, no angels in their legions, no martyrs and their cruel deaths, no saints and their godly lives, no virgin mother of Christ, no God-fearing mother of any sinner, can make you right with God. It is Christ, and He alone, who can suffer for your guilt; only Jesus, who assumed the entire burden of your sins. All we can do is beseech you in His name to be “reconciled to God,” to believe without reservation that Jesus is first of all your Savior, that His blood was shed especially for you, that His prayer “Father, forgive them” was raised particularly in your behalf, and that everything Jesus offers is granted you fully, without the demand of price or condition, purely by His overabundant mercy as the blessing of your faith. May God help you come to the Garden and kneeling in adoration, contrition, and confidence, acclaim Christ your Savior, your Substitute.
Then another blessing will come to you from that agony of Gethsemane and all the succeeding sorrows until the relief of death on the cross. You will understand that Jesus suffered with an incomparably greater agony than you can ever know, so that He, having endured these trials, can understand your sorrows. Throughout history no people have been so consistently persecuted as the followers of Christ. Our age is shocked by the European hatred against the Jews; but in all ages Christians have suffered more. Despite these sorrows, however, the sympathetic Christ has given men courage to face the worst that life may offer and to meet persecution, not as fanatics, but as victors.
Have you ever stopped to realize that from Thursday night in the Garden of sorrows till that Friday afternoon with its death on Calvary the Savior was subjected to almost every manner of affliction that confronts His children? Some of you are lonely. You live in an empty house, with your life companion or your children called away in death; or you board in a rooming-house, with few real friends, if any; and sometimes you begin to pity yourselves, to think that no one has ever felt such solitary emptiness as destroyed your happiness. Think of Jesus in His loneliness, His three chosen disciples unable to keep the vigils of comfort beside their suffering Master. Recall the indescribable loneliness when He was forsaken even by God, His Father, and then remember that you need not be lonely but can have the Savior’s constant companionship, since He promised: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Many of you are laboring under the hardships of poverty, often called the curse of our age. You are without even the advantages of relief or charity’s support, and you begin to ask: “Why did God select me for this suffering?” Once more, go to dark Gethsemane and behold Him who, though Lord of heaven and earth, possessed less of personal property than anyone in this audience, and I include even those who have lost everything, who may be hearing this program in municipal shelters or in public institutions. You have far more than Jesus had; for there is a roof over your heads, while “the Son of Man” had “not where to lay His head.” You have clothing, but Christ was naked on the cross. Yet with Jesus you can never be poor in spirit. Through His poverty you become rich, rich in hope, rich in the heavenly treasures that cannot be consumed by moth and rust.
Thousands of you are sick. You write that you have suffered excruciating pains or lived through years of bedridden hopelessness that have been your lot. Think of Jesus, His lacerated back, His thorn-crowned head, His beaten body, His nail-crushed hands and feet, His hot, feverish body! When your sorrows seem more than you can endure, turn to that Savior and say: “O Jesus, Your body was bruised and cut and torn, so that You may know what my pains are. Give me strength to bear this misery!—Help me to cling more closely to You, my blessed Savior!”—and while for your own good Christ may not stop the anguish, He will give you His comfort and strength to go on, even though the burden of new pain may be added daily.
Some of you have been seized, not so much by bodily suffering, as by inner fears, that reach far deeper than bodily aches. The words men speak to you echo in their own empty failure. The counsel specialists offer is often too frail to bring real help. But one source of divine assurance can never leave you comfortless: Jesus, our Lord, was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” If you could only know the inner battles fought there on the slopes of Olivet as Jesus wrestled with sin and hell itself, you would know that you, too, can find sympathy and help in the Christ of the Garden because He Himself staggered under burdens, only immeasurably more and indescribably greater than those that oppress you!
Some of you feel yourselves rejected, outcasts in life. A few years ago you were greeted with warm welcome,—today you are pushed aside. I was touched by a letter received from the wife of a modernist pastor, a man who prides himself on his denial of Christ, who has rejected his own wife. If malicious desertion is found in some liberal churches, it occurs with far greater frequency outside the churches. If you suffer in this way, go to dark Gethsemane. Only five days before the grief of the Garden, Jesus had passed close to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane while thousands of Jerusalem’s citizens, old and young, turned out to acclaim the Miracle-worker, crying in welcome: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!” That was Palm Sunday; and on this Thursday of sorrows, almost at the same spot, the soldiers were marching to take Christ captive. Will you not believe that Jesus understands your rejection, your desertion, better than you yourself, and, understanding, is ready to help you?
Can you not see why in our broadcasts we are intent upon exalting the cross of Christ, why the emblem of our broadcast has become the little gold cross, a memorial of faith in Christ’s atonement and His sympathy in suffering? Occasionally someone writes to ask whether the cross is not a Catholic emblem. With all my heart I protest against any such restriction. Protestantism would do well to glory in the Cross of Christ. If you Christian men are ready to wear the insignia of some secret society on your coat lapels, are you not ready to wear the cross of Him who said: “In secret have I said nothing”? There is no value in outward display, and it is crass superstition to regard the cross as a charm or amulet; but I know, too, that the third of a million American and Canadian men and women who have written us for that cross have often been reminded by that sacred emblem of Him who once died for their sins and today will comfort them in their sorrows.
TO BEHOLD CHRIST STRENGTHENED BY PRAYER
In the grip of His agony Christ knew where to find strength. He turned to His heavenly Father, and Gethsemane becomes the Garden of Prayer. Oh, that you, men and women who are depriving yourselves of life’s joy, your assured redemption, would go to dark Gethsemane and learn of Jesus how to pray! There, I can promise you in Christ’s name, you will witness that courageous communion with God by which your burdens will be lightened, your souls uplifted over fear and weakness!
Remember, prayer was a perpetual part of Christ’s life. He did not wait until approaching death to beseech His Father; for at the beginning of the Lenten account we read that Jesus went to Gethsemane as was His custom. Those acquainted with the New Testament know that sometimes Jesus spent the entire night in intimate pleading with His Father, and more than twenty-five times the gospels pause to record that Christ, the sinless Redeemer, brought His supplication before His heavenly Father. Many in this audience, talented and accomplished men and women, with time, interest, and energy for a hundred activities that can never help your soul but may injure your spiritual life, should take the prayer course Christ offers in His school of Gethsemane’s Garden and learn that our petitions must not be reserved only for emergencies and imminent death but should be the continued expression of our trust in God.
Again, as the spring moon sends its rays through the lattice-work of the olive-leaves, see Jesus in supplication apart from His disciples, in that solitude which knows no distraction! True, Jesus prayed together with His disciples, and He taught us to say “Our Father”; but He also knew that sacred outpouring of His heart to His Heavenly Father that no one else could hear, and that remained His own personal supplication. You cannot know how much you miss in your life if in addition to prayers in church and home, for which we continue to plead, you have never spoken privately and confidentially with your God, never held a sacred conference with your Maker. Do it today! Select some spot in your home or outside where, unseen by the world, you can lay your heart bare to God, confess to Him your weakness, share with Him your joys, implore His help for your problems! Tonight, when you have prayed in this way, you will say I am not dealing in theories but in blessed fact when I promise you that these sweet hours of private prayer will be among your happiest and strongest moments.
As we behold the supplicating Figure silhouetted against the dark background of Gethsemane, we see that the Savior, at whose name every knee should bow, Himself kneels to pray. Some of us have forgotten how to kneel. We like to assure ourselves that through the freedom of the Gospel we need assume no special posture when we speak to God; and it is true that one can pray while walking, working, playing. Yet it is not accidental that outstanding heroes of faith have fallen on their knees or even prostrated themselves entirely, as Christ did in the Garden! You, too, will make no mistake in imitating Christ by bowing down and humbling yourselves before God.
Our text reminds us that Jesus, as the agony increased, “prayed more earnestly.” No lip-worship, no heedlessly spoken words, no saying one thing and thinking another, no mechanical recitation of oft-spoken lines, nothing artificial in that entreaty of the Savior’s afflicted heart! Nothing less than sincere heart petitions can ever have the promise of answer by God. It matters not how long you pray, how loudly you plead, how beautifully you entreat; everything depends on the genuineness of your faith.
With what radiance can prayer-filled lives become enriched! Recently here in Saint Louis we laid to rest the earthly remains of a friend in Christ who financially did more than any other single person to help this radio crusade bring Christ to the nation. During lingering days of his sickness, with a firm faith that seemed even to increase as the time of departure approached, this child of God almost lived on prayer, and its sustaining grace helped him to rise triumphantly over his afflictions. Today with His Savior, he finds the heavenly answer to every one of his earnest pleas. You, too, have Jesus’ own promise, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My name, He will give it you.”
Especially are we not to forget this vital truth that Christ, as He prayed that the cup of suffering might pass from Him, humbly added, “Nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done!” What faith, what submission, what trust in God, this “Thy will be done” requires! How often we rebel against God’s direction, and demand that He must hear our prayers! Sometimes we direct to our heavenly Father petitions which, were they granted, would bring spiritual or bodily danger, weaken our faith, or ultimately exclude us from heaven; and such prayers will never be answered. Sometimes we pray without knowing what we actually ask. Or we beseech God that we may be spared danger and distress; but our Lord knows that it is best for us to meet these emergencies, and so His will is done as these prayers are not answered. We ask for profit and advancement, insisting upon our way instead of saying, “Thy will be done!”; and because the all-discerning eye of God can penetrate the future and He knows that, were such petitions granted, they would estrange us from Christ, He refuses to give us that for which we ask but instead may enrich us with the better portion.
Yet, with all this, we have this glorious promise that I trust the Spirit of God may implant in every heart: if we pray as Christ did, “Thy will be done,” and come before God humbly trusting Christ, God hears us. He has to hear us because He has promised His answer, and God keeps His word!
It was not His will that Jesus should be spared the ordeal of suffering. But it was His will that the Savior should be strengthened for it. Soon after Jesus prayed for the last time, a new feeling of assurance came to Him in answer from God Himself. No more does He pray: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me”; no longer does He lie terror-stricken on the ground; no longer does He require angelic aid. With renewed courage He rises quickly, wakes His sleeping disciples, tells them that His hour has come since the betrayer is at hand. With majesty commanding the admiration even of those who have not confessed Christ, He goes forth, uncomplaining, unflinching, to face the death of deaths.
As we leave dark Gethsemane, may this spot of untold agony become a glorious garden of hope for us, so that we, too, proclaiming that Christ of victorious anguish our Savior, can find there confidence of joy and strength even for the darkest moments and the assurance of our salvation for all eternity with, through, and for that all-blessed Savior! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.