First Mennonite Church
March 26, 2023
Jesus, Obedient Unto Death
Text: Matthew 26:1-5, 36-46
Christians have long noticed some parallels between the story of Isaac’s sacrifice and Jesus’ atoning death. Their birth came as the fulfillment of God’s promise. And there is even a similarity in the wording when God made the promise of their births. Genesis 17:19 reads: Then God said to Abraham, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. And in Matthew, the angel said to Joseph, “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). But the greatest point of similarity appears when God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (22:2).
In the Jewish interpretation of this story, there is something called “The Aqedah,”—“the binding” of Isaac, where it is believed that Isaac participated in his own sacrifice. It includes the idea that Isaac willingly offered himself in obedience to God’s command given to his father. Later Jewish tradents, present Isaac and Abraham as equals in fulfilling God’s command. These keepers of the Jewish oral traditions say that as Abraham and Isaac journeyed to Mount Moriah, “they walked as one.” And when the hour came for Isaac to be bound on the altar, he told his father, “Tie me well, so that I may not struggle.” But there is yet, one other similarity: Abraham tells his servants, “Wait here, while the boy and I go to worship and we will come back.” (Gen. 22:5). Jesus said to his disciples once they arrived at the garden, “Sit here while I go and pray.”
As we saw last Sunday, Jesus steadfastly fixed his face to go to Jerusalem. He determinedly confronted the city where he would ultimately die at the hands of sinners. But Jesus not only goes to Jerusalem and waits for his enemies to carry out their plans, he actually orchestrates it his own way. Even though the authorities do not want to arrest and put him to death during the Feast, Jesus forces them to do the opposite. Jesus does not only know who among his follower would betray him, he actually sends him to do what he is supposed to do and to “do it quickly” (John 13:27). And finally, it is until Jesus declares to his disciples that the manner of his death will be by crucifixion that “the chief priests and the elders of the people . . . schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him (3, 4). Therefore, once Jesus had eaten his last supper with his disciples, he led them to Gethsemane, where John’s Gospel says “Jesus and his disciples often met there” (18:2). The name Gethsemane in Hebrew “gat shemanim,” means “olive press.”
Once in the garden, Jesus orders his disciples to sit and wait for him. He retrieved himself at a little distance but took with him Peter, James, and John. To these three he confided his agony, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is one of full surrender. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” There was no progression in this prayer. Jesus said this prayer three times. It was a prayer of submission. However, although Jesus is portrayed as having unwavering obedience to the Father, his obedience is not portrayed as the passive resignation to an unavoidable fate, but as a conscious and profound act of costly self-giving. He knew what awaited him. Therefore, he agonized at the prospects of abuse, hatred, and a painful death coming upon him. Upon him was the weight of human sinfulness, which ultimately he would have to bear on his own flesh. Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow to see how far the hardness and the hatred of the human heart can go, rejecting his love. But he also knew he was at the threshold moment of total abandonment, where not only his close friends would desert him, but also the Father. So, He confided in his three disciples how his soul was being shrouded by a dark cloud of abandonment of which he would cry out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
Matthew’s portrait of Jesus’ death is profoundly characterized by his fidelity to the Father. Even while hanging on the cross Jesus resisted the temptation one last time. The mocking soldiers, the passersby, and the chief leaders taunted him saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And, “Come down from the cross and we will believe you are the Son of God” (Matthew 27:40, 43). But just as he did when he refused to give in to the temptations after his baptism, Jesus resisted to free himself from the nail that held him to the cross. Jesus chose fidelity, even when it made his soul sorrowful. He only asked his friends to accompany him. “Watch with me,” he asked Peter, James, and John.
After Jesus had prayed each of these three times, he went over to see his disciples. And he found them asleep. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. But their eyes were heavy and they could not stay awake.
As Jesus agonized under the weight of his impending sacrificial death for a world that sought to get rid of him, his disciples were weighed down by physical exhaustion and the fear of what was about to unfold against their Lord. The sad supplications of Jesus to them must have echoed long after Jesus had gone, “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?”
Jesus submitted to the Father even unto death. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he exhorts his fellow brothers and sister to take from Jesus total surrender: In chapter two, verses five to 11, Paul writes:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
But also Jesus’ gentle rebuke still holds true for us his disciples of today. Even when the burden of our salvation rests upon him, however to us the Lord might be asking “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” . . . “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The Lord is pleading with us to keep him company, to stay near him. To us, the Lord is pleading to place our hands on his in the intimacy of prayer. He pleads with us to anoint him with our tears of joy in worship and thanksgiving. He pleads with us to abide with him and to love him. In his love for us, he went so far into that lonely forsaken hour in Gethsemane. On Sundays, he literally asks us to be with him for one hour, to pray so that we may not enter into temptation. He asks us to remember that deep within us is the desire for God, but our flesh will always prove unwilling.
Obedience to the Lord means denial of the flesh. Jesus surrendered completely to the Father, even unto death. His sacrificial death means our salvation. Amen!
 VanderKam and Milik, Qumran Cave 4, VIII, 149-52.