In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text for today will be the account of our Lord’s betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, from Matthew 26:47-56:
47 While [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
1. By the end of these verses, our Lord stands alone. Eleven of His friends have run away, and one of His friends has betrayed Him to those who would have Him killed. The betrayal of Judas is usually our focus at this point in the Gethsemane account—how in his greed and selfishness, Judas became the epitome of treachery and infidelity as he played the key role in our Lord’s arrest and subsequent execution. Judas usually garners the attention in this passage, but what of the other eleven disciples? Their role as those who abandoned our Lord ought not be ignored. These men had stood by our Lord’s side for three years during His early ministry. But now, when the climax of His ministry arrived, they abandoned their Lord. We know what happened to Judas after betraying his Lord, but what happened to the eleven? Where did they go after abandoning their Lord? Did they flee to someone they thought could protect them? Did they run to a place where they could forget what happened, hoping it would go away? Did they go away to a place where they could hide from those who sought to arrest Jesus? We’re not told, but I have to imagine that at least one of these is true because this is human nature. When presented with a problem they could not overcome, when faced with a foe they could not defeat, the disciples looked for protection, escape, or simply to hide from their problems. The disciples were helpless against those who came against them. Rather than trusting in their Lord, they fled in cowardice and fear, hoping against hope that they could escape from this evil.
2. This is our tendency as well. Thank the Lord that we were not in the place of the disciples. I would hate to imagine how much more of a fool I would have been than they. But when faced with similar hardship and overwhelming evil, our tendency to flee and cower in fear is no different. The issue is one of control. So long as I or someone that I trust is in control, everything is fine. But when that control seems to be lost, we act as the disciples. When life becomes hectic and you are so busy that you’re struggling to keep your head above water because you have lost control, what do you do? When faced with a debilitating health problem that you can’t control or find a satisfactory solution to, what do you do? When you have a relationship problem with a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend that you’ve worked so hard to repair and can’t no matter how hard you try, what do you do? When you come face to face with death, either the reality of your own or the nearness of death for a loved one, what do you do? Do you run to a person you think you can trust to protect and help you? Do you walk away and turn to your comforters of food, drink, drugs, or the internet, hoping it will go away? Do you simply hide because you are paralyzed by fear and you don’t know how else to deal with your situation? Whether we run in search of protection, escape, or simply to hide from our problems, we are just like the eleven disciples. In the face of hardship and overwhelming evil, we abandon our Lord because we don’t believe He can or will help us.
3. But here is the irony of all this. It’s not as if the disciples abandoning the Lord is what sentenced Him to death. It’s not as if they might have stayed and fought off the crowd or served as lawyers in His trial to prevent His unjust conviction. Jesus did not die because His disciples abandoned Him. If our Lord desired to preserve His life and prevent Himself from being put to death, He could have done so. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send Me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). Our Lord Jesus is the most powerful man the world has ever seen because He is fully man and fully God. In the garden of Gethsemane, there stands a rag-tag group of men trying to act as if they are the kind of army the Roman governors would not allow the Jews to have. Yet in the midst of such a group stands the One who is the commander of the armies of the Lord. This is the One who rained down fire and suffer on Sodom and Gomorrah, utterly obliterating them from the face of the earth (Genesis 19:24-25). This is the commander of the Lord’s army who appeared to Joshua outside of Jericho before the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 5:13-15). This is He whose birth the angel armies were sent to announce to the shepherds on that first Christmas night (Luke 2:13-14). This is He to whom the angels ministered after His battle with Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11). Our Lord Jesus could have had these puny, pathetic chief priests and elders and their want-to-be army swept aside without so much as the flick of a wrist if He wanted to. But He didn’t. His disciples abandoned Him in fear, yes. But the true tragedy of the eleven abandoning their Lord is not that they left their Lord helpless to die at the hands of these evil men. The true tragedy of the disciples abandoning their Lord is that none of them save John would witness the salvation of the world accomplished upon Calvary.
4. Most of the time, we are not like Judas. Yes, we have our own struggles with sin that could rightly be called betrayals of our Lord. But the fact of our lives just as often is that we are more like the eleven disciples abandoning our Lord. And yet, our Lord sees your sin. He knows that apart from Him you are incapable of accomplishing anything truly good and beautiful. He recognizes your tendency to run and cower in fear when life seems out of control. This is why He came. This is why He endured the false trial, the suffering, and the death at the hands of sinful men. He came to forgive you, which is to say He came to free you from fear. He came to restore you to the fulness of life. He came to overcome the evils of this world for you. Jesus endured the evil of the cross so that He might restore His friends who have abandoned Him. And now, our Lord meets you with His life-giving Word each time we gather together. He offers you forgiveness through the mouth of the pastor. He invites you to the altar to take and eat His body which was broken upon the cross for you. He invites you to take and drink His blood which was poured out upon the cross for your forgiveness. Don’t flee from these gifts. Don’t allow your sinful flesh to convince you that the answer to any of life’s overwhelming problems are found anywhere else. This is what truly matters because here our Lord gives you His Word and Sacrament which strengthen you in both body and soul unto life everlasting. Jesus, who is the Lord’s salvation, gives us of Himself. Of what shall we be afraid?
In Jesus’ name. Amen.