The Garden of Gethsemane

If you’ve been to Israel, you know that there’s no place in the world quite like it. Jerusalem was one of my favorite parts of our visit. Going to Jerusalem feels a little like going to the top of the world, because since the world began this little patch of land has been right at the center of the action.

Just to the East of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, a very significant little hilltop. Many believe that it was there that Jesus ascended into heaven (although the gospels are unclear on the exact location), and Zechariah 14:4 prophesies that Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives and split it in two on the “day of the Lord.”

If you stand on the Mount of Olives and look down in the valley in between there and the Temple Mount, you will see a grove of olive trees. Olive trees are  not an uncommon sight around Jerusalem, but this particular grove of trees is very special. This is the garden of Gethsemane.

Because of the many centuries that have passed and the fact that there are so many “olive gardens” around, it is difficult to know the exact spot described in the gospels where Jesus went and prayed before his arrest. But we can be confident that the spot was very near the garden site identified today. Our group gathered in a fenced-in area adjacent to the traditional Gethsemane spot to pray and reflect. 

As I looked around at the trees, it was very easy to imagine Jesus kneeling
next to one of them, grasping the knobby, porous and almost perforated trunk, crying out to God to take the cup of suffering from him. How striking the contrast between the peace of such a beautiful place and the anguish that Christ felt as he prepared to bear the weight of sin.

The fascinating thing about the word Gethsemane is that it actually means “olive press.” Because olives were (and still are) such an important in Israel, it made sense to have an olive press near the place where the olives were grown. After the olives are harvested, they are taken into a building or cave where they are crushed to a pulp with a stone wheel and then placed into large, circular bag-like baskets. The baskets are then stacked up and pressed by a large beam that can be attached to varying stone weights, thus extracting the oil from them. The first press is the purest and most precious oil, and each subsequent press is of lower quality. While olive oil is used for cooking and other general use, it specifically prescribed for use in worship in the Old Testament. Consecrated oil was used for anointing, for incense, and for lighting the lamps that burned in God’s house.

Here’s the kicker: Do you know how many times they press olives? Three. Do you know how many times Jesus went away to pray in the garden? Three. You see, Jesus wasn’t praying in a random place outside the city before he went to the cross. God in his sovereignty was giving us another picture of what Jesus was about to do through his death: be utterly crushed on our behalf so that the anointing of God could rest on us, so that the incense of our prayers could be heard, so that the light of the gospel could shine on us.

Jesus struggled over the weight of the crushing as it pressed upon him, but he chose it willingly. He submitted to the Father’s will to be crushed for the glory of God to be shown in salvation. As I stood there in the garden I marveled at the weight of standing in this place. If you look up towards the Temple Mount you can see the East gate where the soldiers would have come with torches to arrest him. It’s no surprise that they found Jesus praying there, or that he knew when they were coming to get him. He could easily see them coming down the hill to find him. He had time to escape, and certainly could have if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He was pressed until nothing was left.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Is. 53:5

The Flame of Sacred Love

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I had the chance to preach a sermon recently on some of the important aspects of biblical worship taken from Eph. 1:3-10. I closed with a prayer (hymn text) written by Charles Wesley that is very special to me.

I have actually never heard this hymn, “O Thou Who Camest From Above,” set to music. I heard it years ago quoted by another preacher and it made such an impact on me that I decided to memorize it so that I could pray it regularly. It has been a very stabilizing and encouraging part of my prayer life and has given me much-needed encouragement in some difficult seasons.

Now maybe you’re not the kind of person who likes old hymns or Shakespeare; maybe “thee” and “thou” aren’t words you typically use or like. But in case you’re interested, here’s a short editorial walkthrough of the hymn that goes a little further in explaining why these two short stanzas mean so much to me.

O Thou Who camest from above,
The pure celestial fire to impart,

Jesus, sent from heaven by God, came to make his salvation known to real people like us. The fire of holy love that is shared by the godhead gets ignited in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. We share in God’s love and have access to God’s power for life.

Kindle a flame of sacred love
Upon the mean altar of my heart.

Fire wanes and needs fuel to burn with strength. In prayer and worship we need God to breathe on that flame to kindle it to burn brightly. The “mean” or humble altar of my heart is the place that this fire burns. Undeserving as we are, with hearts full of wickedness and deceit (Jer. 17:9), God chooses to indwell us with the fire of his love and grace.

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

I resonate with the prayer asking God to keep my heart’s flame burning brightly, a flame that won’t be extinguished by the winds and rain of doubt or difficulty. This isn’t a source of pride or boasting, but it is a testimony to God’s glory. God is glorified by an acknowledgement of, and ultimately a returning of, his gifts back to him. As we approach God in humble prayer and passionate praise, the flames rise higher and higher from the heart-altar and return to their source—God himself.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work and speak and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

I love this part of the prayer. It’s asking Jesus to make possible the redeemed heart’s deepest desire: doing everything for his glory. In my working, in my speaking, and in all of my thinking, I want to have the praise and glory of Jesus as my ultimate goal. The fire needs to be guarded vigilantly and protected so that it continues to grow and develop.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make my sacrifice complete.

I am reminded here of Isaiah 6, when the prophet answered God’s inquiry with “Here I am, send me!” When we stand at the ready for God’s will, we are submitted to him and ready to be commanded to go, to stay and/or to do what he wants. But I don’t sit idly by and wait for “thunder from the sky” to direct me. I’ve heard it said, “Do what you know, not what you don’t know.” We repeat the acts of faith and love that we know to do—prayer, studying, Christian fellowship, acts of service, and many more. We continue this life of expressing love to God until the time to die has come. And death is not a defeat, but a promotion into God’s presence, a full realization of the mercies that have been guaranteed to us in this life (2 Cor. 1:22).

Maybe you could adopt this hymn as part of your prayer life and see what happens. You may find the “flame of sacred love” growing in heat and intensity as God’s Spirit responds to our earnest prayer.

 

-JV

 

Here’s the text in its entirety:

 

O Thou Who camest from above,

The pure celestial fire to impart,

Kindle a flame of sacred love

Upon the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for Thy glory burn

With inextinguishable blaze,

And trembling to its source return,

In humble prayer and fervent praise.

 

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire

To work and speak and think for Thee;

Still let me guard the holy fire,

And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,

My acts of faith and love repeat,

Till death Thy endless mercies seal,

And make my sacrifice complete.

 

Solvent

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In one of the houses we lived in we had a bathroom with a really annoying shower. It seemed like you had to enter it through a porthole: you duck down, try to see without much light, try to maneuver your body around and get clean. It’s like showering in Gollum’s cave. Suffice to say, this shower was not the most pleasant one to bathe in, but besides that it was a REAL pain to clean. It seems obvious enough to me: water + no air circulation = mold. Who designed this thing? And why did they want to torture me? This thing needed to be cleaned…often.

I won’t tell you the words and phrases that would often go through my head (or out my mouth) while I was trying to pretzel myself down low enough to clean under all the ledges and in the corners. But I’ll tell you what I learned quick: having the right cleaning product made life a LOT easier.

This got me thinking about the concept of solvents. Have you ever had hard water stains? Or rust? You may try your hardest to scrub those suckers off and they just won’t budge. But if you get the right solution they magically and effortlessly wipe right off. That doesn’t really add up, right? Usually we think more effort = more results. But what if it’s actually the right effort = the best results? Thus the principle of solvents. But in order to be useful to us we need to talk about more than just cleaning the bathroom. So what if you could apply the principle to other areas of life? It’s like the saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.”

When I think about having the right solvent I think about the Spirit’s role in our walk with Christ, especially in the most common ways we relate to God: Prayer and Bible reading. Sometimes praying or reading the Bible can feel a lot like trying to scrub off those hard water stains from the side of the shower. But there’s got to be a solution…pun not totally intended.

Psalm 46:10 tell us to be still and know that God is God. Or as one translation puts it, “cease striving.” I think this reminds us that our relationship with God, at its core, is not based on our efforts. It’s not an elbow grease kind of arrangement. God has the power, and we have the stains. If we want to see effective change (or cleansing, to take the metaphor further), we need to access his power rather than digging in and trying to make it work. Too much of that will scratch the finish right off.

A friend of mine uses the analogy of a windshield when talking about reading the Bible. If life is like looking through a dirty windshield, the power of the scriptures are like wiper blades that cut across the lenses of our lives and help us to see. But if all we have is wipers we end up with lots of smearing (bug guts are the worst). We need a solvent to help cut through the mess. Thus the Spirit is the windshield wiper fluid that breaks down the dirt and helps the blades to be effective.

So here’s the point: if you find yourself frustrated in prayer or study, try asking God to reveal to you how to get more tuned in to the Spirit’s leading in your life. If you’re like me, you may be just scrubbing away at your issue without pausing long enough to listen to how you should read or how you should pray. Galatians 5:25 tells us that since we live in the Spirit we have to keep in step (follow along) with the Spirit’s leading. Sometimes a simple prayer of illumination (“Lord open the eyes of my heart to understand your word”) is all it takes to have God break in and reveal himself in a powerful way. I don’t think God wants us to be beating our head against the wall in vain. Yes, he does require us to work hard (sometimes really hard) and to wait for things to happen. But even in those situations we can have peace if we pause, quiet our hearts, and listen.

(I’ll spare you the cleaning product tag line here that would make this an incredibly cheesy ending).

Blessings,
JV