Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

Where the Battle Is Fought

At the hour of crisis, our hope is in prayer
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Searching the Soul". See series.

Sermon Three

Here's a surprise: Most incompetent people don't know they are incompetent. In fact, researcher Dr. David A. Dunning of Cornell University reports that people who are incompetent are more confident of their abilities than competent people. Dunning and his associate Justin Krueger believe that skills required for competence are the same skills necessary to recognize that ability. Krueger writes in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "Not only do [incompetent people] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it."

You've probably run into someone like that at work, and you know how frustrating such people can be. But there is a parallel to that condition in the spiritual world.

Most of us as Christians do not recognize how incompetent we are and how vulnerable we are to profound spiritual failure. No story in Scripture ought to sensitize us more to that fact than the text before us today, Matthew 26:31-46, the story of Jesus' extraordinary and costly victory in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the extraordinary failure of his disciples in that same dark hour.

This text has those two parallel stories of Jesus and his disciples, but the story begins with Jesus' solemn warning in verses 31-35: "'This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.' Peter replied, 'Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.' 'I tell you the truth,' Jesus answered, 'this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.' But Peter declared, 'Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.' And all the other disciples said the same."

Our vows of faithfulness to Christ are inadequate protection against faith's greatest tests.

You have to hand it to those disciples! They were certainly determined not to fail Jesus! But from our perspective, they look pretty arrogant, don't they? Do not fault Peter and the others too quickly for their vows of faithfulness. After all, loyalty to Christ begins with such promises. I'm not the only one here who has sung, "Tho' none go with me, still I will follow." Often it is vows and commitments like that which stiffen our backs: I have promised, so I must do it!

The disciples didn't go wrong when they pledged their undying loyalty to Christ. May we do the same!

They got in trouble because they did not know the vulnerabilities of their own souls. We are ignorant of our souls' deep weaknesses and our fierce enemy's effectiveness against us. Luke says that Jesus told Peter at this point, "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [all] as wheat." Satan secures God's permission to sift us as wheat, also. We will not often face such tests in life, but they are, I think, certain.

A crushing disappointment, a devastating and untimely death, some withering and unremitting pain, an infuriating injustice, an endless night of depression or anxiety, that once small sin run out of control that brings us to ashes and ruin—when we face such times, our promises to never forsake Jesus, to never deny him, meet an unexpected foe: the doubts and fears, anger and sin of our own hearts. In the end, it will not be the sword-wielding soldier who makes us run from our faith, but our own unprepared hearts.

Remaining faithful to Christ in faith's fierce tests requires wrenching prayer.

None of the disciples guessed that the real test of their souls would not come when the soldiers came for Jesus, but when Jesus drew them away to a quiet place to watch and pray. It was there in the garden of prayer where victory was won … and lost.

Verses 36-46 read: "Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, 'Sit here while I go over there and pray.' He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.' Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.' Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. 'Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?' he asked Peter. 'Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.' He went away a second time and prayed, 'My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.' When h came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, 'Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and he Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes betrayer!"

Life's great tests must drive us to prayer. We take our cues here from Jesus. Look at the language in verses 37-38: "He began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.'" Can you imagine a sorrow so great that it was lethal? A grief pressing so hard from within that he sweat drops of blood? Can you imagine such a distress that brought the sea-walking, storm-stilling, Satan-defying, death-deadening Son of God to groan under its weight and to plead for companionship and prayer? There will never be a weight that heavy for you or me to bear, but when our blow comes, when our midnight falls, when our enemies can be heard in the distance, before we do anything else, we must pray! Of course, in times of great stress, we usually do pray. That's good.

But we must, in that hour, know how to pray well, to pray where it counts.

In such times we must pray, not only for rescue, but to fortify the weakness of our flesh. We see a familiar weakness in these disciples, don't we? Every time I see those sleeping disciples in my mind's eye I think two things, "How could you!?" and then, "Surely I would have slept, too."

Look closely at verse 41: "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak." The better translation says, " … the flesh is weak." Jesus was not just referring to the weakness of the physical body—the bone-tired weariness they probably felt, but rather to the weakness of our humanity, our mortality. They had made it clear that their spirits were sincerely and deeply willing to be loyal and true to Christ. But they had not reckoned on the weakness of the flesh. And it is the weakness of our flesh that brings the best-intentioned of us down to failure.

Most of us know what it is like to have our bodies betray our minds. We go out to play a little softball at a picnic, assuming all those youthful skills will surely come back. "It's just like riding a bike," we tell ourselves. And then we pull a hamstring, or find ourselves gasping for breath after chasing a fly ball. In the same way, our human nature betrays our spiritual desires. Like Paul said in Romans 7, "… what I want to do I do not do."

The Puritan pastor, John Owen, wrote, "However strong a castle may be, if a treacherous party resides inside (ready to betray at the first opportunity possible), the castle cannot be kept safe from the enemy. Traitors occupy our own hearts, ready to side with every temptation and to surrender to them all." And it is those traitors laying low in our own heart that we must flush out in prayer. In times of stress and pressure, do you pray this way?

The prayer that will preserve us echoes Jesus. Jesus taught us to pray the Lord's Prayer. Here, he teaches us how to pray when we come to our own Gethsemane. Here Jesus is echoing his earlier prayer, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." This is a variation on that theme. There are three elements to Jesus' prayers:

First, plead for God's deliverance. "My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me." The cup before Jesus was the holy grail of God's wrath against sin. A deadly and terrible cup it was. And Jesus feared it desperately. The grief of anticipating it very nearly killed him right there in Gethsemane. So he pleaded with God for another way.

It is natural for us when facing our own dreadful cup to pray that God would remove it from the table. No one was ever wrong to throw themselves on the mercy of God. No one was ever foolish to cry out, "O Lord, save me!" No child of God who pleaded for escape ever went unheard. And in countless crises, God has set the cup aside.

A half hour after being wheeled toward surgery, out walked Joan, dressed and ready to leave, because one last x-ray showed the tumor was gone! Only a couple hours before defaulting, a bank called to offer the rescuing loan. The runaway adulterer called home, miserable in his sin, and ready to repent. The lawyer called to say that, for some reason, the suit was just dropped and the ordeal is over. The suicidal daughter awakened after days in a coma, her prodigal mind completely healed and home. Oh, do not pray for deliverance without hope, for God has often heard the cry of his desperate child and withdrawn the cup of suffering. Yet, even when that is his plan, he usually makes us work through the second part of Jesus' prayer before he tips his hand of deliverance.

Second, surrender to God's will: "Yet not as I will, but as you will," and, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." There is a lot of death in the Christian life: death of dreams, death of pride, death of plans, death of security. Sometimes God quickly smites some such thing, and it is dead forever in an instant, before we quite know what hit us. But often, God wants us to look in the face of a dear thing to us, and then send it off; let it go. We must pry our own fingers off. We must turn our backs and walk away. We must lay that dear thing in God's hands and leave it to an uncertain future.

Such wrestling is painful, for we cannot imagine life being good without that which God requires of us. Frederick Buechner says that God becomes "the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives—our selves, our wills, our treasure." And the prayer of surrender to our beloved enemy is wrenching indeed.

Third, pray till the dreadful job is done. Verse 40 says that Jesus prayed that first time for an hour. It takes a long time to pray, "Not as I will, but as you will." He went back to pray two more times. Did you notice the subtle change in Jesus' prayer from the first time to the second? In verse 39 he prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will," and in verse 42 he prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." This kind of praying may not require many words, but it will likely require a long struggle. Our hearts are strong and stubborn, and do not easily let go of their dearest treasures. We move ever so slowly to surrender. But here is where the battle is fought.

Hebrews 5:7 says, "He was heard because of his reverent submission." The turning point of such prayers is "reverent submission." And God heard. God answered. Philip Yancey wrote, "When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; he got instead the salvation of the world."

Haddon Robinson has written, "Where was it that Jesus sweat great drops of blood? Not in Pilate's Hall, nor on his way to Golgotha. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane … Had I been there and witnessed that struggle, I would have worried about the future. 'If he is so broken up when all he is doing is praying,' I might have said, 'what will he do when he faces a real crisis? Why can't he approach this ordeal with the calm confidence of his three sleeping friends?' Yet, when the test came, Jesus walked to the cross with courage, and his three friends fell apart and fell away."

Jesus' victory in Gethsemane guarantees us his help in our darkest struggles.

The most important part of this story is not the failure of the disciples but the victory of Christ when he surrendered to God's will. Now when we face our own dark nights of the soul we are assured that Jesus Christ himself will "watch and pray" with us. We have his aid in two ways:

In our dark hour Jesus will forgive our sin and conquer our sinfulness. In those dark times of wrestling with the will of God in prayer, we most certainly will face our own sinfulness, our deep resistance to God's will, our deep distrust of God's ways. We must see ourselves in those times as we really are. St. Augustine prayed, "You, O Lord, turned me toward myself, taking me from behind my back, where I had placed me, unwilling to observe myself; and setting me before my face, that I might see how foul I was, how crooked and defiled, bespotted and ulcerous. And I beheld and stood aghast; and I found nowhere to flee myself." And when in those times we feel the iron grip of our selfishness and the terrible record of our sin, we can throw ourselves on our merciful Savior who stands awake and praying for us. He will forgive us, and he will "break the power of cancelled sin and set the prisoner free." Jesus will keep us from succumbing to our sin.

In our dark hour Jesus will aid us in our weakness. Jesus wanted his disciples to stay awake and pray because the struggle was even too much for the Son of God. And when they failed him, Luke 22:43 says, "An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him."

But when we struggle, Jesus himself comes to us, by his Holy Spirit, to strengthen us. When Jesus told Simon Peter that Satan had asked to sift him like wheat, he also said, "But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." Simon Peter did not follow in Judas's footsteps because Jesus prayed that his faith would not fail.

Romans 8:26-27 says, "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will." We have in Jesus a friend who sticks closer than a brother. We have in Jesus one who, having been tempted in every way that we are, will never leave us or forsake us. We have in Jesus one who waits a little ways off while we agonize over our stubborn souls; awake, watching and praying for us till we pray through.

Almost 20 years ago now I received a letter from a young mother in my church at the time. Her name was Jan, and this is the story she wrote me:

"It was the end. I knew it. I could no longer fight. I sat here emotionless. I was totally alone. Others had tried to help—doctors, nurses, parents, husband, children. But they were gone. Hours earlier I had come into the hospital on an emergency basis. I had back pain so severe that it, at times, dropped me to my knees. This was not my first hospital stay. I had been sick for a long time it seemed.

"First came flu-like symptoms which wouldn't go away. I battled for weeks, then months. Eventually, I was unable to get out of bed and unable to eat anything without severe pain and vomiting. I finally sought medical help—but my faith was failing fast.

"First came the tests—some painful, mostly embarrassing. Then came a kidney infection that almost stopped my much-needed surgery. It disappeared miraculously. Eventually, my gall bladder was removed. The surgery was declared a success. I was sent home.

"But I noticed that I still couldn't eat without getting ill. Deep within myself I knew I was still sick. My symptoms worsened. So, here I was, back in the hospital.

"I sat in the bathroom. It was the middle of the night. No people, no 'miracle' medicine, no strength left. I was too tired to fight. I sat there—four walls surrounding me. And a bleak monotonous 'bleep' from my battery-operated IV filled the silence. I couldn't stop the sound of that miserable machine, anymore than I could control my own miserable life. So I sat there—dull, miserable, in pain, with no hope.

"It was while I was there that I did hear something else. I didn't hear it with my ears—but I did in my spirit. I heard someone crying. And I immediately knew that it was Jesus crying for me. I was shocked—totally surprised. I didn't think he would do that for me.

"This experience did not leave me emotionally elated. Nor did I feel a physical touch. Life was the same except I now knew I really was not in this battle alone. Jesus cared in a way my wildest imagination would never have hoped for or expected.

"Slowly I got up and shuffled back to bed, my IV still 'bleeping' in my ears. Life was the same but different entirely. I believe that Jesus at that time made intercession to the Father for me. When there was absolutely no one else that would help me, He cried for me. And I did recover. Thank you, Jesus."

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

Related sermons

The Agony of Victory

Through the rejection of the cross Jesus is exalted as king

Wasted on Jesus

The cross calls us to worship in ways others would call waste
Sermon Outline:


I. Our vows of faithfulness to Christ are inadequate protection against faith's greatest tests.

II. Remaining faithful to Christ in faith's fierce tests requires wrenching prayer.

III. Jesus' victory in Gethsemane guarantees us his help in our darkest struggles.