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Rev. James Ellis, III Headshot

Staying Awake With Jesus (a Sermon on Matthew 26:36-46)

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Friends. How many of us have them?
Friends. One's we can depend on?
Friends. How many of have them?
Friends. Before we go any further, let's be friends.

This was Whodini's wise counsel to the up-and-coming musical genre of rap in their 1984 album, Escape. We all can relate to the jumbled emotions and experiences that accompany friendship. TV executives know this well, as evidenced by the wildly popular sitcoms like Friends that capture people trying to make sense of life alongside their friends. The same could be said of other television shows: The Golden Girls, Living Single, Seinfeld, A Different World, Three's Company, Hot in Cleveland, The Steve Harvey Show, Cheers. Take your pick.

Jesus had some friends, too. Twelve of them, specifically, called disciples, a term that can also be rendered "disciplined followers." These fellas were Jesus' "peoples," his best buds who had been walking with him for some time, learning from him as a student would from their Rabbi or Master in the Jewish tradition; but also, contrary to the tradition, they were also Jesus' friends. Today we recognize Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, as palm branches were placed before him, which would lead to the "tyranny of the majority" -- a slippery slope of public opinion and capital punishment. Those who exclaimed, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord -- the King of Israel!" as Jesus entered the city, in relatively short order would shout, "Crucify him!"

On this Palm Sunday, it's important to denote that the line whereby Jesus was denied and ultimately betrayed wasn't crossed first by strangers, or those otherwise hostile to his message. It was his friends who left him out to dry. Although they often misunderstood his messianic identity, the disciples were truly Jesus' closest companions, hand-picked by Jesus to learn the ways of the Father through him. But when the going got its toughest, they majorly dropped the ball. They couldn't even stay awake with Jesus on the night of his arrest.

Having shared a special Passover meal with his friends (which gives us our outline for how we now publicly identify with and commemorate the Lord through baptism and communion) headed to the Mount of Olives, settling at the foot of the incline in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus then took Peter, James and John with him to pray nearby. He didn't ask for their assistance assembling furniture from Ikea or removing decades-old wallpaper, even though we all can see the wisdom of having extra hands on deck for such task. Rather, Jesus simply requested that they stay awake and pray. He went through this three times actually with his three friends, which correlates with the three times Peter would deny him in a little while; a fact that Jesus had foretold. Jesus told his friends to stay awake and pray, only each time in a few moments to return to find them snoring. By the fourth encounter, the time had come, so Jesus stopped fussing with them and said, "Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand." (v. 46)

What's intriguing about friends is that, well, we get to choose them. You get to arrange interviews and render yea or nay about if you feel there is enough compatibility for you all to "do life" together. This is why it can be so breathtakingly devastating when friends let us down, having chosen each other without compulsion. All of us know the pains of betrayal in friendship, whether as a victim or perpetrator. You probably know the story well. You have tirelessly cared for your friends, risking life and limb to support them through only God knows what. However, during your time of need they are too busy to return the favor. You give, and give, and give. They take, and take, and take. Whenever in a pickle of a situation they don't hesitate to call on you, and you don't hesitate to drop everything to help. So when Peter, James, and John couldn't muster the strength to stay awake and pray with their friend for merely an hour, as he asked, please believe that Jesus' heart ached. He was already experiencing trepidation; grieved and agitated, as it says in verse 37, at the Father's will; dying for the sins of humanity, although he was without sin.

Minus the praying, staying awake is something that friends are known to do. It might be a late-night bus ride home from a basketball game in high school, the legendary girl-power sleepovers, or some other kind of pow-wow that lasts into the wee hours of the morning. That's just what friends do. Back in my heyday, I was known for staying up late. I even remember as a small child absolutely hating nap time and being miserable when it was time to go to bed at night. It was utter torture. However, as I ease into the middle of three decades of life, I'm not nearly the night owl that I once was. In fact, my wife and I often joke about how unhip we are because we usually are in for the night by 8:00 p.m. Part of our reasoning for this, to be blunt, is that the "freaks come out at night," or so it has been said; an encounter we try to avoid. But we also don't stay up late because we often just don't have the energy. As I sometimes tell my three-year-old nephew, "I don't have any more strong left. It's all gone." I imagine the same thing happened with Jesus' friends, Peter, James and John.

They weren't bad people necessarily; sinners, yes, but overall just people engaged in "faith seeking understanding" like us, having abandoned their former lives to follow Jesus. Of course, Judas went in a bad direction, unfortunately. He was not initially present in the Garden of Gethsemane, having slipped away to coordinate handing his dear friend, Jesus, over to the authorities. Betrayal isn't new amongst friends, however. Anne Frank was betrayed to the Nazis, arguably, by people whom she knew well, or maybe even counted as friends. Widely considered the Madonna of Latin music in the 1990s, Selena was betrayed by her friend and fan-club president, Yolanda Saldívar, who fatally shot her in the back. And it was upon the betrayal of his friend, John E. Cook that John Brown, the abolitionist, was eventually captured and executed for his 1859 Harpers Ferry raid in an attempt to free slaves.

While those of us in Christ represent him, unlike him we don't possess foreknowledge, nor are we all-powerful. We are connected to him and his limitless abilities, but we are not him, so it is wise of us to be careful in choosing friends. Nevertheless, even with our closest homeboys and homegirls, staying awake will always be a touchy topic because we are imperfect people. At one point or another, friends will let you down, flaking out in your time of deep need. No card in the mail. No visit. No text-message. No phone call to lift your spirits. No rescue plan devised to save you from despair. Nothing. Amigos in absentia, you could say. But you and I, too, will be caught resting our eyes during a friends' crisis, snoring while Jesus needs us awake. It comes with the territory of flesh and blood that binds us all.

Thankfully, while we are not always capable of staying awake with Jesus or one another, he always stays awake with us. "He neither slumbers nor sleeps," the psalmist says. "The Lord is your keeper..." (Psalm 121:4-5) Now we very well may huff and puff that Jesus isn't doing exactly what we want him to do how and when we want him to do it, but that doesn't mean that he has narcolepsy. No, Jesus is alive, awake, and alert; always when, especially when we are not. And this Jesus isn't only evidenced by mere footprints in the sand. This Jesus, the Lamb, who willingly went to slaughter on our behalf has made us into living epistles. Festering with infection and pain, we had some wounds that because of Jesus' intervention have since turned into scars, meaning that healing has begun. There are situations in our life that were dead, but have been resurrected into new life only because of Jesus. We, ourselves, once were lost, but were found by and for Jesus. In the midst of his own pain, Jesus sought obedience to the Father and the well-being of his friends, though they betrayed him. Thank God that he is not of this world.

So when the Judas' of your life betray you, showing up in the middle of the night with a "no knock" warrant, turning peace into chaos, rifling through your most intimate things in search of incriminating material, know that Jesus is awake. When your closest pals in the world fall asleep on the job, know that Jesus is still there; and with more than an olive branch offering or impersonal spiritual clichés, but something much better -- Jesus offers himself. We can sleep well at night knowing that God -- the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit -- is looking out for our best interest, keeping watch over our lives.

Let us pray.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Amen.

[This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on April 13, 2014 at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC where I serve as the senior pastor.]