Lent 2 – prayer
Like most preachers, I have taught about prayer in many different contexts and many different ways. On Sundays we have looked at everything from Pauline epistles to Old Testament heroes and Gospel passages. At our recent discipleship course we have covered nitty-gritty practical details on subjects from writing prayers to physical aids to praying. In the second of the Lent series of sermons I struggled to know what was best. Maybe the most powerful training technique would be ‘sitting with Nellie’ alongside somebody as they pray. If I were to do that, there was only one person with whom to do it….This will post at 11am, just about when it is being preached…
With a soft ‘clunk’ of damp wood on cold stone, the gate to the garden closed behind them and the four men walked in. There was a look about them of those who have come fresh from a meal together – as if the flickering warmth of the oil lamps was still reflected on their cheeks and in their eyes. Here and there was a crumb of stray bread, a glistening drop of ruby wine caught in the strands of a beard.
All that was lost in an instant as the moon’s cold pallor washed over them – flattening their features and bringing swaying shadows clowning along behind with each step. They stopped at the edge of the olive grove – his shadow suddenly longer and somehow sadder than theirs. After a muttered conversation he left them and walked further into the clearing – his shadow lengthening like a wobbly pencil line between them. The three of them seemed to melt into the edge of the trees, whilst he sought out a clear patch of ground.
He stood, sat, knelt – eyes gazing at the perfectly spangled shawl of sky above him – then lay face down right there. He rested his forehead on the cold earth, nose pressed to the yielding stalks of damp grass. The fingers of each hand splayed out on the ground – looking oddly like a blind man reading the face of his friend, or a potter tracing the lines of his finest piece. Face raised again – his lips were working furiously, as if driven by anguish, or fear or some private dread.
Hands up before him – eyes focused on some unseeable spot – he looked to all the world as if he were pushing away a cup proffered for him to drink. Shaking his head ever so slightly from side-to side, the whites of his frightened eyes now showing, now hidden as they went from moonlight to shadow & back again, his chin dropped to his chest and he slowly stood. Twice more I saw him do this. Twice he traced the pencil line back down the hill to the trees – where his friends had been smudged into a blot of sleepy oblivion.
Twice he went back to his vigil in the moonlit clearing. The unseen cup was still there too. I saw his hands clasp around it the second time, draw it slightly to his chest. The third time he lifted it to his lips, this unseen goblet. Tilting his head back to drain it his face was fully lit by the moon for an instant – brow glistening with sweat and tracks down each cheek where tears had fallen. Wiping the unseen dregs from his mouth with the back of his hand he stood and turned to face his friends.
His shadow had grown again now, it swaggered before him like a gunslinger meeting his match. ‘Come on’ – he said, and the three of them stumbled to their feet as the flicker of flaming torches drove an army of stabbing shadows towards them.
Matthew 26 v.26-46