Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him."You will indeed drink from my cup" - the cup of suffering. In Gethsemane we identify with Jesus. We don't identify very closely with Jesus when He is healing the sick, walking on the water, or feeding the multitudes. We don't identify with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, cleansing the temple, or even hanging on His cross. We do identify with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane for each of us goes through his own private Gethsemane. Jesus prays, "Let this cup pass from me." That's our prayer too.
"What is it you want?" He asked.
She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."
"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
"We can," they answered.
Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father" (NIV).
The cup of suffering is one all of us must taste. It is a part of life. It's inescapable. Our suffering may differ. For some people it is physical pain; hard, unrelenting, pain. For some people it is mental suffering. What decision will I make? Which road shall I take? For others it is the suffering we call heartache; that deep pain that goes to the innermost part of our being. The kind of suffering may differ, but every one of us must taste the cup of suffering.
We Americans suppose that happiness is our birthright. It may be that we came to that through a misreading of our Constitution. The Constitution of our country says that everyone of us is entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It never says we are entitled to catch up with it. Happiness is not our birthright. Suffering is our birthright. I don't want to be morbid or depressing about it, but I have to be honest and fair with you. Being born human makes suffering part of your birthright.
Job described it in chapter 14, verse 1. "Man that is born of a woman is few of days, and full of trouble." Sometimes when people suffer they do not recognize it as part of being human. They think that God is punishing them for something that they have done. That's a mistake. We know that is not true because of an experience that Jesus had.
Jesus came to a man born blind. His disciples asked Him, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Now at first that sounds ridiculous. If he was born blind, how could it be in punishment for his sin? That was not an enlightened age like our own. In that day people believed in reincarnation. They believed that if you sinned in this life you were punished for it in a second life. So they said, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
Jesus answered unequivocally, "Neither!" Jesus made it absolutely clear that the suffering we experience in life is not in punishment for our sins. It is rather a part of what it means to be human.
There is a verse we need to remember. It is Matthew 7:11. For some reason the numbers 7 and 11 seem to fit together. Maybe it's because they rhyme. But you can remember the number 7 and 11 and all you have to do is put Matthew in front of it.
"If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?"
God's gifts are good gifts. Always. If you got a bad gift, you may not know where it came from but I can assure you it did not come from God. All God's gifts are good gifts. James says, "Every good gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights." So to suffer merely means that you are part of the human family. If you want to avoid suffering you will have to resign from the human race.
Imagine that you are a football player. The minute that you put on the uniform you know that there is the possibility that you will suffer pain and maybe serious injury. But you go out on the field anyway. If you are hurt out on the gridiron you do not say, "Why me?" You knew when you put on the uniform that you would have to suffer to play football. So when we are born into the human family we come into a family of which suffering is always a part.
This cup, which all of us must taste, Jesus drained. He drank of it more fully than any of us ever can or ever will. You can see that in Gethsemane. "He sweat as it were great drops of blood." I don't know exactly what happened in the garden of Gethsemane. I don't know the physical explanation for that, but I know the meaning. Jesus suffering was intense. It was intense because He suffered as man suffers and He suffered as God suffers. We do not ordinarily think of God suffering. That's because we fail to understand God. If you understand God, you know that God suffers.
He suffered as man suffers. He was nailed to a cross. These days when we execute a criminal we try to do it as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Society moved from the guillotine to the firing squad to the electric chair to the gas chamber and now to the lethal injection. We have reckoned that execution ought to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible . In Jesus day it was just the opposite. They wanted it to last as long as possible and be as painful as possible. They invented crucifixion. Jesus died on the cross and suffered as man suffers.
But He also suffered as God suffers. For on the cross Jesus could look down into the future. He could see that some of the people for whom He was dying would be totally indifferent to His death. He could know that He was dying for people who would never care, for people who would make fun of His cross and spurn His sacrifice. That made His suffering all the worse. He suffered voluntarily. We don't do that. We shrink back from suffering. We try to avoid it whenever we can. Jesus walked into it with His eyes open and His head high. He said, "No man takes my life from me, I lay it down of myself." We have to be careful when we interpret that verse. We must not make it mean that Jesus committed suicide on the cross. It does not mean that. It does mean this. He had the power to stop it. He could have shrunk back from it. He could have refused it, but He let it happen. Voluntarily He went to the cross.
The Bible says He could have called legions of angels to rescue Him. Ray Overholt put this thought into a beautiful song.
He could have called ten thousand angelsHe suffered voluntarily.
To destroy the world and set Him free.
He could have called ten thousand angels,
But He died alone, for you and me.
His suffering was undeserved.
I am choosing my words carefully here. Some of our suffering is deserved and some of our suffering is undeserved. Isn't that true? I would not be frank with you if I did not say that some of our suffering is deserved. Sometimes we suffer because of our sins, because of our thoughtlessness, because of our carelessness. Some of our suffering is deserved. Some of our suffering is undeserved. With Jesus it was different. All of His suffering was undeserved. His suffering was vicarious.
Have you ever wondered why preachers use words that you never hear in any other place? One reason is this. We have to discuss some very large ideas. There are some ideas so large that only large words can describe them. That is why when we come down to try to say that Jesus died in your place, we say it was vicarious.
Would you consider me irreverent if I said, "Jesus was our pinch hitter on the cross?" He took our place and experienced the suffering that we deserved.
When the Pope went to Warsaw, he made it a point to visit a jail cell in the city of Warsaw. It was a jail cell where a man had been imprisoned during the holocaust. That man was married. He had a wife. He had children. So a priest in Warsaw offered himself in exchange for the prisoner. He said, "I have no wife. I have no family. There are so many people depending on him. I offer myself in his place." The priest was put in that cell and the prisoner was released. The priest died there. He took the place of another man. Christ took the place of every one of us. "All the sin of the world on the Savior was hurled." He was the sin bearer for the whole human race. He suffered in our place. So the cup of suffering, a cup we all must taste, is a cup that Jesus drained.
The cup of suffering is also a cup that strengthens. Have you ever had the experience of buying a plant from a greenhouse, setting it out in the yard and watching it wilt and die? If you are going to take a plant from a greenhouse and set it outdoors, you have to do it gradually. That gradual process we call hardening. Suffering hardens us. It makes us strong.
In the days of the sailing vessels this is the way they chose a tree to make a mast. They did not go to some sheltered place where the trees were protected from the elements. They went up into the mountains where the soil was thin and rocky. They found a tree that had been buffeted by the storms and beaten by the winter winds. That tree, that hardened tree, they cut down for the mast of their ship. So suffering hardens and strengthens us.
A number of years ago I took a group on a trip to the Holy Land. It was a fairly strenuous journey. We had some late night events and some early morning departures. We had some long days. One lady in the group was a great deal older than the rest and I was worried about her. I was afraid she couldn't keep up the pace. But I noticed that she seemed to keep up the pace better than anybody else. Finally one day I said to her, "You're tough!" She said, "I have had a long time to get tough."
The sufferings of life toughen us. They help us to mature so that we are no longer spiritual children. Suffering makes us strong.
Have you ever watched a runner toward the end of a race? His face is distorted with pain. He has learned that if you do not run until it hurts, you never win. Suffering is necessary to victory.
Now the gain that comes to us though suffering may be described as a frozen asset. The equity in your home is a frozen asset. You cannot spend it to buy groceries or gasoline but it is an asset to you all the same. The good that comes to us from suffering may be described as a frozen asset. You can't spend it right now but it is going to be worth something to you sometime. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4: "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
Suffering teaches us. One of the things that it teaches us is courage. Sydney, Australia was first settled as a penal colony. Instead of putting people in jail in Britain, they shipped them off to Australia. Sydney was a great place for it because it is hemmed in by the mountains and the sea. When they had served out their sentence they were free to go, but there was no place to go. They didn't have enough money to come back to England. They were stuck in that little bowl that is now Sydney, Australia. They were pretty certain there was good land, but nobody was able to get to it. Many had tried and failed. They had gone up this valley and that valley and another valley. They would come back and say it was hopeless. So they called those mountains the Barrier Mountains. But two young men decided to try again. They decided not to try the easy way, going up the valleys. They decided to try it the hard way by attacking the mountain itself. They scaled it and found the land on the other side because they took the difficult route. Suffering teaches us courage.
Suffering teaches us the value of prayer. Suppose that prayer were nothing but thanksgiving and praise. Would prayer mean as much to you? Isn't it the fact that our prayers are wrought out in the white hot crucible of suffering that makes them valuable? We pray all night. We besiege God for something. Then we begin to see the value of prayer. And not just of prayer but of many other things as well. For when we suffer we come to see that some of the things we thought were worth a great deal are really worth very little. And we see some of the things that we thought were very little are truly worth a great deal.
Think a moment about Christ. Suppose the cross had never happened. Suppose Jesus had lived to be an old man, drifted into senility and died in His sleep. Would there then be any such thing as the Christian religion? You know the answer to that. It's "No." For Jesus took the cross and turned it into a hammer. He battered down the gates of Hell. He took the cross and turned it into a lever and moved the world. He took the cross and turned it into a bridge so that you and I might pass over from darkness to light and from death to life!
I must needs go home by the way of the cross,
There's no other way but this;
I shall ne'er get sight of the Gates of Light
If the way of the cross I miss.
The way of the cross leads home,
The way of the cross leads home,
It is sweet to know as I onward go,
The way of the cross leads home.
(Jessie B. Pounds)