Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Last week we were to stand on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, where King Solomon built and devoted the first Temple of Yahweh, the LORD God of Israel. Today we stand opposite of Mt. Zion on a slightly taller mountain across the valley of the brook called Kidron. From here, at an elevation of 2,710 feet, we can see the white blaze of the morning sun on the dome of the Second Temple constructed by Herod—or at least we could have, if we were there 2,000 years ago. (The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A.D.). The mountainside is covered in olive groves. Olive oil is necessary not only for cooking, but also for preparing the sacred anointing oil used by the priests of Israel in the temple rites. And at the very foot of the western slope sits a lovely, little garden called Gethsemane. (Aside: That’s why I like to joke that the oldest restaurant chain is Olive Garden, because the Bible mentions a garden on the Mount of Olives. An olive garden… Get it?)
The mountain on which we stand is, of course, the Mount of Olives, also known as Olivet. Our sister congregation in Aurora, Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, is named for this holy mountain.
The first mention of Mt. Olive in the Bible is in 2 Samuel 15, when David fled from his son Absalom during the civil war (2 Sam. 15:30). The prophet Zechariah foresees the day when Yahweh himself will stand on the Mount of Olives, and it will split into two halves, one moving toward the north and the other shifting south (Zech. 14:4). Forty days after he rose from the dead, our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven from Olivet (Acts 1:1-12). On that occasion, the angels told the disciples that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Christ will come back in the same way he departed—with the clouds. And because this all took place on the Mount of Olives, many Christians believe that when Christ returns on the Last Day, he will touch down on the Mount of Olives in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy.
Yet before all of that happened, the Mount of Olives was a refuge for Jesus and his disciples, a green garden away from the hustle and bustle and stench of unholy Jerusalem. Jesus often retreated from the city to the Mount of Olives. It was “his custom” (Luke 22:39). That is why, on the night of his arrest, Judas knew where to find Jesus. He led the soldiers straight to him as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of the hill.
At the start of Holy Week, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east. On Palm Sunday he rode from Bethany to Jerusalem by way of the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:37ff). During Holy Week, Jesus taught every day in the Temple courtyards, but each night he returned to Mt. Olive to camp there (Luke 21:37). I wonder what Jesus was thinking about each morning he awoke and arose to return to the city. From atop this mountain he could see Mt. Zion, the Temple Mount. Beyond that to the west of the city stood another hill, one of less stature but greater importance. That hill was his ultimate destination: Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull,” also known as Mt. Calvary. But now I’m jumping ahead of our itinerary.
On Thursday night of Holy Week, after Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples and washed their feet, they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. Jesus knew what was coming, but his disciples didn’t. Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray with him, but they kept nodding off. Jesus urged them: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). But they couldn’t keep their eyes open.
Meanwhile Jesus suffered terrible agony in his spirit. He told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Jesus was grieved so deeply, that he felt he might die of sadness. Can you imagine that?! In agony Jesus prayed and begged for God the Father to spare him the pain and suffering of the cross: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Was there no other way for him to save the world? Jesus prayed so hard and so long that he began to sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44). By the way, this is not the Gospel writer’s imagination. Doctors have written about how under extreme stress your capillaries (the tiniest blood vessels) can actually burst near the surface of the skin, allowing blood to mix with your sweat. That is how hard anxious Jesus felt about his impending doom. Nevertheless, he submitted to the Father’s will.
While Jesus was still speaking, Judas came with a detachment of soldiers. There in the peaceful Garden on the Mount of Olives, Judas betrayed his teacher with a kiss. The soldiers arrested Jesus and took him to the chief priest’s house for a kangaroo trial. But those are the events of Good Friday. And they did not take place on this mountain.
Here’s what did take place. Mt. Olive is where Jesus prepared for his Passion by taking rest during Holy Week. Mt. Olive is where he prayed about what was to come.
Sometimes our lives are so full that we think we are too busy to pray or read our Bibles or do family devotions or go to Church. We would rather hurry and scurry through life alone. We tell ourselves that we’ll pray when we have free time. But time is money, and we are never free unless we take time—unless we make time.
Jesus asked his disciples (and us): “Could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). Do you not even have one hour of your time to give to God—just one hour to worship and pray? “Watch and pray,” Jesus says, “that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (v. 41). And even though our flesh thinks it needs sleep or food or fun more than devotion, time with God is always the best use of our limited energy and time. In fact, worship and prayer refresh and renew us so we can do the other things on our to do lists for the glory of God. Yet even if devotion didn’t give us rest, it would still be worthwhile simply because God is worthy of praise. “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand…” (Ps. 95:6-7).
Jesus often went to lonely, desolate places to seek solitude and rest for his soul. The Mount of Olives was one of his favorite retreats. Where do you retreat when you need to withdraw from the world? Where do you go to get time with God? Where is your “Olivet”? It may be a closet in your house or beneath the shade of a favorite tree in a nearby park. It may be our church’s sanctuary after everyone else departs. Wherever your mountain is, go there. God is waiting for you. “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me…” (Ps. 27:8-9a). In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.