On the night when Christ was arrested in Gethsemane, before He was crucified in our place, Jesus withdrew from His disciples, and knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.’ Then an angel appeared from Heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, Jesus prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. When He rose up from prayer and came to His disciples, Christ found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said, ‘Why sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation.’” (Luke 22:41-46)
Remembering Willard Walden
My friend, Willard Walden (1929-2013), died and went home to Christ five years ago, but I remembered him again this week and remembered reading this Scripture to him near his passing. I remember happy times with Willard and God’s faithfulness to him, even as his body wasted away in his dying weeks. I reminded Willard of Jacob who announced, “I am about to be gathered to my people,” and of Joseph who knew death was approaching and said, “I am about to die, but God will surely come to your aid….” Joseph was at peace about dying, yet eager for his brothers to trust the Lord for eternal salvation and for life.1 Is this how we feel about dying? Are we preparing to die well?
None of us knows exactly when or how we will breathe our last, but we can be like Willard and ask God to help us trust Him and trust Jesus’ trustworthy promise that He has prepared a place for us in His Father’s house.2 Willard truly trusted Christ, no doubt about that. What about us?
Jesus Has Empathy and Sympathy for Us
The Gethsemane passage above shows Christ, God’s Son made flesh, preparing to lay down His life on the cross as our sinbearer. This Scripture and others remind us that our Savior understands our human suffering perfectly, because while here on earth He faced the same questions and quandaries, rejections and remonstrances, strains and stresses that we do. Jesus has empathy for us: He shares in our feelings; identifies with our thoughts; sees things from our vexed viewpoint. I spoke to Willard of Christ using the present tense because Jesus, now risen, is still alive with His human body and soul in Heaven. The Lord loves His followers deeply and never forgets His earthly experiences that are similar to ours.
Willard loved being reminded that Christ also has sympathy and compassion for us; Jesus feels pity and sorrow when we are distressed. Because God’s Son has bound Himself to His followers, He is affected by conditions that press down on us. These facts about Jesus are wonderfully comforting to all Christians, as they were to Willard. We never walk alone through the valley of the shadow of death. We do not fear evil as much as we used to, because our living, loving Lord comes alongside us, comforting us.3 The Gethsemane passage teaches that Christ once felt afraid and He never forgets that. Scripture states: Jesus had to be made like us, fully human in every way to become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and to make atonement for the sins of His people. Because Christ Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is wonderfully able to help us through life and, especially, as we are dying.4
Preaching Jesus’ Gospel to Ourselves
Willard Walden reminds me of the hymn: “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best, seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” Willard was great about preaching Christ’s gospel to himself. Jerry Bridges says: To preach the gospel to yourself means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again and again by faith, the fact that Christ fully satisfied God’s law, that He is your propitiation (atoning sacrifice), and that God’s holy wrath is no longer directed toward you.5 Charles Spurgeon prayed daily, “God be merciful to me the sinner.”6 Willard remembered easily and often that apart from God in Christ we are without hope and without God in the world. Willard loved remembering afresh that if the Lord had not snatched us like burning sticks from the fire, we would be just as lost as God rejecters.7 Running back to Christ never depressed Willard; it made him eternally grateful to Jesus and made him love the Lord more.
Willard understood so well that each one of us is destined to die once and after that to face God’s judgment based on what we have done and left undone in our brief lives.8 He understood that Christians are undeserving guests at Jesus’ table who can never pay our own way and who must invite others to Christ. We are beggars telling others where to get Jesus, the Bread of Life.9 Willard realized that all human beings, except Jesus, are flawed—spiritually needy, twisted, troubled, miserable, mopey, bent, bruised, and broken. Thankfully, God’s Son came down to pay sin’s penalty for us, shatter sin’s power, and one day deliver us from sin’s presence altogether! According to Jesus’ promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.10 As Willard’s body was wasting away, he couldn’t wait to go home to Jesus. I want to be that way too. How about you?
Willard is Now with Christ
Willard is now with Jesus in Heaven and if he could speak to us now he would say: “The Scriptures are all true! Jesus is a more wonderful, merciful Savior than I imagined. And Heaven with Him is better than I ever could have hoped for.” I will never forget Willard’s love for Christ and the Bible. He reminds me to preach Jesus’ gospel to myself and to whosoever will listen. Christ’s mercy compels me to tell others that Jesus still cares and stands in the gap between Holy God and our wandering world. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone. It’s all God’s doing in the beginning, middle, and end, so boasting is banned.11 Even our repentings and believings are the Lord’s gifts! Remembering Willard reminds me of Gethsemane (Jesus’ garden agony), Golgotha (Jesus’ cross agony), and the Empty Tomb (which Jesus vacated in His resurrection). Those historical events are the solid bedrock of our faith.
Many people feel that no one really understands or cares about them. Willard never felt that way and no Christian should. With the hymn-writer we say:
What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.12
Willard and I sang that hymn in his living room, near the time of his dying. We laughed and cried together and praised God for Jesus, our amazing Savior. We loved remembering that Christ is full of mercy, movingly illustrated by Jesus’ willingness to drink the cup of God’s wrath in our place, so sorrowful that He literally sweat blood (hematidrosis). Willard and I were so thankful that Christ never turned away from God and He never turns away from us. On the cross Jesus prayed for us: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”13
There is nothing more certain than death, nothing more uncertain than our time of dying. So we need to be prepared always for death which may come at any time. Once we are free to die in Christ, then we are also free to live for Him and for His glory. Jesus gives us a readiness to leave this world and meet Him in Heaven. The Lord will never abandon us, especially at the time of our dying. What a Savior!
Go in peace, beloved. Walk with Christ our King today and be a blessing to others!
Notes: 1 Gen 49:29; 50:24. 2 see John 14:1–3. 3 Allusion to Psalm 23. 4 Heb 2:17-18. 5 The Discipline of Grace, Chapter 3. 6 Luke 18:13. 7 Allusion to Amos 4:11 and Zech 3:2. 8 Heb 9:27. 9 Attributed to Martin Luther. 10 2 Peter 3:13. 11 Eph 2:8-10. 12 Joseph Scriven (1855), from Original Trinity Hymnal #533. 13 Luke 23:34.