Keeping Watch In Gethsemane (Exodus 12, Mark 14:32-42)


It’s the night after the Passover meal and the household take their positions as they prepare to keep watch. They’re looking out for salvation, maybe, or the power of God’s right hand, and they sit in the traditions of their ancestors, remembering how the Israelites stood vigil on the night they fled Egypt, getting ready to run as soon as a broken Pharaoh gave the word. This is Leyl Shimurim, the Night of Watching.

Leyl Shimurim commemorates the Exodus, and keeping this in mind, maybe there’s an oblique reference to it in the story of the first Easter. The Last Supper has ended, Jesus and the disciples retreating to the Garden of Gethsemane to face the horrors of the coming day. Jesus asks his friends to keep watch with him; knowing what’s to come, he pours out his anguish on his Father; the disciples, either exhausted or oblivious, fall asleep. Mark repeats the phrase “Keep watch” twice in a handful of verses; whether or not he’s referring to a specific ritual, something important seems tied up with those words. And so, not for the last time that weekend, the disciples fail their master.

But had they been able to fight off fatigue, what would they have seen? Their ancestors, had they chanced a quick, awestruck glance out of their window in Egypt, would have seen something powerful, cosmic, raw, primal, an empire brought to its knees overnight. The disciples would have seen a quite different aspect of God – scared, shaking, sweating blood and weeping. Was this something they’d have wanted to see? Maybe, for the sake of their categories, their falling asleep was for the best.

But on the other side of Gethsemene, we see God with 20:20 hindsight. This was a different kind of exodus, one in which God’s majesty would be revealed not through power but through sacrifice, compassion and love. But while I may be good at knowing the words, I’m not as good at seeing how God is at work right now, at living that out in my own life.

So maybe there’s a benefit to practicing a form of Leyl Shimurim, in pulling an all-nighter to become a witness to what God is doing, in engaging with prayer and the Bible in seeking to find God, not just in 1st century Palestine, but also in 21st century England. In the dim stillness while half the world’s in bed, maybe there’s an opportunity to meet with the God who never sleeps.

Still, nowadays we live 24/7, and so there’s something to be said for looking out our windows and seeing how God is actively at work. Watch the church soup kitchen giving people a bed and a dinner for the night. Watch the street angels safely getting party-goers into 3am taxis.

I used the word ‘watch’ there, and that’s when my own words convict me because maybe I should have said ‘help’ instead. Because what’s the point of keeping watch if you don’t do anything about the things you see? Talking the talk is easy, so is blogging the the blog, but staying awake to stand vigil, to discern what God is doing even when he seems far away, can be a whole lot harder…

Because that’s the thing; God is always at work. Sometimes we’re not looking though, and other times we miss it because his actions don’t fit within the confines in which we place him. He reaches out to the outsider and offends the religious and makes empires tremble, and if we don’t keep watch for all that, we miss something important. Because we miss seeing his power and his compassion; we see the world, but we fail to see Jesus.



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