Staying Faithful in the Valleys
Enduring the ups and downs
If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time you know from experience that this is a journey with varying terrain—sometimes there’s mountaintops and sometimes valleys.
The mountaintop experiences are beautiful gifts from a gracious God. These would possibly include conversion, baptism, witnessing the Lord meet a great need or bring healing to someone you love, or answer a prayer you’ve laid before him.
The natural response to these palpable experiences of God’s goodness is a conviction toward absolute loyalty, joyful service, and loving worship.
On these mountaintops God seems too real to deny, too loud to ignore, and too good to doubt, and we boldly declare with the psalmist “the Lord is good and his love endures forever” (100:5). We feel as though there’s nothing that could ever cause me to fall away.
But the topography changes at times and the mountains give way to valleys. These are times when God’s presence, power, faithfulness, and love don’t seem as obvious—when we’re more likely to cry with the psalmist, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1).
While on the mountaintops, the reality, truth, and power of God inspire us to faithfulness, in the valleys, disappointment, doubt, and disillusionment can cause that faithfulness, that same commitment to follow Christ, to wane and weaken.
It’s one thing to be committed to Jesus when the sun is shining, it’s another to maintain that conviction when its overcast.
And, if you’re reading this, you’re somewhere on that continuum. Maybe you’re yodelling in the alps! Perhaps you are apathetically travelling the plains. Or, there’s a chance you’re limping through the valley of the shadow of death and feeling you haven’t seen sun for a long time.
No matter where you’re at on that spectrum, I’m confident God is going to speak to you through this passage today—whether by affirmation, rebuke, or encouragement.
In Mark 14:12–52 we’re going to watch as Jesus and his disciples travel through a valley so dark that it makes many of ours seem like the beach. And we’re going to learn both from the disciples’ negative example and Jesus’ perfect one how to better be faithful no matter the terrain.
The failure of the disciples
Let’s start with a negative example, that is, the failure of the disciples to stay faithful. In verse 18, they’re eating when Jesus announces that someone in the room is a traitor. The response of the twelve is recorded next:
They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?” (v. 19).
They are simultaneously depressed and defensive, all claiming to be above reproach. But Jesus quickly warns them about their over-confidence:
“It is one of the Twelve,” he replied … “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them (vv. 20a, 27a).
The twelve claim boldly, “We’ll remain faithful, Jesus, no matter how deep this valley goes!” Jesus responds plainly, “No, you won’t.” And, in verse 50, he’s proven right as Mark records simply, “ Then everyone deserted him and fled.”
Regardless of Jesus’ insistence, Peter won’t listen.
Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”
But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same (vv. 29–31).
“You’re wrong, Jesus! I know my heart. There’s nothing that would cause be to wane in my faithfulness to you!”
With these strong words still ringing in our ears Mark moves immediately to Gethsemane, where the failures begin. Jesus, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” because of what lays ahead, goes to pray and, taking three disciples with him, he charges them to, “Stay here and keep watch” (v. 34).
Instead, they sleep.
Jesus wakes them, reminds them to watch, and goes back to pray. When he returns, again they’re snoring. And, after it happens an unbelievable third time, emphasizing their inability to remain faithful to their task, Jesus simply says “Enough!” (v. 41).
Why are these men, those who had literally been on the mountaintop with Jesus when he was transfigured before them (see 9:2–13), so unable to remain faithful in the darkness of the garden? Jesus tells them and us in verse 38:
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Jesus doesn’t doubt their sincerity or their desire to be faithful. He says, “the spirit is willing.” That’s not the problem. The problem is their flesh—their body—it’s weak.
By relying on their own ability and strength, their own will-power and determination, the disciples are unable to accomplish physically what they long for spiritually.
I have no doubt that you may have a wiling spirit and may well desire to follow Jesus faithfully. But I also have no doubt that your body is just as weak as you spirit is willing. (I know because I’m there also!) And as long as you and I cave to the temptation to rely on ourselves to remain faithful we will find ourselves sleeping when we’re to be alert, fleeing when we’re to be standing strong. We are not strong enough to remain faithful.
Ironically, understanding and accepting that reality is the first step in remaining faithful!
We live in a culture that promotes the self-made-man and the independent-woman, people who threw off the shackles of low expectations, beat the odds, and rose to prominence and importance with no one to thank but themselves—the Olympic medalist, the talented musician, the business shark, the Fulbright scholar—these are the types of people our culture holds up as heroes of endurance and success.
But the Bible repeatedly tells believers the opposite—we are unable to do it on our own power; we aren’t strong enough, smart enough, creative enough, gritty enough.
And the sooner we let go of the sinking raft of self-reliance the sooner we are pulled aboard the unstoppable vessel of God’s power.
The model of Jesus
And that’s exactly what we see Jesus doing throughout this passage. While the disciples around him fail to remain faithful, Jesus endures and provides a model of faithfulness by relying on the Father and not himself. Let me point out three ways he does that.
First, Jesus trusts the Father’s providential control.
In spite of the chaos around him, Jesus knows that the Father’s plan is being realized. Look, for example, at the opening verses of our passage.
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover (vv. 13–16).
If God is in control of a water-carrier and a home-owner, he’s certainly in control of wayward disciples and angry mobs. Jesus trusts in the Father’s providential control.
Second, Jesus trusts the Father’s good plan.
God isn’t merely controlling unforeseen circumstances, but a good plan that he authored. We know that Jesus knew this. Look how he references the plan:
“The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” … “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” … “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled” (vv. 21, 27, 49).
Jesus knew there was a plan and his betrayal, arrest, and death were all a part of it. And, he trusted that the Father’s plan was as good as he who authored it. So, he submitted to it:
“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (v. 36).
Jesus trusts the Father’s good plan.
Third, Jesus trusts the Father’s power in prayer.
With an incredible weight on his shoulders, a weight that certainly eclipsed the disciples’, Jesus goes straight to the Father in prayer.
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray” (v. 32).
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him (v. 35).
In his humanity, Jesus knew his body was weak, just like the disciples. But rather than sleeping, Jesus goes to the power source (v. 36) that is able to protect from temptation (v. 38). Jesus trusts the Father’s power in prayer.
While the disciples trusted themselves, Jesus trusts the Father in heaven—that, in spite of the valley he’s in, the Father is in control, has a good plan, and that his power is available and accessible through prayer.
And because Jesus relies on the Father rather than himself, because he recognizes that the body is weak and reaches out for the divine help that’s available, he endures to the end and provides a model of faithfulness.
The invitation for us
No matter the terrain you feel you’re walking along in your Christian life right now—whether sunny peaks or shadowy ravines—this passage serves as an invitation for us to stay faithful.
And we all need this because, if in the mountains, you won’t always be. And if in the valley, you need a reminder that endurance is possible.
And so, I want to suggest the “ABC’s of faithfulness to Christ.” How do we remain steadfast? How do we, unlike the twelve, stay alert and stand strong?
First, Admit your poverty.
We must come to terms with the fact that we’re weak and in need of help. This is more a posture of the heart than an action of the hands. We have to come to terms with our own inability to stand strong; our spirits may be willing—praise God for that—but our flesh is weak. Admit your poverty.
Second, Believe in his promises.
Is God our help in times of trouble? Is he our ever-present aid? Does he care for us and love us more than we can understand. Does he give us everything we need for godliness? Do we have a High Priest that can sympathize with our weakness?
Scripture claims all of those things and more. We need to cling to those truths, remind one another of those realities, shout them victoriously from the peaks of the mountains and whimper them hopefully in the darkness of the valley. Believe his promises.
Third, Call on his power.
“God help us. God grant me patience, endurance, steadfastness. God, give me not a spirit of timidity but one of power. Give me courage!” Call on his power.
These are the ABC’s of faithfulness to God. We all want to endure. We all want to come to the ends of our lives and hear God welcome us into his presence with the words, “Well done, my faithful servant!”
How do we do that? By admitting our poverty, believing his promises, and calling on his power. That’s what the disciples failed to do, and that’s what our Lord modelled perfectly.
May we be a people that, in our prayerful striving for faithfulness to our Lord—whether on mountaintops or in valleys—come to realize that he is faithful in helping us.
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