This week we’ve especially been talking about and looking at the way Jesus’s journey to the cross reveals our sin and the weight of it, the cost and consequences of it — just how devastating and serious it really is. And this is really important. It’s something we can’t lose sight of and that we should indeed focus on and remember during Holy Week. Our violence, our selfishness, our fear, our anger, leads Jesus to the Cross.
And somehow, because Jesus is both human and God, he stands in for us. He’s our representative suffer. He takes on what we would otherwise have to bear for ourselves, and takes it away — sets us free of it. This is central to the gospel and to the hope that we have as Christians.
But of all the words that were just read from Matthew’s gospel, maybe none of them so much as Jesus’ last words have struck Christians and baffled them throughout the Centuries as the ones that Jesus uttered from the cross in his dying breathe: (v. 46) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The gospel writer thought it was so profound and so important that, it’s not recorded in Greek but rather in Jesus’s spoken language, which was Aramaic. The only other word of Jesus from the Aramaic language that’s mentioned in the gospels is “Abba,” which is also an intimate reference to God as “father,” but in this moment on the cross, the word he uses is not “abba,” but just, “God.” None of his friends were there. Only a few family members. He experienced no evidence of God the Father. He felt utterly alone.
One of the things you sometimes hear in church — or that I’ve heard in church — about this cry from Jesus is that he feels God’s absence, because the Father cannot look upon the sin of the world that Jesus is now carrying. And there is biblical justification for this, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”!
But if you think about it a little more, this explanation has some problems. Because hasn’t the fact that God became human in the first place and entered into the world, meeting us where we are, with Jesus engaging sinners every day of his public ministry — hasn’t this already communicated to us that God is more than willing to not only look upon our sin and but forgive it and take it away?
And if God is fully in Jesus, which is what Christians have always believed, then is it really possible for God to look away from himself? Can God forsake or abandon God? This doesn’t really make sense!
One of the great mysteries of the Trinity, is that, in principle, the three persons of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, can be different and distinct from each other, but still unified, still inseparable. In other words, it’s possible for Jesus, in his full and complete humanity, to experience the emotion that many of us have experienced of feeling like God is distant or doesn’t care, without necessarily ever actually being disconnected from God.
So while the cross does reveal our sin, there’s an encouragement here for us in Jesus’s cry of Dereliction, it’s sometimes called. Jesus is having his own “dark night of the soul.” There was a 16th Century Spanish monk named St. John of the Cross or San Juan de la Cruz. In college I went to his hometown in Spain and read some of his most famous works, one of which talked about this idea of a “dark night of the soul” that happens inevitably in any Christian’s life.
One of the most famous Psalms in all of the Bible, the probably many of you know, is Psalm 23, and specifically verse 4:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
But this Psalm is taking great comfort in God’s presence in the face of evil. The verse that Jesus recites on the cross, from Psalm 22:1, begins with acknowledging the feeling, not of God’s presence, but God’s absence.
Some of you might have seen the movie that came out recently based on the book, The Shack, which was also called The Shack. For some it is considered controversial, but regardless, there are still several powerful imaginative dialogues that take place in the movie that are meant to help children understand how God is related to us in the face of suffering and injustice, I think.
Here’s one exchange that I found particularly meaningful, in which the main character, Mack, is having his own dark night of the soul:
Mack: You are almighty God… limitless power… You are everywhere… And somehow, you let my little girl [die]… You abandoned her.
Papa: I never left her. When all you see is your pain, you lose sight of me.
Mack: Because of you, she’s gone. Until you change that, I will never be free….
Papa: No Mack, you misunderstand the mystery… Don’t ever think what costs my son didn’t cost me, too. Love always leaves a mark. I never left Him. I never left you. I never left Missy.
So if God is actually with Jesus, and even in Jesus, and never leaves him, when he says these words from this cross — “Why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me?” — maybe it’s both gospel writers that include it, Mark and Matthew, wanted their audience to remember the whole Psalm even though Jesus only quotes one line from it, so I’d like to read it over us right now.
It’s a bit long, but pay attention to the parts of it that foretell about and prophecy the crucifixion. I think you’ll be able to recognize when this is happening…
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
By crying out the first verse to this Psalm, I believe that despite the genuine sense of God-abandonment — it’s not just words, this cry expresses what Jesus is really experiencing and feeling — But he still turns to the assuring words of God…
There’s another conversation later on in the story of the Shack, when Mack asks Jesus:“‘Do all roads will lead to you?” Jesus replies: “‘Not at all,’ ‘Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.’”
The Catholic and Eastern Churches celebrate something called Holy Saturday, which is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday — so tomorrow, not today. But we’re not going to gather tomorrow, so I’m telling you now. Holy Saturday is significant in several ways. For one thing, some people in the tradition have said that Jesus went to hell on Saturday, or Hades or Sheol, depending — the place where the dead from the Old Testament were waiting to be rescued and resurrected with Christ!
But there’s another way to experience Holy Saturday, and I think it’s kind of like what we experience as Christians right now, every day.
Because I think, in a way, Holy Saturday is where we live every day. Yes, we know that Jesus will be raised from the dead in three days, but we still live in a world that is full of sin, death and suffering. The implications of the resurrection have not yet been fully realized. There is a waiting, and a hoping, in the face of doubt, struggle, pain and all kinds of loss.
The disciples knew that Jesus said he would be raised, but they still weren’t sure what to do, and they were afraid. Certainly, we feel like this sometimes too.
But the promise and assurance of Holy Saturday is indeed that Jesus will travel any road to get to us, and that he knows what its like to feel abandoned and forsaken. We are not alone in this experience. We can remember the words of Jesus from the cross, and the rest of Psalm 22, which tells us that even though it might seem like God is not here, and like darkness is going to win, that is not the end of the story, Jesus knew this even on the cross.
And so we are challenged to take comfort in Christ’s last words from the cross — words that proclaim his solidarity with us, and yet also words that trust, believe, and hold on to the words of God and the prophets declaring that one day, every tear will be wiped away, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and every tongue and tribe will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Because resurrection is coming.
Also published on Medium.