Scriptures: Psalm 22 and Mark 15:22-37
3rd Sunday of Lent: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? (3/6)
Other sermons in this series
“The Seven Last Words of Christ”
I know I’ve shared with you before about the time I was so angry with God that I literally shook my fist and yelled at him, accusing him of carefully bringing me to a good place in my life only to spitefully yank the rug out from underneath my feet. Remember how, in the Peanuts comic strip, Lucy would promise Charlie Brown that she wouldn’t move the football, but as soon as he was about to kick it, she’s pull it away and he’d go reeling through the air? That’s what it felt like God had done to me. Over the course of many years, it truly felt like God was leading down a particular path, and every door that opened along the way seemed to affirm that I was in the center of God’s will. But then suddenly, every door that the Lord had previously opened for me was slammed shut! And I felt betrayed by God.
Have you ever been there? Maybe it was for a different reason than mine, or under different circumstances, but it’s not uncommon to have an experience of God wherein it seems as though he turns his back and walks away just when we need him the most.
Earlier this week, I learned about something that took place at Auschwitz which reflects this very sentiment. For years, within Judaism there’d been rumors that, while imprisoned at Auschwitz, some rabbis decided to put God on trial and, for all intents and purposes, found him guilty. Until one September evening in 2008, this had only been hearsay. But during a Holocaust Educational Trust dinner in London, Nobel Laureate and Nazi concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel startled his audience when he declared, “I was there when God was put on trial.” He went on to explain what happened. “I was the only one there. It happened at night. There were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word ‘chayav,’ rather than guilty. It means ‘He owes us something.’ Then we went to pray” (www.thejc.com).
No doubt, these rabbis had put God on trial for abandoning his Covenant people, the Jews. And at the end of their secretive trial, they unanimously determined that God owed them something for all their unjustifiable suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
On February 6 of this year, a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated southeast Turkey and northwest Syria. Tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were instantly displaced across a region of the world already beset by turmoil from the nearly 12-year conflict in Syria and the ongoing refugee crisis. Two weeks later, an additional 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit southern Turkey, causing additional deaths and injuries. According to World Vision, the death toll has passed 47,000 and continues to rise. And that even before this disaster, more than 6.5 million children in Syria needed humanitarian aid due to the ongoing conflict.
On the one hand, we can stand back and take the typical long view on this disaster and ask, “How could God allow this to happen, especially to a people who’ve already been suffering so much through the years?” And the truth is, that’s the question we humans have always asked whenever injustice and tragedy befall large swaths of people, or certain segments of society, or even entire nations. Where was God to let this disaster take place?
But what if we move our perspective from far above the melee down to the pockets of space within the rubble of collapsed buildings, where individuals lay tapped alive? What were their personal experiences of God? For example, what happens when the hours of waiting to be rescued turn into days of waiting, with no sign that anyone’s coming? And what kind of thoughts run through someone’s mind when it goes past a week? Can you even imagine being pinned alive in a rubble of cement for over week, not being able to move at all, wondering if you’ll ever see the light of day, feeling utterly forgotten or overlooked? At some point, I would think that desperation would give way to sheer hopelessness. No one’s coming for me. I’m going to die right here, all alone. I can certainly understand that persons in such circumstances might conclude that God has abandoned them.
After hours of physical torture prior to being crucified, then after nearly three hours of excruciating torture on the cross, Jesus expresses the same sentiment: “My God, why have you left me all alone?“
If you’re like me, hearing Jesus ask this question makes me wonder if God did, in fact, turn his back on Jesus. Are we to hear in his question simply an utterance of what it felt like to be abandoned by God? Or is there some deeper truth which is revealed by his question? Just like if I saw a stranger walk up to my car and get in, I might run up and ask him, “Why did you get into in my car?” The question itself points to the fact of what occurred: someone climbed into my car. In the case of Jesus’ question, is it possible that the Father has in fact turned his back on Jesus, and Jesus wants to know why he’s done this?
Well, I think the answer is yes to both. Yes, I think Jesus was expressing the deep and real emotion of abandonment, and he did so by quoting the opening of a well-known prayer in which the writer of the prayer was expressing the same feeling. But I also believe an argument can be made that in the specific case of Jesus on the cross, God did forsake/turn away from him for a very specific purpose and for a very short period of time. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this second point because it really is limited to Jesus’ experience at that particular time and place; it’s not at all intended to reflect our experience of God.
In a nutshell, the thinking is this:
- God is the Creator of the universe.
- As such, he’s the Source of all life.
- True life, true living, is the result of being at-one with God, the Source of all life.
- Being at-one with God implies being with God, being in his holy presence.
- Scripture tells us that when sin entered our world, it opened the door to death, both physical death to this world and spiritual death.
- If being spiritually alive indicates being at-one with or present to the Source of life, then spiritual death can be described as being separate, or apart, from God.
- True death is the result, or “wages,” of sin.
- Sin separates us from God.
- When Jesus went to the cross, he took upon himself the guilt of each of our sins as well as our sinfulness.
- We say that he himself “paid the penalty” for our sins.
- That penalty was death, spiritual death which is separation from God’s presence.
- When Jesus died physically, his spirit died in the sense that it was removed from God’s presence.
- The Apostle’s Creed says that he “descended to the dead.”
- In the traditional wording of the creed, he “descended into hell.”
- In its fullest sense, hell is absolute separation from God.
- When Jesus “descended to the dead/hell,” he was separated from God.
- In order for Jesus to pay the penalty of human sin, the Father had to forsake his Son knowing that he would resurrect him in short order.
So, this theological line of thinking is that between 3pm on Good Friday and the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, Jesus had the experience of being cut off from God’s presence—death in its truest sense—on account of our sins, all so that we would never have to go through that ourselves. This would aptly describe being “forsaken” by God, albeit for only a brief period of time.
Now, with that said, let’s look at how Jesus’ cry of abandonment was in fact a helpful, encouraging message he spoke for our sake.
Going back to the persons trapped alive in the rubble of those building after the earthquake, is it your belief that God had forsaken them? Or do you believe that God was right there with them the whole time? I would resolutely say that God was right there with them.
This painting, entitled “The Servant,” hangs on a wall in my office. It depicts Jesus washing the feet of a businessman sitting at his desk. What always strikes me is that the man’s body language suggests that he’s clearly in an emotionally bad place. Maybe he’s lost all his money. Or his job. Maybe he’s grieving the death of a son or daughter. Maybe his house is being foreclosed on. Whatever his affliction may be, he’s clearly upset and hurting, but he’s not alone. Jesus is right there at his feet. In fact, but he’s washing his feet; he’s serving the man.
And friends, so it is with us. No matter our affliction, or burden, or grief, or hardship, Jesus Christ is right next to us, interceding with our Heavenly Father on our behalf. When you’re in the hospital, he’s lying in the bed next to you. When you’re watching your spouse’s casket being lowered into the ground, he’s standing next to you with his arm around you. When you fail an important test at school, or your girlfriend or boyfriend breaks up with you, or you keep getting bullied, know that Jesus remains at your side through it all.
And you know what else? I believe that when we cry, he cries with us. And that’s because he personally knows our pain. That’s what he wanted to communicate to us when he cried out, “My God, why have you left me?” Jesus knows what it feels like to be forgotten. To be overlooked. To be abandoned by loved ones. To be betrayed by friends. To be belittled, scorned, and mocked. Friends, whatever struggle we have in this world, Jesus knows what it feels like, and out of that place of being able to identify with our humanity, he keeps his promise to never leave or forsake us.
As was mentioned in the introduction to the reading of Psalm 22, the psalm begins with an startling cry of feeling abandoned and forsaken by God, but it doesn’t end on that note of despair. No doubt, Jesus was fully aware of this when he sang out its opening line. Had he the strength to keep going, he would have also proclaimed from the cross: You, God, are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise. Our ancestors trusted you—they trusted you and you rescued them. They cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed. (vv. 3-5) Even while feeling forsaken by God, Jesus knows that God heard the cries of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and delivered them from death. He knows that God heard their cries in the wilderness and delivered them from hunger and thirst. He knows that God heard the cries of those in Babylon and, like a nursing mother, brought comfort to God’s children.
When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” his family and friends who were with him probably recited the rest of the psalm, and in doing so, would have been comforted by the truth that God does remember and reach out. They would have eventually gotten to verse 24: Because he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help. And they would have expressed their trust in the One who is declared in the end of the psalm: Indeed…all who are descending to the dust will kneel before him; my being also lives for him. Generations to come will be told about my Lord. They will proclaim God’s righteousness to those not yet born, telling them what God has done” (vv. 29-31). Truly, this psalm, one of Jesus’ last words from the cross, is not a song about being forsaken forever. It’s a song of triumph!
The prophet Jeremiah was alive when all the prophesies of Jerusalem’s destruction finally came to pass. To give you a sense of how horrendous the fall of Jerusalem was, the book of Lamentations reveals that it got so bad that parents had to eat their own dead children to survive! Those who weren’t killed in the fall of the city were carted off in chains to Babylon as slaves. If anyone had reason to think that maybe God had abandoned his people, Jeremiah certainly could have. Wailing in grief for his people, Jeremiah poignantly asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jeremiah 8:22).
Centuries later, out of the experience of God’s presence in the midst of their own enslavement in the United States, the African American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead” was born. It stood, and continues to stand, as an answer to Jeremiah’s question, “Is there a balm in Gilead?” African American theologian Howard Thurman discusses the refrain of this song: “The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ Here is the note of creative triumph.”
This song is sung as a testimony to the belief that the story of God’s people, and each of our individual stories, will not end in despair but in victory. Why? Because we know that God in the human person of Jesus has walked our road ahead of us and triumphed over hatred and death.
Because the One who triumphed over hatred and death lives within us, we are empowered to be his agents of love and life in our world today. When we listen to and understand the context of Jesus’ words, they become an inspiration to follow his example of caring for those who feel abandoned or forgotten. As Susan Robb puts it: “These words are not just meant to reassure us. They’re meant to challenge us, to remind us that, here on earth, we are Jesus’ hands and feet. We’re called to reach out to those who feel that hope is lost, who feel that God has forsaken them, and show them that they are not alone.”
Friends, if we choose to follow the way of the cross, we will encounter those along our road who are sick and suffering, those who ask the all-too-human question, “God, why have you forsaken me?” By walking along with them and by helping them carry their burden, we have the opportunity to remind them how Psalm 22 ends—not with isolation, but with Easter. Through our actions, we help deliver the good news, which is this: God is here! You are not forgotten! Suffering doesn’t get to have the last word! Human fear and violence do not get the last word! Love has the last word!
So, may each of us this week pick up someone’s cross and be that message. Let’s pray.