(This is a sermon I preached a while back. Some of you have read it already on Facebook, or heard it live. For the rest, I hope this stirs your heart and mind as we move toward Easter.)
Mk. 15.21-39 Ps. 22.1-24
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? This is a difficult question, perhaps the most difficult thing Jesus says at any point in the Gospels. It is shocking, terrifying, and puts a strain on our understanding of who Jesus is and what went on that day outside Jerusalem. Since Jesus is quoting Ps. 22 here, some have sought to use the more positive outcome of that Psalm to make Jesus’ statement less negative and scandalous. But “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is pretty hard to spin into something positive; if Jesus wanted to make some kind of victory statement, it seems like he could have done better than this. But you are probably more familiar with the explanation that goes along with a particular way of explaining salvation. Some say that on the cross, Jesus took on the sin of the world, and since sin is something God cannot be around, God really did abandon Jesus on the cross at this moment. At this moment Jesus bore the weight of the sin of the world, was rejected by God, and suffered the consequence of our sin on our behalf so that we don’t have to.
If you saw the Mel Gibson movie The Passion you may remember this moment when the single, big tear falls from the sky. If you’ve been around a little longer you may be able to reach back and remember the Carman song “The Champion” which narrates a cosmic boxing match between Jesus and Satan. At one point, Satan kills Jesus, and there is this line I can still remember, “God the Father turned his head, his tears announcing Christ was dead.” Do you remember that? It was a while back. I think I still had a mullet with the bottom part permed, like Billy Ray Cyrus. Man those were the days. Anyway, I want to talk to you this morning for a few minutes about all of this, because I think the Lord has given me a word for you. I’m not sure if this is a word for certain individuals here, or if this is a word for the Wake Forest Vineyard as a community. Maybe its both.
No matter how many times I read it, I just can’t get over the shock of Jesus saying this: my God, my God why have you forsaken ME? As you read through the Gospels, Jesus is pretty clear that he understood his mission to be this very thing – to go to Jerusalem and die a violent death at the hands of the religious and political authorities and then to rise from the dead. He tells his disciples this specifically on a number of occasions, although they either ignore him, or don’t understand what he’s saying – or that one time Peter actually tried to rebuke Jesus for saying it. Yeah, that went well for Peter, didn’t it? Yet, as he is hanging there dying and in extraordinary pain, Jesus has this moment that you may be familiar with – a moment when he feels completely abandoned by God. And in that moment, Jesus finds the words he needs in the Psalms, because David has been there too. In fact, many people in the Bible had this sort of experience: Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul to name a few.
You have probably felt this way too. I know I have. You might even be feeling that way right now. As awful as it is, it is a very common experience, because we are humans and our connection to God is never so secure that it is beyond the possibility of doubt. We need to be honest about this. David was. The Psalms are so great, because you can find the words to pray in just about any situation. If you’re scared, or lonely, or feeling forsaken, or full of joy, and ready to shout, whatever, there’s a Psalm for you. The Psalms teach us how to pray honest. We may as well pray honest, because lying to God is a pretty futile exercise. The only one we ever fool is ourselves. And here Jesus is, praying honestly, expressing that he – as a fully human being, completely able to identify with us, full of the same nervous system and psyche that we have – feels utterly abandoned by God. He has done exactly what the Father has told him to do. He even stopped in Gethsemane to check one last time to make sure the plan was still on.
He knows he is going to die – really die – and then be raised three days later. He knows all of this and trusts it completely. But the pain, the pain, and the mocking, and he cries out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Have you ever asked that or something like it? Have you ever done what you thought the Lord told you to do, something you double checked on and carried out as carefully and obediently as you could, only to have the whole thing seem to fall apart – your whole life crash down around you? I have been there too and so I have to think that Jesus really meant what he said here, he wasn’t thinking of the happy ending of Ps. 22, he wasn’t trying for some victory cry, he was asking this because he felt completely forsaken.
And it is an entirely legitimate question, “why have you FORSAKEN me?”, because forsaking does not seem to fit with the nature or track record of the God of Israel. There in verse 3 and 4 of Ps. 22, David says, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” This is the God David and Jesus call “my God.” This is the God who creates the universe, who conquers Pharaoh and parts the Red Sea. This is the God who for forty years in the desert appears as a constant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. This is the God who pulls down the walls of Jericho, who gives this same David victory after victory, and who does so many miracles through Jesus, far more than we even have record of, according to John.
Yet there are those times when forsaken or abandoned is exactly what we appear to be. Job served God faithfully all his life, and yet in a single day all of his children were killed and all of his wealth was gone. Elijah witnessed the most awesome display of God’s power on Mt. Caramel, and then ran for his life, hiding in despair from Jezebel, who wanted to murder him for exposing her god as false. You know maybe you really feel most forsaken when you’re in this place, like Job, Elijah, and Jesus, where you have experienced the power of God, you have been close, really close to him, and then feel all alone. It’s hard to miss something you never had, and you know the old saying, “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Maybe that’s where you are. Maybe you have had that kind of Mt. Caramel experience with God, or walked quietly and faithfully with Him for years like Job, only to see it unravel or find yourself hiding in a cave. That’s where Jesus was that day on Skull Hill.
When you’re there, when you have personally known how powerful God is and how much He can do and has done in your life, only now He’s not, there comes this question, WHY have you forsaken me? What have I done to deserve this? How have I offended You, Lord? Am I being punished? Am I being tested? Am I being attacked by the enemy? Are you there? Why have you forsaken me? This question – this why – is the question that Job’s friends tried so long and hard – like 35 chapters – to answer. All of their answers were carefully thought out, well reasoned, eloquently spoken – and completely wrong. You remember how Job ends – God shows up – but He never answers Job’s question, He never explains why. As I mentioned before, some people try to answer Jesus’ question here on God’s behalf – just as Job’s friends did – by saying that God abandoned Jesus once the weight of the sin of the world was on him. In this view, Jesus’ death was a payment that God demanded, a satisfaction of divine judgment on the human race. And we have to be very careful here, because such an answer comes so close to being true, that it becomes hard to see the flaw, which makes it all the more dangerous. It is true that Jesus was the spotless lamb, the atoning sin sacrifice that did what animal sacrifice could not do.
As Heb. 10.4 tells us, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” But Hebrews also points out that Jesus began this work – he took on the sin of humanity – not on the cross, but by becoming a human to begin with. Heb. 2:14-18 says, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.” We see the same thing in the familiar passage from Philippians (2.5-8): “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
These passages show us two things. First they do show that the death of Jesus was necessary for our salvation. But they also show us that equally necessary was Jesus becoming fully human, just as we are. He bore our sinful nature, our sorrow, all the difficulties and struggles that go along with being human in this fallen world. And he did not bear all of that for only a few hours on the cross – he bore them for 30 years! When we focus solely on his death, when we reduce the ministry of Jesus to this single moment, we miss so much of what he came to do. He saves us not only by his death, but by showing us how to live a life controlled by the Spirit. We are not called to be merely the recipients of his atoning work – we are called to be his disciples – people who follow him and have the same mindset of serving and self-sacrificing that Jesus had, not only on the cross, but through his whole life.
Besides, an explanation of the atonement does not answer Jesus’ question. He was not asking why he had to die, he was clear on that point, what he was asking is why he had been abandoned in the process. It’s like he’s saying, “you know, it’s enough that I’m dying here, do you have to go and leave me alone too? Can’t you at least stay with me while I go through this?” And this is where the distinction we just made helps us. We know that the Father was well pleased with Jesus at his baptism and at the Transfiguration. We know that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. We know that he prayed regularly and claimed that he was only doing what the Father told him to do. He lived in obedience to the Father and relied on the power of the Holy Spirit. We know all of this. We also see that Jesus took on our sin when he became human – during the whole of his life and ministry he had the same human nature that you and I have. He laid aside all of his divine prerogatives and lived as a regular (though sinless – an important distinction) human. Even his sinlessness was a mark of his obedience to the Father and his reliance on the Spirit. There was no moment when God dumped our sins on Jesus, as if there was sinless Jesus, then boom, there was Jesus with all our sin. He did bear our sins as Isaiah 53 says, but he did this from the beginning. He is “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
So there was no moment when God the Father turned his head. There was no single big tear drop, then the Father going somewhere else to cry. We get it wrong when we try to answer this why because Jesus was not forsaken, he was not abandoned. The Father didn’t go anywhere. The Holy Spirit did not leave Jesus. We have to know this, because we know Jesus is God – there was no time when the Trinity was short a member. Jesus was not expelled from the divine community. On the contrary, Jesus brought death, suffering, abandonment, and forsakenness into the life of the Godhead. This was too much for death, of course, it could not remain in the presence of so much LIFE. Jesus destroyed death precisely by embracing it, by bringing into the life of God. Death had no power there, and was rendered powerless by Jesus.
And this is the word of the Lord for you this morning – you have not been forsaken. Jesus was not forsaken, and neither are you. You have not been abandoned. You have not been forsaken, you are not being forsaken now, and you will never be forsaken. This is what the Lord told Joshua who had gone off alone and afraid before the battle: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.” (Josh. 1.5) This is what we read in Ps. 22: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” (Ps. 22.24) This is what Paul tells us in Romans: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8.38-39)
And I’m not just saying, “Oh, don’t worry about how you feel, that’s not real, God’s really with you, just hang in there.” If that’s all I had to say, we could have been at lunch by now. Hear me. What I am saying is that forsakenness that you have felt, that you may be feeling right now, is something Jesus completely identifies with. It’s not just that you have experienced it, like David, and Job, and Elijah, and so many of us – it is that God himself has felt this too. Jesus knows what it means to cry out to God even when the circumstances say that God is not there, that God does not hear. But he cries out because God is there, God does hear. And we follow him and cry out as well. And the Lord hears our cry and just as Jesus is raised from the dead so the power of God comes into our lives and does the impossible. I think he wants to do some impossible things in this church. I think he wants to do some impossible things in your life. I think Jesus wants to lead you into living a life of obedience to the Father by relying on the Holy Spirit just as he did. I know you have felt forsaken, and more importantly, Jesus knows and understands completely. That’s why he sent me here this morning to tell you that you are not forsaken.