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My God, My God, Why?

My God, My God, why have you for­saken me?

Ser­mon preached on Palm Sunday at Enmore, 25th March 2018

Read­ing: The Pas­sion accord­ing to Mark.

In keep­ing with the rest of his nar­rat­ive, Mark’s account of the cru­ci­fix­ion of Jesus is sparse. He gives us the barest facts with little embel­lish­ment. Jesus is silent on the cross and makes just one state­ment, “My God, My God why have you for­saken me?” It is the only occa­sion in the Gos­pels when Jesus does not refer to God as his Fath­er. But that cry from the cross has been more debated, dis­cussed and dis­sec­ted than any oth­er utter­ance of Jesus. It is said of Mar­tin Luth­er that on one occa­sion he determ­ined to under­stand this word from the cross and gave him­self up to intense and pro­longed med­it­a­tion on the sub­ject, refus­ing food or rest. But when he finally rose up from his reflec­tions it was with a cry of aston­ished won­der, ‘God, for­saken of God who can under­stand it?’

Some try to under­stand these words of Jesus by resort­ing to an abstract the­ory of God’s justice. So we are told that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s stand­ards and are deserving of God’s pun­ish­ment, for the wages of sin is death. How­ever, in order to save us from this judge­ment God sent Jesus into the world to die on the cross and take the pun­ish­ment for our sins. God’s wrath against human sin and rebel­lion was vis­ited on Jesus. On the cross Jesus became the sin bear­er and because, it is argued, God can­not look on sin, he turned his back on his son. Hence, Jesus cry of des­ol­a­tion on the cross because he was sep­ar­ated from his Father’s love. Many mod­ern hymns and songs speak of God sat­is­fy­ing his wrath on Jesus. This is a com­monly held view but it is also a flawed and in many ways an unhelp­ful one because it drives a wedge between the Fath­er and the Son. It sets a wrath­ful God in oppos­i­tion to a lov­ing and gra­cious Jesus and in so doing it dis­torts our under­stand­ing of God as revealed in the New Test­a­ment.

So if we reject the view that God was pun­ish­ing Jesus on the cross, how can we under­stand this cry of aban­don­ment? When Jesus uttered those words he was quot­ing from Psalm 22, a Psalm that would have been very famil­i­ar to him. The open­ing lines of the Psalm are as fol­lows: My God, my God, why have you for­saken me? Why are you so far from help­ing me, from the words of my groan­ing? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest. The Psalm then con­tin­ues: Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancest­ors trus­ted; and you delivered them. And a little later in the Psalm we have these words: I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted with­in my breast; my mouth is dried up like a pot­sherd and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. On the cross Jesus’ human­ity is in full dis­play, he exper­i­ences what you or I would have felt in his place, unbear­able pain and tor­ment. But Jesus exper­i­ences more than phys­ic­al pain; he car­ries all the sins and sor­rows of our broken world. It is as if all the pain and suf­fer­ing human­ity has cre­ated is some­how poured out on him. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “For our sake God made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the right­eous­ness of God.”

Mark’s pic­ture of Jesus on the cross is one of utter des­ol­a­tion and Jesus exper­i­ences that most bit­ter pain, the sense of being aban­doned by God. The philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that the feel­ing that God is absent is what sets humans apart from anim­als-the des­pair of being far from God or without God.

So where was God when Jesus hung on the cross?  In his holo­caust mem­oir, Night, Elie Wies­el recounts a story about God’s absence. Stand­ing in a crowd being forced to watch the hanging of an inno­cent child at Aus­chwitz, he heard someone ask, “Where is God?” From with­in him he heard a voice answer, “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gal­lows.” God was there with Christ on the cross but silent and heart broken. Writ­ing soon before his death at the hands of the Nazi’s Bon­hoef­fer wrote: “God lets him­self be pushed out of the world onto the cross.” He added, “The Bible dir­ects us to God’s power­less­ness and suf­fer­ing; only the suf­fer­ing God can help.”

We live with the ten­sion between two truths, that on the cross Jesus exper­i­enced the silence of God and felt for­saken and at the same time he was nev­er more in accord with his Father’s will when he died to recon­cile the world. One of the early Church Fath­ers, Cyril of Jer­u­s­alem wrote: “Hear these words, ‘My God, My God, Why have you for­saken me?’ and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the aban­don­ment our sin pro­duces, so that we may live con­fid­ent that the world has been redeemed by this cross.” At Cal­vary we see not the wrath of God but his meas­ure­less love.

It is because of the cross that we can be assured that regard­less of what dark­ness or sor­row we might encounter in life, we will nev­er be alone. Jesus’ last words to his dis­ciples in Matthew’s Gos­pel are “And remem­ber, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Philip Brad­ford