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.”