March 14, 2010

Godforsaken

Last year about this time I painted a picture for you of the scene at the crucifixion of our Lord. It was not a pretty picture. For those of you who have seen Mel Gibson.s The Passion of the Christ, you.ve seen what is probably a pretty realistic depiction of the horror of that day. Each of the Gospel authors tells this story because it is so central to the message and mission of Jesus. Listen for a minute to some of their words from John 19 and Mark 15. “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took His clothes and divided them into four parts, a part for each soldier. They also took the tunic, which was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, „Let.s not tear it, but toss for it, to see who gets it..…Those who passed by were yelling insults at Him, shaking their heads, and saying, „Ha! The One who would demolish the sanctuary and build it in three days, save Yourself by coming down from the cross!. In the same way, the chief priests with the scribes were mocking Him to one another and saying, „He saved others; He cannot save Himself! Let the
Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe.. Even those who were crucified with Him were taunting Him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three Jesus cried out with a loud voice, „Eloi, Eloi, lemá sabachtháni?. which is translated, „My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?.”

These are truly some of the hardest words to swallow in the whole of the Gospels. They are some of the hardest in all of Scripture. Much has been made over them. How could the Son of God who was God Himself in the flesh, walking among us, cry out as one forsaken by God? How could God forsake Himself, we ask. This doesn.t make any sense to us and by all practical accounts it should not. But our wondering does not stop there. Look at all Jesus endured on the road to the cross. He was arrested by an angry mob like some high profile criminal. I mean, who gets an angry mob to arrest them. That.s like something out of an old Western. It.s frighteningly easy for a mob like this to become a lynch mob. A lynch mob with the Son of God in their dirty hands. How could that happen? There was also the prisoner abuse by the officials in Jerusalem. And let.s not forget the beating and scourging at Pilate.s command which were often enough to kill the victims in and of themselves. There was the crown of thorns and mocking by the guards. Then He was forced to carry His 60 lb. cross beam from the Praetorium to Golgotha. It.s no wonder He collapsed on the way. If we could declare anyone to be abandoned by God, Jesus fit the bill. God-man or not, He was not in good shape here. And so we have Him here crying out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

And if we didn.t know any better, we.d stop and wonder about this outcry for a time, and then keep reading right on through to the good stuff—the Resurrection. Some of us, though, might get hung up on this point. How could Jesus complain about God forsaking Him? Various groups antagonistic to orthodox Christianity, particularly on the issue of the Trinity, point to this verse and scream: “God can.t forsake Himself! Jesus obviously wasn.t God!” Other critics try and argue that Jesus was God right up until the point of the crucifixion and then God.s Spirit left Him because God can.t die. These and other theories are all attempts to deal with this seemingly inexplicable scene in a satisfactory way. But what if Jesus wasn.t simply crying out spontaneously to God of His agony? What if, in spite of this being a very much human cry from a place of utter agony, there was something else going on here entirely? What if this was not a cry of defeat, but of hope and victory? Certainly the theologians who have devoted much time and thought in developing a detailed theological explanations of how the Son could have been separated from the Father in this moment are on to something important in explaining what was going on during the crucifixion of Christ, but to focus solely on this misses a key issue. And the issue is this. What if everything Jesus went through on His journey from Gethsemane to Golgotha had already been scripted out? What if God told us ahead of time what He was going to let His Son go through? Would God really do that, though? Would He tell us this part of His plan which had the potential to drive away some in horror at this God who would willingly send His Son through Hell, even for the sake of someone else? Indeed, there are not a few critics of the faith who reject God on the basis of His being a child abuser. But would God have been so bold with a people nearly three thousand years removed from modern notions of right and wrong?

This month we are taking a look at different passages that helped to shape the people of Israel.s hope for a Messiah. Last week we talked about the fact that from the very beginning, when things first went south, God gave us the hope of a way out. God promised that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. Yet the other side of that promise was the serpent striking the heel of the Savior. The cross was that strike. Sometimes even knowing of future victory doesn.t alleviate the pain of the moment. Thus when Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” it was a primal shout rooted in the depth of His humanity. But that.s not all it was. As you can see from the footnotes on the bottom of the page in Mark 15:34, Jesus quoted Scripture here. That.s right: Jesus was so deeply rooted in Scripture that in this place of unspeakable anguish He could draw from that well and come up with words of God to fit the moment. Yet He was not simply taking words out of context that seemed to fit His circumstances. He knew the words of God far too well for that. In your footnotes you.ll see that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22:1—turn there with me. Some of you probably already knew that. But have you ever taken the time to look at this psalm—written by Jesus. ancestor David—and what is actually being said? Remember what I said last week? God told us all about His plans before they happened so that when they did, we would believe in Him. And when we understand the full context of Jesus. cry in anguish here, we will be able to appreciate more deeply, as the ancient Israelites had the resources to do, that on the cross Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory.

Picture this for me: David, the man who killed Goliath and had been anointed by Samuel himself to be the next king of Israel, sitting in a cave hoping against hope that Saul and his men wouldn.t find him there. He and his little band of men were hungry, they were tired, and they were angry. They were angry at Saul for chasing them like a wounded fox. They were angry at the people of Israel for so quickly forgetting what their leader had accomplished on their behalf. And they were angry at God. But David himself bore the heaviest weight here. How could God have Samuel anoint him as king and then lead him on this journey? This was not the life fitting of the future king of Israel. They were never going to accept him as their king anyway after Saul had so poisoned the well against him. Clearly God had just left him and his men to rot. He had forgotten about them. In fact, He had gone back on the anointing and was going to reestablish Saul.s lineage on the throne. From this place of anger and frustration, of doubt and hope, of misery and pain David cried out to God because He didn.t know what else to do: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from my deliverance and from my words of groaning?” Don.t miss the emotion here. Webster.s defines forsake as to quit or leave entirely. This is not simply feeling awkward because no one is talking to you in a crowded room. To be forsaken is to feel the weight of being totally and completely alone. It.s not wishing somebody would stop and notice you. It.s being confronted by the knowledge that there is nobody else to notice you. I suspect most of us haven.t felt this depth of desperation before, but if you have then I suspect that you haven.t felt anything else as frightening or painful as this. When Jesus hung on the cross, He was more alone than anyone had ever been in the world. In His humanity, He felt truly forsaken, by people, yes, but He could deal with that. The separation from His Father because of the sin He bore in His body was anguish nearly beyond what He could bear. This was not the extent of His cry here, though. Remember: Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory.

In Psalm 22, after David establishes his miserable estate he goes on to tell God all about it. Keep reading with me in v. 2: “My God, I cry by day, but You do not answer, by night, yet I have no rest. But You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in You; they trusted, and You rescued them. They cried to You and were set free; they trusted in You and were not disgraced. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by people. Everyone who sees me mocks me; they sneer and shake their heads; „He relies on the Lord; let Him rescue him; let the Lord deliver him, since He takes pleasure in him..” Sound familiar at all? Those were the very words hurled at Jesus by the chief priests and scribes as He hung on the cross. Do you think Jesus knew this part of the psalm when He cried out on the cross? Absolutely He did. Look what David does here, though. Today when we feel abandoned by God, we preemptively throw Him out. We are so ignorant of God.s character that we answer the question of why God seems to be ignoring us by declaring Him unloving or uncaring or unmerciful. We claim that what we.ve been taught of the goodness of God must be a lie. In fact, God Himself is a lie. But David.s response is that he is the one with the problem.

God isn.t listening because he might not be worth God.s listening to right now. Jesus knew the weight of our sin on the cross and felt its dividing power. He felt the way sin mars the glorious image of God in us and the humiliation this brings.

And in our culture where we obsess about self-esteem and feeling like we have worth, someone arriving at the point of David here might be sorely tempted to suicide. After all, if the culture says and we feel we are without worth then we are truly debased are we not? Thank God both David and his descendant Jesus knew the real source of their worth. So once again, look where David goes at this point. He doesn.t have a pity party, he turns to God: “You took me from the womb, making me secure while at my mother.s breast. I was given over to You at birth; You have been my God from my mother.s womb. Do not be far from me, because distress is near and there is no one to help.” When the faithfulness of God to his ancestors only serves to heighten the awareness of his forsakenness, David turns instead to the faithfulness of God in his own past. God had brought him safely into the world and had kept him alive since. In spite of his feelings of abandonment by God, David reminds himself of God.s faithfulness thus far and cries out for help based on that. Surely Jesus had this in mind when He cried out the words of v. 1 from the cross. His Father had kept Him safely from the clutches of the evil king Herod. Now He was crying to God for help in this moment of utter abandonment by the world. Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory.

But you see, there.s a problem at this point. Jesus cried out in desperation and yet still hung on the cross until He died. How can we speak of victory in the face of His death? Look at the words that come next in this psalm. Words Jesus certainly had in mind. “Many bulls surround me; strong ones of Bashan encircle me. They open their mouths against me—lions, mauling and roaring. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are disjointed; my heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength is dried up like baked clay; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You put me into the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evildoers has closed in on me; they pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people look and stare at me. They divided my garments among themselves, and they cast lots for my clothing. But You, Lord, don.t be far away. My strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my very life from the power of the dog. Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen.” David is using figurative language here to describe the desperation of his peril, but whether he knew it or not, he was giving a graphic description of the experience of Christ on the cross. When God laid out His plans for our salvation, He not only set the cross as the way, but even went so far as to lay out details of the path to the cross and the events that would happen there. When the soldier stuck a spear in His side, a mixture of blood and water poured out, John tells us. The process of crucifixion regularly pulled the arms of the victims out of joint. The beatings before the crucifixion would have left Jesus with no strength. There was a crowd of sinners gathered around the cross ridiculing Him. The gashes from being scourged would have made many of His bones visible and the loss of blood and muscle tissue would have rendered Him gaunt—skin and bones—almost beyond recognition. And I read to you just a moment ago of the soldiers dividing and casting lots for Jesus. clothes. So when Jesus cried out, it seems that nothing happened. He cried out but still hung on the cross. It does not appear that God even heard Him. We keep saying that Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory, but so far all we see is the defeat.

And if Psalm 22 stopped after v. 21 it would be a pretty hopeless psalm. It would be a cry out to God without an answer. But after pouring his troubles out to God, David shifts his focus from lament to praise. Jesus would have known these words as well. Listen as I read starting in v. 22: “I will proclaim Your name to my brothers; I will praise You in the congregation. You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor Him! All you descendants of Israel, revere Him! For He has not despised or detested the torment of the afflicted. He did not hide His face from him, but listened when he cried to Him for help. I will give praise in the great congregation because of You; I will fulfill my vows before those who fear You. The humble will hear and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise Him. May your hearts live forever!” What a change in attitude and focus on David.s part! Yes, these words were in Jesus. mind as well. Indeed, Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory. On the cross, Jesus took all the sins of humanity on His shoulders to pay the price for them so that we don.t have to. When He did this, He experienced for a moment the separation and isolation that sin brings to all those who pursue its empty paths. For one who had never been separated from the Father for a single moment of His existence, surely this was a horror beyond all horrors. It.s no wonder Christ cried out in such desperation. Yet from the full context of His words—first spoken long before to demonstrate God.s careful planning of our salvation—we see that God never left His side. He was ministered to by a lovingly compassionate God.

This is not all, however. Keep reading with me in v. 27: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of the nations will bow down before You, for kingship belongs to the Lord; He rules over the nations. All who prosper on earth will eat and bow down; all those who go down to the dust will kneel before Him—even the one who cannot preserve his life. Descendants will serve Him; the next generation will be told about the Lord. They will come and tell a people yet to be born about His righteousness—what He has done.” Jesus. cry was certainly one of desperation and agony, but it was also one of hope and victory. Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory. These last words form a picture of God sitting on His throne as king of all creation. It is a picture of God victorious over all people—the rich and powerful, the poor and humble, and even the unrepentant who cannot preserve their lives. Through the words of His father David, spoken over 900 years earlier, Jesus proclaimed victory on the cross. When He shouted a triumphant, “It is finished!” He knew exactly what He had accomplished. The work of the Father was going forward unhindered. He knew that future generations would hear of this work and believe in the Lord for it.

So where does this leave us? What does it mean for us that Jesus cried out in victory on the cross? And furthermore, why is it so important that God told us about all this ahead of time? Let me tell you why. When we find ourselves in places of affliction, of suffering, of desperation, we too can cry out to God in this same way. We can cry out and tell Him about our troubles. We can describe in great detail what we are facing. But we can go beyond this too. God knew the pain He was going to allow His Son to face because of sin. But He was allowing this pain for the much greater purpose of our salvation—His victory. And this victory was snatched right from the jaws of defeat. Because Jesus cried out from the place of His deepest agony with the full confidence of the Father.s future victory so can we. We can boast in the victory He has already won on our behalf and rejoice in its future fulfillment. Just as Jesus had the words of the Psalms to comfort Him in His darkest hour, we have the words of Jesus Himself proclaiming victory out of defeat for His followers. He told us that His departure would be for our benefit and so He cried out not in defeat, but in victory. Jesus was fully aware of the sacrifice He was making and what it was accomplishing. The great song that proclaims we were on His mind when He was on the cross is justified when we understand the full context of His cry. As Paul so rightly said, Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame for the joy set before Him. This was the joy of the Father.s victory over sin and death and His taking His rightful throne as king over all creation. The fulfillment of this victory is future to give us something to hope for, but we can also enjoy it here and now. This is the promise of kingdom life. This is why Jesus said the kingdom has come, not simply that it is coming. Because of His triumph on the cross, we can enjoy life in the kingdom when we give ourselves to Him in faith. Before Christ came, believers could have great confidence in the fact that though His plight would seem grim—the serpent would strike His heel—victory would come. Friends, this victory has come. All we must do is give ourselves into His hands by faith. Whatever situation you find yourselves in, know well that in Christ, victory is at hand. The relief you seek may not be as instant as you desire—David walked through his misery and Christ died on the cross—but new life is still waiting. The Savior promised in the Old Testament has won and now we can as well.

When He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” His enemies all thought He was finally confessing His defeat. Even His followers surely thought His efforts to proclaim the kingdom, while noble, were finished. For those who knew the Scriptures, though, it was clear this was no cry of defeat. Instead the victory bell was being sounded for all the world to hear. Jesus cried out not in defeat, but in victory. Will you come this morning to share in this victory?