Scripture: Matthew 27: 45-46
World War II was one of the most destructive times in all of human history, in terms of both human lives and property. And many historians believe that one of the most destructive battles of that terrible war was the battle for Stalingrad, between the forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which took place between July 17, 1942 and February 2, 1943. As the battle came towards an end, the mighty German sixth army was completely shut off from the rest of the German forces and eventually abandoned to die on the Eastern Front. The book Last Letters From Stalingrad tells how the final German plane out of the city carried seven bags of mail; they were the last letters written by the German soldiers of the Sixth Army, many of them only teenagers, who were at that point freezing, starving and facing death, to those who waited back home. Those letters, as far as the outside world is concerned, serve as the last words of those men. One of those letters was from one of the soldiers to his father, who was a pastor back home. It read:
“In this battle, to put the question of God’s existence means to deny it. I’m sorry to say this to you, Father, who as a pastor raised me in the faith. But I have searched for God in every crater, in every destroyed home, on every corner, in every friend in my foxhole, and in the sky. God did not show himself even though my heart cried to him…on earth there was hunger and killing, from the sky came bombs and fire, only God was not there. No, my father, there is no God, for if there is, where in the world is he?”
And so we come to the fourth word that Jesus spoke from the Cross. The word is: Forsaken. And I believe it is the hardest word of all. So far we’ve talked about forgiveness. And then paradise. And last week family. These words invite us to the Cross and then beyond into eternal presence with God. But this fourth word is not about eternal presence. It is about utter abandonment. It is about a loneliness that is so acute that you can’t see anyway out. It is about facing a world without God. No, my father, there is no God, for if there is, where in the world is he? And may I be so bold as to say that there are times in life when each one of us finds ourselves, if only for a moment, at that place in life. That place of aloneness and isolation. That place of hopelessness. That place where we are totally cut off from everything we have known and there is seemingly no way out. When we wonder why we have been abandoned by God and everyone else? And certainly that was true of the Jewish people. There have been long periods in their history, periods of exile and captivity and siege, when they felt completely abandoned, alone, forsaken. Many of the Psalms were written in such times and express those feelings. And so it is not surprising that Jesus would choose to quote one of those Psalms of despair, this 22nd Psalm, from the cross. Hear this portion of that Psalm:
READ portions of Psalm 22
But what was surprising, even shocking, was that Jesus, the Son of God, who had enraged the Jewish leaders when He said, “I and God the Father are one” and “when you see me, you see God” would feel forsaken and abandoned and would cry out in despair these terrible words, “My God, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus the hope of the world, now hopeless. And John, and Mary and the others of His followers, that gathered at the foot of the Cross and heard Him cry out, must have wondered, “if there is no hope for Jesus, God’s own son, what hope is there for those of us who are left behind?” What hope is there for us when we experience those times when we feel abandoned and alone? When the darkness of life seems to completely envelope us and we lose all hope? Scripture tells us that when Jesus died on the cross a couple of things happened. First the veil of the Temple which separated the Holy of Holies which was the dwelling place of God, from the rest of the Temple, in essence separating God from humanity, was torn in two by a great earthquake. And secondly we’re told that darkness fell on the land. But I don’t picture that as a sudden darkness, but rather a gathering darkness that gradually consumed the light as the life drained out of Jesus. And that gathering gloom may very well have begun to sweep in when Jesus spoke these words. “My God, why have you forsaken, why have you abandoned, me.”
So how do we deal with this fourth word, this concept of being forsaken by a God who promised both Moses and Joshua centuries before, as the people stood on the threshold of entering the promised land after years of wandering in the wilderness, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And yet, now His own Son, on the Cross feels forsaken by God? God has somehow changed His mind? Is that what we are to take away from this word from the cross? Is the message here that there are times in our own lives that we are right to feel forsaken?
Now this word forsaken is an interesting word. It is often used interchangeably with the word forgotten. “God, why have you forgotten me?” Think about that word “forgotten.” How startling it must have been to hear Jesus talk about being forgotten by God. What does it mean to be forgotten by God? Two weeks ago we talked about Jesus interaction with one of the thieves on the cross and His promise of paradise now. And we said that one of the keys to understanding that lies in what the thief asks of Jesus. He doesn’t ask to be spared from death. He doesn’t ask Jesus to save Him. He doesn’t even ask that Jesus take him into paradise with Him. All he asks is that Jesus “remember” him when He establishes his Kingdom. And I said then that “remember” throughout the Old Testament is equated with the blessings of God. When God remembered you, He blessed you. When we remember, we affirm the presence of God even in the midst of the darkest times. Even from the cross. But when we are forsaken we are acknowledging feeling as though God is no longer with us. So in a real sense when we talk about being forsaken, we are lamenting that we are no longer feeling blessed by God, no longer feeling as though God is present with us, even to the Cross. In the dark days of our life, in the times of deep loss, when all around us the world seems to be imploding before our very eyes, we sometimes feel as though God has forgotten us, forsaken us. And on the cross Jesus acknowledged that there would be those times in our lives. Maybe the darkness of the Cross, the pain and humiliation of it, has made Jesus feel as though His father has forgotten Him, forsaken Him. But perhaps there’s another way of looking at this. Let me suggest that Jesus’ cry from the Cross, was not a cry for Himself, but rather a cry for each one of us who have felt forsaken and forgotten. In essence, on the Cross, Jesus was forsaken and forgotten for you and for me, so that when those dark times come in our lives, we can be assured that God never forgets or forsakes us. That because of Jesus life and death and resurrection, God never abandons us. Our God is a God who remembers us. Not one who forgets us. He is a God who blesses, not forsakes. Leighton Farrell writes:
When we feel anxious, forsaken and full of fear about who we are and why we are here and where we are going and what we are going to do, the cross of Christ is our strength. When we are suffering pain and loneliness and heartache, we remember, “God will never leave us or forsake us.” When we are angry and feeling guilty, the cross of Christ enables us to say with the Psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Jesus took all our sorrows. All our grief. All our anxieties. All our failures. All our loneliness. All of those times when we feel abandoned – to the Cross, so that we would not have to. It does not mean that we will not experience crisis times, but it does mean that for all of those whose lives are in Christ, they will not defeat us. They will not separate us from God.
A preacher tells the story of a young couple in the church he served. They were a vibrant and loving couple. They cared about everyone and lived out their faith lovingly and enthusiastically. They were deeply loved by the people of the church. They had tried for several years to have a child without success and so when they announced they were going to have a baby the whole church rejoiced and celebrated. And a beautiful little girl came to bless their home. But when the baby was just a few months old the child fell ill. They rushed her to the hospital but in just a few hours she was gone. The death of that child was one of those forsaken times in the life of that young couple but it also opened them up to an outpouring of love, compassion, concern and caring from that congregation that they had never before experienced in their Christian walk. And a few days after the funeral they wrote:
Dear friends, our lovely daughter brought us nine months of excitement and anticipation before her coming and a lifetime of joy in her coming. And now the hurt of not being able to hold her close to us seems unbearable. When she died, something in us died too. We felt that God had forsaken us. But because you prayed for us and because you love us, we will be able to move on with our lives. There is now the warm, living presence of the Risen Christ in our lives. He has given us a wonderful sense of God’s peace. Along with His peace has come a new power and the realization that God will never forsake us. Keep on praying for us and keep on loving us. God does not forsake us. God does not fail us. Thanks be to God!
With these words from the Cross, Jesus invites us to bring all the forsaken times of our lives to the Cross and leave them with Him and share in his victory.
And then secondly, with these words Jesus offers Himself as the bridge between humanity and God. He stands in the gap for all human beings once and for all. That gap began to grow in the garden when Adam and Eve forsook God in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. And from that moment on the gap got wider and wider. Human beings chase so much in life that make us forget God, that lead us to feel forsaken, abandoned. And through the ages, we have cried out, “God why have you forsaken us?” when the truth is that God has always been faithful. It is our faith that has wavered. It is sin that corrupted our lives, not God’s. And when the gap had become too wide for us to cross, God sent Jesus as the bridge. If there is ever a sense of forsakenness in our relationship with God, it is not because God has forgotten us, but rather we have forsaken, forgotten God. Because of His great love for us, Jesus was willing to experience all of those moments of forsakenness for you and I and because of that God will never forget or forsake those that His Son loved so much. These words are words of assurance that our faith need never be defined by the moments or even seasons of despair brought on by living in a fallen world, but rather, from this moment on our faith will be defined by the victory over the world that Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. The Disciples and the early church believed that victory was accomplished by the resurrection. In his first sermon Peter testifies to “this Jesus whom you crucified, but who was raised to victory by God.” But eventually they came to understand that with these words Jesus was really declaring victory on the cross. The gap had been bridged. The veil was torn in two and no matter what came from that moment on, you and I, and all who embrace the victorious Christ, will live with God forever.
He took on all of humanity’s sinfulness. All of that which separated the creation from the creator. Jesus took all of that on himself for every human being that ever lived. Our sin multiplied and multiplied and multiplied upon Christ on the Cross. Our distance from God, multiplied again and again and again upon Jesus on the Cross, weighing Him down until He was as far from God as any human being had ever been. And His cry, “Why have you abandoned me. Why have you forsaken me? Why have you forgotten me” is the cry of all humanity at it’s absolute lowest and farthest point from God. It is hard for us to understand being loved so much that Jesus was willing to go to that far place for us. But He did. One writer describes that moment on the cross in this way:
The Father is one with the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet the Father, in infinite love, has sent the Son out to the far country to us sinners. Away from the Father in order to be close to those who have abandoned the Father, the Son risks separation from the Father, risks not only abandonment but also dismemberment from His true identity. The Son comes very close to us, so close that He bears our sinfulness, bears the brunt of our evil. And the Father, who is complete righteousness and holiness, cannot embrace the sin that the Son so recklessly, lovingly bears, so the Father must abandon the Son on the Cross because the Father is both love and righteousness. There is a real division in the (heart of God) at this moment on the Cross, and because the (heart of God) is inherently indivisible, the magnitude of (the pain and) sacrifice is massive. The division that is part of the pain that must be borne by a God who would come to save us.
According to the Apostle Paul, this moment on the Cross was a redefinition of love. He writes to the Philippians: (Jesus) did not exploit His Godliness but emptied Himself, becoming a slave; He humbled himself and became obedient even to death, even to death on a Cross.”
And Peter and the other disciples hid in fear. And Judas hung in guilt. And Pilate washed his hands. And the priests looked on in utter bewilderment. And John stood by and watched. And Mary wept at His feet. All in their own way forsaking Him and helpless to do anything about it. One preacher puts it is this way:
We wanted Him to do something good for us, something great, and He just hangs there, impotent, mocked by the world, naked, exposed, now crying in agony to the God who was supposed to save, saving (us) by not saving (Himself), delivering (us) by not delivering (Himself), embracing (us) through forsaking (Himself), coming close (to us) by being so very different, true power in complete weakness.
And in the end, on the horrible Cross, He quoted a psalm that every Jewish boy and girl would have memorized in the synagogue school, that begins with condemnation, “Why have you forsaken me?” and ends with redemption “They will proclaim His righteousness to a people yet unborn.”
And with these words He invites all of condemned humanity, forsaken of God by our sins, to join in His redemption. To bring in all times and in all places, those times when we feel alone, and lonely and abandoned and forgotten by Him, where because of His great love on the Cross we need never feel alone, never feel abandoned, never be forgotten again. Never forsaken, forever redeemed.