Monday, March 28, 2011

Fourth Word from the Cross—sermon on 3/27

Matthew 27:46

46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" These are difficult words. Painful words. Painful words to pray. Even more painful words to hear.

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" This one sentence of Jesus perplexes us. It challenges us. It makes us think, once again, what is happening here to this man on the cross? Why is he saying these words to God?

"My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" Why is Jesus uttering these words? Where did they come from? What are we supposed to learn from them? How are we supposed to worship Jesus in this moment?

Tough questions. But these are the questions that run through my mind as I read through this passage.

"My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" There was a time when I thought I had these words from the cross figured out. I had heard things from preachers I grew up with that had built a whole theory about this very moment when Jesus cried out on the cross.

One of the common statements about what is happening on the cross goes something like this. At the very moment Jesus was crying out in prayer, that this was the moment that the Father turned his back on the Son on the cross. According to this explanation, God cannot tolerate sin. Therefore when Jesus takes the sin of the world upon himself, the Father has to abandon the Son and completely separate himself from the sin that Jesus is dying for. So, in that moment, this way of interpreting Scripture tells us, God the Father did in fact abandon Jesus the Son. It is a nice theory. It expresses the truth that sin grieves God, and that Jesus died to take the sins of the world upon himself. Unfortunately though, even though this scenario expresses some truths about Jesus' atonement of sin, this way of perceiving this moment has little support in the rest of Scripture.

As a matter of fact, it contradicts some core tenants of Christian Theology. One core tenant of Christian theology it seems to go against is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is anti-trinitarian. The Trinity is a mystery. But Scripture says very clearly that God is both 3 and 1. Jesus died on the cross. But for God to completely separate himself in the way this understanding of the atonement describes him doing describes a heresy of tri-theism. Not the 3 in 1 the Bible speaks of.

This idea that the Father turned his back on the Son contradicts our beliefs about God's omnipresence. Psalm 139 clearly shares that God is everywhere. God cannot be everywhere, and yet somewhere not where Jesus is present.

Besides, who is Jesus talking to when he is praying if God has turned his back and left him? Who can hear him?

Does Jesus feel alone? Yes he does! Is he feeling the full weight of the sin he is dying to save us from? Yes he is!

When Jesus prays, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" he assumes God's presence. He is trusting that his prayer is heard.

So then, what is this prayer saying? What is there for? What is it designed to teach us?

To get some answers to this question, we need to understand where Jesus got the idea to pray this prayer in the first place. The words he says, the prayer he utters, is not original to Jesus. Jesus is actually praying a prayer that kids would have learned in Sunday School. A prayer that can be found in the prayer book and hymn book of young Jewish boys. Jesus is in fact praying his way through Psalm 22.

God put this in the Bible as a prayer for all of us to pray, this prayer that Jesus prays in his most pained moment. Yes he did. The prayer that Jesus prayed on the cross is a prayer that the Bible teaches us to pray. The Bible teaches us to pray this prayer, because most of us, possibly all of us, will have this moment where the whole world feels like it is going to cave in on us, and we will wonder if we can pray, and if it is ok to pray what is on our heart. So Scripture gives us these words for those times of utter desperation and isolation, because we may feel afraid to utter them on our own. This tells us something very important. It tells us that when Jesus cries out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" he is showing us his humanity and he is showing he is one of us.

I will say that again. It is point one on your outline. When Jesus says "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus is demonstrating his humanity and showing he is one of us..

At one point or another most of us have a dark night of the soul. A moment when we are so down, we can hardly find a way to get up in the morning. You know what I am talking about. You know because feeling abandoned and alone is part of the human experience.

I have an aquaintence that visited with off and on with online through my blog. She is an author. She wrote a book about her sense of abandonment by God, and trying to find faith. In her case, her father believed himself to be a devout Christian man, and so he would abuse her while praying and/or quoting Scripture. She felt so angry with God. She felt so forsaken. Even though she did not say it this way, in the midst of her pain of those many years the only prayer of her heart could have been "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Some of you have lost spouses or children. Some of you have loved someone with all your heart, and married them, only to have them abandon you. Some of you have been trapped in addiction. Others of you have been hit with health concerns that make it so that you don't feel you can hardly do anything.

You need to know that God wants to hear what is on your heart. He wants to hear you cry out to Him in those moments. He hears your honest prayers of heartache and complaint as words of trust in Him.

Another thing you can know. No matter what it is, you have been in that dark place where you prayed and nothing seemed to happen, and you felt completely forsaken. You need to know that when you are there, or if you are there now, that Jesus has been there too. I might not be able identify with your hurts and your pains. Jesus can. This Scripture tells us so. Another Scripture gets at this, in Hebrews 4:14 and following when it says:

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[f] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Which leads me to my next point.

Jesus cried out, "My Father, My Father, Why have you forsaken me?" When he does this Jesus is demonstrating that he is with us in the midst of our pain and sense of forsakenness. He is not just one of us and someone who can identify with us…he is with us and bearing our pain with us.

When Jesus prays Psalm 22 he prays it with us. He prays it with all who have ever prayed it. In a mighty chorus, we pray it together. When this prayer is on our heart, he prays it with us.

For most of Christian history, people have looked at the suffering of Christ, and believed that he was suffering for our sins, but that he was also suffering with us. They looked at the cross in those dark moments and knew that even if we could not feel it or sense it, that we could know that God was suffering with and for us through the person of Jesus Christ.

It is interesting. When I was in college, I had to have a few artsy kinds of classes to meet my general education requirements. One was an art appreciation class. And I learned that there were several classic pieces of art from around the Renaissance period that were designed for hospitals. Hospitals were not sophisticated in the 1400s. They did a lot of bloodletting to help people feel better. There were not a lot of painkillers. So people were often in tremendous pain. And so, people started to pain these pictures for the hospital rooms that would tell the story of the crucifixion. They could see the suffering of Jesus, and know that he hurt, he felt pain, he felt abandoned, and he was with them while they suffered.

This understanding of God being with us in suffering with us is hauntingly illustrated by Elie Weisel in his Nobel Prize winning book NIGHT. One person tells it this way.

Almost 50 years ago Elie Wiesel was a fifteen-year old prisoner in the Nazi death camp at Buna. A cache of arms belonging to a Dutchman had been discovered at the camp. The man was promptly shipped to Auschwitz. But he had a young servant boy, a pipel as they were called, a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in the camps. He had the face of a sad angel. The little servant, like his Dutch master, was cruelly tortured, but would not reveal any information. So the SS sentenced the child to death, along with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms. Wiesel tells the story:

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us; machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains--and one of them, the little servant, the sad- eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the Lagercapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. "Long live liberty!" cried the two adults. But the child was silent. "Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. "Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. "Cover your heads!" Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. but the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here He is--He is hanging here on this gallows.."

Jesus cried out, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" When he prayed this prayer, in his moment of deepest pain, he let us know he is with us in ours.

But, that is not the end of the story.

Point 3

Jesus is demonstrating he loves us by being forsaken for us.

Jesus cried out "My Father, My Father, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" he is crying out because he is taking the punishment for YOUR sin. He is bearing the full weight of your sin because there is nothing you can do to make your sin right. He is taking your punishment. He is having the Sin of the world placed at his feet, upon his shoulders. The Apostle Paul said it this way:

God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that God's righteousness might come about in us. –2 Corinthians 5:21

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way in his wonderful, beautiful little book on the church called Life Together, "He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone (131-2)".

Now imagine you had taken the penalty for all the sins of the world upon yourself like Jesus did. You would feel alone. You would be alone. You would feel forsaken. You would cry out, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?"

When Jesus cries out that prayer, he cries it, so in the end, you will not have to.

So come to the cross. See Jesus crying out in agony. Picture it in your mind. Hear him utter those words "My God, MY God, Why have you forsaken me?" And know that he is crying out with the deepest heartache anyone can experience so that you can have the opportunity to have the deepest joy anyone can ever know.

Come to the cross. Hear those words. And know that his words are uttered so that you can have eternal life. See his sacrifice for your sins. Hear his agony for your wretchedness. See him bleed for your selfishness.

See it all, and don't ignore it. Don't make light of it. Don't be apathetic about it. Because his death is the opportunity for your life, his humiliation on that cross is given so that you may be exalted.

Hear those words. And make them matter in your life. Choose to offer your life to Christ. Come forward today. Accept Jesus into your heart today. Cry out to receive him. Do not forsake him. Do not forsake this moment. Do not forsake His gift.

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