Sermon for 04-03-11: “Seven Last Words, Part 4”

April 6, 2011

Sermon Text: Matthew 27:45-49

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The following is my original manuscript.

Lisa got me a GPS system for my car last Christmas. It’s a godsend for someone like me, who has always been directionally challenged. Of course, the GPS is not really an “it” to my family. It is a she. We call her Serena—the kids named her. She speaks directions to us with an English accent, which is cool, and she is unfailingly patient and kind. She never fusses at me for being lost or missing a turn. She simply recalculates, and gives me new directions to take me to my destination. Seriously, if I traveled to Savannah by way of—I don’t know—Los Angeles, Serena would continually recalculate—at every exit off the interstate between here and the West Coast, until I made it successfully to my destination.

She’s awesome. She never gets lost. It’s reassuring to know that, as long as she’s there and turned on and communicating with the satellite—and as long as I’m paid up on the annual subscription fee—she’ll never be lost, even when I am. She’ll always be with me, helping me along the way to wherever I’m bound.

In all four gospels, up until today’s scripture, it seems like Jesus’ relationship with his Father was a little bit like that, too. Always on. Always connected. The Father always unfailingly present with Jesus, directing him every step of his way. So closely connected to his Father was Jesus that he could say, in John’s gospel, “I and the Father are one,” and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”1

We understand this relationship because we understand that God is Trinity: Jesus is God—God the Son—inseparably connected to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus is identically equal to God. Who is God? Look at Jesus and find out. Want to be in a relationship with God—be in a relationship to Jesus, who is God.

And this is why today’s scripture is so startling. For one incomprehensibly tragic moment on the cross, Jesus was disconnected from his Father. Jesus was abandoned. Who can comprehend such a thing? In one of his books, C.S. Lewis tries to by describing the chain of failures of people and institutions that led to Jesus being on the cross. First, we have the “church,” by which Lewis means the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. They could have done the right thing and saved Jesus, but they didn’t. When the “church” failed, Jesus still had the state—represented by the Romans. They were supposed to be on the side of law and order and justice. They could have done the right thing and saved Jesus, but they didn’t. When the state failed, Lewis wrote the following:

But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become overnight (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are “Why hast thou forsaken me? [Emphasis mine.]2

God speaking to God… Matthew is letting us overhear a dialogue from inside the heart of the Trinity—only this dialogue is a monologue. For this terrible moment, God the Father is silent and separate.

Why does it have to be this way? Why is God the Son alone and abandoned? I’m going to venture an answer that might help, but it will be incomplete at best. Let’s use a biblical analogy and think of God as pure light. In John chapter 1, the evangelist writes, “What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”3

The darkness is sin and evil. They are like the shadows cast by the bright light of God’s goodness and love.

In our world, mercifully, we don’t experience evil in all its fullness. As dark as the world may be at times, it is still penetrated by the light of God’s love. But not so with Christ on the cross. At least for one terrible moment, all the dark forces of sin and evil conspired to snuff out the light of God’s goodness and love—and they seemed to succeed. For this terrible moment, Paul writes, Christ was made “to be sin who knew no sin.”4

For this terrible moment, there was only darkness. And where there is only darkness, there is no light. Where there is only evil, there can be no God. God is absent. And in the mystery of the Trinity, for this terrible moment, God the Son feels the very absence of God.

Who can understand it? I hasten to add that evil does not get to have the last word on the cross, and God miraculously turns this symbol of God’s defeat into the greatest victory the world has ever known. But we’re not there yet—we’ll get there in a couple of weeks. I want us to linger here for a moment. I want us to imagine, for a moment, what it feels like for God to be absent.

Some of you hearing this are undoubtedly thinking, “That’s not very difficult!” Because you’re feeling God’s absence at this moment. Not in the same tragic, terrible way that Jesus felt it, of course. None of us will have to experience God’s absence that way—because what Jesus did on the cross and experienced on the cross is a one-time, non-repeatable event. We can only feel abandoned by God. God is still always with us, regardless of our feelings. Not that that’s very comforting to someone feeling that way. But it’s possible that you’re feeling God-forsaken—as if God has left you alone. As if, getting back to what I said at the start of the sermon, that reassuring voice of comfort and direction has been silenced. You’ve lost the connection. You’ve lost your bearings. And the God in whom you trust isn’t responding. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Maybe, like so many others you’re facing the loss of a job—and you’re worried about financial security; you’re worried about providing for your family; you’re worried about making ends meet. And you’ve prayed about it, but nothing… Maybe the test results came back from the doctor, and the news isn’t good. And you’ve prayed about it, but nothing… Maybe you’re experiencing a crisis in your marriage, in your family, in the lives of people you love. And you’ve prayed about it, but nothing…

Or maybe you’re just depressed, and you just can’t get it together, and you don’t know why. And you’ve prayed about that, too—and nothing…

If so, will you have the boldness to pray the very words that were on Jesus’ lips on the cross, which come from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you’re like most Christians these days, the answer is “no.” It feels wrong to pray a prayer expressing such brutal honesty. It feels impious. It feels like we shouldn’t have to pray it—you know, if we were good Christians; if we weren’t such sinners; if we were “in God’s will,” doing what God wanted us to do. I’m not saying we’re not sinners. Of course we are! But think of it this way: the one person who lived who wasn’t a sinner was Jesus—and he also prayed this prayer. He also experienced God’s absence. Do you see my point? If God didn’t spare his own Son the experience of God’s absence, why do we imagine that God would spare us that experience?

Experiencing God’s absence—which is often referred to as being in a spiritual desert or going through a “dark night of the soul”—is an occasional, normal, and even healthy part of what it means to live a faithful life. People in the Bible understood this better than we do. They were not afraid to let God know that they were unhappy, and even unhappy with God. Their prayers, which seem impolite to us, were so good that they even made it into the Bible: “Do not be silent, O God of my praise.”

Or “But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”

Or “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’”5

I’m thinking with regret and shame of an experience I had in college. When I was at Georgia Tech many years ago, in those dark days before I was a Methodist, I was in the Baptist Student Union—the BSU. The BSU had a small prayer room, and there was a notebook in which people could write down prayer requests—or anything that was on their hearts. And others could then pray for them. There was a guy in the BSU named Mark who was a 19-year-old Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. Mark was something else. He had been a child genius—a Doogie Howser-type—who had gone to college at a young age, had received multiple degrees, and was now on the verge of earning a Ph.D. Mark had a dramatic conversion experience a couple of years earlier, but was now struggling.

He would pour out his heart in this prayer notebook—it was anonymous, but everyone knew it was him. He would ask questions like, “God, why do you hate me? Here I am trying to love and serve you, and this is how you repay me?” He would often express his anger at God out loud. In spite of this, he had genuine Christian friends there who loved him unconditionally. I wasn’t one of them. You see, I was indignant on God’s behalf. One day, I confronted him about his attitude: “Why do you bother coming here if you feel like this? Don’t you know that you’re hurting people who care about you?” Truth is, I don’t think he was hurting anyone but me. Wherever Mark is right now, I pray that he doesn’t remember that. Or, if he does, that he forgives me.

I hope I’ve changed… I don’t trust Christians who act like they’re happy all the time—or act like they’re supposed to be happy all the time. Do you have any of these very devout Facebook friends who are always like, “Praise God for this, that, and the other thing,” on their Facebook status—and I’m like, “Don’t you ever have a bad day? Is your life always so good? Do you never feel like praying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Or what about those preachers on TV who act like if only your faith is right, then all your dreams will come true, and you’ll get everything you want in life, and you’ll live happily ever after. You know that can’t be right: sometimes if you’re faithful to God, you get what you want, by all means. But sometimes you get crucified upside down like St. Peter!

We know that those shiny, happy Christian people are too good to be true… We know that those TV preachers are wrong… Except… maybe the resentment I felt toward Mark many years ago, maybe our reluctance to pray a bold and impolite prayer like “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is an indicator that we kind of buy into their message. We secretly think that God should always be there to fix our problems if we’re living right. God should always give us what we want if we ask in the right way. God should always protect us from harm or failure or disappointment or pain—if only we have the right kind of faith. The fact that we don’t experience God that way must automatically mean that we’re doing something wrong.

Lord Jesus, please help us to see that that’s a lie and set us free from feeling that way.

Maybe right now your spiritual GPS receiver isn’t working: You’re not receiving a signal from on high. God may be up there somewhere, but every prayer you pray is bouncing off the ceiling. If that describes you, would you please remember the following, and I don’t say this often: WWJD. What would Jesus do? Jesus would, and in fact Jesus did, tell his heavenly Father about it.

If you’re disappointed with God for not being there for you, guess what? God can handle your disappointment. If you’re angry at God for not being there for you, guess what? God can handle your anger. If you doubt that there is a God at all, guess what? God can handle your doubt. The English poet Tennyson said, “There’s more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds,” and you know that’s true. It takes a lot of faith, after all, to be disappointed in God. It takes a lot of faith to be angry at God. It takes a lot of faith to be skeptical of God.

The good news is that that’s more than enough faith to see you through this difficult season in your life. It won’t last forever. If the cross teaches us anything, it is that God can take the worst the world throws at us, and turn it around into something beautiful—that no force in heaven or earth has the power to defeat God’s love. And God loves you so much that God can bring you through and make you a stronger and better person than you were before. Don’t give up on God!

For everyone else—who’s not currently in a spiritual desert—would you please be the very presence of Christ to someone who is not experiencing it. I wish I could get in a time machine, go back in time, give Mark a hug, and tell him I love him! May the Spirit of Christ empower you to love your brothers and sisters without condition or judgment. They need you. And you need them.

Footnotes:

1. John 10:30; John 14:9

2. C.S. Lewis, “Forsaken by All” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1133.

3. John 1:3b-5

4. 2 Corinthians 5:21

5. Psalm 109:1; Psalm 88:13-14; Psalm 42:9

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