SERMON from 3-3-13: “My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” – Last Words From The Cross Series

This is the third of a seven-part series for the Lenten and Easter season. I got the idea from my father-in-law, who serves as Senior Pastor at Mesa First United Methodist Church, downtown Mesa, Arizona.

This particular sermon was borrowed from Timothy Merrill, editor of Homiletics Online. I couldn't come up with a better way to express these words, so I used these.

Matthew 27.45-47 (CEB)

45 From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 46 At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” 47 After hearing him, some standing there said, “He's calling Elijah.”

 

Psalm 22 (excerpt, CEB)

My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me— so far from my anguished groans? My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop. You are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise. Our ancestors trusted you— they trusted you and you rescued them; they cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed. But I’m just a worm, less than human; insulted by one person, despised by another. All who see me make fun of me— they gape, shaking their heads: “He committed himself to the Lord , so let God rescue him; let God deliver him because God likes him so much.” But you are the one who pulled me from the womb, placing me safely at my mother’s breasts. I was thrown on you from birth; you’ve been my God since I was in my mother’s womb. Please don’t be far from me, because trouble is near and there’s no one to help. Many bulls surround me; mighty bulls from Bashan encircle me. They open their mouths at me like a lion ripping and roaring! I’m poured out like water. All my bones have fallen apart. My heart is like wax; it melts inside me. My strength is dried up like a piece of broken pottery. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you’ve set me down in the dirt of death. Dogs surround me; a pack of evil people circle me like a lion— oh, my poor hands and feet! I can count all my bones! Meanwhile, they just stare at me, watching me. They divvy up my garments among themselves; they cast lots for my clothes. But you, Lord ! Don’t be far away! You are my strength! Come quick and help me!

 

Last Words From The Cross: “My God…Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

What do the Academy Awards, a congressional hearing and a lovers’ quarrel all have in common? Other than crying and a lot of gesturing, that is.

Well, according to the late Charles Tilly, who was a professor of social science at Columbia University, the common link has to do with one of the basic engines that drives human relationships — the yin and yang of credit and blame.

“We humans spend our lives blaming, taking credit and (often more reluctantly) giving credit to other people,” wrote Tilly in his 2008 book Credit and Blame. “At all scales, credit and blame pervade social life.” As humans, living within social networks, we insist when things go right or wrong that someone caused them and should take responsibility for the consequences, good or bad. People expend a lot of energy, then, assigning that responsibility to themselves or others. That’s why the Oscars are such a spectacle of gushing speeches, why members of Congress are grumpy and why lovers’ arguments bring shouts and tears. We’re passionate about wanting to make sure others are getting what we think they deserve and, at the same time, we often try to prevent others from doing the same to us (unless they’re giving us credit, of course!).

When he started the book, Tilly theorized that credit and blame are simply different sides of the same coin, but he found that blame “activates sharper distinctions between a worthy us and an unworthy them than credit does, [making] that us-them boundary harder to cross than in the cases of taking or receiving credit ….” In other words, blame drives a wedge between people and that separation can often be devastating.

On Good Friday (or Bad Friday, or Black Friday in reality), blame leads to a cross, yet the one hanging there doesn’t seem to blame anyone for his plight. Or does he? For the answer, we need to dig a little deeper into the connection between the narrative of the Passion and the text of Psalm 22 on which the gospel writers anchor some of their imagery.

Does Jesus blame others?

Mark tells us that there was plenty of blame to go around on that Friday. The cross was the intersection and focal point of the worst kinds of human evil. At the top of the list were the religious authorities who, ironically, accuse an innocent Jesus of “blasphemy” while heaping blame upon him in a sham trial and hasty sentence. The Roman Empire, represented by Pontius Pilate, was guilty, too, of using its violence as a way of both provoking and placating its subjects. Even Jesus’ closest friends make the list — one having betrayed him and the rest having abandoned him. Jesus hung naked in shame, broken, bleeding from violence, alone with no one to comfort him, and dying as a death-row inmate who never committed a crime. If anyone had reason to assign blame to the whole of humanity, it was Jesus.

But on the cross, there’s no bitter shout- out against the world coming from the parched and cracked lips of Jesus. It certainly would’ve been the pattern of most victims of crucifixion, which was a means of death so shameful that proper citizens of the empire refused to even speak of it. Those revolutionary bandits who were crucified with him no doubt cast their insults not only at Jesus but at their tormentors (Mark 15:32). When the gathered crowd shouted mockingly, “Save yourself and come down from the cross” (Mark 15:30), it must have been tempting for Jesus to think about doing just that; to strike fear into their hearts and retaliate against them for their treatment of him.

Yet, Jesus does not even utter a word of blame toward any person, even those who had beaten and tortured him. The only words of Jesus concerning his tormentors are in the form of a prayer of mercy for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Does Jesus blame God?

So Jesus doesn’t blame others for the mess he’s in; but does he blame God?

Sounds like it. “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Is Jesus blaming God here in his last moments?

We would certainly understand if he did. As Tilly said, it is natural for us to assign credit or blame to someone for our situation. Jesus had been faithful to his mission, had cultivated a deep intimacy with his Father, and now at the critical moment it would seem that even God had abandoned him. Even the crowd interpreted his cry as a call to the prophet Elijah who, in the belief of some Jewish traditions of the time, would come and help those in deep distress (Mark 15:35). If God had abandoned him, maybe someone else would come.

But what the crowd missed, and what many people reading this story today miss, is that Jesus’ cry to God, while certainly a lament of despair, transcends the usual human categories of credit and blame. Students of Scripture, both then and now, would recognize Jesus’ cry as the first line of Psalm 22, a “plea for deliverance from suffering and hostility” according to the psalm’s superscription. In the tradition of the time, when a person quoted the first line of a passage it was as if he or she was quoting the whole thing; thus Jesus brings the whole witness of the psalm to his cry from the cross.

The psalm strikes the reader from the beginning with the depth of the psalmist’s relationship with God, using the personal possessive pronoun “My God…” (Psalm 22:1, emphasis added). To the psalmist, God is a father who has nurtured and cared for him from his birth (vv. 9-10). This is an unusually intimate address for God in the Scriptures, but it is that intimacy that heightens the tension. When one is intimately connected with someone else, the absence of the other is felt more deeply; thus the psalmist’s complaint that God has “forsaken” him takes on a particularly tragic tone. “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” is a question of desperation and despair coming from one who has known the security and provision of God throughout his life (v. 1). God had always been there for his “ancestors,” delivering them when they cried out to God (v. 2). They were not “put to shame” then, but now it seemed that God had abandoned his child to the shaming scorn and mockery of others (vv. 6-7).

It’s little wonder that Jesus called these words to mind in his last moments. Looking at the sneering crowd, remembering the betrayal of his friends, feeling the agonizing sting of the lash and the desperate squeezing of the life from his body, Jesus would have seen no evidence whatsoever that the God who was present with him in his ministry, the God whose power had flowed within him, the Father with whom he had spent so many hours alone in prayer, was still with him. All the human evil of the world now circled him, ready to pounce (vv. 12-13, 16). Despite his pleas, bound up with those of the psalmist he quotes with his last breaths, God seems to be far away (v. 19).

Jesus truly knows how we feel

It’s important to note, however, that neither Jesus nor the psalmist seems to be assigning blame to God as the cause of his plight. Humans, being naturals at assigning credit and blame, are wont to construct a framework on which to hang their victimhood, and God often becomes the chief cause of pain in the minds of many people, whether through overt action or inexcusable absence. It’s hard to find a pastor who hasn’t had a suffering person in his or her office at some point asking, “Why did God do this to me?” or “Why did God let this happen to me?” The question that the psalmist asks and that Jesus cries out is, instead, “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?” More specifically, we might ask, “What do we do when there seems to be no evidence that God is with us?”

When we stop reading the psalm after verse 1, as many people in the crowd that Good Friday did and many do today, we miss the rest of the story.

When we read the whole psalm, we realize that Jesus’ cry is not one of blame but of hope and confidence that the God who stands by our suffering will be the God who reigns. Psalm 22:26-31 paints a picture of the peace and wholeness of the eschatological kingdom of God that Jesus would preach and demonstrate. Even on the cross, Jesus did not give up that vision, but had confidence that God would set the world to rights and that his suffering would somehow be redemptive. The resurrection made that a reality.

Jesus didn’t play the blame game, but chose instead to praise God in the midst of suffering, knowing that through his suffering the world would be healed. His invitation to his disciples to pick up their own crosses was an invitation to see our own suffering in the same way. We are called to see our lives, both the tragedies and the triumphs, within the larger context of God’s kingdom.

And when we look at the cross, we know precisely where God is in the midst of our suffering. He has not forsaken us — but is there beside us.

And thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

 

One comment on “SERMON from 3-3-13: “My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” – Last Words From The Cross Series

  1. podtaek
    October 13, 2013 at 2:46 PM #

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further
    write ups thank you once again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: