Wednesday, March 19, 2008

why have you forsaken me? (matthew 27)

I can still remember the day, as if it were in the present. I was nine or ten years old, maybe, it was late winter, or very early spring. School had ended, and my baseball team practiced on the field adjacent to the school. It was cold, I remember, because of the way your hands would feel when you hit a baseball in cold weather---it would send a shock through the bones in your fingers and up through your arms.

Practice ended, and I remember that it was getting increasingly colder. I had not listened to my mother and so I was not wearing the jacket she had set aside for me. We lived out in the country, north of the city, and my school was in town. My parents had told me that they would pick me up when practice was over. We finished, and people began to leave. “Do you want a ride?”, a couple of them asked. “No, my folks are coming.”

I rubbed my hands together, then I began to walk around the field, to stay warm, and then, for some inexplicable reason, I began to walk around the school, in a circle, around the whole campus. It seemed like a good idea, to keep walking. It helped me to keep warm. (Ken's note: it also made me almost impossible to find!). My parents would be there soon.

Time passed. It got colder. I later learned that my mother had come by the school, looked around the ballfield, and not seeing me assumed—a fair assumption---that my father had picked me up. He often came to my practices. Now if you are under the age of 21 years old you will just have to take my word that all of this happened before the days of cell phones! It was not prehistoric times, but we did not have the benefit of instant communication, or text messaging. Can you imagine?

My mother, not finding me there, drove out to the country, thinking I was with my father. In the meantime I walked and waited and wondered: where are they? As it grew colder and darker, , my imagination raced. Where are my parents? What is going on?

Each year as I read the passion narratives in the Bible I am conscious that there is so much there. Someone has rightly noted that the gospels can be read as passion narratives with extended introductions. In the last few years I have preached on the words of Jesus’ passion, words that will be read and sung on Friday evening in the Tenebrae service: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”, or “Let this cup (of suffering) pass from me”.

This year, another word, a word that belongs in the midst of an increasingly dark, and at times cold and chilly world: God, where are you? What is going on? These are words we remember, from Jesus, on the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These words conjure up every threat to life and hope that we can imagine: Abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair.

In Holy Week we place these words in a context, Jesus, on the cross. And in Holy Week, we reflect on the implications of the cross in our own lives. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians (2. 19-20): I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Occasionally I will be driving, maybe along the interstate, and there, along the side of the road, is a cross. I first saw them years ago, in South America, more frequent there, more common, but increasingly I see them now, here. One is covered with pink plastic roses; another has a teddy bear leaning against the small white cross; another has a single red rose.

Each takes me back to the accident. After an accident there is usually a long lines of cars, police trying to wave folks along, but the traffic slows, in part because a lane is closed, but also, police will tell you, because people want to slow down, they want to see. Folks want to know what happened. They want know if someone is hurt. When there is an accident I have an almost involuntary response of making the sign of the cross, and I’m not even Catholic! Some even want to pull over and stop. Where do we see crosses in life?

In holy week we have all pulled over to stop. We begin with Jesus, making his way into Jerusalem, triumphant, the crowds cheering, jubilant even, great expectations. Then something happens. The conflict grows. Jesus cleanses the temple, he condemns the pharisees, he curses the fig tree. There is betrayal. Jesus seems to sense it, at Passover, in Judas. And we have this feeling, in reading each of the gospels, that the wreck is not going to be somewhere else. It’s going to happen here. Peter is in denial, beforehand and afterward, but its going to happen, here.

Abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair. Maybe you have been there. The phone rings. “Oh no”, you think to yourself. Maybe you hear the results of the test. “Oh no”, you say under your breath. Or maybe in some way your life just isn’t working out the way you planned, and the only response you can make is “Oh no”. It’s like we are driving along, getting on with our lives, from point a to point b, and then there is a crash, a disaster. We mark those places with crosses. They are the cold and increasingly dark places in our lives.

Jesus is there, on that cross. Now we Protestants have taken him off the cross, he is risen, but today, and this week, he is on the cross. And from the cross he speaks, to us, about abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Think for a moment about the life of Jesus. Remember Advent, lighting the candles of hope and peace, joy, love and light, everything pointing to the coming of this Savior. Think about his baptism, the dove descending, the voice of affirmation speaking, “You are my son, you are my beloved, I am pleased with you”. We came forward to the altar and renewed our baptisms.

Think about his power to heal, to change people, to enter into their lives. And so we gathered for the day of service, and some went to Haiti, and some celebrated the ministry of UMAR, and some spent the night and shared meals with the homeless. Think about the miracles. Think about the way he taught with such authority. Think about the mountain of transfiguration, on Mount Tabor, in the Galilee, the word of blessing, of affirmation again saying, “You are my son, you are my beloved, I am pleased with you”, and then, to us, “listen to him”. Think about your own moments of insight, clarity, inspiration.

Think about his total identification with God: The Father and I are one.
Think about his complete dedication to the mission of God: I have come to seek and save the lost. Think about his absolute openness to the Spirit: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.

It all moves in a powerful, purposeful direction. But something happened. On the cross he speaks: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Everything had gone wrong. It was a wreck. And we have pulled over to watch. And listen. What was Jesus saying? There is wisdom in that question. He was quoting scripture, the 22nd Psalm. We don’t know it as well as the 23rd Psalm, but we have all been there. That Psalm speaks of a God who will vindicate, who will respond, who will save.

He was giving voice to the reality of his death. Abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair. And because he was who he was, the centurion says, at the close of our scripture, Truly this man was the Son of God. Meaning: When we are at our lowest, God is there. C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters speaks of the peak periods and the trough periods, the good times and the bad times. He writes:

“It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it (the Christian) is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in a state of dryness are the ones that please Him best”.

Do you know the words of the 139th Psalm, a psalm that begins with a question. Sometimes our faith has a lot to do with our questions. The question is to God: Where can I go to escape from your presence? If I go into the heavens, you are there. If I go into sheol, you are there.

One of the most God-forsaken places I have ever spent time in was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. It is a place where a person physically senses abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair, at a deep level. I saw a photo of Pope John Paul at Yad Vashem a few years ago. His presence there symbolized, for many Christians, the reality that even in the midst of horror and death, God does not forsake us.

When you have made your journey through abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair, remember that God is with you. If you have ever felt like saying, “where are you God?, I’m all alone here,” remember: Jesus has been there first. It is one of his last words, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? On Friday evening, we will listen to each of his last words. We will feel some of the force of emotion that he felt. We will see the cross, even as the sanctuary becomes increasingly darker.

You might be sitting there, thinking, why do we have to go through this? Why do we have to think about car wrecks and crosses? After all, the trees are in bloom. It has been a beautiful week. Can’t we focus on something more positive? Isn’t there some detour we could take? And of course, we could. We could take a detour around the first days of Holy Week, we could avoid the conflict, we could cover up the cross. We could do that.

But we would miss the point. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is life without death. There is no crown without a cross. There is no glory without suffering. There is no love without pain. There is no risen Lord without a crucified Jesus. And that is why we see crosses in life.

Authentic faith in Jesus Christ struggles with this question: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? The answer to that question comes later, not even today. Stay tuned. Something is about to happen. And isn’t that the way life is? Through our abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair, we don’t always have the final answer, today, right now. And so, in a trough period, we offer prayers in a state of dryness. In bitter cold and darkness we cry out, “Where are you, God?” But all we see is a cross.

On a hill far away, Jesus asked the question, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? And then he died for you and me. He experienced abandonment and betrayal, confusion and death, for you and me. As the prophet said, surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

Maybe you are reading this, and you’re wondering: Where are you, God? I want to see you, I want to know that you are real, but all I see is a cross.

Source: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.


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