My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
A sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the Ecumenical Good Friday Service, held at the First Baptist Church in White Plains on April 18, 2014. Rev. Dunn is the Minister of Christian Education and Spiritual Formation at the White Plains Presbyterian Church.
THE FOURTH WORD FROM THE CROSS
“My God, why have you forsaken me? “ These are frightful words uttered on a dark afternoon. The meaning of these words was debated at the very foot of the cross: Was he calling for Elijah? What did he say?
Forsaken: We are shaken to our core to think that God could abandon Jesus at this terrible hour. Jesus — fully human and fully God– how could God forsake him? How could God abandon this beloved son who has walked obediently before God, healing, teaching and showing the love and compassion of God in ways that transform lives and excite multitudes. Could God abandon God’s own self? It confounds our understanding.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These last words are terrible words. And these words are lasting because we recognize them as true. In these words, what Barbara Brown Taylor terms our “sunny spirituality,” is confronted by our own inner knowing of what life is often really like. In the crucifixion, the illusion an ever-present and all-powerful God ruling a morally coherent universe is shattered. The just are unjustly condemned. The loving and compassionate are derided. Death comes to the One who has given life to all he encountered.
If Jesus could suffer and die, what hope do we have? It seems that the body of Christ, broken for us, is yet also the bread of affliction.
Where is God? God is absent, for God, who is the Holy One of Israel, righteous and just, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, could not have been present at such an unrighteous, unjust and cruel time as the crucifixion of Jesus. God is absent, as people in all their ignorance and mendacity do their worst: the innocent suffer and die, and love is crucified, as political expediency carries the day.
From the cross Jesus cried out the first words of Psalm 22, this ancient Hebrew poetry, a Psalm of lament. The whole of Psalm 22 in all its richness and complexity says much about the life of faith, affirming God’s saving acts in history and looking for redemption based upon that assurance.
Even in death, by uttering these words from the cross, Jesus models the way of life-giving prayer. He is not just quoting Psalm 22, he is praying, using these words he knows well. They are words that have formed and shaped him, and the worldview he inhabited. Jesus lived and breathed the sacred Scriptures, so fully that he enacted them. He was so familiar with the Psalms and Prophets that he embodied them. He enacted in his own body this song of lament.
N.T. Wright has pointed out how vitally important the Psalms are for understanding the whole New Testament. He says of the Psalms, “they call us to live at the intersection of sacred space… and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.” They “invoke the past and anticipate the future.” “They speak of change, but more importantly, they are agents of change… as [our] transformed lives bring God’s kindness and justice into the world.”
This insight helps us understand how God could be absent, for Jesus has been abandoned by the people whom he had called to inhabit this space with him, the space of God’s justice, kindness and mercy. God is not present in injustice.
Yet Jesus’ words from the cross are not hopeless, for in uttering these words, he is praying this whole Psalm of lament, he is remembering God’s saving acts and anticipating that future generations will know and proclaim God’s deliverance.
The Psalms of lament are a great asset in the life of faith. The idea that God could be anywhere absent conflicts with a shallow spirituality that we often convey to children. Hoping to somehow shield them from the harsh realities of life, we do not equip them with the words that convey the injustice, anguish and betrayals they will one day encounter.
There are some stories in the Bible that would terrify children, but I think we underestimate just how much children know and ponder. Many children among us know the reality of terror, pain, and suffering. We all probably know children who have experienced domestic violence, divorce, cancer, death, poverty, or alcoholism. These children would certainly cry out along with Jesus, my God, why have you forsaken me?
William Willimon notes wryly that it is interesting that we teach children Psalm 23, but not Psalm 22. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for the life of faith if children were taught how to lament, praying honestly to God about their sense of abandonment, enabling them to have that sense of intimacy with God that Jesus shared in this urgent prayer?
If we believe God is everywhere present– then what is the point of praying: “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Come, Holy Spirit”? If we are taught that God is everywhere, then we become spiritually lazy, not attending to the life of prayer and to our own faithful actions, and then blaming the ever-present God for our ever-present difficulties.
Walter Brueggemann describes the effects of picking and choosing the happier Psalms, and the “Costly Loss of Lament:” “We may unwittingly endorse a ‘False Self’ that can take no initiative toward an omnipotent God. We may also unwittingly endorse unjust systems about which no questions can properly be raised…. Both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility may be derived from the loss of these texts.”
My God, why have you forsaken me? The curtain of the temple is rent asunder, akin to the ancient act of mourning. The prophet Joel had earlier declared on God’s behalf: Rend your hearts and not your garment. Perhaps the rending of the temple curtain is God’s act of mourning for all humankind who must suffer and die. In this death of Jesus, God’s own heart must be rent asunder by grief.
God is not present in injustice. The day has grown dark, but as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “darkness is the setting for humanity’s closest encounters with the divine.” The prophet Amos, anticipates this dark and terrible day of the Lord, and charges us to let justice roll down like water.
The hope in these words is in Jesus’ compassion and solidarity with us, who live and will one day die, lamenting the sorrow, but looking forward, for in the words of the Psalmist, “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” (Ps 22:24)
May it be so!