And so now it comes to this.
The reality of it is… unfathomable. On Sunday when he’d rode triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem on, of all things, the back of a donkey, the crowds had cheered Jesus on as no one before. There was hosanna shouting, palm branches waving, children dancing in the street; Matthew’s gospel tells us that “the whole city was in turmoil,” and in fact, in the original Greek the word used is seio, which literally means “earthquake,” and is where we get our word “seismograph!” So great, you see, was this celebration; so incredible this proclamation of God’s power and glory in the person of this “one who comes in the name of the Lord” that the whole city – and truly, the whole world – was shaken to its very core!
But that was Sunday… and now it’s Friday afternoon… around three o’clock, with the skies above strangely dark… and some six hours after having been hung on the cross to die, at the last our Lord Jesus cries out in woeful, heart-wrench agony in the language of the Aramaic: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani,” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What’s interesting that while two of the other gospels go on to record other “last words” of Jesus (Luke has him saying, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” (23:46), and in John, Jesus simply says, “It is finished.” (19:30)), both Matthew and Mark let the utter sadness of those ancient words simply linger in the air as in those final moments. Now, what we know is that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, which is considered to be a psalm of lament; and as such was a prayer, one that was often prayed by pious Jews in times of adversity. Generally, you see, the purpose of such prayers was to pour out one’s heart and to gain spiritual encouragement; but the truth of the matter is that in these final moments there was no encouragement to be gained, spiritual or otherwise.
In fact, what Jesus seems to be expressing here is what author Philip Yancey describes as “a grave sense of estrangement,” as though “some inconceivable split had opened up in the Godhead… the Son [feeling] abandoned by the Father.” And if that’s true, then surely this was the most painful moment of all for Jesus; to be in those last, horrible, excruciating moments of life as you’ve known it and to feel yourself… forsaken. Forsaken by those closest to you; forsaken by people that you trusted, and that you love; forsaken by the very ones who had called upon you to save them; forsaken by a humanity so broken by its own sin that it knew not what it was doing…
…but worst of all, in the midst of it all, forsaken by your Father in heaven.
Understand that Jesus’ use of these words is not meant to convey a lapse of faith on his part; in fact, as C.S. Lewis has written, “the ‘hiddenness’ of God perhaps presses most painfully on those who are in another way nearest to Him.” Given that, why wouldn’t Jesus, having endured the worst that a sinful humanity is capable of, feel abandoned? You and I, we can think of the many times in our lives when things did not go well for us; when relationships were severed, jobs were lost, people did not receive the healing we’d prayed for; times when we did cry out for feeling very much alone in the world. Dear friends, I can tell you that when I consider the four or five lowest moments of my life, those were also the moments when I felt completely and utterly alone, even when it was true that I was also surrounded by a crowd of people, often people who, in fact, did care very deeply; that’s just the nature of the pain: for all practical purposes, you feel abandoned.
But as horrible as it might have been for me, or for you or for any of us, never did such times rise (or fall) to the level of the kind of abandonment that Jesus must have been feeling in those final few minutes of earthly life. To quote Philip Yancey once again, “No theologian…” (and, might I add here, no preacher!) “…can adequately explain the nature of what took place within the Trinity on that day at Calvary. All we have is a cry of pain from a child who felt forsaken.” Never mind that Jesus had himself anticipated that he would endure such a death; or that he’d announced the same, again and again, to his disciples, to the scribes and Pharisees, and to countless others through his teaching. Never mind that every bit of what had transpired here was pre-ordained from the beginning of creation, long foretold by the prophets and forever meant to be. This was suffering on a cosmic scale; this was the Son of God, Son of Man groaning in the unspeakable pain of grief and abandonment; this is love incarnate destroyed at the hand of a sinful humanity; yes, this is what happens when God’s people choose not LIFE, but death.
And this all unfolded over six hours on a dark Friday long ago, a day of untold suffering, shame and sadness; a day that history and tradition has often marked as the single most significant event of Jesus’ life; and one that in some cultures is even referred to as the date of the death of God; hardly a “good” Friday.
It’s where it should have all ended, with the abandonment; with his having been divinely forsaken, and our forgiveness and salvation, yours and mine, forever lost.
But we know better; for we also know, do we not, that this moment of Jesus’ death was, in fact, a turning point.
It was a turning point for those who were there in the crowd, welcoming Jesus on that Sunday morning: those who’d sung their joyous songs of praise and glory, dancing along the streets of Jerusalem as shouts of Hosanna echoed throughout the city; and yet whose voices, just a few short days later, had become hoarse for all the shouting out to Pilate to crucify the man!
And it was the turning point for those who were lingering there in those final moments at the foot of the cross: the curious passers-by, the morbid thrill seekers, the hangers on, the ones who wanted, needed to know how the mob scene in the courtyard below had played itself out.
And it was a turning point for those who now were feeling the remorse of it: those who now wished they’d done something, anything in Jesus’ defense when they’d had the chance but who now realized, to their shame, that it was too late. This certainly was the case for Peter, who’d promised to go with Jesus anywhere but now had to face the truth that in his fear and faithlessness, he’d denied even knowing him; and for that matter, it was the case for the other disciples, who were now “God knows where,” hiding out for their very lives.
But it was also a turning point for a man like the centurion, the one who’d had drawn the duty of watching over the scene that day, keeping the peace, as it were, on this day of execution; but who at the end had changed. Who knows exactly why; maybe it the realization in his own mind that this man Jesus had done nothing wrong to deserve such a fate; perhaps it was the serenity in his eyes even as the crowd and his own soldiers had done their worst to him; or it could well be that something more powerful and wholly divine that had touched his heart in and through the agony of those passing hours. But whatever it was, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the centurion had a turning point of his own, and was compelled to speak from a new heart. “Truly,” the centurion said, “this man was God’s Son!”
You see, the execution of one Jesus of Nazareth ended up being far more than the authorities’ silencing of the latest religious rabble-rouser, which is what the temple leaders and the Roman governmental officials wanted the world to think; indeed, this “day of crucifixion” amounted to much more than their conviction that a so-called blasphemer and revolutionary could hung out to die with two common criminals as a warning to anyone else who might choose to follow a similar pathway. They didn’t know it, but this day of death and shame was in fact a turning point for anyone and everyone who was involved; who’d ever known Jesus, who’d ever sought to know God or who’d ever hungered and thirsted for righteousness for life and eternity. There on the cross was hanging the very turning point between death and life; and the question before each one of them was, what will you do about this? What will you do with Jesus?
And beloved, that’s still the question that’s before you and me as we stand before the cross of Jesus.
It’s said that “the balance of power shifted more than slightly” on that Good Friday because of who it was that absorbed the evil. To quote Yancey one more time, “Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.” To put it another way, in the person of Jesus Christ, God took every bit of that which is bad, misguided, divisive, destructive, unrighteous and utterly sinful, and then put it on his own shoulders; and by willingly and in all weakness letting it destroy him saved us from the judgment to which sin inevitably leads and that we deserve. Dear friends, the “good” in Good Friday is that in this divine sacrifice – by Christ taking on the weight of our guilt – we are forgiven and have new life. It is our turning point, beloved; but it is one that comes with a choice. As the hymn we often sing about now so beautifully proclaims it, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
You see, what you and I need to understand is that though it happened so long ago “on a hill far away” we were there when they crucified our Lord… we were there in the crowd… there in the midst of the jeering mob, there amongst the “lookers on and passersby…” there, perhaps even among few who stayed close to Jesus in his dying hours… but there as part of the people who Jesus loved and for whom he died.
What will you do with this, friends?
Here we are… now beneath the cross of Jesus. What will we do with him? What will we do with the Christ?
Will we forsake him? Will we stand in silent acquiescence as the rest of the mob calls for his crucifixion? Will we turn our back on him now and hide away? Will we choose to dismiss the event we commemorate this week as merely the death of some long-ago prophet and revolutionary, and nothing more; or will we recognize it as something much more? Will we stand by Jesus in this, his dying hour; seeing him as he truly is and honoring what he is doing for us, that we might receive the graceful gift of salvation that he brings to you, and to me, and to the world?
The choice is ours, yours and mine; it always has been; it’s the choice between death and LIFE… the question is how we’ll choose.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus died, “darkness came over the whole land,” and that “the earth shook.” Interesting… that in the span of five days there was a second earthquake in Jerusalem having to do with the presence and power of the divine in its midst! This time, of course, the tremors had a divine source; it was as though God had offered a lamentation of its own over the tragedy that had befallen; an outcry over the loss of a son and truly, of a people.
But here’s the thing about lamentation; especially as we have in scripture: it always begins with unspeakable anguish (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”), but it also always concludes with an affirmation of God’s glory (Psalm 22, the one that Jesus was quoting there on the cross, actually ends with words proclaiming that “dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.” (v. 28). In other words, our lamentations may truly begin in sadness, but they will always end in the same way; with the proclamation that God is present, God is healing, God is forgiving, and God is always and ever… good.
So yes, we’ve come to the cross… but it seems to me that Jesus’ story isn’t done quite yet. And, might I add, neither is ours.
To be continued, beloved…
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry