Sermon: Forsakenness

We have entered the season of Lent. It’s true that Lent is not in the Bible. There is no command to observe the forty days before Easter as a season of repentance and preparation focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, there is no command to celebrate Easter in the Bible either. In the New Testament, every Sunday was a mini-Easter, a celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ. That is still true today. So there is nothing that requires our church or any church to celebrate Lent and Easter, but I believe there is wisdom in doing so.

Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, are all part of the church calendar. They are later celebrations that serve to orient our year around the history of salvation. Calendars matter. They help shape how we see the world and what we view as significant. The rhythms of the year, the days that we honor, shape our sense of the world.

You buy almost any calendar in this country and it will have certain dates marked, set apart for celebration: Martin Luther King Day, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day. With a few interesting exceptions, these holidays are how we tell the story of our nation, year after year, they are how we raise children to understand what we value as a country and the events that have happened to shape us into who we are today – they tell of service, sacrifice, freedom, and justice. And we celebrate them every year, and over time that helps shape a people.

The same is true of the church calendar. Early in the history of the church, Christians saw the wisdom of having their own calendar. Not only did it set us apart from the pagans who celebrated to their gods, but it helped us tell the story again and again. Yes, every week is a mini-Easter, a celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, but to orient not only our week, but our entire year around God’s work of salvation in our midst serves to shape us more deeply as Christians.

So this morning, we begin the second of six Sundays in Lent that will be culminated by the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. And in these weeks, we will be following the wisdom of our forebears in the faith, by fixing our eyes on the cross. We come to face the death of Jesus, face the mystery of where our salvation was accomplished. And we will sink ourselves into this very real, very historical, very horrifying death. Revisiting Jesus’ death is not like visiting a graveside and setting down flowers. We are here to contemplate our daily dying in the company of Jesus who died for us. We seek not only to know and receive his death for us, but to let the whole of our lives be shaped by the way of the cross.

The Gospels record seven statements that Jesus made while he hung on the cross. In those hours Jesus spent dying on that Friday just outside Jerusalem, he prayed seven prayers. As Jesus was dying he prayed. And as Jesus prayed, so will we. And in doing so, we hope that our lives will be shaped in the way of the cross of Christ.

The first of these prayers is found in multiple gospel accounts, but we will be listening to it from the Gospel of Mark. Mark 15:33-34. If you would like, feel free to turn there with me. Mark is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark 15:33-34. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please pray with me.

Father, you promise that as the rain goes forth to water the earth and does not return empty, but brings forth fruit, you promise that your word goes forth and does not return empty, but accomplishes exactly what you intend. May we be open to your work in us this morning, may we receive the gift of your finished work for us, and may we go forth in the good works you have prepared for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The first words we hear from Jesus on the cross are some of the most painful, most agonizing, and most troubling. Borrowing words from Psalm 22, Jesus cries out as one forsaken. He has been betrayed by one of his disciples, abandoned by the rest, mocked, spit on, beaten, whipped, stripped, nailed to a cross and left outside the city to die on public display. The gospel writers, inspired by the Spirit, tells us that not only Jesus’ words, but his whole crucifixion echoes the painful rejection and suffering spoken in Psalm 22. At the point of his death, Jesus prayed borrowed words. It was a prayer Jesus would have learned in his childhood. It speaks of being mocked, bones pulled out of joint, heart melting, and mouth dry. It speaks of dying surrounded by evildoers and having them cast lots for his clothing. But in the midst of it all, Psalm 22 includes the cry of faith in God and the cry for God to uphold his children. Jesus’ words as well as the way he dies all echo this first prayer he began on the cross. It is almost as if he starts the prayer and let’s his life finish it. It all points to Christ.

But Jesus’ cry is not that he has been abandoned by his friends, that the crowds have turned on him, or even that he is currently in excruciating pain. Instead, we hear this:

At three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?”)

These are words filled with pain and anguish. Jesus cries out that God the Father has abandoned him. Forsaken, deserted, left behind, turned his back on him. How can this even be?

Why? The same question that formed on Jesus’ lips can easily be our own. Why was Jesus forsaken? The silence that follows weighs heavily.

We know what is like to feel abandoned and estranged. We know the feeling of rejection, of not belonging, of not fitting in. We know what it is like to feel the breach in a relationship – the awkwardness, the pain, the silence. And the closer the relationship, the more intimate it is meant to be, the more painful those breaks are. This is the very reason we didn’t have a seating chart at our wedding – when family breaks, the pain is deep. When spouses fight, the pain is severe. When parents fight with children, it can be gut-wrenching. The more intimate the connection, the more painful to breach.

We know this. We live it, more than any of us would like to. If we take the Bible seriously, we know that all this broken-ness, all this tension, pain, and difficult result from sin. It’s all part of the perpetual fallout of Genesis 3. We make poor, selfish decisions and people get hurt. Others choose lies over the truth, bitterness over love, mistrust over faith and we suffer the consequences. We know all this, we have lived in it ourselves, but why did Jesus experience it? He never chose himself over others. He never spoke too quickly or too harshly. He never twisted the truth had it come back to haunt him. He never sinned and had to experience a breach in the most intimate relationship we could ever have – the relationship between us and God.

And yet, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani, (which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)”

Why was he made to do this? Why did the Father make Jesus suffer all this in his body, and then to experience the soul-crushing agony of abandonment by God? Why did the Father make Jesus go through it? But he didn’t. Jesus was not forced. Jesus chose to do it, chose to undergo the agony, chose to bear the weight of the sins of the whole world on his shoulders, including the just punishment we deserve. This abandonment is part of our salvation. Paul says that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus, who in his divinity is God, and in his humanity lived in complete relationship with God, Jesus, who never sinned, now took on the weight of sin. On the cross, Jesus experienced for the first time the agony, the barrier between humanity and God that is caused by sin – but not his sin, our sin. No wonder he cried out.

And he did this for us, so that we would be brought near to God, would be reconciled to God, would no longer be separated from God because of our sin.

He cried out in anguish and he cried out in love. It was for love of us that Christ experienced God-forsaken-ness. It was for love that Christ went to the cross to pay the penalty, to receive the wages of our sin. It was the amazing love we sing about, “I’m forgiven, because you were forsaken. I’m accepted, you were condemned.”

Praise be to God!

But what does this mean for us as we follow Jesus? And as we walk on the way of the cross ourselves, as followers of Jesus, can we expect to experience abandonment? Can we expect to pray this prayer, to cry out ourselves in confusion and loss? After all, even Jesus was not exempt.

Faith in God does not push us away from reality, away from the mess, but further in. Faith in Jesus plunges us deep into the realities of grace, forgiveness, love – reality in all its dimensions, not the least of which is death. There is immense comfort in following Jesus. God is the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our afflictions. We hear “Comfort, O Comfort, my people.” We hold fast to the promise of eternal life, God’s abiding presence through the spirit, and the compassion and joy of being surrounded with fellow believers.

But there is also this: When we follow Jesus in the way of the cross (and there is no other way), we will join him in these prayers from the cross. “We may expect that we may be called to walk into circumstances we dislike, with people we cannot stand, and discover things about ourselves that are embarrassing and shameful.” We may expect that there will be times in our lives that we pray to God out of a feeling of forsakenness.

And we may expect that sometimes our prayers will include the unanswered ‘why’ that Jesus prayed. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

“Does it help to find ourselves in the company of Jesus as he prays his “Why?” I think it does.

Does it help to find Jesus in our company as we pray our “Why?” I think it does.”

Does it help to know that this one-line prayer is the first from the cross – and not the last? Jesus keeps praying. And so can we.

These are the first words we hear from Jesus on the cross. The first prayer that comes from his lips. He cries out in agony as he takes on our punishment for sin. He cries out, he prays, for us.

That is the way of the cross, the way Jesus chose to take, in full obedience to the Father, for us and for our salvation. The way of the cross is the way of rejection, of death. It is walking into the midst of sin and evil and working salvation right there. This is what Jesus has done for us. And he wants us with him as he does it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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