We are looking at what Philip Yancy calls the question that will not go away… where is God when it hurts? The question of evil... And while we would want a definite concrete answer, a formula or equation of which to make sense of it all we’ve seen that scripture addresses that question primarily through poems and prayers of people of faith as they encounter suffering and sorrow; through Lament. And today I want to finish looking at this question by looking at Psalm 22. Because it starts by asking the question “Where is God when it hurts? ” My God My God why have you forsaken me?” it is born out of human suffering. But also because it is a psalm of hope and trust that God will make things right, it affirms God’s ultimate salvation. He has done it! yet also because I believe this Psalm helps us to see God’s answer to the question of evil, God’s answer in the person of Jesus, because this psalm is on the lips of Jesus on the cross, both the first line “My God My God Why Have you forsaken me?” and the last, recorded in John’s Gospel as “It is finished”. But also because it invites us to also make it our song; It finishes by pointing to us, future generations yet unborn. For us to join our lament to this one and to trust in God, to acknowledge that yes this is the question that will not go away but God is Good, God is sovereign and he has done it.
It is hard for Christians to read this psalm without thinking of Jesus and the cross. In fact this psalm is quoted more than any other in the New Testament, it’s quoted twenty four times. It is traditionally read on Psalm Sunday or Good Friday. But to fully understand it and its answer to the question of evil, we need to see it first in its original context. That it is a Psalm that picks up both the suffering and the faith of a person a few thousand years before Christ.
Psalm 22 is the lament of a person facing, suffering and oppression. He faces Physical suffering; He uses vivid imagery of joints torn, his strength drying up, dehydration. His pain is such that he uses the image of the worst punishment he has seen his enemies use nailing people by the feet and hands, to express how he feels.
He suffers on a psychological level. He is made to feel sub human by the taunts and scorn of his enemies, as they mock him and call out “Where is your God now?” One of the things this psalm does is that it not only acknowledges the way in which the victims of oppression and opposition are made to feel subhuman, but that oppression and evil dehumanises those who do the oppressing, his enemies are portrayed as raging cattle out of control. Bashan was the Waikato of the ancient near east, and the cattle there were the biggest and best. Maybe today we’d use the idea of the ‘fat cats’, people who abuse wealth and power. He calls them Lions and Dogs, Dogs for the Jews were not the pets we might thing of today, but the mongrels that roamed the streets and feed off the scrapes. He says they don’t even wait for him to die before they start fighting over the cloths off his back.
He suffers spiritually as well. He finds himself in that place of disorientation, Where is the God who had saved Israel in the past? Where now is the God who had been with him and kept him from his mother’s womb? At this time of greatest need it seems God has gone on vacation.
But this suffering does not drive him away from God, but rather he realises that despite his suffering, That God is good, that God is worthy of praise, that God has answered his lament. That because of who God is that there will be justice and righteousness in the world. The poor, the widows, orphans, strangers, destitute will be cared for. That evil will be overcome by good. This is not a song of despair but of the power of hope and trust. It speaks in to the darkness of the light of the coming of God’s kingdom and God reign. That is what makes it a Psalm for people of hope down through the ages.
“Where is God when it hurts?” Psalm 22 gives us an answer. That in Jesus Christ God himself stepped into the worst of our human suffering, he took it upon himself. Psalm 22 is seen as being prophetic, that it pointed to Christ’s death and resurrection. So much of the language used in this Psalm relates to Jesus experience on the cross. Jesus experienced the Physical suffering, the words used in this psalm fit totally with that most brutal of deaths, crucifixion. The loss of strength, joints being forced out of place, the nailing of hands and feet, the exertion bringing hydration, one of Jesus words on the cross, ”I Thirst” The certainty of death shown in that once on the cross the guards divided up his clothing. They drew lots for the only thing worth having his outer cloak.
Jesus experienced the depth of phycological suffering. Part of the crucifixion process was to dehumanise and humiliate the enemies of the roman state. They were put on display to show the futility of resisting the power of Rome. Like the mantra of the Borg in the star trek universe ‘resistance is futile’ you will assimilated. . Jesus experienced the taunts and abuse, what made it worse was that it came from the very people he had come to save. He experienced injustice, political expediency, indifference.
But also that Jesus shared the depth of our spiritual suffering; he experienced the feeling of the absence of the presence of God. Jesus who had said ‘I and the Father are one”, now cries out ‘My God, My God why have you abandoned me”.
Where is God when it hurts? The answer is the cross, that In Christ God stepped into our suffering and took it on himself. Where is God when it hurts? I have vivid memories of a councillor coming to a course I was on and sharing the story of a young women she was counselling. The Girl was a Christian and she had been sexually abused, raped, and like we saw in Lamentations last week her cry was well where was God when this was happening to me?? The councillor said that she invited the girl to ask that question of God and as they prayed the Girl relived her experience, which of course she did as nightmares every night. This time however she looked over and there was Christ on the cross on the bed next to her. AS she looked into his face she knew He shared her pain, her shame, he took it on himself.
If the story ends at the cross, then what good is that. The reality is that Jesus not only shares the suffering of Psalm 22 he epitomizes the faith in God of Psalm 22 a faith that is willing to trust in God and his plans and purposes and his righteousness even to the point of death. To trust in God’s salvation even if it means he has to die. To die alone. You see for a Jewish man to quote the first line of a psalm was short hand for quoting the whole of the Psalm. It was that statement of suffering and lament and also trust in the power of God. In his death Jesus took that suffering that evil, our sin on himself and he defeated it. He took it to the grave. In his death it is defeated, sins penalty has been paid, it has been faced endured and been broken. In its place with the resurrection there is the hope of new life, new creation. Psalm 22’s vision of the righteousness of God having sway in the end becomes a reality. “It is finished”.
Yet, let’s be real, the question of evil, suffering and sorrow, oppression and brutality, have not gone away. Have they, thats why it is the question that will not go away. I read a lot of military history, I don’t know why, it just fascinates me somehow. Often in conflicts there is a decisive battle, a victory that turns the tide, and after that the enemy is defeated, but the fighting is hardest after that, often the retreat is the bloodiest and most vicious. And we live in the tension between the already, God’s Kingdom has come, and the not yet, we await its final consummation. We live in that tension, Psalm 22 expresses that tension very well … my God, God Why have you forsaken me… and He has done it!.
One of the things Jesus did was to form a new community, a new people, who would live in the new reality of the Kingdom of God. Who would live out the goodness of God in how they treated each other and the world around them… Part of the answer to ‘where is God when it hurts?’ is that he is there, in the pain in the suffering and he invites us to go and find him and bring his light and his hope.
Where is God when it hurts? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an amazing influential book on Christian discipleship, based on the Sermon on the Mount, he found the reality of what it cost to live that out and the power of love and compassion, in a Nazi prison. God is present when a woman refuses to move on a segregated bus, a man stands on the steps of the most powerful nation the world has ever seen and dares to voice an alternative dream, to call them back to their Christian understanding of humanity. He’s there in the story behind graffiti on our walls where a young police officer stops to pray for a woman with mental illness and invites her to church. He is there when a meal and a prayer are given to a family facing the death of a loved one. He is there in a Dutch lady who had lost family in concentration camps fulfils a vision of caring for the very people who persecuted her, now homeless and destitute themselves . He is there when people can dream and see a better future “ and work to make poverty history”. He is there in small groups of people going into prisons with love and compassion. He is there in a hand that helps someone in trouble in the street. He is there, the berlin wall comes down and the oppressive structures in the east admit they were ready for violence and uprising but hey were not ready for prayers and candles. He is there is prayers offered for healing and wholeness. In sharing the hope we have found. People trafficking and slave labour have been bought to our attention again this week, and God is there when people are willing to dedicate their lives to freeing women from such abuse and giving them a new start. He is there when a man steps in to stop a brutal assault on women he does not even, even when it costs him his life. The kingdom of God breaks into our world. The light of Christ shines in the darkness.