On the 26th of January this year, the UK commemorated passing 100,000 deaths in that country from COVID. A huge number and a stark chilling reality. As part of their coverage on that day the BBC interviewed the Arch Bishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. They asked him how to grieve for such a large number of people and where he finds hope. The interviewer then asked what Welby would say to people who asked the question “where was God in the midst of all this?”. Which is a question I’ve often hear from people in the face of suffering and tragedy. Welby, was silent for a while then said we should be wary of people who offer a snappy answer to that question. There were no easy answers. He spoke of wrestling with that himself when his daughter had died in a car crash. Feeling cut off from God, angry at heaven that such a thing could happen. Of praying with other people in similar situations who wrestled with the same question. Of the fact that the psalms are full of God’s people wrestling with that same sense of God’s absence. He offered two thoughts, the first was that while it was not easy what Got him through the grief of his daughter’s death was ironically the fact that God was with them, an abiding awareness of God’s presence and the other was that in Jesus God himself stepped into the midst of our pain and sorrow, suffering alongside us and for us. And that brings us to the passage we are looking at this morning Jesus cry from the cross in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel ‘my God, My God why have you forsaken me’. Here is Jesus who had said ‘I and the father are One’ now calling out in the most horrific of circumstances, what is that most human of prayers, what is known as the cry of desolation ‘my God, my God why have you abandoned me’. Where are you God?
Leading into Easter this year we are working our way through Jesus sayings on the cross. The series is called ‘New life in Dying words’. This is the fourth in that series. Each of these sayings has something important and significant to say about Jesus. Each of them speaks to what is at the heart of God, what is at the heart of the gospel, what is happening on the cross, and the very heart of the human condition. Before we get to that exploration I want to make a couple of introductory remarks.
The first is that there are only three times that Jesus words are recorded in the gospels in Aramaic. Aramaic was the language that Jesus would have spoken in everyday life. The gospel are written in koina greek which was the common trade language of the first century, A bit like English in our day. The three instances are Talitha koum which means ‘little girl, I say to you get up’ when he raises a young girl from the dead in Mark 5:21-23. You can imagine that occurrence and those words being etched in the disciple’s memory. ‘ abba, father’ in Jesus prayer in the garden of gethsemane, abba is the Aramaic word like our dad, or even the dada of a small child, running towards their father with arms outstretched. It denotes even as Jesus is wrestling with his coming crucifixion an intimacy of relationship with God the father. The third is here at the Cross when Jesus cries out ‘Eli Eli lema Sabachthani? “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ that’s etched in the minds of the people at the cross because of the anguish. Because it is so out of character for Jesus, who even in the garden used the intimate Abba… Often people will question the validity of the gospel narratives seeing them being written many year later, but when you hear those words in Aramaic it opens the door to the accounts recorded in the gospel coming from eyewitnesses, people who were there. It is a clue, one of many, to the reliability of the gospels.
The second thing is that as you may have guessed from our call to worship and Old Testament reading this morning, Jesus was quoting the first line of Psalm 22. A psalm which when you read it talks of much of the suffering Jesus was going through and while it starts with that cry of desolation it finishes with a sense of hope and trust in God… HE has done it… which is echoed in Jesus saying on the cross in John’s gospel… it is finished. Jesus as a Jewish man would have grown up singing and learning the psalms by heart. When we find ourselves in times of great anguish and suffering and pain, the stuff we have remembered comes to mind. It is why even secular people want the Lord is my shepherd, the 23rd psalm at funerals and people will say the Lord’s Prayer as they face or in the wake of difficult times. You may remember the crowds in the street at Princess Diane’s funeral all joining in with the Lord ’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven echoing round the crowded streets of London. For a Jewish man saying the first line of a psalm was like shorthand for saying the whole thing. Jesus feels the desolation but still has that hope.
So let’s have a look at ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me.’
Here at the Cross, Jesus who had been betrayed by a close and trusted friend, suffered injustice in courts, been rejected by his people, tortured, brutally nailed to that cross, and mocked on all sides, abandoned by his disciples, feels that abandonment that deep aloneness. Feels as if God has turned away. It is unthinkable but Christ who called God Abba which means father and who had said I and the father are one now faces feeling separated from God. Jesus identifies fully with the emotional and spiritual side of human suffering. You catch some of the distance in the word Eli which is a formal address for God, rather than abba or father.
We find it hard to hear because we wonder if it means that Jesus despaired and lost all trust in God. The first thing we need to realise is that this saying is first and foremost still a prayer. The Jewish bystanders understood that, they believed that he was crying out for Elijah to come and save him… Elijah in Jewish thought was the one who would come to redeem his people…so they waited to see if he would. Its implication is that despite a lack of presence there is still that trust and faith in God. Still the trust that Jesus had shown in the garden of gethsemane when he prayed Father not my will but yours be done. It is still a prayer of trust because of the context of Psalm 22, which finishes with hope.
When we look to the cross we can focus on the violence and physical suffering of crucifixion. But here it opens the window on the depth of the spiritual and physiological suffering as well. Often people will wonder about the goodness of God who would allow his son to suffer, but in the cry of My God, My God why have you forsaken me’ we get a sense that not only does Jesus suffer, but in fact God the father suffers as well. The trinity that community of love at the heart of our understanding of God, where the only way to describe God is one endures that sense of separateness, as the whole of the Godhead works to make it possible for us to be bought back into relationship. It shows not only the depth of God’s identification with our human suffering, it shows the depth of God’s love for us, willing to endure the pain and sense of isolation and separation to bring us back into relationship, that we too could become children of God and know God initially as our abba, our heavenly parent.
My God My God why have you forsaken me also offers us a way of looking at what is happening at the cross as well. If we are talking in terms of ways of understanding the cross, what we call theories of the atonement, we might talk about the fact that as Jesus had prayed father forgive them they know not what they do. Which we looked at in the first of our talks in this series, that God answers that Prayer by laying our wrongdoing on Jesus. Which means that Jesus also experiences the separation from God because God is holy and righteous and cannot abide with sin. By doing that and dying in our place he pays the price for what we have done wrong and in return offers his righteousness to us.
But My God My God why have you forsaken me also speaks to the very heart of the human condition.
As we said before it is very much a human prayer. It is very much a human response to issues of trouble and suffering, on a personal and societal scale. Feeling that absence of God. Wondering where are you God. By using it here Jesus opens the possibility for us to see that having those feelings and experiencing that absence does not mean we stop trusting or having faith. Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggermann, talks of seeing three types of psalm in the book of psalms. Psalms of orientation where everything is going along as it should, what we might call the happy clappy songs. Full of joy and aware of God’s presence and goodness. Another is what Breuggermann says are psalms of disorientation, where it feels as if you’ve gone to the beach and been caught in a large set of waves, picked up and spun round and round and dumped hard and you don’t know which was is up. You know there are times like that, and the disorientation makes you feel separate from God, you only have time to gasp for air before the next wave crashes down on you. The third category of paslms Brueggermann calls psalms of reorientation, where the problem and suffering may not have gone away but despite the feelings of abandonment, the psalmist has come to a place of quite trust in God. Jesus on the cross shows us that example of faith amidst the turmoil of life. Spoiler alert we will see it come through it several other saying… It is Finsihed… into your hands do I commend my spirit.
The second thing it says to us is that in those times of darkness and difficulty we can bring our prayers to God, knowing that we bring them to someone who has experienced the depth of human pain and suffering who understands and identifies with that sense of desolation. It may sound a bit flippant to say it, but it is profoundly helpful in the depths to realise that our God knows where we are, because Jesus has been there. As Adam Hamilton puts it in his book final words “we remember that the one to whom we pray in our darkest hour knew firsthand the feelings of hopelessness, doubt, and despair.’ We remember that his cry of why came from a psalm that points towards God’s ultimate deliverance.
Finally, Jesus example of being willing to identify with our suffering invites us to follow him into places where we risk knowing and feeling the abandonment of God. To go with faith that Jesus in those situations with us can lead to his resurrection presence and kingdom change. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a german pastor, theologian and writer in the 1930’s. His book the cost of discipleship was a best seller, and still is very popular today. Bonhoeffer was doing a speaking tour of America just before the Second World War, and people were receiving news that Hitler had started to crack down on protestant churches who were prepared to speak against his regime and its excesses. The Americans who had sponsored Bonhoeffers speaking tour exhorted him to stay in America. But Bonhoeffer refused, his critic of the American church was that it was not prepared to face suffering. He went back to Germany, where he was censured, eventually imprisoned and final executed just weeks before the end of the war. His letters from prison speak of the fact that even in that difficult place, as he cared for his fellow prisoners and even his guards and those who were mistreating him, allowed him to understand Jesus teaching more fully, he was aware of brining Jesus light into that dark place.
Arch Bishop Welby’s words in that BBC interview could have come across as distance and while well-meaning rather hollow. Except in the same interview he spoke of not having privileged position during the pandemic, but rather that he chose to work as an assistant chaplain in a hospital. He spoke of sitting and holding the hand of a woman as she died of COVID. Of praying with a mother of a premature baby in the same hospital deeply anxious about her child’s safety. That may sound heroic, and maybe you think I’ve go a bit of a clergy crush on Justin welby, but he would deflect being sen as a hero… He said the hope he had in the face of the pandemic was not only, not surprisingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but things like the courage and compassion of the medical team the prayed with at the start of their shift. The concern and care of people for one another and a desire and determination to see the medical system become more just in the wake of COVID rising in the community. The My God My God why have you forsaken me was answered through Christs presence with ordinary people as they stepped in a served in the dark places, that could easily feel abandoned by God.
‘My God My God why have you forsaken me ‘ Christ identifies with the depth of our pain and suffering, our doubt and questioning, that sense of desolation.
My God My God why have you forsaken me’ God suffers that sense of abandonment so we maybe bought back into relationship
My God, My God why have you forsaken me’ We have a God who understands and has been there when we pray from our dark places.
My God my God why have you abandoned me?’ Jesus invites us to follow him into those places, with trust in the resurrection hope.