What’s one of the first things we’re likely to do when everything goes wrong and God appears to be absent? Many people will want to know why. Why is this happening? Why is it that God seems to be absent or not answering? We want some understanding of why things are happening as they are. Even Jesus wasn’t unfamiliar with that, as he also asked the ‘Why?’ question: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The words come directly from Psalm 22:
Psalm 22:1 (NRSV) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
How would it ever be possible to plumb the depths of those words? I feel similarly to how I felt with the word of forgiveness: rather than make comment from a distance, perhaps the best thing again is to be silent before the cross and allow those words to do their work in us.
Setting the Scene
The last two words of Jesus we considered gave us insight into what was happening at the time.
- We saw how it would most likely have been a typical middle eastern scene where there would have been a lot of noise, dust and general milling around.
- Passers-by, religious leaders and soldiers were hurling mocking insults and taunts at Jesus.
- At some point 5 particular people were standing before the cross, including Jesus’ mother.
According to the gospels, the crucifixions began at 9 o’clock in the morning. Matthew tells us that darkness covered the land from 12 noon until 3 pm . Let’s assume the darkness was total, as opposed to something like twilight, so it would have been completely dark as there would have been no ambient light from street lights. Try to imagine what it would have been like for the day to go dark at midday. Imagine if that happened here and now. I gather there was no eclipse at the time and, even if there was, people wouldn’t have understood what was happening. They most likely would have seen the darkness as some sort of sign that something significant was happening. It must have totally freaked them out and made them quite jittery. According to Matthew, Jesus spoke these words at the end of the darkness—that seems to me quite appropriate given the dark nature of the words.
I have two questions of these words of Jesus:
- In what way was he forsaken?
- Why did he ask ‘Why?’
In What Way Was He Forsaken?
Jesus obviously experienced something to make him cry out what he did. But in what way was he forsaken?
You will probably be familiar with the Footprints poem. Did Jesus experience that form of forsakenness i.e. God didn’t really forsake him, it just felt as though he had? God was really carrying him through that time. That view doesn’t do justice to what was really happening.
What, then, do these words mean?
I suggest that we will never grasp their full meaning until we see that Jesus was truly forsaken by God. In that black moment on the cross, God the Father turned his back on God the Son. It was, as Martin Luther said, God forsaking God. True, we will never plumb the depths of that statement, but anything less does not do justice to Jesus’ words.The word “forsaken” is very strong. It means to abandon, to desert, to disown, to turn away from, to utterly forsake. Please understand. When Jesus said, “Why have you forsaken me?” it was not simply because he felt forsaken; he said it because he was forsaken. Literally, truly and actually God the Father abandoned his own Son. Ray Pritchard http://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/the-forsaken-christ/
This is a mystery. If God is a trinity of persons, how can he forsake himself? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that nothing less is sufficient.
At that very point the weight of all the evil in the world fell upon Jesus. At that point he became sin for us, giving his life as a ransom.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NRSV) 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Matthew 20:28 (NRSV) 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
It was the cloud of that sin and evil that came between him and the Father and he knew what it was to be forsaken.
When God looked down and saw his Son bearing the sin of the world, he didn’t see his Son, he saw instead the sin that he was bearing. And in that awful moment, the Father turned away. Not in anger at his Son. No, he loved his Son as much at that moment as he ever had. He turned away in anger over all the sin of the world that sent his Son to the cross. He turned away in sorrow and deepest pain when he saw what sin had done. He turned away in complete revulsion at the ugliness of sin.When he did that, Jesus was alone. Completely forsaken. God-forsaken. Abandoned. Deserted. Disowned.
Jesus went from referring to his Father in the first word he said on the cross, to referring to his Father in the more impersonal term ‘God.’ But we also note the last word he said was, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
What happened when Jesus asked his question? Nothing. The gospels record occasions when God spoke from the heavens and strongly affirmed his Son and his ministry.
Surely, if there was ever an occasion to affirm, to offer hope or to intervene in some way, it was then. Absolute and total silence. In fact, as far as we know, Jesus heard nothing from his Father while he was on the cross.
Left to fend for himself.
The agonising uncertainty of silence.
Why Did Jesus Ask Why?
But why did Jesus ask ‘Why?’ He could equally have made a statement—God, you have abandoned me—but he made it a question. When we ask the same why question, it usually reflects a desire for some degree of control—I could handle this a whole lot better if I knew why it was happening. But why did Jesus ask why?
Here’s my speculation, and I don’t even know if I agree with myself! There’s an implication in his asking: he didn't know it was coming. We tend to think that because Jesus was God, he knew every finite detail of what was in his future. But what if he really was like us, and didn't? What if he didn't know being forsaken was coming? I've often said I'd love to know what the future holds. But I've equally said if I did know I'd probably freak out so it's actually better not to know. We can't begin to comprehend what it must have been like for the Son to be abandoned by the very one in whom he placed 100% of his trust and from whom he'd never been separated. So what if somehow God kept that actual part from Jesus in order to protect him for a time from the full weight of what was coming? Herein lies a mystery.
We may have cried out to God in pain, just as Jesus did. And we have possibly received the same answer: silence. We may never find an answer to the why question, but even in our feeling forsaken we can hang on to the God who is there.
Somewhere I read the story of a father whose son was killed in a tragic accident. In grief and enormous anger, he visited his pastor and poured out his heart. He said, “Where was God when my son died?” The pastor paused for a moment, and with great wisdom replied, “The same place he was when his Son died.”