Friday: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is the cry of Jesus from the Cross.
He is broken, abandoned, devoid of any and all hope or strength.
He is at the farthest extreme of his ability to withstand suffering, his mind and body tormented almost beyond what he can bear.
And worst of all, he can no longer feel the loving presence of his Father that has sustained him for his thirty-three years on this earth.
But the remarkable thing is that he is not the first person to have spoken these words from the valley of the shadow of death.
Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22.
The psalmist cried out from his own suffering, uncounted generations before Jesus arrived on earth, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This imbues Jesus’ voice from the Cross with even deeper significance.
These words are the cry of his tradition, the cry of his people, and also the cry of his barren heart.
All to whom he sought to give himself have deserted him, until finally he cannot even feel the Father.
This was no doubt the most wretched and almost involuntary cry of the human side of Jesus, truly feeling like he was alone and God had forsaken him.
But consider what Jesus in his divinity might also have been doing purposefully.
These words are verse 1 of Psalm 22. The Jews gathered around the Cross, Mary, John, and the others, would have known the verses that followed.
In fact, those verses would have leapt immediately to their minds.
And Peter and the others who had run away would no doubt hear the story later, that Jesus said these words from the Cross moments before his death.
What if these words were, along with the truthful convulsion of his spirit in pain, also a message from Jesus to his followers, and thereby to us?
What would we be led to understand if we followed Jesus to Psalm 22, not just the first verse but the entire text?
It turns out that this understanding takes us on a journey through Jesus’ life and ministry all the way up to the Cross and beyond, and helps us see inside his mind as he reflected on the great work of his life and death.
Remember that this text is used for the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday, and also as the main psalm on Good Friday.
Christian worshippers recognized from very early on that not only did Psalm 22 hold a central role in understanding the crucifixion itself, it has deep resonances for the broad sweep of salvation history.
But perhaps most of all, it brings us close to the broken and beating heart of Jesus as he gives his life for the world.
The journey begins in verse 9 of the psalm: “Yet you are he who took me out of the womb, and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast.”
This takes us all the way back to the Nativity, to the miraculous story of Jesus’ birth to his mother Mary.
Even as a baby, people sought his life, wanted to kill him. Herod murdered hundreds of children in the Slaughter of the Innocents in hopes of sweeping up Jesus in the murderous spree.
But as the verse says, Jesus was kept safe upon his mother’s breast. He had refuge from the violence ranged against him.
That is no longer the case. The vicious rage and envy that have stalked him his entire life have finally caught up with him and sealed his death warrant.
I will declare your Name to my brethren;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
Praise the Lord, you that fear him;
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.
For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them;
but when they cry to him he hears them.
My praise is of him in the great assembly;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
In these verses we have the summing up of Jesus’ entire mission on Earth.
He begins with declaring God’s name to the congregation, when he opens the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue. He proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, and says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Then his work continues for three years, bringing hope to the poor, ministering to their needs, offering healing and teaching to the multitudes.
And here, at the end of his life, he is performing his vows in front of the great assembly.
He bravely walks to his death, because he has given his word to see this through.
On Palm Sunday, a short week ago, things still looked bright. The gathered crowds hailed Jesus as their king.
They shouted “Hosanna!” and waved palm branches:
You are the Holy One,
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
So many people pinned their hopes on Jesus on that day, believing that he would be the military and political leader they had dreamed of.
They were disappointed that Jesus did not lead an army to defeat Rome.
Little did they know that he was bringing deliverance to the whole world, and it was on a much grander scale than the government of one nation-state.
By the time we reach Maundy Thursday, all the glory of Palm Sunday has faded away.
Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, gives them his Body and Blood in the Last Supper, and mourns as again incomprehension paints their faces with confusion.
Then when he asks them to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, they fall asleep. We hear Jesus’ voice in the psalm:
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.
Thursday night is possibly the longest and most anguished night of Jesus’ life.
He is battling fear, reluctance, anger, dread, worrying that he will not be able to summon the strength to see his work through to the end, to his own death.
He cries out to God, asking if it be possible for this cup to pass him by, but in the silence, surrenders his will to the Father.
He cried by night, but found no rest, and his wrestling with himself in the Garden ends as he is taken away in chains.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
Many young bulls encircle me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me.
They open wide their jaws at me,
like a ravening and a roaring lion.
He is arrested and bound, and those seeking his death close in.
Shuttled from pillar to post, bounced from Herod to Pilate and all around the city, everyone from sophisticated political plotters at the top to the howling mob in the streets surround and savor his shaming and condemnation.
Then the mockery begins. From the Garden of Gethsemane all the way to the Via Dolorosa, the long walk to Calvary, the anger is blended with derision, violent words mixed with violent deeds.
But as for me, I am a worm and no man,
scorned by all and despised by the people.
All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him.”
Then he is nailed to the Cross. The deepest part of his suffering begins.
I am poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint;
my heart within my breast is melting wax.
My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.
Packs of dogs close me in,
and gangs of evildoers circle around me;
they pierce my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them;
they cast lots for my clothing.
The description of the psalmist happens to Jesus almost word for word.
His hands and feet are pierced as he is nailed to the Cross.
His body strains and stretches on the Cross, his joints weakening until he can no longer support his own weight. Oxygen deprivation and heart failure follow.
But before that happens, three long hours in which his desperate thirst grows, mouth dried out like a pot-sherd, until he voices it: “I thirst.”
The packs of dogs and gangs of evildoers gather, casting lots and dividing his clothing. And he is pierced a final time by the soldier’s spear.
And yet it is a soldier, a centurion, alone among those gathered, who recognizes the truth of what is happening.
“Truly this man was the Son of God!” he exclaims.
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord
And all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We have reached the point in the events of that day when Jesus speaks the opening words of Psalm 22.
And in two of the gospel accounts, they are the last words he speaks.
And even then Jesus’ work is not completed.
To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship,
All who go down to the dust fall before him.
In Christian doctrine, Jesus “descends to the dead,” as the Creeds phrase it. He goes to those who have died and leads them to heaven—this is called the Harrowing of Hell.
It is remarkable to remember that after his bitter ordeal, he does not rest, but goes on giving of himself and leading people to grace and hope.
In verse 29 of Psalm 22, we have the linchpin and the counterpoint to verse 1, which was the lament of being forsaken by God.
It is a short verse, but takes the psalm on an entirely unexpected trajectory:
My soul shall live for him.
This is a statement of radiant faith and hope, after a record of unimaginable suffering.
This is the hope of the resurrection, hope that Jesus takes with him through the entirety of Holy Week until his body finally gives out on the Cross.
And the heartbreakingly beautiful realization we have is that as the psalmist had no guarantee that his hope would be borne out, neither did Jesus.
This is remarkable—it is praise before deliverance.
There is no confirmation of rescue, only faith that redemption will come.
Jesus flung himself onto the pyre for us, gave himself to suffering and death with no safeguards and no proof that he would be raised up on the third day.
All he had was his faith that the Father would not abandon him, and at the end, he was deprived even of that.
And yet in the deepest center of his heart, his love was true.
My soul shall live for him.
Jesus would live again, and he would do it for us.
The psalm concludes with these words:
My descendants shall serve him;
they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn
the saving deeds that he has done.
This is where we come into the psalm and into the story, into the Crucifixion and into the Resurrection.
We are the descendants of Jesus, grafted into his family by baptism, belonging to the Lord forever.
And it is our job to make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.
This story that has animated us, that has harrowed us, that has convicted us and called us through our own despair to new life, does not belong to us alone.
We inherited it from our forebears, and it is our responsibility to carry it forward to the next generation and beyond.
Jesus cries out from the Cross, feeling abandoned and forsaken.
We must do anything and everything we can so that he does not feel forsaken by us.
We will fail, over and over and over, but we will return to faith, over and over and over.
That is all he ever asked of us—to receive his love and be changed by it.
These are the two truths of the Cross—despair and promise.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cries out, and our hearts break to hear him.
But that one sentence says more that we realize.
It calls us to hear the rest of Psalm 22 within it, and we now know where it leads and where it ends: “My soul shall live for him.”
From the Cross, those words were true for Jesus.
Because of the Cross, those words are true for us.
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