My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let them deliver – let them rescue the one in whom he delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends. We, like they, broke bread together and shared a cup in order to remember what Jesus did.
And while we were together we talked a lot about memory – What stories do we hold on to – What stories do we want to forget?
Part of our memories, what makes them such, is our ability to have something memorized. Think, for instance, of a beloved story you like to tell, or even one you like to hear. Think about a favorite song or movie. Can you remember the words? Can you repeat them just like the singer or the actor? We memorize that which is valuable and important to us. We internalize particular words or phrases from those whom we love and we cherish the memories they become.
I have memorized many anecdotes from my family. I could stand here tonight and fill the evening with hilarious stories from just one of my grandmothers, and come back tomorrow and do it again without repeating anything twice. Those stories are important to me, and because they are part of my family’s history, they are all the more important. Such that at any given moment, should it be required, I can pull the avenues of the narrative to the surface, and I could share the story.
During the time of Jesus life, people had profound memories of well. Some things, regardless of the sands of time remain the same. Get people together today, or 2000 years ago, for a meal and the stories start to flow. But there was a level of memory present during the time of Jesus that has all but disappeared these days.
Jesus, and his contemporaries, knew the scriptures.
And when I say they knew them, I don’t mean they could open up a bible and find the book of Malachi, or they could list of the books of the bible in order at any given notice. No, they had scriptures memorized.
As a young Jew around the first century Jesus, like many others, would pray the psalms out loud once a week. All of them. From 1 to 150. The psalms were the spoken word of the people, they were on their hearts, minds, and lips, all day long. Praying through the psalms was as natural to them as watching bad sitcoms are to us. It was part of their collective identity.
Such that when Jesus was hung on a cross to die, his final words were these: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is difficult and challenging to contemplate our Lord saying those words from the cross. We might be a little more comfortable with John’s story (It is finished) or even Luke’s version (Into thy hands I commit my spirit). But according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ final earthly words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
When I need to offer a grieving family a hopeful word, I often turn to Psalm 23, that beloved collection of verses that some of us have memorized. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. They are comforting words. But rarely, if ever, have I pulled out Psalm 22.
It’s difficult just to get past the first verse. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We are pulled to the cross, to the torment and to the agony of Jesus yelling out into the void moments before his death.
Jesus suffers. It is both disconnected and disconnecting. In suffering on the cross he was made completely alone. Entirely and utterly alone. In this moment we are welcomed into the divine in a way not parsed out in other places of the bible. Here on the cross, in the cry of dereliction we experience the duality of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, we experience the abyss of fear and the hope of things unseen, we confront the elect and the reject.
And yet here, on the cross, with his final moments, Jesus turned to prayer. Not a final sermon on the marks of a faithful life, not a moment of divine healing. Jesus prays.
Prayer corresponds with experience. It is the way we process the moment we are in with something larger and more enduring. Prayer is what enables us to scale the impossible mountains of torment that threaten to close us off from all we have known, and prayer is what enables us to see the truth of our lives in terms of what has gone before and what is yet to come.
Of all the things we do as disciples, worshipping the crucified Jesus is possibly the strangest. It is only something we can do through the power of prayer. It is also why tonight’s worship is usually the least attended of all the worship services in a year. Tonight we glorify the Son of God who was degraded by his fellow human being as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state. We worship the one who died in a way designed to subject him to utter shame and to be erased from human memory.
It is a story realer than real. It cannot be spiritualized away, nor can it be fully comprehended by we finite people. The climax of the gospel takes place in the midst of political and economic life, it is shocking and violent, it threatens the prevailing authorities, and it results in people two millennia later worshipping God nailed to a cross.
There is a paradox in our worship tonight, a paradox as difficult as Jesus’ final words. The paradox is that the generosity of God means the crucifixion of the Son. In Him both the godly and the ungodly are justified.
According to the strange and mysterious wisdom of God, it is in the crucified death of Jesus that all of the cosmos is altered (and altar-ed). This death makes our lives possible. This death is what makes the Christian experience intelligible. This death is at the heart of who God is.
If you’re anything like me, you’re eager to jump to Easter. Enough with the crucifixion! Give me resurrection! But you can’t have one without the other.
We cannot ignore the challenging words of Jesus from the cross. We cannot imagine away, or explain away, the overwhelmingly jarring nature of the Son of God crying out to the Father in fear.
But of course, that’s not where the Psalm ends.
Psalm 22 contains what it possibly the greatest “yet” in scripture… “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”
On that “Yet” hangs both the Old and New Testament. In that “Yet” we confront the true paradox of the crucifixion: that Jesus is both elected and rejected, that he knows sorrow and hope, that he dies and will rise again.
Jesus knew the power of “yet.”
But we must wait for Easter. We have to take the terrible time to sit in the shadow of the cross, to see in this first century man all the fullness of God, to recognize our sin in him nailed to the tree.
Good Friday, unlike just about anything else we do as a church, cannot be tied up neatly in a bow. We can’t fast-forward to Sunday morning. We, like the disciples in the distance, have to look at our Lord on the cross and wait. We have to wait for God to do a new thing. We have to recognize that this is what God did for us, and not the other way around.
We will leave this place tonight under the cover of darkness. And yet… Jesus is the light of the world.
The words of our prayers and hymns will fall silent. And yet… God cannot be silenced.
The shadow will feel darker than ever. And yet…