Friday, April 3, 2015

The Fourth Word from the Cross: A Good Friday Message

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?", which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"     (Mark 15:33-34)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23). Three hours into the shadows of dread that cloak the earth, Jesus gives voice in this fateful moment – I think the darkest instant in the life of God from everlasting to everlasting – to how true he found that message. Having “drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath”, having drained “to the dregs the bowl of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17), having been denied for it to leave his hands (Isaiah 51:22; Matthew 26:39), now the curse of wrath reaches critical mass upon the tree. Yet for the Gospel of Mark, this point is the climax of how Jesus reveals himself; the baptism and the transfiguration lead up to this moment, this outburst.

Because Mark tells us the story of the passion by saturating it with the psalms of lament, it's no surprise to find the opening words of Psalm 22 on Jesus' lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; cf. Psalm 22:1). The lament psalms usually beg God not to forsake us in the future; it's the worst fate the psalmist can think of. But here, Jesus takes up the psalmist's place at the lowest of the lows, not just feeling forsaken but experiencing it as a reality. The same God who proved himself trustworthy to generations (Psalm 22:4), the same God who spoke from heaven and empowered miraculous deliverance, now looks and feels like a no-show.

My God, my God, why leav'st thou me,
    when I with anguish faint?
O why so far from me remov'd,
    and from my loud complaint?
All day, but all the day unheard,
    to thee do I complain;
With cries implore relief all night,
    but cry all night in vain....
My strength, like potter's earth, is parch'd,
    my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
And to the silent shades of death
    my fainting soul withdraws.
(Brady and Tate 1698:29, 31)

In quoting this psalm, Jesus wants us to know he's stepping into our shoes in our darkest moments, the moments when we lose sight of even the smallest joys. He knows what it's like; God knows what it's like. Maybe you've watched a loved one waste away – early, too early, unnaturally early – and you've fallen on your knees through sleepless nights, pleading with God, imploring him to heal. Maybe you've lost your job, your pension, your security; maybe you're at wit's end to make ends meet; maybe everything's out of your hands. Maybe you've been consumed by self-loathing and self-doubt, wondering why the world's stacked against you, wondering why God doesn't tip the scales in your favor. Maybe you've invested all your hopes and dreams into that last-ditch prayer and felt shattered in the end, like a sword's pierced your very heart, like your world's a snow globe rolling off a cliff and the screams of your descent fall on deaf ears. And maybe, as the pieces scatter out of your reach, as the universe spins out of control, you've felt these words like never before: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe you've cried out by day without an answer, maybe you've called out in the night and found no rest (Psalm 22:2). Maybe you've felt like no grief was ever like yours. But Jesus on the cross means that God knows how it feels. No grief was ever like his.

Or maybe you feel spiritually bankrupt. Maybe you're lost in the dark, numb to the world, crying out in desolation and desperation and despair. You think, “If I could just see a spark through the clouds, if I can only know that there's a light beyond the abyss of my heart, I can go on living.” And you pray and pray 'til you're blue in the face, searching for hope despite the nauseating cold inside, groping blindly for a lifeline when you're convinced you're as good as dead, begging for even mustard-seed faith when doubts and disbelief gnaw your soul to tatters – and the minutes and hours tick by, and days lapse into weeks or months or years, and heaven is silent as death. And you cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” I've been there. But most important of all, Jesus on the cross means that God himself has been in those shoes; he's felt as we've felt at our lowest. God understands depression, God understands loneliness, God understands helplessness, God understands despair, God understands desperation. He's stepped into our shoes at the lowest place they've ever fallen. God knows what it's like to be God-forsaken. He asks our questions, he voices our doubts and burdens, by standing with us in the depths. “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Psalm 97:2).

That's the curious thing about the gospel. God feeling God-forsaken. The king, lifted up on a throne to rule – but the crown is sharp and bloody, and the throne looks like shame and blood. He belongs at the Father's right hand, aglow with power and glory; and the cross doesn't contradict that, the cross inaugurates it. For this God, the real God, the only God worth calling 'God', to start ruling is to suffer pain and shame and abandonment; it is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the downtrodden and the outcasts, with the broken-hearted whom he came to bind up (Psalm 147:3). When God becomes flesh, it's to be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). There's the beauty of the gospel. Jesus suffered pain, he suffered shame, he suffered abandonment – not to abolish them for his people, but to redeem them into a way of hope. How can the persecuted be called 'blessed' (Matthew 5:10-12)? How can it be that “if you suffer for doing what's right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:14)? Because Jesus was persecuted, and in the midst of persecution, we can choose to grow closer to him through that persecution. And if we're drawn close to our Lord, then that's a blessing greater than all the harm persecution can do. As the Christian philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams writes about suffering, and especially the final suffering of martyrdom:

God in Christ turns martyrdom into an opportunity for intimacy and identification with him. … The more the believer loves his Lord, the more he wants to know what it was like for him, what it is like to be him. The cross of Christ permits the martyr to find in his deepest agonies and future death a sure access to Christ's experience. … Moreover, as the believer enters into the love of Christ and shares his love for the world, he will be able to appreciate his own suffering as a welcome key into the lives of others. … For Christians as for others in this life, the fact of evil is a mystery. The answer is a more wonderful mystery – God himself.

That's the answer, that's the costly mystery. Jesus voluntarily walked into that dark night of the soul. He stepped into the perceived and practical absence of his Father, drinking the cup of God's wrath, “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). And here's a thought: if the sufferings of God-made-flesh can redeem suffering, then the God-forsakenness of God can redeem God-forsakenness. When we feel like we're plummeting into the void, when we can't understand why God seems silent, we may shake our fists at the sky – or, we can actually identify with Christ on the cross. Cling to that cross, cling to that prayer, cling to those words! Don't pray them in opposition to Jesus; pray them with Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus stood in the darkness and the fog to meet us there, in the lonely walk through the valley of the shadow of death, in that friendless place between the crown of thorns and the jeering crowd, out in the hinterlands where all blessings come hidden. The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, pointed out over four centuries ago how true this is: If we feel spiritual joy all the time, then maybe we love God only for the way he makes us feel. Maybe we'll distort our faith into an endless pursuit of one spiritual high after another, neglecting the cross and everything it means. That was a temptation even in the first century or the sixteenth century – how much more for American consumers accustomed to having hundreds of TV channels or clothing brands, used to instant long-distance calls and to fast food and to immediate gratification of all sorts?

And so, St. John suggests, it may be the kindest thing God can do to seem to hide in silence, training us in costly patience as a mother weans an infant, teaching us to love him for his own sake and not for any ulterior motive of pleasure, whether worldly or even spiritual. God “seeks to bring [us] out of that ignoble kind of love to a higher degree of love for him”, he “turns all this light of [ours] into darkness, and shuts against [us] the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which [we] were tasting in God”, to be led “through these solitary places of the wilderness”.

If we wait upon the Lord when every other voice calls it hopeless, if we sit in sorrowful silence without deserting the God who seems absent, then when the cloud lifts, we find that God is closer than we ever dreamed – not in spite of the distance, but because Christ our God was already at our side of the chasm, suffering with us so all our suffering could be suffered with him – and “if we suffer with him, we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). If our hope is to “reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6), it has to begin on the throne where he was crowned: the cross, the cross, where he called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the story isn't done. When we meet God in the raging storm, where all is dark and cold and where we can't find him, if we meet God in the God-forsakenness of the cross, we have the blessed assurance that the darkness will not be forever: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back; in a surge of anger, I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:7-8). Now, that moment, brief to the Lord, may demand patience from our shortsighted and easily worn-out hearts. Mother Teresa famously spent most of her ministry in despair because she couldn't feel God's presence with her – for nearly half a century. In one letter, hear what she wrote:

As for me – what will I tell you? I have got nothing, since I have not got him whom my heart and soul longs to possess. Aloneness is so great. From within and from without, I find no one to turn to. … If there is hell, this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God – no prayer, no faith, no love. The only thing that still remains is the conviction that the work is his. … And yet … in spite of all these, I want to be faithful to him, to spend myself for him, to love him not for what he gives but for what he takes, to be at his disposal.

She later penned the remark, “If we feel like this, I wonder what Jesus must have felt during his agony, when he went through all these unspoken and hidden wounds.” But through all that great aloneness, Mother Teresa didn't turn her back on God, or on the poor he called her to serve; she didn't give up the communion of believers, she didn't drop the habit of prayer, she kept her arm outstretched to God through all the decades of the dark night of her soul. It may be a soul-tormenting wait, but that isn't how the story ends.

Jesus wasn't pulling words out of context. He knew very well how the twenty-second psalm goes. Yes, it runs through scorn: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:7). Yes, it runs through opposition: “Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me” (Psalm 22:13). Yes, it runs through weakness: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15). Yes, it runs through spectacle: “All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:17-18). It runs through all these, but where does it end?

But you, O LORD, don't be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. … For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. … All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:19, 24, 27-28)

This isn't the surrender of prayer; this is persevering in prayer! If we're praying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” with Jesus, then we have the certain hope that the end of that prayer – in God's time, not ours – will be the same as it was with Jesus. There is light at the end of the tunnel, there is a sun behind those clouds, and even if it takes years of patient discipline, God will not despise or scorn any suffering we co-suffer with Christ. And faith in spite of feelings will yield a harvest for God from all families of nations – starting right here where we are. We seldom get the luxury of an explanation for our suffering, including the pains of our souls. But what we need isn't answers so much as to draw close to the Answer, the Answer made flesh who dwelled among us, full of grace and truth (cf. John 1:14). We can draw near to him at the very moment of our felt distance from God, and we can refuse to fall away, hoping beyond hope in the sure promise that, even if we die in this Answer, so we shall rise in him as well (cf. Romans 6:8; 2 Timothy 2:11).

But yes, it's hard. It's hard to “wait on the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait on the LORD” (Psalm 27:14). Yet we do have the promise that “those who wait for the LORD” in meekness “will inherit the land” (Psalm 37:9-11; Matthew 5:5) – maybe in this age, but for sure in the age to come, the everlasting sabbath of God's people (Hebrews 4:9-11). That puts the pain of our souls in perspective, but it doesn't make it any less painful – for us or for Jesus, hanging on the cross, awash in the burden of our sin, our alienation, our isolation, our desolation. Go to him, no matter how you feel. If you feel light, go to him and remember the cost. If you feel heavy, if you feel alone and adrift, go to him and grow close to the one who understands. There he is – there, on the cross, despised and afflicted, his arms stretched wide to welcome us in, as he calls out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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