Today we are going to continue our Lenten series on the Seven Last Words of Christ as we examine the power and impact these words can have on our lives. Three weeks ago we began with Jesus' first words on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” as we looked to that incredible act of forgiveness to better understand it, see what Jesus intended Christian forgiveness to look like, and ways we can move towards that kind of mindset ourselves. Two weeks ago, we looked at the phrase, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” as we sought to understand how faith can provide us grace, hope, and forgiveness. Last week we looked to Christ's words, “Woman behold your son, son behold your mother”, as we examined the importance of care, responsibility, and love. Today will take the next set of words, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” to see how Jesus handles separation from God and what that separation means for us.
These past several weeks we have been reliving and examining Jesus' last moments on Earth. We have spent a fair amount of time looking at not only the facts Scripture records for us, but the emotions that these principle players have more than likely felt. We have looked at fear, betrayal, care, and compassion.
But there is one more emotion that is prominent in this part of the story; rejection. Jesus has already been rejected by so many, but more is to come. And one that leaves him to cry out with His last breath, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Can You See It?
Now as we seek to understand why Jesus would ask this question, we need to have a clear understanding of the events leading up to that question. As we continue the story this morning, we can see patterns of behavior developing. First we see a pattern of betrayal from the disciples. These men that left everything to follow Jesus. Their homes, families, and for many of them, the only lives and villages they had ever known. But when Jesus was facing crucifixion, they scattered. Leaving Jesus to face these accusations all alone.
Next we look to the rejection of Judas. So often we associate Judas with the betrayal of Jesus. However, it is in that act that we also find rejection. Judas had to have known that the religious leaders did not approve of Jesus, but in a moment of weakness, Judas betrays and rejects Jesus in the same act. He believes he knows better than Jesus, the best way to win approval and gain acceptance of the Sanhedrin. So his rejection turns to betrayal and he turns Jesus over to the Sanhedrin.
Then of course there is the rejection from the Sanhedrin themselves. These religious leaders were envious of Jesus, jealous of Jesus, scared of Jesus. The majority, not all, but the majority of these leaders, were looking for a way to reduce Jesus' impact and restore their status quo. They feared Jesus and through that fear rejected the Word made flesh. They rejected God Incarnate, standing right there in front of them.
Jesus loved all of these people and to be rejected by the very people Jesus was sent to save had to have caused a deep sense of rejection within. The hurt does not stop there however. Next we see a pattern of mockery. Mockery as they cast lots for clothes; as they placed a crown of thorns on Jesus' head calling Jesus the King of the Jews; as they spit on Jesus while He carried His cross through town; as they hit Jesus during his mock trial before the Sanhedrin; the contempt from the thief on the cross doubting Jesus in every way; the sour wine on a stick they tried to give Jesus just before He died. Bible Scholar “Craig Evans sees the soldiers' offer of wine mixed with myrrh as another act of mockery (v.23), an interpretation supported by Luke's account (Luke 23:36-37). Hence Jesus' refusal to drink is not so much that he wants to keep a clear head for the testing time ahead, but that 'he refuses to participate in the mockery'”. (56)
Jesus, a gift of love, love in human form, humbly and willingly endured all of this out of His love for humanity. I would like to tell you that was the end of it. After all, how much can one person be expected to take before enough is enough? Before one begins to crack and retaliate? But as most of us know, that was not the end. There was one more rejection that Jesus would have to endure. A rejection that no one would have expected, that no one could have been prepared for, but one that had to happen. A rejection from God, His Father.
Christ had, up to this point, experienced a wonderfully close, affirming, intimate bond with Abba, with God, with His Father. They were constantly joined, constantly in communication, constantly a part of each other. Remember, Jesus is the Word made flesh, God Incarnate. There was no separation between the two. But now their paths begin to separate, had to separate. At this point, after already going through all the hardship, rejection, and mockery, Jesus is preparing to fulfill what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus is about to take upon Himself all the sin of humanity, in one moment, in order that humanity might be saved.
Our Gospel lesson from Mark begins this process. Jesus had, at this point, been hanging on the cross for three hours, since 9 in the morning. Now it is noon and a darkness has begun to descend over the entire land. A darkness that most scholars attribute as a reflection, from God, of the rejection Jesus experienced from Israel. This darkness continues for three hours, six hours after Jesus was initially hung on the cross and crucified. And then it happens. “...Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) (Mark 15:34b). Why does Jesus say this? What does Jesus mean saying that God has forsaken Him?
If we go to the Hebrew, the word for forsaken, evgkate,lipe,j means to leave behind or abandon. Therefore, Jesus is basically asking God, “why have you abandoned me?”
At this moment, as Jesus is about to breathe his last breath as a human, Jesus does what no one else can do. Jesus takes on all of the humanity's sin and then cries out, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? While most agree about what Jesus is doing, many differ on the reason behind His response.
One possible reason is that Jesus is trying to take people back to Psalm 22, our first Scripture lesson from today. Here the psalmist is crying out to God with the same language, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If we go through this psalm we see a story that begins in desperation and abandonment, but ends in praise and triumph. While it started out in pain, it ends in celebration. Some believe Jesus was trying to use this piece of Scripture to help people understand that while, at that point, Jesus was dying and things seemed bleak, like they did in the beginning of Psalm 22, things would in fact turn around and there would be victory and triumph.
Another possible reason why Jesus may have uttered these words is to strengthen a bond between Himself and humanity. By crying out to God about His feelings of rejection and abandonment, Christ is expressing to us His feelings of extreme loneliness. It is through that proclamation, that our bond with Christ grows because now we have a Savior that can empathize with us and has felt those same feelings of rejection that we have all felt. That has walked through the dark and forsaken valley that we all have traveled.
A third possible reason has to do with our eternity. You see Jesus also may have spoken these words because at this point, according to theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, this “is the occasion when the Son of God stands in the place of godless people and willingly accepts the godforsakenness which is God's judgment upon sin” (58). At that point, Jesus bears all the sin of humanity, the separation occurs, and our salvation is guaranteed.
What About God?
There is one thing I do not want to get lost this morning and that is the emotion that God felt. We have looked at Jesus' feelings. We have broken down Jesus' words. We have explored Jesus' actions as a path of empathy between Jesus and ourselves. But what about God? What was God's reaction? Is it recorded anywhere in Scripture for us?
We are given several clues about God's response. This first one we have already discussed and it comes in the weather. Mark records for us that for three hours, prior to Jesus proclaiming, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?; My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?, darkness came over the whole land. This was not a cloud that just passed in front of the sun. The entire land was covered in darkness. A darkness that most scholars attribute as a reflection, from God, of the rejection Jesus experienced from Israel. This darkness could also be a reflection of God's heart at watching Jesus die, brutally and sacrificially.
Another clue is given to us later in 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, where we are told that upon Jesus' death the earth shook, rocks were split, and the temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. This curtain was so large that no person could reach it from the top so to have it split from the top to the bottom was significant.
The fact that as Jesus was dying, as his strength was leaving him, the entire land was covered in darkness; the fact that when Jesus breathed His last, the Earth shook, rocks split, and sacred temple curtains were torn in two; can all lead us to believe that God was very much affected by all of this. These physical occurrences can all be signs that God mourned and grieved at what His only begotten Son was enduring. God was indeed pained by all of this. Moltmann agrees when he says, “The event of the cross, which lays bare the innermost being of God, does not therefore reveal an immovable, impassible deity, but rather exposes the passionate, vulnerable heart of the crucified God...[because] a God who was unable to suffer would likewise be incapable of the love which the Bible ascribes to him” (62).
Jesus came to offer Himself as a living and perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. He took all the sins of humanity upon Himself, causing a separation between God and Himself. A separation He had never felt before. A separation that caused Him to cry out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?; My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
God grieved at the pain, rejection, and humiliation Jesus was going through, turned his back on Jesus in that moment, not out of eternal rejection, but out of incredible love. God in rejecting Jesus, just for a moment, cemented an eternity with each of us. This deed was not ideal, but necessary. Necessary to show us what love looks like, necessary to show us what devotion means, vital to pay the way for our transgressions. Do not let this sacrifice be in vain. Tell others what Jesus has done for you, what Jesus has done for them. Do not hide this gift, give it away freely, give it away frequently, give it away lovingly.