PALM SUNDAY — 5 April 2009
Mark 11:1-11a Isaiah 45:21-25 Pa 22:1-11 Phil 2:5-11 Mark 15:1-39
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?”
I’m told there is a common nightmare — though I haven’t had it so much as a dream during sleep as rather that sudden bolt of fear while wide awake in the case itself: driving too fast in the rain and dark on a narrow highway, and coming suddenly to the crest of a hill, only to discover that there is no other side. The bitter and empty chill of the abyss.
One of the things we're all looking for, and may come to church to find, is some kind of peace, a sense of fulfillment, the assurance that the road does go on, a connection with other people and the universe, a sense of God's presence in our lives. That's okay! We have this longing for God (let’s name it as that, because that’s what it is, even when we don’t always recognize it as such), we have this longing for God because God built it into us; “we come that way.” And we do, at least from time to time, experience the presence of God with us. Different ones of us in different ways; sometimes in overwhelming ways, sometimes in quiet ways; sometimes in the great events of life, sometimes in the midst of the thoroughly ordinary. Sometimes we experience God's presence when we most need God.
And sometimes when we most need God we do not experience God's presence with us.
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of all the words of Jesus, these from the cross are for many Christians the most troubling. If ever there was anyone who, we assume, always felt the presence of God, surely it was Jesus himself. Was not Jesus God’s own Son? Is not Jesus the Incarnation, the humanization, of God’s own Self — the Word become flesh and living among us? And yet Jesus cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
It's not enough to point out that what Jesus says is in fact a quotation of the first verse of the 22nd Psalm — a psalm which verse by verse foreshadows and resonates with the events of the crucifixion — a psalm which begins as a cry of distress but concludes thirty verses later in a song of faith and praise (though we didn’t read it that far this morning): “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall come and make known … the saving deeds that he has done.” Doubtless Jesus, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures as he was, even in the depths of his agony, knew what psalm he was beginning to quote, and how that psalm ends. And yet there's more than that; that's too easy an answer. We must not so cheaply deny or so piously explain away Jesus’ experience of the absence of God. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Oh, if only I were a better person, if only I had more faith, if only I prayed more, if only I read the Bible more, if only I were holier, then I would feel God’s presence all the time, I would know God is with me, I wouldn’t feel so cold and lonely and empty. Well, perhaps so. Or Not. It is especially to the holy that God risks stepping back into the shadows. It is the holy ones who really experience the Dark Night of the Soul. It turns out that one such was Mother Teresa of
God is never really absent, of course; but we know that by faith, not by evidence, and it doesn’t warm the chill very much when we don’t feel God's presence. But God is not Mr. Fixit rushing in to repair all our problems. God is not a control freak who makes everything turn out all right all the time. God is not a vending machine dispensing heavenly consolation for those with the right spiritual coins. Those who claim that God is always right there for them haven’t been to the cross yet.
“But this isn’t what we were seeking. This doesn’t fulfill our longing. This isn’t the God we wanted.”
Jesus cries out in the words of the 22nd Psalm; the words of the same psalm, verse 8, are thrown back in his face: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.” But God didn't rescue Jesus. God let Jesus die. Oh, God raised him from death on the third day, but first God let him die. Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?
I don’t really know why Jesus experienced abandonment on the cross. I can talk about it, but I don’t really understand it. I do know this: Jesus shows us — in his life, in his teaching, in his death — Jesus shows us who God really is. Or, perhaps better, in Jesus, in his life, in his teaching, in his death, and, yes, indeed, in his resurrection, but only after “in his death,” God reveals who God really is.
For remember this: Given that this is what it takes to reconcile a broken humanity to its Creator, God did not find somebody else to do the job. “Love does not send others to suffer in its place. Love comes itself.”1 Whatever else we may want to say about the relationship between the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and the divinity of God, that much is fundamental. And so we may even say: in Jesus on the cross, God tastes the bitterness of his own absence. And that says something about who God is, too.
God's presence with us is not a matter of our feeling; nor is it a matter of our deserving. Being better or holier may make us more keenly aware of God's presence, but on the other hand it may make us more keenly aware of God's absence. Our relationship with God is not, in the end, a matter of feeling anyway. It's a matter of decision, of response to a call. God calls us to faith, to commitment to the service of an eternal cause, a heavenly kingdom. But this is a call to a faith which trusts even when we do not feel God's presence; a faith which seeks not to use God to make us feel good but which seeks to be used by God to make the world holy; a faith which says Yes when everything around us and even within us cries No; a faith which seeks not to escape death but which trusts and knows that only through death can we be raised to true life.
1 John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970), pp. 407-8