Friday, April 06, 2012

April 6, 2012 - Godforsaken

Today’s Good Friday, and it fell to me to give the sermon at our local Community Good Friday service, sponsored by churches of the Point Pleasant/Bay Head area.

I’ve preached many a Good Friday sermon in my time, but today I was struck by the words of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus is of course quoting Psalm 22:1, one of the gutsiest laments in the Hebrew scriptures.

Many Christians find it hard to stomach this awful scene depicting the Son of God in abject despair.  Some of them deal with their discomfort by staying away from Good Friday services altogether (or, at least, from worship services like ours that strive to regard the hard reality of the crucifixion without blinking). If relentlessly practicing positive thinking is your thing, and if – like some of my Baptist friends – you just can’t hold back from cheerily uttering that Pollyanna proclamation, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”, you’re probably numbered among this group.

Other than boycotting Good Friday, the other way to manage such cognitive dissonance is to imagine Jesus wasn’t really so Godforsaken as all that.  Following the lead of the Gospel-writer John – who, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, is more inclined to portray Jesus as omniscient, and eerily aloof from even his own sufferings – they seek to to rationalize away his sense of abandonment.

That view of Jesus is actually heretical, as the church has traditionally viewed it.  The traditional doctrine of the Incarnation declares that, during the 33 years of his earthly life, Jesus was truly God and truly human. In a reversal of the state of affairs that’s prevailed through much of history, Christians in our highly-churched American culture are more likely to struggle to accept Jesus’ humanity than his divinity.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, as he wrestled with the decision he had made, he could only turn to God in prayer – just like any of us.  He could only ask God to “take this cup away from me.”  He didn’t say, “What do you think, God, hasn’t this show gone on long enough – isn’t it time, now, for me to overturn this cup?”

Throughout his earthly life, Jesus suffered and struggled, feared and doubted, bled and died – much like any of us.  The scriptures teach that he was unlike us in one respect – that he did not sin, and therefore went to the cross blameless – but in every other way he was human.  And that is why he was impelled to cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Do you think he didn’t really mean that?  Do you think it was just a line in a play, spoken for our benefit?  Do you think he knew all along that it would come out OK in the end, that this death – that was even then wrapping its cold, bony fingers around his neck and starting to squeeze – was not really death, as we know it from the experience of others (and will one day know it ourselves)?

No.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I take him at face value.  I believe he means what he’s saying.   I believe he truly feels Godforsaken.

That’s a colorful word, “Godforsaken.”  It hardly even sounds like an English word at all.  It’s more like one of those intricate, compound German words: schadenfreude or weltanschauung, or even the lowly pepper-cookie, the pfeffernusse.  The German language has that capability of combining shorter words together in a long string.  I’m glad that, in this instance, the English allows us to do so, because no other word captures the sense of abandonment and desolation, the fear and anxiety, the doubt and despair, that’s caught up in that word, “Godforsaken.”

Sometimes we speak of “a Godforsaken place.”  That expression is reserved for the driest of deserts, the most isolated of islands, the most barren of landscapes.  The geography of the human heart it describes is equally desolate.  That’s what Jesus was feeling, there on the cross.  The pain he felt in his body was only the half of it.  The sense of abandonment that tore at his heart was just as agonizing, maybe even more so.

Those of us who have had to cope with that unwanted guest, Cancer, gate-crashing our lives perhaps know something of what this means.  There may have been times when the word “Godforsaken” accurately described the way we felt.

Christian essayist G.K. Chesterton captures the sheer absurdity of God’s son crying out “Why have you forsaken me?” as he observes:

“When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God.” [Orthodoxy (Moody, 2009), p. 20.]

We don’t like to think – no, not even imagine – that “God was forsaken of God.”  God’s supposed to stay in heaven, and all is supposed to remain right with the world.  The crucifixion was the one time in the history of the universe when that did not happen, when the fundamental balance of creation was thrown off, when chaos seemed briefly to reign, when the interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity was severed, when darkness descended in mid-afternoon and the very earth beneath our feet rocked and reeled.

Speaking personally, I still don’t understand why it happened.  Yes, there are many competing theological theories of the Atonement, of why and how Jesus had to suffer and die so sins might be forgiven.  None of them, at the end of the day, answers every question.  I also don’t understand how it happened.  My mind is just too small to take in the mystery of the Incarnation, the complexity of the inner workings of the Trinity, the marvel of divine Grace.

Although I don’t understand why or how the crucifixion happened, I can say I’m awfully glad it did happen.  I’m glad because, when I look on from afar, from the perspective of twenty centuries, at the spectacle of “God forsaken of God,” as Chesterton says, I know that because of what Christ has done, I will never be Godforsaken in quite the same way.  Through every trial and tribulation, through every pain or struggle divine Providence may in the future place in my path, whether my lymphoma creeps back into my life again or whether it doesn’t, I’ll always be able to look to the cross of Jesus and know that I am not alone, that there is one in the heavenly places praying for me who knows what it means to be human.

To me, that’s what’s so good about “Good Friday.”  I would never be so bold as to ask one such as Jesus to go to the cross for me – I do not deserve it – but the good news is that he has done so, anyway, of his own accord.  For that, I am grateful beyond words.