This is a small sermon I gave this week for a group of men at a homeless shelter as part of a worship service. In addition to finding holy week music from the 70s and 80s to be sensational and deeply moving (and who doesn’t?–if it was good enough for our parents and Bob Dylan, ok I’ll stop), many of them were Christians and seemed to come from traditions that have a value for the authority–even the commanding authority–of someone who teaches from Scripture. I tried to speak with conviction when I said something that I think is true. When I quoted the words “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” I tapped my fist against my heart to mimic the sound of a heartbeat. There were several people from the congregation who joined in with me to perform this gesture at the end.
Jesus, when he is dying, cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why does Jesus say this? Jesus is God. At the same time he is sent by God. Even the Roman soldier who saw how he died says, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
If Jesus is this connected to God, how can he say he feels rejected, forsaken by God? Many have suggested that Jesus is actually crying out his real feelings to God as he is dying.
But Jesus is also quoting an old worship song from Hebrew scripture: Psalm 22.
The opening lines—that people would sing in worship–are, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me? So far from the words of my groaning?”
People for centuries said these words from Psalm 22, asking God, “Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?’ “ And now—interestingly—we hear Jesus—God himself—using these words to ask the same question.
And I think we need to hear Jesus say these words, because many people at some point in their lives feel forsaken by God.
For several months a while back, I remember this was almost an everyday experience for me—feeling forsaken by God. I didn’t feel like I could pray these words. One thing that was helpful during this time was some friends who prayed for me and helped me pray.
That’s what this Psalm does. It helps us pray.
And when Jesus uses these words, it shows us that Jesus himself experiences our agony. He knows all that afflicts us. And if we follow Jesus, he isn’t afraid to take us to a place where we pray these words—where we cry out, in the rhythm of a heart beat, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?–My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus even insists sometimes that we say these words when we feel them.
Jesus’ ministry shows us this. There were people he healed who had sickness that caused them public shame—their whole community rejected them. I imagine Jesus could have privately healed them, but Jesus chose something a lot more risky to them: he healed them publicly. Sometimes, he would even ask them to come forward and show him–in front of everyone–their sicknesses. It was like he was saying, “Show me, show us, where you are hurting.”
Then he would say to them, “Son, daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” And these people would go from being afraid, shamed, dishonored by their community, to being publicly honored, filled with joy, restored to their community. And it is in part because they had the faith and the courage to show Jesus where they were hurting that they were healed.
When we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we are showing God where we are hurting.
And we can trust God with these words because he is willing to go there himself. I think that any healing God offers would feel superficial to us if he didn’t understand our pain. But Jesus is saying, “I’ve been there.” When he said these words, he showed us he knows what this is like.
And because we see Jesus walking there with us, we can trust him to lead us.
I had a friend a few years back who had experienced some of the same feelings of shame and rejection by his family and community. He told me he had this fear that God–and he didn’t even know if God was real–hated him and wanted to send him to hell. My friend knew that I was Christian, and one morning he saw me reading the Bible, and he came up and said, “I want to talk to you about becoming a Christian.” And he said, “I was thinking today about how Jesus knew what it was like to be rejected by others, because he was forsaken himself.”
To my friend, this was good news, that Jesus himself felt forsaken.
And Jesus doesn’t just know what it’s like to be forsaken, but he does something about it. The good news of Jesus wouldn’t be good news if it did not respond to the evil, in our world and in our own lives, and the pain and ultimately death that is a consequence of this evil.
Jesus not only knows our suffering and affliction, but Scripture says that when Jesus died he chose to take on our suffering and affliction, our pain, our sin, the evil of the world and our own personal evil. Scripture says that Jesus “died for sins once for all, the righteous (Jesus) for the unrighteous (us), to bring us to God.”
And Jesus didn’t just die and get defeated by death, but he himself defeated death and rose from the dead and is ready to offer us and the world life in him.
And Psalm 22—the same Psalm—it’s so complete—gives us a picture of what this life we can have in Jesus looks like. It shows us a vision of what Jesus can offer us because he knew our suffering, because he died for us, AND because he rose from the dead. The author of Psalm 22 says:
“The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him–may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and the families of the nations will bow down before him.…All the ends of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—those who cannot keep themselves alive…Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn (and that’s us)—for he has done it.”
There’s a challenge in these verses, and the challenge is this:
If we believe this good news, then we need to share this with others. Earlier in Psalm 22 the writer says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you. You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!” And then he says, “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Wouldn’t that verse be good news to that friend of mine I was talking about? Don’t people come to mind who need to hear that? And they need to hear it from us: “He has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
And I also want to offer an invitation—which Jesus offers too–to join him in saying these words. If you right now feel rejected, forsaken by God, use these words of Scripture to cry out to him:
“My God, my God,”
(Let’s say it together)
“My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?”
I pray that the God who prayed these words—who knows every thought we’ve ever had, who knows everything that has ever happened to us—will meet you there in saying these words.
We are going to sing a few more songs about Jesus–dying on the cross, meeting his followers after rising from the dead–and one of the messages of these songs and of the messages of Easter itself is this:
Because we heard Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we know he can lead us to a kingdom where the families of all nations will feast and worship and bow down before him—for he has done it.