The following sermon was preached at St. Columbanus Church in the Park Manor neighborhood of Chicago for their annual “Seven Last Words” service on Good Friday, 2018. This sermon takes as its word from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45-46)
It is the unavoidable question of all who suffer. “Why?”
“Why is this happening to me?”
“What have we done to deserve this?”
“When will this end?”
“How can people act like everything is normal, when they know what’s going on?”
“Who will put a stop to this?”
“Where is God?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of all the last words uttered by Jesus, this one seems to me the most human so far. I wish I could say that I’ve found the faith to forgive those who offend me but, on that count, I’m a work in progress. I cannot begin to comprehend how Christ, nailed to a tree, could speak of paradise. When I try to imagine my mother and my friends forced to watch me die, I’m left speechless by the pain it would cause them. But to ask “why, God, why?” — that, I can understand, and I trust that you can too.
“Why, God, why?” is the prayer whispered at night after the lights are off and there is no one there to see you cry. “Why, God, why?” is the wail that rises from parents whose children have died. “Why, God, why?” is the honest inquiry of the young, the bitter accusation of the betrayed, it is the burden of those who believe that there is a God in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “Why, God, why — why this? Why here? Why now? Why us?”
“Why have you forsaken me?”
What was Jesus thinking as he cried out from the cross? It’s a fair question as, apparently, the crowd did not know what to make of his last words either. When they gathered to watch the crucifixions taking place that day and heard his tortured question, they mistakenly assumed that Jesus was calling out for Elijah, the prophet of old whose appearance it was believed would signal the dawn of a new age. They were not there when Elijah had, in fact, appeared with Moses alongside Jesus on the mountaintop, so they did not know that in Jesus the new age had already begun. How would they? Everything in their world had taught them to believe that change came through violence. They were gathered, after all, around a collection of crosses watching the Empire put an innocent man to death. If there was going to be a miracle that day, it would be Elijah returning on his fiery chariot to rescue Jesus from the cross and defeat the Romans the way God had defeated the armies of Pharaoh when Moses parted the Red Sea.
But Elijah does not appear. Instead Jesus calls out again, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then breathes his last. Actually, the English here may be a little misleading. In Greek, Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus “aphēken to pneuma,” “gives up his spirit” or, as one translation puts it, “yielded up the ghost.” The point is, it’s not a passive action on Jesus’ part. He doesn’t cry out to an absent God, and then just run out of breath. In this last word from the cross, Jesus cries out to God and then actively gives up his spirit, or perhaps releases it in such a way that we must now wonder where it has gone.
It’s that moment, the moment between his final word and his final breath, that will not let me go. Why has Jesus chosen these words, knowing they will be the last ones his mother, his friends, his community will hear?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s not a question that comes without an answer. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is the beginning of a song. It is the first verse of the 22nd psalm. It is a fragment of music the children of Israel had been singing for centuries. They knew it by heart. It goes like this,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
For [God] did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
[God] did not hide [God’s] face from me,
but heard when I cried to [God].
Future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim [God’s] deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that [God] has done it. (Ps. 22:1-5, 24, 30b-31)
You see, Jesus knew his history well enough to know that empires rise and empires fall, that God’s people in every age have suffered and been punished unfairly for sins that were not their own, but that in the long arc of God’s salvation history displacement was met with a promised land, deportation was met with a return home, despair was met with a new hope, and dry bones breathed again. Jesus was raised on the songs of Israel, so Jesus knew his history. He could surrender his spirit because he was not surrendering it to Empire, he was surrendering his life to God’s own unstoppable purposes. He knew that all his preaching, all his teaching and his miracles had led to this moment, this call and response, this fragment of music sung from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Which he could recall from memory, because he knew that those who followed him would hear the rest of the song,
“for [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
[God] did not [God’s] his face from me, but [God] heard when I cried…”
It’s like, if I were to begin singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” … “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Or if I were to sing, “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.” … “steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here.”
Or, if I were to sing, “Sometime I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…” Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home. A long way from home.
This is why we surround these words with music, because when life strips us of our ability to make sense of the world as it is, it is music that bears our faith back to us. Which is why we have to say thank you to the St. Columbanus Choir and these incredible soloists for giving us the words to sing about those things that so often leave us speechless.
But even if we were to remain quiet, creation itself would sing its own response to Jesus’ song from the cross. Elsewhere in the bible Jesus says that even if his own disciples were to remain quiet, the very stones would cry out — and at the hour of his death, they do. As Jesus gives up the ghost, Matthew says “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matt. 27:51-52)
These signs point to the power of God at work through the cross. Instead of rescuing Jesus from the cross, God remains with Jesus on the cross so that we might know, truly and deeply, that God has not abandoned us to the crosses we each bear. God is not absent at the hour of Jesus’ death any more than God is absent at the hour of our death, or any of the hours that come before it.
Jesus’ question does not go unanswered. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not the final word. It is the call that awaits our response. It is the song that set the very earth to singing. It is the verse that precedes the chorus sung by all the saints, living and dead. It is the story that proclaims God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, the promise to our children and our grandchildren, saying that God has done it!