There is no need to beat around the bush. This is a difficult passage of Scripture to engage.
A lot of aspects to this passage make it difficult for us to interact with. We have the uncomfortable aspect of hearing Jesus cry out in pain from the cross. There is the word “abandoned” or “forsaken” that leaves us wondering about the emotional and spiritual pain that Jesus felt in those moments. We hear these words and we want to move past them quickly, act like they were never said, and go to another passage.
We cannot hide from difficult passages of Scripture. In the examining the harder passages we find elements of truth that speak to us in the difficult moments of our lives. The good thing is that, today, we will walk through this difficult and challenging passage from Matthew 27:45-46 together.
So, let’s unpack some of the components of this passage. First, it is important to note that this is the only statement from Jesus on the cross that Matthew and Mark record. Of the seven recorded in the Gospels, this is the only one Matthew and Mark felt worthy of inclusion. It is not that there is no value or importance in the other six statements. There are plenty of value to them as we have already seen and will continue to see as we move closer to Good Friday and Easter. It is that Matthew and Mark felt that this one statement expresses the magnitude of Jesus’ death and what he experienced on the cross.
Now, where are we in the lineage of these statements? This is the fourth of the seven statements from the cross. It likely came after Jesus had been on the cross for several hours. Scripture tells us Jesus was on the cross for approximately six hours before his death. Jesus was probably placed on the cross sometime around 9 a.m., with his death occurring sometime after 3 p.m. Matthew records that these words were spoken just a little before Jesus’ death. As well, Matthew tells us that around noon there was a darkness, a spiritual darkness, which filled the entire area for three hours.
All of this is going on as we come to a place where we can examine Jesus’ words. Matthew and Mark record them in the original Aramaic. This perhaps signifies that these words were so powerful that they needed to be expresses as they were said by Jesus. Matthew reports that Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?,” which in English means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Powerful and challenging words, yet difficult to read and understand. Why does Jesus say these words and what do they say to us, today, as we enter the second half of the season of Lent?
It is important to frame our attempt at understanding these words through the perspective of why Jesus went to the cross in the first place. We begin to get the sense, with these words, that Jesus is feeling the full weight and cost of what led him to the cross and the purpose of his ministry.
Every moment of Jesus’ life had anticipated this moment. There is an easy temptation to see Christmas and the Passion events as separate and unrelated occurrences in Jesus’ life and ministry. Yet, Jesus’ birth at Christmas anticipates the moments surrounding Good Friday and Easter. Jesus came to the world with the expressed purpose of inaugurating God’s kingdom through redeeming God’s people by giving his life for all people. Jesus came to pay the price for our sin through his own life.
Sin is one of those words in the church that we throw around without always understanding what it means. At its most basic level, sin occurs when we go against a known desire of God. In general terms, we sin against God when we are more interested in doing the things we want instead of following God’s desires and directions. It is the actions we knowingly take that seek our own desires, agendas, and purposes over against God’s greatest desires for us.
Sin, then, is about turning our back away from God and what God wants for us. When this happens it creates a distance and separation between us and God. A relationship that was created perfect and with deep connection is broken by our own actions and desires to seek the self over the Father’s hope and love. We all have felt that distance and separation. It is the feeling as if God is absent from and not present in our lives. That is the distance that sin produces.
It is the distance that Jesus felt on the cross. He felt humanity’s distance from God, because it was placed upon his shoulders. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the sins of all in order to bridge the gap in the relationship between God and humanity. That was the mission he came to fulfil. To be the Savior and Messiah of all meant he had to offer himself to pay the price for our sin. He came to save us from our sin and selves. He had to experience the utter loneliness and distance that exists because of our sin. He felt our pain, our brokenness and our hurts.
All of this leads him to cry out his feelings to God. This is not a simple saying from Jesus. There is a fullness of emotion and passion behind these words. Jesus expresses what he feels with these words. They basically say, “God, where are you? Where are you when I need you?” In feeling the absence created by sin, Jesus feels as if God is no longer with him. That there is now a distance between him and God. It leads him to express his sense of pain, hurt, and sadness.
The words Jesus uses are a direct quote of Psalm 22:1, which might lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ words. By quoting David’s words, we get the sense that Jesus is offering a prayer to God in the midst of his loneliness and pain. Jesus never stopped praising and seeking after God, even when feeling the darkness created by our sin.
Do not miss this point. Here is Jesus, feeling the complete distance and separation from God that sin has caused, and he continues to seek after God through a word of prayer by quoting a Psalm that begins with feelings of anguish and frustration at God’s perceived distance. The same feelings that Jesus felt on the cross. Nothing, not even the darkness of sin, was going to keep Jesus from praising God and seeking the Father.
By doing so, Jesus gives us some direction when we feel that God is absent and there is a distance in our relationship with the Father. Jesus’ prayer shows that we can express our feeling of sadness and hurt when we feel distant with the Lord. It is easy, I believe, to only offer to God that which we can handle giving to God. In doing so, we become something like an editor in our relationship with God by defining the terms based on what we think the terms should look like instead of how God defines the relationship. God created us with a full set of emotions and is fully able to hear our hurt and frustrations when we are overwhelmed by loneliness, separation, or distance in our relationship with God.
God can feel our pain and can experience our feelings of dejection and loneliness. It is often a sign of deep faith and trust in God that allows someone to express their full experience of emotions to God. A prayer of expressing our emotion is really an opportunity to give our full self over to God, so that we can experience God’s presence and voice speaking to us in the midst of our loneliness.
That is the thing about God. Even though we may feel a distance in our relationship with God, God is still right there with us. He never leaves or abandons us. It is only the weight of sin that makes it feel as though God has walked away from us. The truth is that God is the picture of a loving Father who never abandons his children when they disappoint him or even when One feels the full weight of the world’s sin.
With that being the case, there might be a deeper reason for Jesus to choose Psalm 22 as the focal point for his prayer. The Psalm ends with a triumphant chorus of trusting in God’s victorious presence. That even though one may feel a distance or anguish in our relationship with God, there is an overarching level of trust that connects and reminds us of the fact that God is always there. Even when we feel as though that might not be the case, the truth is that God is always there. Jesus, through this painful words on the cross, expresses his trust in the fact that even when God might seem absent he is still right there.
That is a word of hope for us through these words. Even though God may seem absent in our lives, we must never let go of the promise and the truth that God loves us and will never abandon us. Just as God never abandoned Jesus on the cross, so will God never abandon us in our times of struggle, in the times when we do things wrong, or in the moments when we feel that we are not going in the right direction. God’s love is always there.
We may not always sense it. We may not always feel it. We may feel like God has turned his back on us and has walked away. But that is never the case. God is right there with you. No matter what you are facing. No matter what you are dealing with. No matter what struggles or obstacles come your way. God has not let you be on your own. God walks with you and does not abandon you.
As we move into the second half of Lent and move even closer to the celebration of what these words remind us, how will the confidence that God is there with us in the darkest moment of our lives give us a “blessed assurance” that we are never alone? My hope is that the fact that we can give to God our full emotion help us to see God’s love in the darkest moments of our lives?
May we never feel that we are alone. God is there. God has never abandoned us. May we trust in that just as Jesus rested in that promise on the cross.