Pastors probably quickly lose count of how many times they have heard God’s people say this one word. Let’s call it the “Thank God for God” word. It happens probably most often around the finality of death. Then God’s people speak this kind of comfort: “Pastor, I’m so afraid, but I know God is with me; I’m so sad, but I know my loved one’s in a better place…” And they don’t mean it as a worthless platitude – just something to say. No, it’s recognition that this is the thing to say, the last word in life: “What greater comfort could there be, after [this or that] has failed, than knowing that God will not; that God is with me?”
No greater comfort… To better understand it though, think of it now as what you wouldn’t say. Specifically, when was the last time you said something was “godforsaken”? You probably haven’t in a long time, if ever… Isn’t that strange? It’s just a word, isn’t it? And it’s probably not the worst you’ve let slip over time! Why might we not say it? Is it an anachronism; old-fashioned, out of use? Is it a situational thing: with such a cushy life, we just don’t run across things that are “godforsaken” bad? Or is it maybe so horrible an idea that we try to keep it from our minds? So that you normally wouldn’t think it at all, but if you did, you’d think twice before labelling even a place or thing that way: god-forsaken – almost like there’d be some indelible mark left, some lasting curse. And what about for a person? I don’t think you’d wish this on your worst enemy. That the comfort of God’s presence you love be absent for someone. That this be the last word about them? That they be forsaken by God?
And yet, tonight, the Son of God says it about himself. From Matthew 27, verses 45–46: From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
If you would hesitate to say it about it a place, would be loathe to label your worst person so, how ever can it be said of God’s Son – the one “in [whom] there is no sin”? That truth, evident in the gospels, we’ve contemplated every week during this Lenten season. With every word from the cross, as Jesus willingly suffers, he also actively keeps his Father’s will. He shows perfect love asking forgiveness for his enemies. There is no word of reply to all the scorn, but there is a word of promise, gracious paradise for the penitent thief. Jesus is in pain, agony, dying, yet there is a word of care for his mother – respect and honor for her even here. And even here, aloud in the dark, with strength and conviction he prays to his God… no word of despair, no self-pity or cries of unfair, no curses, no rage against his dying. No, he prays….and it’s the big question of Psalm 22 – the one that tells what’s going on behind the darkness. The question is right – why forsake him of all people; this one who, against the worst darkness of sin, is still a glowing light of godliness?
Why indeed? To get to that, think of the depths of that darkness; everything you’d fear to say; godforsaken for what it is. They say Martin Luther meditated on these words for hours and hours until finally, as though coming out of a dark coal mine and into the bright sunlight, he shook his head and said, “God forsaking God! No man can understand that!” We may not understand how the Triune God can forsake himself – and God doesn’t invite us to investigate – he does invite us to contemplate. Consider that Jesus had prayed in the upper room and earnestly in Gethsemane to his Father, but here he can pray only to his God – do you sense the distance? You know how even a parent can abandon a child or friends forsake friends, but here the God the Father, who has enjoyed eternal fellowship with his Son, forsakes, abandons, removes his presence from him – do you sense the gravity of this moment? And it all happens in the dark. “Darkness” in the gospels is a place of gnashing teeth and weeping eyes – where the unworthy servants go far from God’s presence, forsaken by him. Maybe some of that “outer darkness” breaks into the world from noon to 3pm on Good Friday. Maybe God is covering the horror of what is happening to his Son like paramedics cover an accident victim. I may not know all the hows but I do know why. Jesus was being “made sin” for us. He was “becoming a curse” for us. And as David said it in Psalm 22, “[God is] enthroned as the Holy One…”; he does not look upon sin but punishes it. When all the world’s sin is laid upon his Son, he turns away.
Consider also that the sins that put Jesus in darkness, forsaken, they are our sins. Isaiah says, “He was being “wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” How often don’t you remember sinking lower than our Father-child relationship? How much have we actively not kept God’s will? How little willing to suffer for it or suffer it at all have we been! And all these things we do that say that he isn’t our God, for a second or a minute or a day, all these things are deadly, eternally serious, so weighty, so other than the infinite God that they merit an infinite price. They are deserving of outer darkness, forsaken by God we should be. But instead, godforsaken is he.
Tonight’s word is because of you, but also by design this word is not for you so that Jesus could bring everything to you. Jesus was being “made sin” and a horror for God to look upon so that we might be “God’s righteousness” and everything he loves to see. Jesus became “a curse” so that we might be “redeemed” by him, purchased by his holy blood for life with God forever. On Jesus our iniquities were laid, so that by his punishment we would have healing from our sins. Jesus calls himself forsaken so about you that kind of thing might never be said.
About that kind of unfathomable love, what can we can say? Could we do better than to praise God as we will sing in a few minutes: by fleeing to Christ our solid Rock, away from our many sins and temptations, to hide in his wounds; or by faith in Christ knowing the God of hopefulness is with us from daybreak to day’s end with joy and faith, grace and calm, so the last words about us are bliss and strength and love and peace? It would be hard to do better than praise God with David’s conclusion in Psalm 22: “[Praise the Lord] 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.” David’s praise and ours is based on a simple, beautiful fact: tonight’s is the fourth word from the cross and not the last.
What a joy that is! Tonight the Son of God is forsaken – by what God does to his Son we see again how serious the guilt of our sin; but by what God does to his Son for us we also see how serious his salvation. And so we need not fear – Jesus has more to say. For soon the darkness breaks and this deadly work so perfectly finished will be illumined by the rising Son and his everlasting life – because though this word is final, this isn’t the last word, not for Christ and therefore, not for you.