Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Reflections on Abandonment

Matthew 27:45-49 (A talk for Good Friday 2011)

We will all experience moments of abandonment

It might be when the partner walks out on you or when the child or the parent rejects you.
It might be when the organisation or party or church, for which you have given your everything, tells you that you are no longer needed or wanted.
And perhaps the greatest tragedy of death is the sense of abandonment that the surviving partner can feel. As WH Auden so powerfully put it, 

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
We find ourselves in a place of abandonment when we lose, for whatever reason, the other who has made our life significant.

Jesus, as he hung on the cross, experienced abandonment. 

For eternity, Father God had been to him his North, South, East and West. His identity as Son of God rested on the Father. His eternal beginning, his past, his present and his future were secured on the Father. He had abandoned himself to the Father, and everything that he did or was depended on his Father. 

And now, as he becomes sin for us, as he takes onto his shoulders the sin of the world, he is abandoned by Father God. Obviously this is a mystery that is far too profound for any human mind to penetrate. As Jesus hung on the cross he was most at his most obedient to the Father - as Paul writes, 'Obedient to death, even death on a cross'. If, when Jesus humbled himself and was baptised, the Father said, 'This is my Son, my beloved', how much more now could the Father say, 'This is my Son, my beloved'. But as Jesus hung on the cross, he not only endured physical suffering for us, but willingly 'became sin for us'. He took onto himself the curse of sin. He drank the cup of the wrath of God. And instead of saying, 'This is my Son, my beloved', the Father looked away. 

And so Jesus cries out, using the words of Psalm 22:1, a dreadful cry of abandonment: 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me'. His Father God really had abandoned him. 

There are times when, as believers, we lose the intimacy that we have had with Father God. Most usually that is because we have chosen to deliberately turn our back on him, to do that which he hates. In those painful moments, we glimpse what a life would be like without God. But we have not been abandoned. At any time, at any moment, we can call out to him and turn back to him. 

But when Jesus took the sin of the world onto himself, when he became sin for us, he did not sin. He remained completely open to and obedient to God his Father. He rejects the temptation to come down from the cross. His thoughts were for his mother, for a dying thief and for those who crucified him. He turns to God and he cries out to God. But for those three hours, God his Father is not there. Along with the physical pain of crucifixion, Jesus endures the utter agony of abandonment by God, an abandonment which transcends time. His past is lost, his present make no sense, and there is no future. Instead there is pain and fear and hopelessness and utter emptiness. That is why the Apostles creed sums up the experience of Christ by simply stating, "He descended into Hell". 

Misunderstanding greets his cry of dereliction. The bystanders think that he has lost his mind. That is why they are about to offer him the bitter poisoned wine, to dull his senses. But others think that he is calling Elijah to come and rescue him - there was a Jewish belief that Elijah would come and save the righteous when they were in distress - and they want to see what will happen. And then, we are told, as if he knew that work had been completed, Jesus finally gives up his Spirit. 

The great Christian hope is that because Jesus took our sins onto himself, because he experienced the ultimate abandonment by God which is the final penalty for our sin, then there are two life changing consequences.
Firstly, we have someone who can identify with us in our human experiences of abandonment. He knows, because he has been there.
Secondly, because he has tasted the abandonment of God for us, we need never be abandoned by God. 

Of course there will be times when we feel as if God has abandoned us; times when others do abandon us, or when we are taken to dark, desperate places and maybe even times of dreadful suffering. I heard last week of the story of a church family in Colorado. They were due to go overseas as missionaries, had come out of church and were getting into their car when a gunman shot two of the girls. The father lay on the ground by his car, unable to get to one of his dying daughters because he too had been shot. And as he lay there this thought came into his mind, 'You can't go round this; you can't go over this; you've got to go through this'. 

And there will be awful things that we have to go through, and there will be little and big abandonments. We may have all our stuff taken from us, we may go through a physical hell, we may at times find ourselves in the pit. People we love will die. But because of Jesus, and because of his death on the cross, we can affirm that, whatever our feelings or experience, there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God (Romans 8:39). If we choose to live our lives centred on him, to shape our identity around him, to see our story in terms of him and to fix our destiny and hope on him, we will not be disappointed or put to shame. His love really is a love that will last for ever. He will never abandon the man or woman who chooses to abandon themselves to him.

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