It is now 3 o'clock in the afternoon. After the initial activity following the crucifixion, there has been three hours of darkness and silence. And now we come to the final moments of the life of Jesus.
I am going to focus on the last cry of Jesus: 'Eli, Eli, lema sabbachthani'.
The people there didn't understand. They thought that Jesus was calling Elijah.
Elijah is one of the great figures in the Old Testament. He was a prophet. And Jews believed that at the very end of time and history as we know it, as God brings in his kingdom, so Elijah would return. So when the people hear Jesus saying, ‘Eli, Eli ..’ they think that he is calling Elijah; they think that he is saying that history as we know it is coming to an end. That is why they offer him wine vinegar: it is pretty unpleasant, but it is a sedative. They think that he is going out of his mind. Most people did when they were crucified. And then they joke: ‘Leave him alone, let’s see if Elijah comes’. After all, why should the destiny of the world hang on the crucifixion of this one man?
But they had misunderstood the words.
Matthew helps us here. He translates the Aramaic words for us: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
In other words, this is not a cry for Elijah, but a cry of abandonment.
Jesus uses words that King David used many centuries earlier: when he was in pain, when it seemed that his enemies had overwhelmed him, that he was crushed and there was no hope.
Jesus uses the same words, but for him they come not out of a feeling of abandonment, but out of the dreadful reality of abandonment. For David it seemed as if he had been abandoned by God. Jesus was abandoned by God in a way that no other human being has been abandoned by God. God the Father not only turned his face away from God the Son, but he literally abandoned him. At the very heart of the eternal love of the unchanging Trinity, there is a moment of utter separation. Hence the darkness: there was no light. Hence the cry: 'My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?'
I suspect that Jesus knew the answer.
When he was in the garden he chose to accept the cross. And he knew that it was only his death that could establish a new covenant (agreement) between God and human beings. Because Jesus was abandoned the human race need never again be separated from God by sin. That is why, immediately after Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple, that separated God from the people, is torn in two and the tombs are opened. There is now access to God and resurrection. Or to put this another way, because Jesus was abandoned, God will never abandon his people.
The following was written by Jim Smith, for the CMS, in 2000. It describes what Jesus is saying to the people who are looking at him.
"You’re looking at my wounds, my pain.
I’m looking at yours.
You’re looking at the damage to my body.
I’m looking at the damage to yours.
You’re thinking of the agony in my heart.
I’m thinking of yours.
You’re thinking of the destruction of my hopes.
I’m thinking of the destruction of yours.
You’re thinking ‘How will he face death?’
I’m thinking ‘How will you face yours?’
You say, ‘How can God let this happen?’
I say, ‘Why shouldn’t he? He loves you.’"
Why did God forsake Jesus? For the sake of you and me.
My niece asked yesterday, 'Why is it called Good Friday'? She has a good question. What is good about remembering a man crucified on a cross and abandoned by God?
The answer has to be that because of that Friday, our sins have been forgiven, we can now have intimacy with God and we have the hope of eternal life.
And yet, even though we have this hope, we do still feel abandoned.
We know what it is like to feel abandoned by other people: friends, colleagues, brothers or sisters, parents and partners. Many of us know that sense of abandonment which comes when someone who is part of us dies. And many of us, who have known God, who have turned to him and received him, know at times the experience of abandonment by God.
And at those times David's prayer, Jesus' prayer becomes our prayer. 'My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?'
And so for instance, I would love to be able to say that every believer as they die, especially if they die in pain, will experience the presence of God, will experience the good shepherd who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. I would love to say that even if getting to heaven may not be easy, at least we will know that the one to whom we are going is with us. That certainly has been the experience of many martyrs who have died in dreadful pain, of many saints and of many very ordinary men and women.
But it is not always true. There are some who have been faithful followers of the Lord Jesus who seem to die without an awareness of God, with that sense of final desolation and abandonment.
But you need to know that if that is going to be our destiny, even then we are not on our own.
Jesus too knew what it felt like to be abandoned by God (in his case, he really was; in our case, we just feel it!)
But even in that moment of abandonment, Jesus does not abandon God. He still cries out to God. He becomes the ultimate righteous man: the one who continues to trust in God when the God he trusts in has walked away. God may have let him go, but he is not going to let God go.
Jesus had once told a story about a woman who persisted in going to a judge to get justice. The judge was too lazy to do anything, but because the woman persisted, in the end he gave her justice. Jesus told that story to encourage us to persist in praying even when our prayers are not answered. He finishes that story by saying, 'But will the Son of Man when he comes, find faith on earth?' In other words, will people keep on praying even when it seems that God is silent.
Jesus lives out his story. He holds on to God. He clings to God with, as Spurgeon once said in a brilliant sermon on this passage (http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2133.htm), both hands: one hand crying out from the cross, 'My God', and the other hand crying out from the cross, 'My God'. The cross held Jesus. But Jesus still holds on to God. He clings to God, even though God has abandoned him, in the darkest moment of his life.
But of course those words are not the end of the story. The end of this story is the beginning of a much bigger story. Jesus had not gone mad. History does rotate around this moment when the Son of God dies on the cross. But Jesus did not need to call Elijah from the cross, because Elijah had already come - in the person of John the Baptist. So this story ends not with the abandonment, but with the curtain in the temple being torn in two, the dead being raised, and the centurion declaring, 'Truly this was the Son of God'. And that is the beginning of another story. It is the story of resurrection, of joy, of a new creation. It is the story of the coming kingdom of God. It is the story that we will celebrate on Easter morning.