At 3pm before he dies, Jesus cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
It was a declaration that was misunderstood then.
They thought that Jesus was calling on Elijah. There was a belief at the time that Elijah would come and rescue those who were righteous.
And it is a declaration that is misunderstood today.
Some say that Jesus is saying it because he is wanting to quote from Psalm 22, which speaks of both suffering and the eventual vindication of the one who suffers. But Jesus only quotes the first verse and I very much doubt that even he, hanging on the cross, would have been able to think as clearly as that.
Others say that Jesus is saying it because he felt that he was abandoned by God, but in fact he wasn’t. God was there all the time.
My own take is that this is a cry of utter desolation.
Jesus is crying out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ because God has forsaken his Son. The Father has turned his back on God the Son.
The Father who is there from before eternity with his Son and who has delighted in his presence, and the Son who is there from before eternity with his Father and who delighted in his presence are separated. A chasm, an abyss opens in the heart of the Trinity.
That is what makes the cross of Jesus so particularly awful.
There were many others who suffered death by crucifixion.
There will be some who have died an even more dreadful physical death.
But Jesus experiences a depth of abandonment, emptiness, hopelessness and despair that goes beyond pain. He suffers in a way that no other human being will ever experience.
He really does go to hell.
And it is from the depths of that abandonment that he cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.
But this is also a cry of love
Jesus could have avoided the cross.
Only a few hours earlier, he asks his Father to take away the cup that he has to drink (26.39). He knows that this is the cup of the wrath of God. It is a cup that has to be drunk - either by us, or by him. And since there is no way that we can bear its weight, in his love he prays, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done’
Jesus, in his love for us, gave himself up to be crucified for us.
He drank the cup of the wrath of God so that for us there is now no condemnation
He went into the darkness of divine judgement, so that for us – however dark things are – there will always be light.
The prophet Amos speaks of the coming judgement of God. He said, ‘On that day I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight’ (Amos 8.9).
The darkness that hangs over the land from noon till 3pm is not the sign of God’s punishment directed against the people who crucified his Son. It is the sign of the punishment that Jesus himself bore, out of love, on the cross for us.
It is not judgement on the people, but judgement on the one who has become sin for us.
That is very precious to the believer.
For those of us who are beginning to become aware of our sin, and who know that we deserve condemnation, this is a wonderful truth.
The price for our sin has been paid, and it was paid by Jesus in full on the cross.
There is nothing more for us to do. We cannot undo the hurt that we have caused – not by being good, or by suffering, or by self-discipline or even by coming to 3 hour services!
All we can do is receive this astonishing gift of love;
All we can do is - in wonder - receive this unmerited gift of forgiveness when God took upon himself the punishment that we deserved.
That is why Paul writes those great words in Romans 8:1, ‘There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.
And because Jesus was prepared to walk into the desolation of God forsakenness, three things happen immediately on his death.
The curtain in the temple, which separated the people from the most holy place where God was said to dwell, is torn in two from top to bottom. There is now no barrier. We can know God personally
There is an earthquake and the tombs are opened. Death has been defeated
The Roman centurion standing guard, seeing the darkness and the earthquake declares, ‘Truly this man was God’s son’. Because of Jesus death, the eyes of people are opened so that they can see the truth.
As Wesley wrote,
‘Amazing love! How can it be?
That thou my God should die for me.’
This is, for the believer, a cry of hope.
Of course, we will find ourselves in the pit.
Of course, there will be times when we are abandoned, in pain, empty, hopeless and in despair.
Of course, there will be times when it seems that God has led us down a cul-de-sac or an alley into a very dark place; and there will be times when it seems that God has walked out on us and walked out on his church.
But because Jesus spoke those words, the believer will never be God forsaken.
As soon as we turn to God and say, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’, we realise that we cannot be God forsaken.
We say those words and then we realise that we are speaking the same words that Jesus spoke.
We are speaking the words of the one who was God with us, who loved us and died for us, who is God with us. So how can we be forsaken?
The real reassurance for the Christian believer is that the truly God forsaken person would never pray this prayer. They would be so closed to eternal realities that it would not even cross their minds that they were God forsaken.
The very fact that we pray this prayer, that we take on our lips the words of Jesus, who became one of us, who identified himself with us, even to the extent of taking on our sin, means that we are not God forsaken.
So we give thanks to Jesus for being willing out of love to walk into the desolation of forsakenness for us. And we give thanks to God that because he was God forsaken, however lost we might feel, we are never going to be God forsaken.