This Lent we’ve taken a journey through the Psalms. On this last Sunday of Lent – Palm Sunday – we’re ending with a very important one: Psalm 22.
And here’s why:
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”Mark 15:33-34)
Psalm 22 is the one Jesus chooses to quote on the cross.
It’s kind of a shock after just hearing the Palm Sunday “Hosannas.” Every year I’m startled by how quickly things turned. On Sunday the crowds were cheering Jesus on a donkey; on Friday they were taunting him on a cross. From the highest high to the lowest low in 5 days.
It might be the lowest moment anyone has ever experienced. Jesus’ friends have let him down, including one of them who literally sold him out. He’s been grilled by the authorities and tortured by the soldiers. Now he’s experiencing one of the cruelest, most painful forms of execution that ever existed. Whereas we design capital punishment to be as humane as possible, the Romans designed it to be as miserable as possible.
On top of all this, Jesus doesn’t deserve what he’s getting. We do – we human beings. We’re the ones who abandon and betray, grill and torture, mock and condemn. We deserve it, but Jesus is taking it instead – for us.
And as he does, he cries out. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The pain of that cry is completely understandable.
It’s also theologically uncomfortable.
Jesus is the Messiah, God’s beloved Son. So how could he feel forsaken by God? If the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the three-in-one – then how is it that one of those three feels abandoned by the others?
One my favorite Bible commentaries has more to say on the subject:
According to Mark 15:34 the last words of Jesus are a quotation of Ps 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” That these words are intended as a cry of despair on Jesus’ part makes no sense at all. Why would Mark write a “gospel” (“good news”) about a tragic figure whose life ends in total despair? Such a work might qualify as a tragedy or a pathetic biography, but hardly a gospel.Sacra Pagina: Mark, 450
Jesus’ cry sounds like a breakdown in the Trinity, the end of “a tragedy or a pathetic biography.”
It sounds like it – but it’s not. And there’s only one reason why:
Because this isn’t the end.
This moment is redeemed by what’s to come. Yes – right now Jesus is suffering, and suffering terribly – so much he feels forsaken. But this moment isn’t the end. It’s not the end of Jesus’ story…
…and it’s not the end of Psalm 22, either.
The Psalms didn’t always have numbers. The numbers and chapters were added after the invention of the printing press, sometime in the 1500s. So to reference a part of the Bible – like a Psalm – you couldn’t say something like, “This moment reminds me of the 23rd Psalm.” Instead, you’d quote the first line to indicate which Psalm you were talking about: “This moment reminds me of, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’”
Or: if you wanted to refer to the entirety of Psalm 22, you would say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
I think Jesus very much is crying out on the cross; I think he really does feel abandoned by God in this terrible moment. But he’s also saying much more than that – and the “more” is found in Psalm 22.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint…
…my mouth is dried up…
…you lay me in the dust of death (vv. 14-15).
Psalm 22 expresses Jesus’ physical suffering, a suffering so severe it’s leading to death.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing cast lots (v. 18).
Sound familiar? Remember how the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes (Mark 15:24)?
But you, O LORD, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid (v. 19).
These are the words of someone who knows he’s not completely abandoned by God. It might feel that way now – but he knows he can still call for God.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation…
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
…All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him (vv. 25-27).
Something’s happening here – a shift.
It’s a shift that happens in all the lament psalms – a move from crying out to praising God. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is able to hold this in his heart simultaneously. As he is suffering and dying and feeling forsaken, he is also praising God for what will be accomplished by this moment. Jesus knows that through this “defeat” the poor will find victory – the poor who will be served by the church for generations to come! This looks like the hope of a Messiah being killed, but it’s actually the covenant to Abraham being fulfilled – a promise that through him, all the families of the world would eventually be blessed!
And then, in the final words of Psalm 22, there’s this:
…he has done it (v. 31).
God has done it. Not future tense – but present tense. Our God who is eternal is on the cross but also at the empty tomb. Jesus Christ the Son of God is crying out because God has forsaken him but also celebrating because God has done it.
Choosing to follow Jesus is choosing to enter this eternal space with him, a space where the reality of the resurrection redeems the pain of the present moment. It means that even when we are crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” there is also a part of us that is saying, “My God has done it.”
If you don’t have much experience with this kind of “eternal life” through Christ – this week is a great chance to taste it.
On Thursday we’ll remember Jesus’ last supper with the disciples. Here at Sylva FUMC, you’re invited to live into that with a self-guided Scripture walk. Drop by the church anytime between 5 and 6pm. You’ll be led from the parking lot into the Sanctuary, with 12 stations along the way to remember Jesus’ journey to the cross. You’ll finish with communion and a time to quietly reflect in the sanctuary.
On Friday we remember the day Jesus was crucified. We’ll join with our friends at St. John’s Episcopal Church for an outdoor worship service at 12:15pm. We’ll read through the Scripture of this day and keep watch with Jesus through his pain… knowing that Sunday is coming.
Then on Saturday we’ll wait – a quiet day waiting for Easter morning.
As we go through these days this week, as we remember Jesus’ suffering and death… may we feel the full intensity of his suffering for us while at the same time, never forgetting that God has done it…