Archive for March 31, 2012

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

In his hour of need, Jesus turned to the Psalms. The Psalms are full of comfortable words: “God who keeps you will not slumber. God will keep you from all evil. God will keep your life.” But Jesus did not choose a comfortable Psalm. He quoted Psalm 22, “My God. Why have you forsaken me?” This is probably one of the most haunting phrases in the Bible. On Good Friday, these words echo throughout our churches. They hang in the air like a curse, striking us with their sense of loneliness, betrayal, and despair. Jesus knew the scriptures. Why wasn’t he trying to console himself with the words of assurance: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” No that wasn’t his frame of mind. It was another Psalm that rushed into his mind. It was a lament that burst forth from his memory. And he cried with a loud voice. MY GOD. WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

A few years ago there was a great controversy stirred up by the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” People complained that the film portrayed Jesus as far too human. This film was not the first to do that. People need only to look in the Gospel of Mark to see a human Jesus – vulnerable and beaten. Mark captures the human tragedy of the crucifixion in all its brutality. Throughout Mark’s story, Jesus lives out the will of God in a tender and courageous way: loving people; caring whether or not they were healthy; making sure they had enough to eat; giving hope when they were fearful or discouraged. Mark also shows Jesus sharing human conditions – hunger, fear, and discouragement. And at the end of Jesus’ ministry, there was a cross. He was not protected from suffering. None of us is. A woman recently had her  faith  shaken when she was diagnosed with cancer. She could not allow herself to cry out loud, “My God. Why have you forsaken me,” even though that is what she felt. Instead, she kept her loneliness to herself, feeling guilty and afraid. But Jesus voiced his despair publicly. There was no hiding it. In Mark’s Gospel, these are the last words of Jesus. A loud cry of sadness and abandonment.

Why didn’t the church try to suppress this terrible story? How can we tell it over and over every year? Because it is not a terrible story. Because it is a profoundly human story rooted in our own reality, based on familiar experience. Because it finds a home in our own psyches. The poet, Miriam Kessler writes:

    My God, My God, he cried, if he is quoted right . . .
    Somehow that moan is comforting to us, alone at night,
     who tremble, daring dawn that He, so wise and strong,
    should weep and ask for aid.
    Somehow, my lovely distant God, it makes me less afraid.

“My God. Why have you forsaken me?” How can we tell this terrible story over and over every year? Because it is not a terrible story. And mostly because it is not the end. That mournful sentence was only the beginning of the Psalm Jesus quoted. He knew the scripture – the whole story, not just a few isolated sentences. He knew that the Psalm that started with a lament ended in promise. Did he get to the end of the Psalm in his mind? Was he able to hear the words of assurance in the end? “God has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted ones. God’s face is not hidden from them but God has listened to their cry for help.” Did he finally remember those words? We don’t know.

But Mark ends with this ironic incident. “When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Jesus died crying, “Why have you forsaken me.” And still the centurion saw the son of God on the cross. What an affirmation! And what release! God is seen in the midst of despair. We cannot always feel that God is present with us. But God’s presence is not dependent on our feelings. It is simply there! God does not need our faith in order to be there for us. Though we can cry out in rage and despair, we do not negate the presence of God; we only confirm that we are human. Feeling abandoned by God is not the same as being abandoned. We know that Jesus’ mournful cry was not the end. We know that God was there on Calvary as God is with us, as we struggle with our own Calvaries. That is the message of Mark’s Gospel. But in the end, the veil that keeps us away from the holy of holies is torn away. We know that the love of God breaks forth in the darkest hour whether we can feel it or not. We know that Easter comes!

Do you love ME?

It is commonly said that religion is a personal matter. But of no faith is that so profoundly true as it is of the Christian faith. Christianity is not a faith in a body of teaching, however exalted, nor faith in the example of an exemplary life lived long ago. First and foremost it is faith in a person, the risen Lord Jesus, in and through whom God’s eternal grace took shape within time.

Generic religion has the same problem as generic cola: it tastes a bit “like the real thing” but lacks the punch of the brand name product. Even so, Christian prayer is not addressed to God in general, but to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Jesus” is the “name that is above every name,” for Christians dare to believe that the strange power of grace at work in our world is not the trademark of a generic God, but the telltale sign of our risen Lord. Wherever such grace is found, we know he is present.

Christian faith is a profoundly personal matter because it is focused in a person, Jesus Christ. And from the other side of the equation, Jesus also considers our relationship to him a very personal matter. The question put to Simon Peter was not, “Simon, do you love the Bible?” or “Simon, do you love my teaching?” or “Simon, do you love my truth?” but “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

The third time Jesus asked that question, it cut Peter to the quick, for it called to mind Peter’s threefold denial of his Lord only days before. Plunged into despair by the depth of his betrayal, Simon cried out in anguish, “Lord, you know my heart. You know that I love you.” And so he did. Jesus graciously restored Peter to his service with the gentle admonition, “Then feed my sheep, Simon, feed my sheep.” This scenario took place as the distraught and disappointed disciples encountered the risen Christ by the seashore where they were warming themselves by the fire. Their hero and Master was dead and they were lost and confused.

Jesus meets us on the far side of our betrayals, not to scold or dismiss us, but to remind us of the cost of our enlightenment. Having died on the cross rather than renounce either his disciples or his love for them, he comes in the wake of his Easter rising seeking and answering love. He comes to disrupt the petty details and preoccupations with which we while away our lives as he interrupted a failed fishing expedition long ago. And from the distant shoreline of memory to which we have consigned him, he reaches out and taps us with his grace.

We are seized by the awareness of an unseen presence. Then suddenly the eyes of faith open wide: “It is the Lord!” we cry. And there stands Jesus before us reaching to put his hand on our shoulder. Peering deep into our souls, he asks the intensely personal question, “Mary, Sam, Brenda, Paul….do you love me?”

Somewhat defensively, we answer, “Lord, I’m an active member of the church. I do my share, give what I can. You know I love you.”

“No, no, forget all that,” Jesus answers. “I didn’t ask you if you loved the church. I want to know do you love me?”

We search our hearts for an answer. We remember the time he drew near when we felt forsaken by everyone else. We remember when his grace brought healing to some deep wound of our spirit. We remember the cross on which he bore not merely the world’s sin, but our own. Finally, the confession wells up within us, “Yes, Lord, I do love you. I love you as the midnight craves the dawn. I love you as the eagle loves the wind. As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you.”

“Then feed my sheep,” answers the Master. “Tell others of the hope that is within you. For there are people who would give anything to know that the face of God is turned toward them in love.”

Then as quickly as he came, he is gone, and we are left with the awesome privilege and heady joy of spreading the news, “That mysterious power of grace at work in our world has a name. The love of God has a face. It is the name and face of Jesus Christ.” And lingering at that shoreline where our despair meets his hope, he yet waits to be our Lord and Master.