Area Wide Good Friday Service
Friendship Baptist Church
3530 Chelsea Dr. – Kansas City, Missouri 64128
March 30, 2018 — 12 noon – 2:00 pm
The Fourth Word
Text: Matthew 27:46 (Mark 15:34)
By Dr. Bob Hill
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus’ fourth word from the cross is a hard and haunting word. If you’re keeping tabs, you will see, by the end of this service, that Luke’s gospel and John’s gospel are each accorded three of Jesus’ Seven Last Words from the Cross. But Matthew’s singular word – which is echoed in Mark 15:34 – is a necessary, essential word for any holistic remembrance of the first Good Friday.
One could say the Fourth Word is saturated with Good Friday and that there’s barely a hint of Easter in it. Jesus utters this cry from the cross at the nadir, the rock bottom, of his experience in the midst of the crucifixion. It is almost too brutal to recall, but I feel duty-bound today to say to you, we must remember that crucifixion was a sadistic from of capital punishment.
Look as hard as you might, you will not find crucifixion in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. No, it was the Greeks and the Romans who would adapt it from the Persians to devise this particular mode of cruel and excruciating death-dealing, reserved for the lowest rung of the empire, those without the position or the privileges of citizenship.
Stripped and scourged, hung on a cross and left to die of exposure, hunger, dehydration, shock and the gradual withering of breath from his body, Jesus cries out.
What he cries out is something he surely learned at the synagogue in Nazareth as a boy and later when he was taught to read Hebrew. What he cries out is the first line from Psalm 22. No other scriptural text will do for Jesus as he hangs on the cross. From his treasure-trove of memories of the Psalms, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer deemed “Jesus’s prayer book,” he retrieves the harrowing eloquence of seeming despair, speaking in his native tongue, Aramaic: “’Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.’ My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”
And he speaks the truth, doesn’t he? He had been forsaken, abandoned, deserted, to the “nth degree,” as my grandmother used to say.
Gone are the …
- Religious leaders, and teachers
- His family;
- His hometown folks;
- The crowds, all those robe-wearing; palm-waving congratulators, who were just last Sunday so full of adulation and are now full of condemnation;
- His disciples, his closest followers – one of them deserting him for money; another denying he ever knew him; all of them, just as Jesus had predicted, “falling away.”
On the surface of things, Christ’s expression of agony may seem like a declaration of abandonment. It is that. But it is more. So much more.
That day at Golgotha some people near the cross thought he was crying out for Elijah to come to his rescue. So, someone shoved a sponge soaked in sour wine at him, as if to stimulate him so he wouldn’t expire, so they could see if, magically, Elijah would do the trick and take him down from the cross.
But that was not it at all. No, Jesus’s cry was so much more.
If we listen closely with our sanctified imaginations, we can discover deep and profound truths with a multitude of meanings which this 4th of the Seven Last Words conveys:
- It is the cry of God’s own Son in harmony with the anguished cry of God’ own children-in all places and at all times everywhere – who have known pain, oppression, and lonely enduring.
- It is the cry of Willy Loman as he moves toward his self-demise in the second act of the play Death of a Salesman when he says, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
- It is the cry of sorrow which we all know when a beloved friend or family member dies and leaves a phantom absence where once a relationship thrived.
- It is the roaring of Picasso’ artistic anguish in his classic painting of war’ hideous gore at Guernica.
- It is the cry of pain among those caught up in war and conflict and strife around the globe- in Myanmar, Syria, in our own times, and Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dresden, in other times.
- It is the cry of those at the Port of No Return, in the Middle Passage, and along the Trail of Tears.
- It is the anguished cry from the bloodied streets of our own country and our own city.
- It is the roaring silence which engulfs a person suffering from manic-depression.
- It is the roaring landslide of desolation which smothers the schizophrenic.
When my dear friend, the extraordinary sculptor Dale Eldred, died, I played a recording of Jessye Norman whenever I got in my Jeep. Now my Jeep had a special repeat function, so I could listen over and over to any song I wanted to hear again. And what I needed to hear was Jessye Norman singing “There’s a Man Goin’ ‘Round Taking Names.”
There’s a man goin’ ‘round taking names.
There’s a man goin’ ‘round taking names.
He’s taken my father’s name,
And he’s left my heart in pain.
There’s a man goin’ ‘round taking names.
As you know, that spiritual goes on to talk about the singer’s mother’s name and the singer’s sister’s and brother’s names which are taken by that “man goin’ ‘round taking names.” In the end the song reveals that “Death” is that man “taking names.”
It is a full-blown Good Friday song, with nary a hint of Easter in it. There was no better song than that for my grief. I needed that song, to lament, and weep and to fully express and experience the loss of my friend.
And there are no better words than the roaring eloquence of Psalm 22 to sum up Christ’s experience on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But note with me that there is something more in Jesus’s cry than the mere expression of personal desertion, something more than despair over abandonment. Using our fine-tuned listening ears, we can hear Jesus say the word “God.”
In the midst of dereliction, he still can muster the name of God.
In the midst of seeming despair, he still can utter the name of God.
Though he might sense that he’s been deserted by everyone, he can still cry out the name of the One who blessed him at his baptism as God’s beloved Son in whom God was well pleased.
He can still cry out to the One who inspired him to pick up the Torah scroll and read from Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor….”
He can still cry out to the One who received his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”
He can still say the name of God.
And not only that, but he can say “My God.” Twice! “My God, my God….”
Jesus knows with utmost intimacy God’s purifying love and reassuring mercy.
Jesus knows with utter trust and confidence that God will finally, eventually lay waste to all hurt and pain and sorrow.
Jesus knows God not merely as a distant Master Designer, not merely an impermeable First Principle, not merely as the Unmoved Mover, not merely as that than which nothing greater can be conceived. No, Jesus knows God as “My God.” “My God.”
And what is God’s response? What, we must ask, is God’s response? (If we listen closely, we can begin to hear the quiet quaking, the gentle thunder of God’s reciprocating response. And it may also be a challenge. If we utter Christ’s famous words, “My God, my Go, why have you forsaken me?,” on occasion, if we listen very carefully, we may hear God’s holy plaintive reply: “My children, my children, why have you forsaken me?”) But I will not speculate further on that matter.
For we must go through the rest of the Seven Words, and then pass through the silent valley of Holy Saturday, and wait… wait…. Wait, even if impatiently, for God’s answer. Which I assure you will arrive, come Sunday. Yes, God’s answer to Christ’s anguished cry and our own – “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” – is surely coming!
But for now, it is enough to know that even in the midst of Jesus’ horrific death, apparent desertion, abandonment, and forsakenness, he could still cry out “My God.”
And we, too, can do the same.
In the midst of desertion, when friends let us down and family falls away, we can say “My God.
In the midst of abandonment, when you’re a teenager and no one seems to understand, you still can say “My God.”
In the midst of forsakenness, when all your plans have crumbled, when all your dreams have been shattered, when all your hopes have been dashed, when you’ve been forgotten and or left behind, or run over by life’s brutalities, you can still cry out “My God, my God….” And as that was sufficient for our Lord Jesus, surely it will be enough for us all, for now. AMEN.