Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for the Forsaken” (Mark 15:34)
Palm Sunday: March 25, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is a heavy sermon because Palm Sunday is a heavy Sunday. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week of his passion began with joy and praise, began with people laying down palm branches on the road, began with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” But within a few days some of these same people were shouting something very different about Jesus: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” During Holy Week Jesus faced the ultimate expression of the fickleness, the duplicity, the unfaithfulness of the human heart.
When Jesus was betrayed and arrested, scripture poignantly tells us what the disciples did: “They all forsook him and fled” (Mark 14:50, KJV). The same disciples who heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, the same disciples who saw Jesus walk on water and calm the stormy sea, the same disciples who saw Jesus heal lepers and blind men, the same disciples who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, the same disciples whose feet Jesus himself had washed just a few hours earlier…forsook him and fled. Jesus was utterly forsaken.
Seven centuries earlier the prophet Isaiah foretold this: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:3). And your heart and my heart can be just as fickle and duplicitous and unfaithful as those who shouted “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify him!” a few days later. Make no mistake—if we had been part of that crowd, we would most likely have done the exact same thing.
Today I am preaching briefly on the only words of Jesus on the cross that Mark recorded, his cry of dereliction, as Mark wrote: “At three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34). Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, a prophetic psalm that includes many specific details about the crucifixion:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest…Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help…I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax. My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; and you have laid me in the dust of the grave. Packs of dogs close me in, and gangs of evildoers circle around me; they pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing (Psalm 22:1-2, 11, and 14-17, BCP 610-611).
Those prophetic words about Jesus’ crucifixion were written centuries beforehand, and Jesus, knowing these words referred to his suffering—literally feeling his heart melting like wax, literally feeling his mouth dried out like a pot-sherd from thirst, literally hanging by the nails that pierced his hands and feet, literally seeing people staring at him and gloating over him, literally hearing the soldiers dividing his clothes, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In his book The Cross in the New Testament the late biblical scholar Leon Morris emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ cry of dereliction:
The cry of dereliction must not be watered down. It is a shocking statement, and we must beware of trying to render it innocuous. The death that Jesus died was full of horror, and no understanding of the atonement can be satisfactory which does not reckon with that. It is the terrible nature of the death that he died that is significant, and not merely the fact that he did die (47-48).
Many people have endured the awful experience of being forsaken, including perhaps you. Each of you has either experienced yourself or known people who have been forsaken on their wedding day and left standing at the altar, or forsaken at birth and left to others to raise, or forsaken by their spouse who found someone else they desire more, or forsaken by their grown children who are steeped in resentment, or even forsaken in the very place no one should ever be forsaken, the church. “I love God, but I can’t stand the church”—ever heard that?
And this experience of being forsaken tends to replicate itself. In other words, it is very common for those who have been forsaken by someone to forsake someone else in turn. This occurs in the powerful 1997 film Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon plays Will Hunting, an orphan who had been forsaken by his parents and in turn later forsakes his girlfriend Skylar, played by Minnie Driver. Skylar is a senior at Harvard and soon heading to Stanford Medical School, and she talks to Will about joining her:
“You want to come to California with me?” she asks. “What?” “I want you to come to California with me.” Will is doubtful, “You sure about that?” “Oh yeah.” “Yeah, but how do you know?” “I don’t know…I just know.” “But how do you know?” “I know because I feel it.” Will puts up his guard, “That’s a really serious thing to say, because you could be in California next week and you might find out something about me you don’t like and you know, wish you hadn’t said that but you know it’s such a serious thing that you can’t take it back and now I’m stuck in California with someone who doesn’t really want to be with me, and just wishes they had a take-back.” Skylar is confused, “A what? What’s a take-back? I don’t want a take-back. I just want you to come to California with me.” Will is blunt, “I can’t go to California.”
A heated argument ensures in which Will finally reveals to Skylar that he is an orphan who has been abused. Skylar begins to cry, “I love you. I want to hear you say you don’t love me, because if you say that, then I won’t call you and I won’t be in your life.” She gently kisses Will on the forehead, but in response Will looks at her with a stone cold expression, “I don’t love you,” and walks out the door. Skylar collapses in sobs. Will had been forsaken as an infant, and fearing the possibility of being forsaken by Skylar, he preemptively forsakes her instead.
Scripture is clear that God does not forsake you—never has, never will. In the Old Testament the psalmist proclaims, “If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (Psalm 27:10) and “The Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage” (Psalm 94:14). And in the New Testament scripture tells us that God promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
But if God never forsakes us, how do we explain Jesus’ cry of dereliction?
Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge sheds light on this in her book The Crucifixion:
Sometimes it is objected that a father who would allow his own son to be cursed and abandoned must be monstrous. Trinitarian thinking is of the essence here, however. The Son and the Father are doing this in concert, by the power of the Spirit. This interposition of the Son between human beings and the curse of God upon Sin is a project of the three persons. The sentence of accursedness has fallen upon Jesus on our behalf and in our place (100).
In other words, on the cross, Jesus—the Second Person of the Trinity, God in Christ—was forsaken in your place. That is why he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Notice that he did not cry out, “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” Rather, a few moments later Jesus commended his spirit into the hands of his Heavenly Father.
Back to Good Will Hunting for a moment…Will Hunting is later convinced by his therapist Sean Maguire—played by Robin Williams—that his being a forsaken and abused orphan was not his fault. It is a very moving scene and Will, just like Skylar, eventually collapses in sobs. And in the final scene of the film Sean Maguire finds a note in his mailbox left by Will Hunting. The note reads, “Sean, if the professor calls about that job, just tell him sorry, I had to go see about a girl.” The final shot of the film is Will driving west to California to see Skylar. The cycle in Will’s life of being forsaken and then forsaking others had finally stopped.
Back to Psalm 22 for a moment…death is not the final message of Psalm 22, far from it, for the psalmist closes this psalm with words of hope: “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the savings deeds that he has done” (Psalm 22:29-30, BCP 612). The “people yet unborn” includes you, and “the saving deeds that he has done” are the incarnation and crucifixion and yes, resurrection, of Jesus Christ your Savior.
The gospel is good news for the forsaken. No matter who has forsaken you, no matter whom you have forsaken—God never has and God never will forsake you.