God-Forsaken God

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, April 4, 2009

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 45:21-25
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:32-15:47
Psalm 22:1-21

This weekend we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem.  Palm Sunday is a day of celebration and rejoicing—the crowds shout, “Hosannah, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And next Sunday is, of course, Easter Sunday—another day of celebration.  We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Much like the Christmas season, Easter is a season of celebration.  We celebrate Advent leading to Christmas—the arrival of the Son of God into the world.  And we celebrate Palm Sunday leading to Easter Sunday—the triumph of God over death and sin, accomplishing salvation.

Much like the Advent season and Christmas, however, the Easter season provides some surprises.  We remember at Christmas that almost nobody noticed when the God of the universe arrived on the scene.  Humanity had no room for him.  He was born under a cloud of shame and suspicion.  And he was born, as we remember, in a barn.

In the same way, the story-line of this week takes some surprising turns.  There is more going on during Easter week than celebration.  The unfolding drama of Holy Week contains human fickleness, rejection, betrayal, violence, revenge, loneliness, fear, God-forsakenness, and death.

One of the most surprising things Easter week teaches us—and what these passages teach us—is the actual shape of the gospel.  Because we are humans we are in constant need of being reminded of the truth of the gospel.  For some reason or other, we are always bending and morphing the glory of the gospel into shapes that make sense to us.  When we do that, however, we unintentionally eliminate the true glory and grace of God.  We’re always wanting to “package” the gospel in some way or other, but we don’t realize that we’re often turning the gospel into something completely different—something that might not be “gospel” at all.

Don reminded us last week that Jesus had to keep telling people that his hour had not yet come.  When Jesus did something impressive—a miracle—surely that was it, right?  His hour had come!  But none of the impressive things that Jesus did demonstrated the true glory of God.  God is glorified, of course, in the cross.  Jesus being “lifted up” makes perfect sense, until we remember that it’s Jesus being lifted up as a disgusting and disfigured corpse.

In the same way, these Palm Sunday passages call us to repent of our wrong understandings of the gospel.  We sometimes articulate the gospel as a transaction—God did some things for us, so we do some things for God and now our relationship is one of peace.  Or, closer to home: Our relationship is one that is broken—there’s a gulf between us and God; God sends Jesus so that now there is a bridge that we can cross to get back to God.  God now welcomes sinners to find their way back to God, and the cross is a bridge across the chasm that separates God from sinners.  As we’ll see, however, this way of talking is not the gospel, and it is not faithful to the gospel that Easter teaches us.

Let’s look at our passages for this week and discover the Easter logic that they reveal.  As we do, we will see that Palm Sunday shows us the glory of the God-forsaken God.

Our first passage, from Isaiah, depicts God as highly exalted and transcendent.  He declares things that will happen before they come to pass.  He sees the future as clearly as the past and stands in judgment over all peoples and all things.  He alone is the source of salvation—there is no other god comparable to the Most High God—to this God alone “every knee will bow and every tongue will swear.”

God is exalted!  God is in the heavens and you, O man, O woman, are on the earth!  We are all radically unlike God and very distant from him—he rules from on high and we are nothing.

This is actually pretty familiar, isn’t it?  It doesn’t take too much imagination to get our heads around this.  We feel it.  We are not God.  We do not feel in control.  God is God and we are not.  Amen.  This is a truth to which we all give hearty affirmation.

The Psalm 22 passage is also familiar to us.  We get this, too.  The psalmist is rejected and alienated.  He has no one to turn to for help, and is despised and in distress.  Like us, he has a pretty good understanding of the sovereignty of God—God is exalted, enthroned upon the praises of Israel, ruling from the heavens, highly exalted far above all gods!

But life hurts.  Things are not working out at all.  He feels miserable, that God is far off.  He’s in trouble and God is busy, gone, unavailable.  He is off God’s radar completely.  He feels God-forsaken, which doesn’t make any sense!  And his friends, far from giving him well-meaning but shallow advice, like, “well, you just need to trust the Lord,” or, “I’m sure things will work out.”  They’re actually mocking him!!  “Hey, call on the Lord, maybe he’ll deliver you!”

As I said, to this point things make sense to us.  This world is full of pain and sorrow and disappointment.  This is indeed a God-rejected world and we know that well.  Life often hurts pretty badly and we often feel that God has rejected us.  We feel a bit guilty saying this, and we try to put a nice tidy package around our pain and soul-torture by saying things like, “well, God’s just teaching me right now that . . .”  But we secretly wonder if God is thinking, “Yeah, whatever . . . , who are you again?”

We’re familiar with pain.  We know well the experience of hurt from friends, of being mistreated, betrayed, rejected, having dreams shattered and hopes crushed.  It doesn’t take much imagination to look at our world and our lives as God-forsaken.

You might think at this point that you know where the Easter logic is going.  “Life hurts, and the good news is that God is not only sovereign, but he’s actually a God of compassion as he’s exalted in his heavenly throne.”  But that’s not the Easter logic.

The glory of Easter is seen in the dramatic reversal that takes place.  God is not merely caring about the God-forsaken one; God actually becomes the God-forsaken one.

In the Philippians text, we see that Jesus is God himself, enjoying the glories of heaven and the highly exalted status of being the God of the universe.  But he did not use that status as something to be used for his own advantage or for his own comfort—“he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”  “Hey, I’m God, I’m going to create a heavenly leather couch and sit around and be waited on, hand and foot.”

Nor did Jesus merely do something on behalf of the God-forsaken ones.  Jesus actually became the God-forsaken one.  Jesus entered our enslaved situation, took on humanity, became a servant, went to the lowest place, was treated as a common criminal, was despised and rejected.

He fully entered into and traveled the human journey of pain and sorrow and trouble and rejection.  His family misunderstood him, his friends deserted him.  He cried out, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?”  God knows what it’s like to be rejected by God—to feel that you’re completely off God’s radar; that he’s far off, that you’ve been abandoned.

What is fascinating about this Philippians passage—look at it—is the “therefore” in v. 9.  Because Jesus did this—because Jesus traveled this journey of God-forsakenness and rejection, God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name—the name of God himself, “Yahweh,” so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

What does it mean that Jesus receives the name of God?  It is a powerful thing that may take some time to sink in.  It means that God looks at the journey traveled by Jesus and says, “that is what ‘Yahweh’ means.”

Jesus is the revelation of God in that God is revealed as the God who is God-forsaken.  God says that the way of the cross is the way of God.  Just as God is revealed in the corpse hanging on a Roman cross; God is revealed in the God-forsakenness of Jesus.

God is not only compassionate towards those who feel God-forsaken; He became God-forsaken and knows exactly what that is like.  The cross, therefore, the God-forsaken path, is an essential part of what it means for God to be God.

Let’s talk about some implications of this.

It seems to me that though we often feel that we are God-forsaken we also feel guilty that we feel this way.  We tend to think that if we feel this way, there’s something wrong with us.  We feel that we’re wrong if we say out loud, “God has forsaken me,” or, “God isn’t anywhere,”  or, “God is gone—this is a godless world and I hate it.”

But we forget that Jesus says these words.  Because in many ways, this is a godless world.  This is not God’s world in the way that it is supposed to be.  Things are not normal.  Nothing is working the way it is supposed to.  By God’s design, this world was meant to welcome God and we were supposed to encounter God constantly and physically.  In the garden of Eden, God came down and walked with Adam and Eve, asking questions, sharing about God’s beautiful world.  They enjoyed one another.

We were not designed to be able to handle alienation, loneliness, pain, rejection, confusion.  This world is not being the world it is supposed to be, and we are not in the condition that we were designed for.  It is all messed up and it feels like God is a long way off, that he’s absent, that we’re stuck in this miserable God-less existence.  And it hurts.  It hurts like hell, because it’s a kind of hell, a place and a form of existence that is completely and absolutely god-less.

One implication, therefore, is that it is right to say about this current condition that it does indeed hurt, that it does indeed feel that we are forsaken by God.  If we give voice to that feeling, we’re not being disobedient—we’re walking in the way of Jesus.  There is more to the story, of course, but if we fail to speak the truth about the pain this world feels, we’re not speaking the whole truth.

Another implication is that God is truly sympathetic.  We truly do have a sympathetic high priest.  Many of us are blessed with good friends and good family.  By God’s grace, many of us won’t know the kind of pain and hurt and rejection that Jesus felt.  But others of us have been hurt, and hurt very deeply.  We’ve been rejected, humiliated, betrayed, exploited, burned, and it hurts badly.

We feel bewildered and lost, utterly hopeless.  Easter teaches us that Jesus has been to that place and knows it well.  God knows it well.  God did not say to Jesus, “phew, that’s over, now get out of there and clean yourself off and get back up here to heaven.”  The God of Israel, the God of all creation, gave Jesus his own name, indicating that the journey that Jesus took through rejection and betrayal and God-forsakenness is a revelation of the very character of God.

God knows rejection and brokenness, so when we come to God as seriously broken and wounded people and we feel like we have nothing to offer God because we’re way too messed up, we must remember that we’re exactly what God is looking for.

When we come to God as broken people we will not hear, “oh geez, what a mess!”  We will hear, “I know.”  Or, “you, too?”

A third implication is a reminder of what the church is all about.  John Mortensen has said in the past that the church’s mission is to find the places in God’s world that are in pain and to go there and abide, and to pray.  There are indeed places in God’s world that are in pain—we might call them “God-less places” and we’re tempted to avoid them.  It is natural to seek out comfort and to avoid pain.  But Palm Sunday—and the Easter season, along with these passages—teaches us that we will only find Jesus in the God-less places, in those places that are in pain.  Jesus traveled the God-forsaken path in his incarnation and he teaches us that this is the way for the church, the path that we are to walk.  It’s the only place where we’ll find Jesus.

A final implication is that the God-forsaken path is the only path that ends in resurrection.  Philippians 2 teaches us that because Jesus walked in this way, God highly exalted him and gave him God’s own name.  In the same way, we will share in eternal glory—we will be raised from the dead—when we make ourselves servants to those who feel God-forsaken, when we make ourselves the agents of God’s love to those whose lives hurt like hell.

I’ll close with our collective prayer:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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2 responses to “God-Forsaken God

  • John Duffy

    The destitution that God endured cannot be overstated or repeated to often. Thank you.

    Have just started reading your blog and it has been a great blessing. Can’t wait to read your book on Ephesians, which happens to be my favorite book in Bible.

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