[March 9, 2008] Today, in our Lenten meditations, we come to the heart of the crucifixion and the heart of the Christian faith. In the garden we accompanied Jesus as He made Himself an offering to God and stood alone. We were with Him as He stood before Caiaphas and the chief priests and Pilate, who condemned themselves by their condemnation of Him. We watched last Sunday as they nailed Him to the cross and mocked Him. In all this, WE were exposed and the darkness—the evil!—in our heart was revealed. You and I, we cannot accept this, that this is us. Yet the fact of His crucifixion makes it unavoidable.
Today we will focus on the crucifixion from the sixth to the ninth hour, that is, from twelve noon to three o’clock. The second part of the reading describes His burial in preparation of the resurrection. No detail is unimportant, but these three hours is undoubtedly the more important detail. For during these three hours we discover the heart of God towards us, the wrath of God against our rebellion, yes! but also the infinite—and devastating!—love of God towards us for our salvation.
Jesus, the Son of God, the Person of God as a man, subjected Himself to be murdered. He was on the cross for three hours, since nine o’clock in the morning, mocked and ridiculed by His tormentors. And now, at twelve o’clock, darkness engulfs the land. The light of the sun, moon and stars is extinguished. Jesus, in love and obedience to the Father, utterly alone in His humanity, rendering the obedience demanded of us sinners in the form of repentance, submits Himself to the judgment of God on us, and God ABANDONS Him.
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
These are the only words Jesus utters from the cross in the Gospel of Matthew, so they are incredibly important. (If we cull all four gospels, there are seven sayings, three in the first three hours, and four in the last three.) He does not utter them until near the end. They are the words at the beginning of Psalm 22. Jesus knows this, of course, but He is not merely quoting them. He absolutely means them as His own words. “My God, why have you forsaken Me?!” He does not mean them metaphorically. Nor are they a personal question, as if asked in self-pity. Rather, they are an exclamation of the irony that this abandonment can be poured out on the obedient One, the only One who does not deserve it. When He says, “My God,” rather than ‘My Father,’ He speaks of God as the One with whom we have to do.
What can it mean? Does Jesus split His humanity and divinity in half? Or does the Father abandon the Son? Or can it be that God abandons Himself? The truth is devastating. It is something from which we cannot recover. Never. For it reveals the heart of Love, towards you, towards me.
We enter into a mystery here about which no one can do justice. For all the anguish of His body, for all the anguish of His holy soul—the giving up of both unto the powers of death—do not pity Jesus. His life was not taken from Him. He offered them up in love. His unimaginable sufferings do not call forth our pity, but our WORSHIP.
Our problem with God is not weakness, as if God simply demands too much. Nor is our problem with God merely that we are sinners, as if out of a sense of adventure or difficulty we bend or break God’s unyielding rules. The problem is that we have turned against God; we are God’s enemies; we do not want God and so we push God away. Do not think this is not true. If we had the chance, we would murder God. There is nothing innocent about the human being, nothing innocent and sweet about your heart when it comes to God. There is evil there. There is something about YOU that made it necessary for Jesus to be abandoned by God in such a horrific death if He would save you.
The wrath of God was poured out on Jesus. He was ABANDONED by God. The darkness was not only physical, but it was interior as well. It was something our Friend and Lover, our Lord Jesus, never experienced before. It was in fact an abandonment that no human being has EVER experienced, this absolute turning away of God’s face. We deserve it, we all really deserve it, but God has never abandoned any of us to it. He holds us and keeps us, though we do not deserve it.
We flatter ourselves it we think we are “seekers.” We do not seek God. He seeks us. He pursues us, and does not give up the chase. We may think we seek God, but we are in flight away from God. He pursues us in love. He will not abandon us to ourselves and to the curse of death. Instead, He pursues us to His own death. This is the extent of His love, He who IS love.
A few weeks before I came to the Lord (it was His doing!), I had a dream in which Christ was pursuing me and I was running away from Him. He caught up to me and tackled me. We wrestled and I took out a knife I had and tried to stab Him. I got away as He cried out, “I’ll get you yet!” In my dream I awoke and was bleeding. By attempting to stab Him I had only stabbed myself. This dream is still vivid to me though I had it thirty-six years ago.
This is really all of us. How much He loves us! but we run away. Yet we are running away from Love, and are only killing ourselves. When will we give in? He loves us to death, but we pursue images and phantoms instead of truth.
Whatever Jesus’ humanity suffered, He suffered as God. In His Person, as God, He endured all of His human suffering. There was no division. Nor did the demanding Father watch as the Son suffered a fate He did not deserve. No. Do not think that the Son appeased the angry Father on our behalf. When the Son suffered, the Father entered into all of His sufferings. The Father suffered with Him, and suffered everything the Son suffered. The love of the Father and the Son is one and indivisible. The Son loves us, but the Father loves us no less and was just as willing to pay the price to save us that the Son was, and did pay it. Please be clear about this.
When Jesus was abandoned by God, God abandoned Himself to our deserts, to the wrath of God. The Immortal One suffered and died for us. He took it all upon Himself, so we would not have to bear it. He loved us—He loves us now—this much! He took our alienation upon Himself to free us from it forever. All that abandonment we feel (and more than we know) He took on Himself, He made it His own, and He defeated it. In its place is His love.
Then Jesus cried out, “I thirst!” and without any understanding— for His thirst was more than physical— the pagan soldiers gave Him vinegar to drink. He cried out, “It is finished!” The work that He came to do was done. His great obedience to the Father was completed. The Old Testament was fulfilled. His love for us reached its goal.
In a loud voice He cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” and He expired (Luke 23:46). No longer does He say, “My God,” but rather, “My Father.” Communion is restored in His faithfulness. He does not He wait like a victim until death overtakes Him. He gave Himself to death, not as the conquered but as the Conqueror.
While we will not dwell on these words which are not in the Gospel of Matthew, we will notice that at the moment of His death the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom and the earth quaked and the tombs were opened, and for several days after the resurrection holy people who had died appeared to many in Jerusalem. On the one hand the anger of God was expressed toward the Temple, as it would be fully in forty years time, because the people of Jerusalem rejected Him. On the other hand we see the positive affect of Christ’s death. Symbolically shown, the veil that closed the Holy of Holies, the way into God’s very presence, is now open in heaven; and more literally, Christ entered as Victor into Hades itself, where those who put their faith in God waited for their redemption.
Has the love of God laid hold of you? My professor, Richard Norris, used to say that discipleship was conversion therapy. And it’s true. If we see the love of God for us, it is so overwhelming, so devastating, that we can only spend the rest of our life recovering from it. We can never get over it, and the wound of it never heals. But what a wonderful recovery! For we are in love.
God spent His love for you to the uttermost in the offering of Jesus on the cross. Do not hold back. Give Him your heart. Give Him your life. Live for Him. What you hold back is wasted. Do not be afraid of Him. He loves you so much. If you “get it,” you are captive to it. It holds you viscerally. You really are “in love.” And then the only way you can be happy is to give yourself to it.
But what happiness! The happiness you had before is like death in comparison. Let your heart break for love of Him who broke His heart for you.