Abandonment

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Mark 15:22-34

There is surely no human experience more terrible than being abandoned, being left utterly alone. Yet when he died, Jesus Christ, the model human being, experienced that too.

I can understand how people could commit most crimes. I can look within myself and see the seeds – greed, envy, anger, lust – from which every sort of evil grows. I can imagine how someone might be driven to steal, perhaps by hunger or poverty, perhaps just out of covetousness. I think I know what it is that causes people to lie or cheat or commit adultery. I can even understand how someone, driven by rage or a hardened conscience, would go so far as to kill another human being. These are things I can find, at least in principle, in my own heart.

But there is one crime I can’t understand. I cannot conceive how a human parent could deliberately abandon their own flesh and blood. As I think of my own children, I can’t see how anyone could desert theirs, leaving them helpless, naked, alone, to die in some alley dumpster or garbage hill. Yet isn’t that what God did to his own Son on the cross?

THE PLACE CALLED GOLGOTHA

Christians believe that the most important event in world history happened on a Friday afternoon nearly two thousand years ago at a place called Golgotha. This is how the gospel writer Mark describes it.

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha. The word Golgotha means The Place of the Skull. Then they gave him wine mixed with spices. But he did not take it.

They nailed him to the cross. Then they divided up his clothes. They cast lots to see what each of them would get.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. They wrote out the charge against him. It read, the king of the jews.

They crucified two robbers with him. One was on his right and one on his left.

At noon, darkness covered the whole land. It lasted three hours. At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” This means “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” (Psalm 22:1)

Mark 15:22-37, 33-39, NIV

“Golgotha” – “The Place of the Skull.” The early Latin Bible translated the word “Golgotha” as “Calvarium,” which is how we get the more familiar term “Calvary” for the place where Jesus died. Tradition has it that this place was a skull-shaped hill just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Or the name may have come from its gruesome function: Calvary – Golgotha – was the public execution ground.

When he arrived there Jesus was stripped naked by the soldiers. At one point someone offered him a drugged cup of wine, perhaps out of compassion, to dull the pain. But Jesus wanted to stay alert and in control of his faculties to the bitter end, so he refused to drink it.

“And then,” Mark says simply, “they crucified him.” The horrible act itself is recorded with remarkable restraint. Just the simple statement: “They nailed him to the cross.” The physical suffering, the extreme pain and bodily trauma, of Jesus Christ at Golgotha is neither dwelt upon nor even described.

Imagine the scene there on that hill that Friday afternoon. Recall the details: the swirling, taunting crowds, the two criminals who died alongside him, the eerie darkness that descended at noon, the words from the cross of forgiveness, compassion, pain, the final surrender of life, the impressive testimony of the Roman centurion who commanded the execution squad: “Truly this was the Son of God.” In the midst of all those details, it seems clear to me as I read this story again that the most important thing about Jesus’ death, the central truth, the words that we are meant to focus upon, are the ones he uttered from the darkness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

LAST WORDS

The four Gospels don’t offer identical accounts of all that was said and done at Golgotha. Each one is selective. It is only by combining all four accounts that we come up with the familiar “Seven Last Words” from the cross. Mark reports just one thing that Jesus said. But surely it was the most important, the most fearful and dreadful and terrible thing Jesus ever said. It was at three o’clock in the afternoon. Jesus had been hanging on the cross for six hours. Since noon the terrible scene had been shrouded in an unearthly darkness, as though creation itself did not want to see what was happening. When Christ was born, the night sky blazed with light; but when he died, the noonday sun was darkened. And then from out of the gloom, that anguished cry from the cross:

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

So powerful was the impression those terrible words made upon the observers that years later as they wrote down what happened, they transcribed Jesus’ words exactly as they heard them, preserving even the sound of the original language (Aramaic) which Jesus spoke.

But what do those words mean? This cry from the darkness has long troubled many people. Can Jesus’ cry of desertion really mean what it seems to? God would never desert or abandon or forsake his righteous Son, would he? Could he even do that? Jesus, as every Christian believes, was actually God himself, God in human form. How can God desert himself? How is it possible for God to forsake God?

What does the cry from the cross mean? Attempts have repeatedly been made to soften what the biblical scholar F. F. Bruce called the hardest of Jesus’ hard sayings. Some people argue that this cry of dereliction, as it’s sometimes called, doesn’t really mean what it seems to be saying. God could not, and would not, abandon his Son. So there are various alternate explanations, which can be grouped under three headings.

One alternative is that Christ is here merely expressing his feelings. His cry of abandonment is sincere and genuine, but it does not tell the real truth. Abandonment by God is not the fact; it is only what Jesus feels. He is alone, seemingly deserted and forsaken. All of his followers have fled. Even the thieves have faded into the twilight background on his right and on his left. In his loneliness, in his desolation, Christ feels as if God himself has left him too. But he is mistaken. God is there all the time.

Is that the right view? I have always felt nervous about anyone who claims to know more about God than Jesus did. No one was ever closer to the Father, more sensitive to his presence, than Jesus was. Do we really think he could have been mistaken at this point? It is a bold interpreter who feels he or she understands the situation on the cross better than Jesus himself did.

A second alternative explanation is that Christ is expressing his doubt in these words. This view, like the first one, emphasizes the human frailty of Jesus. The cross seemed final to him; he could not see beyond it to Easter. It looked like the end. It appeared as though Jesus’ mission was a failure and he was defeated. God has left him to his fate, turning away his face. At Golgotha, this explanation suggests, Jesus identifies with us in our darkest moments. He probes the riddle of his own existence, and asks the most haunting of all human questions: “Why?” And he dies without any answer.

The trouble with this interpretation is that it ignores and even contradicts the plain evidence of the Gospels themselves. Repeatedly during the last months of his life Jesus spoke to the disciples about his coming passion, suffering, death and resurrection (Mark 8:31-32; 9:31; 10:33-34). Are we to suppose that now on the cross he has suddenly forgotten all that? Jesus knew what was coming. He plainly told his followers that he would both die and rise again. Just the night before, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had bowed in submission to his Father’s will and accepted the cup of suffering which he now was draining on the cross. Jesus was neither bewildered nor confused about what was happening to him.

A third explanation is that Christ in this cry is expressing his faith. Bible commentators observe that these words are actually the opening verse of Psalm 22, a powerful Old Testament prophecy of Jesus’ suffering. And some go on to point out that this psalm ends with a confession of faith in God. They argue that Christ must have been thinking of the whole psalm; therefore he was not complaining about abandonment by God but actually expressing trust in him.

The obvious problem with that interpretation is that Jesus actually quotes only the first verse of the 22nd Psalm. This is the only statement Mark records him uttering. It is hard to imagine why he would use these words about abandonment if what he meant to express was an entirely opposite thought.

I think we have to be careful of attempts to psychologize Christ on the cross. We cannot enter into his mind and think we know what was going on there. Above all, we don’t have the right to judge him against the standard of ourselves. It is a mistake to project into him our weaknesses and doubts and fears. It is false logic to argue that because my faith might have been broken on the cross, and Jesus is human like me, therefore his faith must have been broken too. We cannot claim to understand Christ’s experience better that he himself did. We must take Jesus’ words at face value, as expressing reality. He said what he did because in one infinitely awful moment God really had abandoned him.

THE GOD-FORSAKEN GOD

I don’t think anyone can ever understand the depth of the meaning of the cross of Christ without coming to grips with these words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They express the ultimate nature of Christ’s suffering. It was not just physical (the wounds, the weariness, the thirst), or psychological (the taunting by the crowd, desertion by his friends). No. Christ’s deepest pain was spiritual. Before he died physically, he died spiritually. He passed through the dreadful experience of being cut off from God. He was separated from the living God. He, who from all eternity had never known an instant without the conscious delight of perfect fellowship with God the Father, suffered the ultimate death, death in the final sense – the utter desolation of banishment from the presence of the God of love and life. He was cut off from God.

That does seem incredible. How can the Father abandon the Son? How can God forsake himself? This mystery is beyond our grasp, yet in it lies our salvation. Jesus so closely identified with sinners that on the cross, the Bible says, “he was made to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). He took our place there and allowed sin’s ultimate punishment to fall upon himself. He absorbed God’s judgment against sin, and was cut off from him as we forever should have been.

God always takes sin seriously. When children break something, they’ll sometimes say, “It doesn’t matter – just buy another one.” They can speak so easily because they don’t have to pay for it. So we sometimes make light of sin or try to laugh it off. But God never does, because he has to pay for it.

The truth, wonderful beyond the power of words to express, is that God has paid for sin, paid in full. There is nothing left for us to contribute; Jesus paid it all. His cry of desertion and abandonment on the cross alerts us to the moment when he made this full and final payment. It reveals the lowest depths to which he went – because in order to save us Jesus literally went to hell. Hell means being separated from the presence of God. And that is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross. He went to hell for us. There was hell for him so that there wouldn’t have to be any for those who believe in him.

People can and do abandon us. Even those whom we love the most, and who love us, will someday leave us through death, if not before. But God never fails or forsakes us. If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, if you have put your faith in him for your salvation, then he is with you forever. Because Jesus was once abandoned by God, you will never be. Can you ever thank him enough?