I was invited to preach at Choral Evensong at St John’s College Cambridge on Sunday 18th February by the chaplain, the Revd Carol Barrett Ford, as part of their sermon series on the Seven Last Words from the Cross. My text was My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?
The Old Testament lesson was Psalm 22
The New Testament lesson was Hebrews 5: 1-10
I have to mention that the gentlemen of the choir sang De Profundis by Arvo Pärt as the anthem which was a visceral experience including as it did some percussion. Here is a recording of it, but to hear it live in the chapel was something else!
My thanks to Carol and to the college for their wonderful hospitality.
I have put the text of my sermon here below but if you would rather listen to it you can do so here:
You can also listen to the other sermons from the series on the college website here.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I never received my acceptance letter from Hogwarts so I’m leaving the Shire to become a Jedi!
Those of you who laughed just then, understand the three references I made in that one sentence. To find that phrase funny you need to know a bit about Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Without knowing about those parts of our popular culture, that sentence is meaningless.
The reason I began with that is to point to the fact that Jesus’ statements in the Gospels are very rarely without subtext, without references. Today’s words from the cross are no exception. My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? Is the first line of the 22nd Psalm which we heard read this evening. At the time of Jesus, the book of Psalms was effectively the hymn book of the Jewish people, and just like our hymn books, people didn’t know the songs by their number – but by their first line. So in saying this first line of a well known song, Jesus is drawing attention to the rest of that Psalm, he’s making a reference that some in the crowd might have got. Now I could spend this sermon speaking about how the Psalm moves from the desolation of the first line through to the triumphant phrase at the end: ‘proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.’ I could say to you that the Psalm actually ends up being a psalm of hope, hinting at the resurrection, and that in saying the first line, Jesus is pointing to that.
But I think that that little intellectual exercise somewhat robs this cry of its power. If we went down that route we’d be like Miss Bartlett in EM Forster’s A Room With A View. At the beginning of the novel, Miss Bartlett and her young cousin Lucy swap their disappointing room with no view with Mr Emerson and his son George. As Miss Bartlett rather prissily inspects their new room, she comes across a piece of paper pinned to the wall with a massive question mark on it, the book reads:
“What does it mean?” she thought, and she examined it carefully by the light of a candle. Meaningless at first, it gradually became menacing, obnoxious, portentous with evil. She was seized with an impulse to destroy it, but fortunately remembered that she had no right to do so, since it must be the property of young Mr. Emerson. So she unpinned it carefully, and put it between two pieces of blotting-paper to keep it clean for him. Then she completed her inspection of the room, sighed heavily according to her habit, and went to bed.
I don’t think we want to be like Miss Bartlett there do we? For that is what we would be like if we lifted up this phrase of Jesus, My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? Examined it in the light and then coldly decided to put it away again, where it can’t disturb us. That will not do at all!
There is something different in the seven words from the cross that we are hearing this term in this particular phrase My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? It sticks out doesn’t it? When Miss Bartlett holds up the giant question mark, she finds it meaningless at first, and it gradually becomes menacing and obnoxious. That’s the thing about the word ‘why?’ It can be extremely obnoxious as I’m sure you’ve felt when making what you thought was a clever statement at a seminar and then your professor responding ‘but why?’!
Surely Jesus shouldn’t be saying this, it’s an obnoxious thing to say to God, his father, surely. It brings us up short. Jesus has never said anything like this so far in the Gospels. It doesn’t feel right.
Interestingly, this is the only one of the seven words that appears in more than one Gospel. Both Mark and Matthew have this as Jesus’ very last words from the cross – this cry of absolute desolation, this great ‘why’. They don’t have the words of comfort Jesus offers to his Mother, to the thief on the cross or the words ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. The only words spoken by Jesus from the cross in Matthew and Mark are ‘My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?’
Yes, Jesus is referencing the Psalm, but note that the crowd doesn’t seem to notice, they don’t get the reference, they assume he is calling on Elijah to come and save him. Maybe one of the reasons that the people in the crowd don’t get the reference is that Jesus says this phrase in two languages – he says ‘My God, My God’ in Hebrew and the rest in Aramaic. It’s a deeply human cry of abandonment in his mother tongue, his first language. And Mark and Matthew have that as his last words.
Think about that for a moment. Jesus’ last words on the cross here are, in his mother tongue ‘why have you forsaken me?’ The eternal ‘why’ is there on the cross. The main question on all of our lips when we experience or witness suffering – why? How could a good God allow such suffering in the world?
God’s answer is in his cry himself on the cross of ‘why’: identifying with all the suffering in the world. The cross becomes both a symbol of the question and the answer, it becomes the paradoxical symbol of hope, of new life, the turning on its head of a symbol of torture and death. When you experience pain and suffering, when you cry out from your gut to God and ask him where the hell he is, remember that Jesus did that before you. Mark and Matthew reveal a Jesus to us that we can readily identify with. He doesn’t pronounce words of comfort from the cross in their Gospels, he just joins our cry of ‘why’, literally sharing in our suffering.
Paradoxically, I think these are the most comforting of the seven last words from the cross because they are words I’ve cried out to God myself. Jesus is with us in the depth of our suffering and shows us that it is OK to complain to God, to ask the eternal ‘why’. So we won’t try and tidy this one away like Miss Bartlett does with George’s question mark, but we leave the sign up on the wall, the sign of the cross. Every time you see a cross, remember that Jesus cried out ‘why is this happening to me? Why have you left me?’ And Jesus for each of us, is both the question and the answer. We know that Psalm 22 ends in hope and the declaration that He has done it but that’s only something that we can understand in hindsight. We stop here, today, and let that obnoxious ‘why’ remain for a while. We sit with it. Letting that heart cry hang in the air, remembering that Jesus experienced that terrible desolation for us and with us: My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?